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Between Interests, Power, and Rights: the Russian Conflict in Ukraine

08 Mar 2022
By Dr Ivana Damjanovic and Doris Bozin
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a congratulatory speech at the official unveiling ceremony for the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in Seoul, 2013. Source: Republic of Korea, Flickr,

The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of a new era in world history. As the war rages, the prospects for a political solution remain bleak given both sides’ diametrically opposed positions.

Russia insists that Ukraine should surrender unconditionally, that its government and President Volodymyr Zelensky resign, and that Ukraine become a Russian puppet state. By contrast, Ukrainians desire statehood and that their elected government decide their future, all while looking to become a part of Euro-Atlantic integrations.

Understanding this conflict in terms of both sides’ interests — their motivations and consequences of continuing the conflict; power — the military, financial, political influence, costs; and rights — the international legal order can help us to understand the paths forward. The complexity of the current conflict is nuanced by history, geopolitical factors, economic aspirations, and individual personalities, which influence both parties’ responses to the ongoing situation.

Interests: Future vs. Past

In the absence of democratic legitimacy of its current regime, Russia’s interests are largely conflated with interests of its leader and his elites. Those interests are multifaceted — returning to the glory days of Russia as a superpower, reconstructing Ukrainian history, and reshaping Ukrainian identity as invariably linked with Russian identity. The invasion of Ukraine is framed as “a special operation” to achieve Ukraine’s “demilitarization and denazification.” In reality, it is an attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government, which as Vladimir Putin sees it, has placed Ukraine under Western liberalism, bringing socioeconomic crisis instead of the progress that was promised.

On the other hand, Ukraine sees its national interests best served as part of NATO and the EU. The conclusion of the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014 was a major strategic step westward for Ukraine, which was preceded by the overthrow of the pro-Russian government. Now, facing an existential threat, Ukraine has officially signed an application for Ukraine’s membership in the EU. While Kyiv understands that the process takes years, the formal application in times of war serves to boost the morale of the Ukrainian people. President Zelensky’s speech in the European Parliament, delivered in Ukrainian, sent a message that Ukraine belongs to the community of European nations. The destruction of Ukrainian cities, the killing of its civilians — particularly children — and the unfolding humanitarian crisis are also changing the hearts and minds of Europeans on the issue of Ukraine’s EU membership.

Power: Military Force vs. Solidarity and Diplomacy

Russia’s military is significantly stronger than Ukraine’s. Nevertheless, while Russia has force, Ukraine has will. To the surprise of military analysts — and indeed, Putin himself — Ukrainian troops have mounted a resistance stronger and more determined than expected in all aspects of warfare, from kinetic to hybrid. President Zelensky has been able to galvanise international support while keeping spirits high at home. His charisma and public relations skills stand in stark contrast to the stern and despotic personality of the Russian president, which unsettles even the head of the Russian foreign intelligence service.

The West’s swift and united reaction to the invasion has also come as a surprise to the Russian leadership. Prior to the invasion, the EU had been looking for solutions to neutralise the possibility of a conflict through diplomatic efforts, but remained convinced by President Putin that war would not happen. Many European politicians believed him, thus reinforcing President Putin’s perception of a weak and indecisive West, reliant on Russian energy and money.

The invasion has led to a rapid transformation of Europe’s geopolitical landscape, bolstering the role of the EU as a foreign policy actor in the field of security and defence. For the first time in its history, the EU is financing military aid to support Ukraine’s defence, with a number of member states planning to send weapons. Germany has substantially increased its defence budget, and its new approach matches France’s long-standing pleas for Europe’s strategic autonomy. The EU has also introduced a swathe of other economic measures to use its collective weight to punish Russia.

EU unity against the common enemy — Putin’s authoritarian regime — will also enhance its sense of shared identity. The leaders of eastern member states that Putin had perceived as potential allies — Milos Zeman and Viktor Orban, for instance — have strongly condemned his actions, while Germany has frozen the Nord Stream 2 project in an important shift in German foreign policy towards Russia.

The EU, the US, and some Asia-Pacific countries have attempted to pressure Russia into deescalating the conflicting through diplomacy and are supporting Ukraine with humanitarian aid and targeted military backing. The assistance and heavy economic, cultural, and sport sanctions against Russia have, at this stage, had little impact on diminishing the conflict.

Rights: International Law vs. Power

The invasion of Ukraine violates international law on many levels. It breaches Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which requires that UN member states refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of other states. Further, Russia’s recognition of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states is contrary to international law governing sovereignty and secession of states. In response, Ukraine has filed a new claim against Russia before the International Court of Justice for misinterpretation of the Genocide Convention as justification for the invasion, in addition to earlier 2017 claims related to Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Finally, President Putin and his senior military officers could face charges under international law for war crimes committed during the invasion.

For President Putin, however, power gives rights. His recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk’s independence was intended to justify his invasion as “maintaining peace.” However, humanity in the 21st century has moved beyond the age in which regional hegemons believe that they are entitled to attack neighbouring countries and seize their land. President Putin’s actions are bringing back the past of two world wars that current generations know only from history books. Pleas for peace are coming even from Russia.

Negotiations between the Ukraine and Russia have started and will take some time given their diametrically opposed positions. Hopefully a resolution can be found where some compromises or even “off ramp” concessions are made. However, we are not there yet. The inability to deescalate the conflict and the lack of trust between the parties is evident as threats increase. Russian nuclear deterrence forces have been placed on high alert, Ukrainian nuclear power plants have been targeted, and the agreement to create humanitarian corridors for evacuation of Ukrainian civilians was breached.

We should not expect concessions from President Putin in this conflict unless his perception of power shifts. While Russia’s military advancement has been slower than predicted and the domestic pressure within Russia mounting piecemeal, it is much too early to expect such change. On the contrary, the situation could escalate towards more extreme scenarios. As the Russian army faces the prospect of warmer weather and muddy terrain, and thus further slowdown of the movement of its troops and tanks, it will increase its indiscriminate shelling to force an outcome.

In the long term, economic sanctions will be damaging for Russia, but in the short term the destruction of Ukraine will only intensify. The efforts from the West to stop Putin are much more than support for Ukraine. They serve to defend international law in face of power, democratic values in face of an autocratic regime, and more than ever, the world’s peace. 

Dr Ivana Damjanovic is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Canberra, a Visiting Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for European Studies, and a former diplomat.

Doris Bozin is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Law at the University of Canberra, a lawyer, and a dispute resolution specialist.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.