Russian Dominance and the Weakening of International Law

by Ethan Roberson

On November 25, 2018 Russian ships opened fire on three Ukrainian ships (two warships and one tugboat) in a narrow, but strategic sea passage, the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea and mainland Russia. This confrontation resulted in the injuries of at least six Ukrainian sailors, the capture of more than twenty Ukrainian sailors, and, ultimately, the blockade of the entrance to the Kerch Strait by Russia. Russia’s recent antagonism of Ukraine, blatantly and actively breaches international law and remains, at its simplest form, an act of war. However, what is equally troubling, if not more so, is the resounding lack of a strong, unified international response.

Only Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Romania were quick in their proclamations of strong support for Ukraine and their condemnation of this uptick in Russian aggression. A few other countries, such as Italy, Bulgaria, and Slovakia called, generally, for both sides of the conflict to show restraint in their actions. The United States was slow to respond, with President Trump saying, “We do not like what’s happening either way. We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out. I know Europe is not thrilled; they’re working on it too. We’re all working on it together.” As of yet, no countries have called for and instituted increased sanctions on Russia. Support for Ukraine through international military support also remains lackluster. The United Kingdom provided surveillance through the HMS Echo and NATO plans to send communication equipment to assist the country’s military, part of a $46 million plan to assist Ukraine.

It is fair to say that no political leaders approve of Russia’s actions or find any comfort in them. Yet, the overall response is middling at best and can be described, most aptly put, as disappointing. By all means, even an ounce of support is better than no support at all, but such an inadequate response by the international community does nothing to dissuade Russia from continuing its assault on Ukraine. If anything, the lack of more meaningful discourse and action inspires Russia to further their pursuits in the region, and works to weaken the institutions of international law. Russia, in spite of its increasingly brazen moves against Ukraine, essentially received a free pass from the international community. Russia’s November attack, although simply the latest assault, in a long line of offensives on Ukrainian sovereignty, is a clear violation of Chapter 1 Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. The article, which states, “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, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations,” makes it indisputable that Russia infringed upon international law, yet again.

International law, by nature, is an incredibly delicate institution. Inherently relying upon social norms between countries and a sense of shared purpose, it requires that the countries of the world actively seek after common goals, such as ensuring justice and preserving peace. In times when these goals are violated, cooperation amongst the other countries of the world and, more importantly, action must occur, in order to protect the cornerstone of international law. In principle, international law relies upon institutions and organizations that attempt to maintain peace and provide for stability in the world. Acceptance of this principle firmly took shape in the aftermath of World War 1 and continued to develop through the next few decades and the events surrounding World War 2. The ensuing decades, with the advancement of globalization, brought nations closer, redefining the way the world views international law, global economics, and global politics. This transformation of international law provides a framework for understanding why Russia’s activity in Ukraine is so egregious.

In the last half decade alone, Russia has continually interfered with international law, paying little to no consequences for its actions. Between the 2014 annexation of Crimea, interference in the 2016 United States presidential election, the alleged state-sponsored poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and numerous other actions, it is clear that Russia violates international law consistently to benefit its political and economic agenda. The danger of these consistent breaches is amplified by the important role Russia plays in the international community. Through its undeniable linked history with most Eastern European countries and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Russian influence is a cornerstone of the world’s political, legal, and economic order. As a result of this, Russia molds international law just as much as any other country, if not more so than the vast majority. It is exactly because of this role that it remains so critical for the freedom loving countries of the world to stand against Russia in its so far unbridled war against Ukraine.

International law can only ever be as strong as the reactions of countries to its violations, great or small. Fundamentally, without truly appropriate reactions to its breaches, especially at the hands of such a major world power like Russia, international law becomes defunct. At the end of the day, treaties and international law are built by words, but their ink is written in blood. Only action and the threat of action make treaties and international law real. The leaders of the world may be satisfied with declarations of condemnation and calls for peaceful dialogue, but this complacency–this lack of real action–either through sanctions or significant military support, allows Russia to define international law on its own footing. And international law defined by one body and one body alone is not so much international law as it is international chaos.

The world of the future, united under the common goal of the preservation of peace, will only be found through global respect for and the inherent belief in international law. It is an unfortunate consequence of human history that law is rarely founded through automatic compliance. Rather it is often wrestled with through revolutions, rebellions, and war. I dare say that Russian aggression is a threat to that future, but not nearly as much of a threat as a world filled with countries capable of affirming and protecting international law, but instead insisting upon freely allowing violations, like the attacks on Ukraine’s sovereign rights in Crimea and at sea, to occur.