The Ukraine fiasco is the consequence of powers ignoring international law

Unless Russia changes course the global consequences are apt to be grave.

Tuesday March 25 2014

By Jeffrey D. Sachs
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Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute a serious and dangerous violation of international law. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union, in return for a solemn commitment by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Russia has now violated that pledge, not only harming Ukraine but also undermining the international legal framework for preventing nuclear proliferation.

Unless Russia changes course – which seems unlikely anytime soon – the global consequences are apt to be grave. The US and the EU will impose sanctions, weakening Russia’s economy and the world economy – and stoking even more tension and nationalism.

Mistakes on one side or the other could lead to violent disaster. We need only to recall the spiral of hubris and miscalculation that led to the outbreak of World War I, a century ago this year.


As frightening as the Ukraine crisis is, the more general disregard of international law in recent years must not be overlooked.

Without diminishing the seriousness of Russia’s act, we should note that they come in the context of repeated violations of international law by the US, the EU, and Nato. Every such violation undermines the fragile edifice of international law.

The US and its allies have also launched a series of military interventions in recent years in contravention of the UN Charter and without the support of the UN Security Council.

The US-led Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 lacked the sanction of international law, and occurred despite the strong objections of Russia, a Serbian ally. Kosovo’s subsequent declaration of independence from Serbia, recognised by the US and most EU members, is a precedent that Russia eagerly cites for its actions in Crimea. The ironies are obvious.

The Kosovo War was followed by the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which occurred without the support of the Security Council, and in the case of Iraq, despite vigorous objections within it. The results for both Afghanistan and Iraq have been utterly devastating.

Nato’s actions in Libya in 2011 to topple Muammar Gaddafi constituted another such violation of international law. After the Security Council approved a resolution to institute a no-fly zone and take other actions ostensibly to protect Libyan civilians, Nato used the resolution as a pretext to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime.

Russia and China strenuously objected, stating then and now that Nato seriously exceeded its mandate. Libya remains unstable and violent, without an effective national government, to this day.


As Russia itself has repeatedly pointed out, US actions in Syria have been similarly illegal. When the Arab Spring protests began in early 2011, peaceful demonstrators in Syria demanded reforms.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracked down violently on the protesters, leading some military units to revolt.

At that point, in the summer of 2011, the US began to back the military insurrection.

Since then, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have provided logistical, financial, and military support to the insurrection, in violation of Syria’s sovereignty and international law.

There is no doubt that Assad has behaved cruelly, but there is also no doubt that the US-led support of the insurrection is a violation of Syria’s sovereignty, one that has contributed to an upward spiral of violence.

International law itself is at a crossroads. The US, Russia, the EU, and Nato cite it when it is to their advantage and disregard it when they deem it a nuisance.

There have long been skeptics of international law – those who believe that it can never prevail over the national interests of major powers, and that maintaining a balance of power among competitors is all that really can be done to keep the peace.

From this perspective, Russia’s actions in the Crimea are simply the actions of a great power asserting its prerogatives.

Prof Sachs teaches Sustainable Development, Health Policy and Management, and is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University (c): Project Syndicate,