The Russian government’s justifications for its war in Ukraine―the largest, most destructive military operation in Europe since World War II―are not persuasive.
Although, in defending the Russian invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary emphasis has been on the threat of Ukraine joining NATO, that action, had it occurred, would have been perfectly legitimate under international law. The UN Charter, which is an instrument of international law, does not ban membership in military alliances. And, in fact, a great many such alliances are in existence. Russia currently heads up the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance comprised of six nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Of course, Putin’s focus upon NATO is based on the notion that Russia’s national security would be endangered by the existence of a NATO nation on its border. But why are Russia’s national security concerns more valid than the national security concerns of nations on Russia’s borders―particularly nations that, in the past, have been invaded and gobbled up as territory by Russia or the Soviet Union? Moreover, if a feared threat to national security provides valid grounds for a military invasion, this would also justify military attacks by many nations. Finally, the degree of danger to Russia posed by NATO might well be questioned, as the Western alliance has never attacked Russia during the 73 years of NATO’s existence.
Furthermore, as a practical matter, before the Russian invasion occurred, Ukraine’s joining NATO was not imminent, for key NATO nations opposed membership. Indeed, in late March of this year, more than two months ago, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to have Ukraine give up its NATO aspirations and become a neutral nation. But the Russian government has not accepted this termination of the supposed NATO danger as a sufficient reason to end Russia’s invasion. Indeed, the Russian war effort grinds on, ever more ferociously and destructively.
Putin’s claim that Ukraine requires “denazification” is particularly hollow. Like most other nations, Ukraine has fascists among its population. But, unlike many other nations, where fascist views are rampant and where there are large rightwing political parties and fascist elements in the government, rightwingers in Ukraine draw only about 2 percent of the vote and have only one representatives in Ukraine’s parliament and none in its executive branch. As Russia’s vastly exaggerated claim of Nazi control of Ukraine is based heavily upon the existence of fascists within the Azov regiment, it’s worth noting that most of that fighting force was either killed or captured during the Russian siege of Mariupol. Ironically, Putin himself has been a strong supporter of neofascist parties throughout Eastern and Western Europe and they, in turn, have celebrated him.
Whatever the justifications, the massive Russian military invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which has been signed by all the war’s participants. In Article 2, the Charter says: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Lest there be any doubt about the relevance of this statement to the Ukraine situation, the International Court of Justice ruled on March 16 that the Russia must halt its military operations in Ukraine. After a UN Security Council resolution along these lines was vetoed by Russia, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 141 countries to 5, passed a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” The only 5 countries that supported the Russian position were Russia, North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Eritrea. Even some of Russia’s closest friends, such as China and Cuba, abstained rather than back Russia’s violation of international law.
Aside from its illegality, the Russian war in Ukraine is clearly an imperialist war. It is an attack by one of the world’s mightiest military powers upon a much smaller, weaker nation, with the clear goal of seizing control of all or part of Ukraine and annexing it to the Russian empire. Although the Russian government formally agreed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty by signing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in 2014 Russia seized Crimea and militarily intervened in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists. In a lengthy public statement Putin issued in July 2021, he denied the existence of an independent Ukrainian nation. Then, three days before the massive Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, he announced that Ukraine was “Russian land.”
This June, in a clear reference to his military conquest of Ukraine, Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, the eighteenth-century Russian czar whom he praised for waging decades of war to take back Russian territory from foreign rule.
Of course, Putin and his apologists are correct when they observe that, at times, other major powers have also flouted international law and the opinions of the world community. But that abysmal standard for the behavior of nations could justify almost anything―from torture, to nuclear war, to genocide. It’s hardly a prescription for the just and peaceful world that people of all nations deserve.