Did George W. Bush Set the Stage for Putin? A Concern, not an Apology or Whataboutism
by Michael C. Dorf
The Soviet Union was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Interestingly, in a move that gave the Soviets three rather than just one seat in the UN, so were two Soviet republics. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia took the primary Soviet seat (including as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council), while the successors to the other two Soviet seats were Belarus (now reduced more or less to a Russian puppet) and Ukraine (currently the victim of Russian aggression). As a member of the UN, Russia has bound itself to the UN Charter, which states, in Article 2, Section 4: "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."
Accordingly, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, its recognition of independence for Luhansk and Donetsk, its prior support for separatists fighting there, its prior invasion of Crimea, its current claims to Crimea, and just about every other aspect of its threats and use of force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine are blatant violations of international law. This is not a close question. Nothing I say below should be taken as casting any doubt on the illegality or immorality of Russia's moves against Ukraine.
Is there a lie one can tell that, if true, would make Russia's actions legal? Putin could lie and say that Ukraine was in the process of attacking Russia and that therefore his use of force was an exercise of Russia's "inherent right" to use "self-defense" against "an armed attack," pursuant to Article 51 of the Charter. And indeed, along with the long distorted account of the fraternal history of Ukraine and Russia, the projection of all of Putin's own evils on the Ukrainian leadership, and just heaps of general-purpose lies, Putin's address on Monday did include a particular lie that, if not a lie, could be thought to invoke a Russian right of self-defense. He pointed to western support for Ukrainian defense against Russian aggression as evidence of an insidious plot to attack Russia.
Putin did not go quite so far as to say that such an absurd attack by Ukraine against Russia or Russians was underway, but anyone who has been paying attention for the last couple of decades will have heard in Putin's speech (as one apparently hears expressly in Russian state media) an echo of George W. Bush's case for pre-emptive war in Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction.
Here was Putin earlier this week:
If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.
One impact of a war of dubious lawfulness may be the continued erosion of respect for the United States as a nation committed to principles of justice under law. President Bush says that he is justified in using military might because his cause is just. To much of the rest of the world, however, it looks the other way around: that the U.S. and its allies act as they wish because, in the American view, might makes right.