There is no doubt that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine, seemingly by Russian attacking forces, and in a perfect world those who so acted would be held responsible. But the world is highly imperfect when it comes to accountability for international crimes. When the International Criminal Court in 2020 found it had authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by Israel in Occupied Palestine, the decision was called ‘pure anti-Semitism’ by the Israeli prime minister.
Similarly, when authorization was given by the ICC to investigate crimes by the United States in Afghanistan, the decision was denounced as void because the U.S. was not a party to the Rome Statute governing the operations of the ICC. The Trump presidency went so far as to impose personal sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, presumably for daring to challenge the U.S. in such a manner even though her behavior was entirely respectful of her professional role and consistent with relevant canons of judicial practice.
Against such a background, there is a typical liberal quandary when faced with clear criminality on one side and pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side. Was it desirable after World War II to prosecute surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders at the ‘legal’ cost of overlooking their criminality because there was no disposition to investigate the dropping of atom bombs on Japanese cities or the strategic bombing of civilian habitats in Germany and Japan? I am far from sure about what is better from the perspective of either developing a global rule of law or inducing respect for the restraints of law. The essence of law is to treat equals equally, but world order is not so constituted. As suggested, there is ‘victors’ justice’ imposing accountability on the defeated leadership but complete non-accountability for the crimes of the geopolitical winners. Beyond this, the UN Charter was drafted in ways that gave a constitutional status to geopolitical impunity by granting the victors in World War II an unconditional right of veto, and this of course includes Russia. In these respects, liberalism defers to geopolitical realism, and celebrate the one-sided imposition of legality, with the naïve hope things will be different in the future. Yet the post-Nuremberg record shows that geopolitical actors go on treating restraints on recourse to war as a matter of discretion (what American liberals called ‘wars of choice’ in the course of the debate about embarking upon a regime-changing attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003) rather than an obligation. When it comes to accountability double standards are still operative, illustrated by the execution of Saddam Hussein for war crimes after a war of aggression against Iraq.
Another lingering question is ‘why Ukraine’? There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine yet no comparable clamor for criminal justice and punitive action. Certainly, a part of the explanation is that the Ukrainian victims of abuse are white and European, and global media was mobilized effectively by the West and by the related international prominence accorded to Zelensky, the embattled Ukrainian leader given unprecedented access to the most influential venues on the global stages of world opinion. It is not that the empathy for Ukraine or support for Zelensky’s national resistance is misplaced, but that it has the appearance of being orchestrated in ways that other desperate national situations were not, and thus give rise to suspicions about other, darker motives.
This is a concern because these magnified concerns have acted as a principal way that the NATO West has gone out of its way to make the Ukrainian War about more than Ukraine. The wider war is best understood as occurring on two levels: a traditional war between the invading forces of Russia and the resisting forces of Ukraine coupled with a geopolitical war between the U.S. and Russia. It is the prosecution of this latter war that presents the more profound danger to world peace, a danger that has been largely obscured or assessed as a mere dimension of the Russia/Ukraine confrontation. Biden has consistently struck a militarist and confrontational note in the geopolitical war, demonizing Putin while neglecting diplomacy as a way to stop the killing, and atrocities, in effect, allowing the war on the ground to continue because of the higher stakes of grand strategy. If this two-level perception is correct in appreciation of the different actors with different priorities, then it becomes crucial to understand that in the geopolitical war the U.S. is the aggressor as much as in the traditional war Russia is the aggressor.
So far, the geopolitical war has been waged as a war of ideological aggression backed up by weapons supplies and enveloping sanctions designed to have as a great a crippling effect on Russia. This tactic has led Putin to make counter-threats, including warnings about Russia’s willingness under certain conditions to have recourse to nuclear weapons. This normalizing of the nuclear danger is itself a menacing development in a context of an autocratic leader backed into a corner. The U.S. approach, while mindful of escalation dangers and taking steps to avoid direct military involvement on behalf of Ukraine, shows no rush to end the fighting, apparently believing that Russia already suffering the consequences of greatly underestimating Ukrainian will and capability to resist, will be forced to acknowledge a humiliating defeat if the war goes on, which would have the strategic benefit additional to other incentives, to discourage China from aligning with Russia in the future. The Western architects of this geopolitical war with Russia seem to assess gains and losses through a militarist optic, being grossly insensitive to the disastrous economic spilllover effects, especially pronounced in relation to food security in the already extremely stress conditions of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. As Fred Bergston argues, the overall stability of the world economy is also at great risk unless the U.S. and China realize that their cooperation is the only check on a deep, costly, and prolonged world economic collapse.
The geopolitical war also distracts attention from the urgent agenda of climate change, indicators of global warning further alarming climate experts. Other matter of global concern including migration, biodiversity, poverty, apartheid are being again relegated to the back burners of human concern, and the game of Armageddon Roulette being played without taking species wellbeing and survival into account, continuing its recklessness that began the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima more than 75 years ago.
In concluding, the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering is from other perspective more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war.