We’re publishing a guest post by Adrian Brown, a former Royal Australian Air Force Legal Officer, about whether it’s reasonable to expect Russia to be constrained by moral norms, particularly in light of the failure of Britain and the United States to always observe those norms themselves when the national interest is at stake.
If you’re anything like me, the sooner you forget the sight of Ukraine asking the UN Security Council, chaired by Russia with its power of veto, to vote for a motion demanding that Russia stop its invasion and withdraw its troops, the better. The UN reported that several of its members described Russia’s veto as “inevitable but deplorable”. It’s hard to imagine anything more enervating.
Russia is in clear breach of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Although the ICC has opened a war crimes investigation, Russia has withdrawn from the underlying treaty and is not subject to its jurisdiction. Before you rush to judgement, the United States has withdrawn too. Russia’s indifference to international law is best illustrated by its appeal to Article 51 of the UN Charter which deals with the right to self-defence. Token at best, mockery at worst. We all know that, without an independent enforcement mechanism, treaties are not like contracts in a rule-of-law based jurisdiction, and international law more generally contains a strong voluntary element.
We often hear experts say that Russia only understands hard power. But before we give up on international law, norms, and other constraints, it’s worth asking whether there is any basis for believing that a state is constrained by moral standards and, to the extent that the West has breached those standards itself, we can demand that Russia complies with them.
The sceptical analysis of Russia’s invasion restates the doctrine that foreign policy should only be concerned with a state’s interests and not with morality. It often suggests that Russia’s interests include ensuring that Ukraine does not join NATO. The West’s response to the invasion, driven in part by moral outrage, is naïve, misguided and even irresponsible. Instead, Western states should have dispassionately examined whether confronting Russia served their interests. If it did not, they should have looked the other way.
Read More: Has the West Got a Leg to Stand On When it Complains of Putin’s Disregard for International Law and Other Moral Norms?