In the last few days, under the orders
of Vladimir Putin, the Russian
Federation has moved its forces into
Ukrainian sovereign territory, in what
is being argued as the biggest act of
military aggression perpetrated on
European soil since the armistice of the
2nd World War. The Russian Federation
has announced that its aims are peaceful and that they wish to ‘denazify’ and protect the people of the separatist regions of Ukraine, yet it has openly threatened that any retaliation from the outside world will be met with the offending country’s ‘worst nightmare.’
Vladimir Putin’s war is illegal under the fundamentals of International Law. His aggression violates even the basic laws of morality and logic, yet it is happening. Here we shall aim to understand the conflict, Putin’s role in it, the outraged reaction from the Russian people and what can be done to hold Russia’s government to account.
Why is Putin’s War illegal?
There are zero scenarios where Putin’s war in Ukraine is legal. Under the United Nations Charter, which Russia signed, the only justification for War that is legal under International Law is self-defence. Self-defence does include the rescuing of a country’s citizens who are in danger, which may have functioned as an appropriate reason for war to legitimize Russia's actions if they had only evacuated citizens and not invaded to overthrow a regime, which is not covered under such a defence. Even if the self-defence clause did apply (which it does not, for the reason above and because Ukraine has not done anything that could be called an armed attack on Russia), the invasion would still be highly illegal under International Law, as the United Nations Security Council must authorize any use of force in such an instance. Therefore, the only possible legal justification Putin could have for his war falls flat, meaning his war is illegal.
Is Putin a War Criminal?
Vladimir Putin is already, by definition, a criminal against peace (as the war he orchestrated was an illegal war of aggression), so he is already a criminal under International Law, but the question of a war crimes conviction is one involved in a grey area. The Ukrainians are vehement in their belief that the Russians have committed war crimes, and Amnesty International, as well as various heads of state, agree, including the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, who supported this idea in a speech to the House of Commons, however, there has been no formal indictment of Putin, therefore it would be premature to name him a war criminal. However, I do believe that the evidence gathered by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, show that the Russians placed civilian lives at unnecessary risk by using munitions prohibited by most states in the Convention on cluster munitions. These attacks did kill civilians, therefore if the orders for the use of those weapons and for the attack came under Putin’s command, then there is a case to convict him as a war criminal.
The Reaction from the Russian People
Thankfully for the world, Putin’s war is not supported by the Russian People. Putin’s choice to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which was part of his effort to legitimize the war, had only a 45% approval rating in a poll done by the independent Levada Center. Immediately after the war was announced, thousands of ordinary Russians marched in protest of the War in some of Russia’s biggest cities. Police have made at least 1,702 arrests in 53 Russian cities. The Russian people, and most importantly their elite, are standing up against Putin’s war. Russian oligarchs, on which Putin depends and who have lost a lot of money from the war, have started to criticize his rule and Russian celebrities, who rely for their income on the Russians, have started to openly campaign against the war. Putin’s people do not support this war and the world, and most importantly Putin, knows this.
Can anything be done to hold Russia’s Government to account?
On an individual basis, cases may be called in the ICC against certain members of Putin’s cabinet and perhaps even Putin himself, however, the likelihood of the defendants standing trial and being convicted is still to be seen, as Putin may want to keep certain possible witnesses out of the courts and within Russia where he may want to keep them safe. This may also be contingent on the political force placed behind prosecuting the Russians, which does seem to be present.
On a national basis, much can be done. The sanctions the West have already placed on Russia have caused, among other things, various bank runs in Russian cities and the sanctions will do much more to cripple Russia’s economy and make certain Putin feels his transgressions in his pocketbook, the power of these sanctions will depend on the unity of the west and whether China chooses to take a hand, but they are likely to affect Russia badly. No military option can be considered, as bringing two nuclear powers into war could create a MAD scenario.
So, the only way presently to punish Russia’s Government for the war in Ukraine is a financial one. Later, holding the Russian Government to account personally will not be possible.
Thousands have died, millions have been displaced, 18-year-olds are being drafted to protect their homeland and families are being ripped apart; while this conflict shows no sign of ending. Vladimir Putin is one of Europe’s last dictators, he is a warmonger, an imperialist and a criminal against the peace that this generation grew up with and the previous generations fought to maintain. He has brought his country into an illegal and bloody war of expansion that his people do not want, and he has thrown the Ukrainian people into a war they did not deserve. The recent reactions from the Western governments have been encouraging, but it must be remembered by all that Russia is not the enemy, not its Soldiers, not its people, not even its government. The only enemy resides in the presidential palace in Moscow.