Helping Ukraine to help ourselves

| October 8, 2022

Support for Ukraine is normally described in ideological or moral terms as a duty to support democracies in the face of resurgent totalitarianism.

This is an important consideration. But since Russia’s declared annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign land last week, there’s now a hard-headed security rationale for supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Russia’s brutal invasion and claimed annexation is a clear breach of an international law rule that is critical to the security of smaller and middle powers like Australia.

This security imperative requires more, not less, support for Ukraine for the duration of this war.

International law and wars of territorial acquisition

Why should we care about international law? The short answer is that certain rules in the international legal order are effective, even in the absence of centralised enforcement.

Prior to the second world war, international law formally recognised territorial acquisition through war. This was, after all, the age of empires, a time when powerful and wealthy European countries acquired their colonies through war.

But, after the horrors of WWII, the international community built an international order that banned territorial acquisition through war. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter states that:

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.

This norm has exerted a strong “compliance pull”, which means there have been very few instances of the use of war to annex territory. Since 1945, powerful countries simply do not invade and annex other countries anymore. As problematic as the United States’ wars have been since then, they have never involved a war of territorial acquisition against a sovereign state.

Article 2 is therefore a critical norm for the security of less powerful countries, such as Australia.

Russia’s invasion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most brazen attack on this rule since 1945. Last week, Russia formally annexed swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine, after invading Ukraine over seven months ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified this action on the basis that Ukraine is not a “real country” and that its government is the puppet of neo-Nazis and the West. This justification echoes wars of imperial aggression from the 19th century and reflects Putin and his supporters’ neo-imperial mindset.

Russia’s war of conquest is therefore more than a Cold War-esque showdown between Russia and the United States.

It threatens to destroy the key rule found in Article 2 of the UN Charter against the acquisition of territory through war. It therefore threatens to bring us back to the 19th century world where strong countries do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.

The security ramifications

The war in Ukraine, therefore, has clear security ramifications for smaller or middle powers.

If Russia is successful in taking land by force, other powerful countries in the world will be more likely to follow suit.

This has clear implications for Australia’s security position. As China grows more powerful in Asia and our ally the United States weakens, Australia will rely increasingly on Article 2’s strong international law norm against warlike acquisition of territory for its territorial integrity.

Australia’s support for Ukraine so far has been limited. And Russia’s claimed annexations was met with a muted response from the Australian government. This is a mistake.

How we talk about the war

This also has implications for how we talk about the war in Ukraine to countries in the global south.

Discussing the war as one between democracy and totalitarianism might make sense in the West, but is problematic for many countries in the global south that are suspicious of American democracy promotion efforts. This in part has explained the tacit support or neutrality of many of these countries towards Russia.

But if we talk about this war as potentially reopening the door to wars of territorial acquisition today, we are far more likely to persuade these countries of the need to condemn Russia and support Ukraine in its fight to uphold a foundational norm in international law.

With its assertions of sovereignty over Ukrainian land through force, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are about more than a new Cold War.

They now pose a fundamental threat to the stability of the international system and the national security of small and middle powers around the world.

Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory has therefore significantly raised the stakes in this war – for much of the world.

This article was published by The Conversation.