Let me start by making absolutely clear that nothing in this piece should be read as any kind of support for Russian military activity in Ukraine. My entire argument is that cycles of violence and aggression become very hard to break once they have begun.
The reason for that? Hypocrisy – and largely (though far from exclusively) Western hypocrisy. Since the Cold War the West has had pretty-well unhindered global dominance. What we did with it was to put our boot on the neck of anyone we wanted to. And then we wonder why they lash out.
I’m not even arguing against sanctions on Russia, I’m arguing that unless we are honest and consistent in our application of them then Russia will feel (and will be right to feel) that double standards are being applied.
So let’s be consistent then. Let’s do unto ourselves what we expect to have the right to do to others. If ‘one toecap’ of a country’s military boots cross a border into a country which has not requested their presence or the UN has not mandated, let’s apply the full set of sanctions that an invasion brings for others.
Iraq is a sovereign country and didn’t ask us to invade. Out of the global money system goes the US and the UK.
‘But it wasn’t a proper democracy’ shouts The Blob. Well, twice in ten years Ukraine elected Russian-orientated leaders in what no-one disputes were legitimate and fair elections, largely with votes from the east of the country. Both times that leader was overthrown by a public coup (backed heavily by the US) which took place only in limited areas of the west of the country.
‘Respecting other nation’s sovereignty’ – what, like the US’s stance towards Cuba? How does the US’s virtually unmentioned but ongoing programme of extra-judicial murders by drone in countries which have not given consent fit into that? Barak Obama dropped more bombs during his presidency than any world leader in all of history.
In my world the International Criminal Court would today be mandating a United Nations military taskforce to enter Russia and arrest Vladimir Putin for what is happening in Ukraine
‘Breaking international law’ – like Israel, repeatedly decried in the United Nations for doing just that? The number of occasions in which Western and Western-aligned nations have breached international law since the Cold War is so long it’s farcical the words pass our lips. The US continues to refuse to sign up to the International Criminal Court – for very specific reasons.
Or what about ‘the provocative build-up of threatening military force near another country’s border’ – like say the ‘Defender Europe’ exercise in 2020 which brought 20,000 US troops across the Atlantic and involved US B-52 bombers entering Ukraine air-space for the first time? Or the simulated bomb raids around Kaliningrad as a test for destroying Russian air-defence systems? Or the 18 times last year nuclear weapon carriers flew to the Russian borders?
Interfering in other nation’s politics? Don’t make me laugh – the US virtually invented the practice. It’s record in the Middle East and in Latin America is so blood-soaked, so morally abhorrent that one wonders what its victims in both these parts of the world must think when they hear another lecture from the US.
Torture of prisoners, extraordinary rendition (kidnapping for the purposes of torture), cyber attacks, destruction of civilian infrastructure in non-UN-sanctioned bombing raids, feral soldiers raping and murdering their way across territories they occupy, expropriation of other people’s land by force, provision of weapons to others to carry out war crimes, economic sabotage?
On and on and on goes the charge sheet of crimes against humanity carried out by the West. And the punishment? None.
In my world the International Criminal Court would today be mandating a United Nations military taskforce to enter Russia and arrest Vladimir Putin for what is happening in Ukraine. Assuming a successful conviction he would then be detained in a high security prison for the duration of his sentence.
While there he would be treated humanely and according to the standards of human rights the ICC is there to ensure. Which would mean he would be free to form a mixed-doubles pingpong team with George W Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu and Tony Blair who would be in adjoining cells convicted of precisely the same charges.
Nation states across the globe will perpetuate the violence so long as some of them know they will never pay a price and those who might pay a price refuse to recognise rules others ignore at will
The reality is that there is no such thing as universal international law, there is a kind of international lynch mob in which the most powerful get to punish the less powerful safe in the knowledge that they themselves are exempt from consequences from their own actions.
After all, what is so different about this new war that sets it aside from all the other wars we don’t mind so much? Well, if anyone dies in this one the very high chances are that they’ll be white. If Putin was moving troops into a nation where the skin colour was predominantly darker, chances are we would barely be discussing it today.
We are stuck in a perpetual cycle of global state violence and it never ends. A real international legal system, a real global rules-based order might bring it to an end. But that is impossible when those imposing order don’t impose it on themselves.
Nation states across the globe will perpetuate the violence so long as some of them know they will never pay a price and those who might pay a price refuse to recognise rules others ignore at will.
This pattern has very strong parallels to the gradual imposition of universal domestic legal systems in nation states. First the ‘law’ is what the Monarch or Emperor says it is, brutal and arbitrary. Then some is codified, but administered by the aristocracy for entirely their own ends. Then it is all codified and enforced with democratic public authority so the powerful can only buy themselves out of accountability some of the time.
And the pattern of violence in societies falls as each transition takes place, and on the whole it continues to fall. This is the power of the universal application of law without fear or favour. International law is really the second category – some of it exists, but it is the powerful who administer it and always in their own interests.
Nothing that is happening right now in discussions around Ukraine will do any more to break that global cycle of violence than invading Iraq, Libya and Syria stabilised the Middle East.
Confucius (probably) said “seek revenge and you should dig two graves, one for yourself”. Well use force to establish a global order that you do not subject yourself to and you shouldn’t bother digging graves at all. Just dig a lot of big pits and bulldoze in the bodies.