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Column: The rules of war

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By Sean Hyland

As Russian forces invade Ukraine, the real conflict is between the pride and political ambitions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia versus the pride and ambitions of the U.S. led NATO bloc. As the tragically familiar tableau of war plays out in Ukraine, the price exacted by the power plays of politicians is paid in the blood and tears of the common people.

The Western news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine inevitably strays heavily into the moralistic. We have a war between good and evil: a shining pluralistic democracy versus a brutal authoritarian regime. Left out is the messy reality that a semi-functional and corruption ridden Ukraine has been subjected to a geopolitical tug of war for years, as Russia seeks to keep Ukraine firmly in its sphere of influence while the U.S. simultaneously seeks to establish a client government in Kiev to further isolate Russia. Ukraine has been a pawn used to further the ambitions of larger powers and is now caught in the jaws of that balancing act.

The U.S. and NATO have ultimately settled on a strategy of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. Now that fighting has been raging for over a week and Russia has made substantial inroads, pouring armaments into Ukraine will do nothing to change the overall course of the conflict, but will substantially raise costs to both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries and most of all the Ukrainian people. The West is prudent to reject calls for direct intervention or the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, since such moves would drastically raise the possibility of direct war with Russia and the concomitant threat of nuclear escalation. However, Ukraine now finds that the West has led it down the primrose path and that its usefulness is now largely to become as much a quagmire for Russia as possible.

The overwhelming moralistic framework imposed by Western coverage tends to revolve around a familiar theme: an appeal to proper international norms and order. An attack on the Ukraine is seen as an attack on all those orderly law abiding nations standing firmly on the right side of history. However, if we shift the view away from our own media reinforced preconceptions, is this moral framework really wholly applicable?

In the view of countries like Russia and China the “U.S. led, rules based international order” is a sham, little more than a cover for U.S. policy preferences and a useful fiction for keeping alternative international power structures marginalized on the world stage. While I have no illusions that a world influenced by Russia or China would be any better than that shaped by American domination, they are not fundamentally wrong in their understanding. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is worthy of censure, it would be only fair to recognize that it is a war arguably more justified than something like the American invasion of Iraq, which America initiated under false pretenses and resulting in disastrous consequences for Americans and Iraqis both. Similarly critical questions could be asked about the legitimacy and virtue of American military actions in Libya, Syria, or Yemen, which have left little but ruin in their wake. 

Why can America destroy a country with impunity, triggering no real international response or consequences, but when Russia does it, Putin becomes vilified as a “literal Hitler”? Why is it that when American bombs kill innocent civilians it’s little more than a regrettable mistake, but when those bombs are dropped by Russians they become war crimes of the highest order? The answer is clearly enough that America makes the rules, and American might makes right. In reality, the concept of a “rules based international order” will have no claim to the moral high ground as long as it picks and chooses if and when those rules apply.

I find myself having little sympathy for any of the players involved in this conflict other than the Ukrainian people themselves. Putin is correct, to an extent, when he highlights the hypocrisy of a self-serving U.S. led international order but proves himself no better by using war to further his own political ends. The reality of living in a world of amoral governments brazenly jockeying for power and domination is one which, naturally enough, has little appeal to the common citizen. Therefore war is always recast in glowingly emotive and ideological terms by governments to assure our support. In Russia it is cast as a glorious liberation of Slavic peoples from a Western puppet regime, while in the West we are told that a mad dictator irrationally and unprovoked seeks to gobble up a peaceful people. We must beware these nihilistic politicians and their propaganda, no matter what direction it comes from. They cover up their own designs and wrongdoing by directing our hate at some enemy real or imagined.

Fundamentally, the question that the Russian invasion of Ukraine should pose to us in America is introspective. Why should other nations feel constrained by “international norms” which present a clear double standard of behavior? There will inevitably come a day where American power will no longer be strong enough to keep the world perpetually shaped to the designs of our political class, and we may be in danger of reaping what we have sown. All imperial power dissipates eventually, and America will be no different. If our own international behavior has de-legitimized moderating and multilateral influences in world affairs, will we be at the mercy of some future hegemon?

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