The war can be seen as one of aggression and self-defence, of national liberation, and as a war of secession. The likely outcomes of all three seem to point to a divided Ukraine

Comment: Identifying the nature of a war allows comparison with wars of a similar nature. These analogies help us to understand a complex new conflict. They provide scenarios as to how the conflict may unfold – and end. They indicate the costs likely to be incurred and the opportunities seized (or missed) by the antagonists.

The war in Ukraine can be seen through at least three lenses: as a war of aggression and self-defence; a war of national liberation; and as a war of secession.

Supplementing these three modes are associated clashes over disinformation, cyber-hacking, ethno-linguistic assertiveness, and outside intervention. And permeating all are flagrant violations of the international laws of war.

A war of aggression and self-defence

In obvious respects, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a conventional act of aggression by one sovereign state against another. It is conventional inasmuch as the bulk of the fighting is conducted by the uniformed armed forces of the two countries using modern weapons. The Russian attack violates Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, which proscribes aggression against a fellow member. Article 2 (4) asserts:

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 …

The attack also triggers Article 51, the attacked member’s right of self-defence, which states:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations …

Russia (as the successor to the USSR) and Ukraine (then as a republic of the USSR) acceded to the UN Charter in 1945. Thus both are legally bound to respect its prescriptions. While Ukraine has, Russia has not.

The international crime of aggression was mooted after World War I and included in indictments of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. It was one of four crimes specified by the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. In all three instances the crime of aggression was insufficiently defined and was not sustained by international enforcement or judicial action.

In 2019 member states ratified the Kampala Agreement by which the ICC delegated the decision to determine aggression to the UN Security Council. That body has not exercised this prerogative, not least because one or another of the five permanent members has used or threatened its veto – most recently Russia, with China’s abstention. The crime of aggression thus lacks legal weight. Western leaders’ characterisation of Putin as a ‘war criminal’ for ordering the attack of Ukraine, and authorising disproportionate and undiscriminating force against civilians, is a satisfying moral judgment and bold political act, but it is without judicial foundation or practical effect.

A war of national liberation

If Russia fails to change the Ukrainian government’s policies in its favour, and if popular armed resistance to a Moscow-friendly government persists, the nature of the war would begin to resemble the post-colonial national liberation wars of Asia and Africa. Examples include Mao’s and Ho Chi Minh’s guerrilla wars against Japan, France, and the US, and Israel’s and Kenya’s insurgencies against imperial Britain.

In national liberation wars, the weaker party under occupation by a stronger party uses militia, irregular forces, and resistance volunteers in hit-and-run tactics to out-manoeuvre and sting the conventional forces, and to weaken the political resolve of the occupying power by raising the costs of occupation. They deploy propaganda abroad to win international sympathy and material support.

These tactics resemble those of ‘hybrid warfare’, of which, ironically, Russia has used against Ukraine for a decade. If Russian forces succeed in displacing the Zelenskyy government from Kyiv and occupy the bulk of the country, they will likely face significant harassment by mobilised and motivated civilians within Ukraine and from across the borders.

The liberation fighters will be supported, directly or indirectly, by Western governments, corporations, NGOs, and volunteer ‘foreign fighters’. Their actions in defiance of Russian claims will be legitimised by UN Charter Article 1 (2) and General Assembly Declaration 1514, among many others, establishing the right of self-determination of peoples. They may lose battles but if they survive and persist, they could ultimately win the liberation war by forcing a stalemate on, and eventually the departure of, the Russians, as did the Afghan Mujahideen when pitted against the Soviet Union in 1990, and the Taliban against the US and Nato in 2021.

A war of secession

This aspect of war began in 2014 when Russian ‘volunteers’ (special forces soldiers in unmarked uniforms popularly called ‘little green men’) fomented rebellion among Russian-speaking Ukrainians of Crimea and Donbas. Self-appointed local leaders then called for Russian support against the elected Ukrainian officials. Putin obliged by annexing Crimea and providing weapons and clandestine advisers to the Donbas separatists. Subsequent armed clashes with Ukrainian armed forces cost nearly 14,000 lives and saw the murder by a Russian missile of 298 passengers and crew aboard a passing Malaysian airliner. One of Putin’s aims is to secure the recognition of Crimea as Russian, and Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as independent, Russia-aligned republics, similar to those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which Russian forces carved out of Georgia in 2005.

International law and the UN Charter are ambivalent regarding wars of secession, especially if akin to civil wars, sectarian wars, or irredentist conflicts. They prescribe only non-interference by outsiders and respect for the Geneva Conventions by the combatants. Legal opinion divides those insisting on territorial integrity, usually first world commentators, from those privileging self-determination of oppressed peoples and national liberation struggles, usually third world commentators. The UN Security Council permanent members and Western states tend to the former, and the majority of UN General Assembly members, recently freed from colonialism, tend to the latter.

China is a notable exception as a champion of territorial integrity – its own foremost. Putin’s Russia straddles the ideological spectrum opportunistically, insisting on the integrity and security of Russia itself from outside intervention (and from the alleged threat posed by Nato’s presence in neighbouring states) but at the same time asserting the right of ex-Soviet Russians settled in surrounding countries to demand privileges and autonomy if not outright independence from their host governments. If expressed with authenticity, the rights of the Russia-aligned minorities in Crimea and Donbas must be acknowledged.

Likely outcomes

The likely outcomes of all three war modes seem to point to a divided Ukraine oppressed by the might of the Russian military in the east and south, and maybe also in Kyiv, with the rest of the country fiercely loyal to the current elected Ukrainian government and hostile to Russia. Some commentators predict a North Korea/South Korea-type armistice to stop the fighting in the near term, but promising no lasting political settlement in the longer term, only prolonged division and armed strife. Just when Western leaders were beginning to meet the economic challenge of a rising China, they will be obliged to divert resources to stem a Russian security challenge.

Some see Ukraine as the fulcrum on which the balance between Western democracies on the one hand and Eastern autocracies on the other will be precariously balanced. Even if the balance does not tip into all out West-East war, ordinary consumers on both sides will suffer from rising inflation and energy and supply chain disruption. A new phase in global conflict and economic hardship may have been triggered by Putin’s criminal invasion. The world’s seven billion inhabitants may feel its effects economically just as tens of millions have already felt it physically.

International law above all

Regardless of which of the Ukraine war’s three aspects prevails, the international laws of war and humanitarian conduct still govern all parties to the conflict. These include sovereign political leaders, regular troops, militia, guerrillas, and armed individuals, and outside intervention forces whether regular or irregular, overt or covert. Clear rules are set out in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted in 1998, and in the domestic criminal codes of progressive states, many based on international human rights treaties.

While Russian leaders may employ indiscriminate violence, Western leaders must adhere to the standards of international law, and the guidelines of morality, if their democratic ideals are to prevail. Not only most Ukrainians but also many brave Russians are expressing their liberal sentiments by protesting, demonstrating, enlisting, resisting, or migrating. They share the vision of a more humane civic life that the West offers in contrast to the kleptocracy and thuggery of Putin’s self-serving and stultifying Russian oligarchy.

Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts.

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