Politics / Ukraine

America’s Disdain for International Law Opened the Door for Putin

It’s late at night in a war-torn neighborhood of sleeping civilians. Suddenly, there is a deafening sound of jets overhead. After a moment of silence, the entire row of houses explodes into flames and flying bricks. No soldiers occupy the neighborhood, but now more than 120 unarmed civilians lie dead. This story does not come from a civilian block in Ukraine, but from a town in Northern Syria where American Special Operations forces bombed what they believed to be three ISIS “staging areas” on the city outskirts. Intensive civilian casualties are not the exception to American foreign policy in the global south, but the norm, amid decades of messy occupations and anti-insurgency campaigns. There is no doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is morally and legally reprehensible. Yet sole blame does not lie with the Russians; by consistently violating international law and undermining the institutions created to enforce it, the United States played an important role in making Russia’s invasion of Ukraine politically feasible.

In recent months, President Biden has described Russian president Vladimir Putin as a war criminal for the extensive civilian killings his forces perpetrated in Ukraine. However, America’s own legacy of civilian collateral damage weakens its condemnations of Russian action. Consider the thousands of innocent civilians killed by American forces in the Middle East in the last decade. As a recent high-profile investigation by the New York Times revealed, the Pentagon is aware of over 1,300 reports of civilian casualties from its airstrikes in the Middle East since only 2014. Condemnation of Russia for destroying civilian blocks in Ukraine rings hollow after years of American bombs leveling neighborhoods in Iraq and Syria by the dozen. 

The United States has condemned the Russian use of cluster bombs, yet we are one of only two major countries—the other being Russia—who refuse to recognize an international ban on their use. In fact, the United States deployed cluster munitions extensively during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and in 2019, the Trump administration formally upheld their use by American forces. The United States is correct in calling Russia’s destruction of civilian blocks and use of cluster munitions a war crime, yet we have committed the same atrocities ourselves. America’s own record of tolerating extensive civilian casualties and disregarding human rights agreements provides a precedent for Russia’s treatment of civilians in Ukraine.

American rhetoric on national sovereignty is further hypocrisy. In December, watching Russian troops assemble on the Ukraine border, the Biden administration warned Vladimir Putin that “any use of force to change borders is strictly prohibited under international law.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken added in January that “the inviolability of frontiers” is among the “guiding principles for international behavior.” Blinken also called the Russian parliament’s recognition of separatist states in Eastern Ukraine a violation of “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial dignity” and a “gross violation of international law.” From this proclamation, one would be forgiven for assuming our nation has exemplified a commitment to these standards of international law.

Displaying this firm belief in the principles of national sovereignty, the United States has violently overthrown and occupied numerous countries in recent decades. As a senator in 2003, now-President Biden advocated the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction, soon followed by America’s illegal and over decade-long military occupation of Iraq. This hypocrisy was invoked by Russian President Putin as he justified his invasion of Ukraine, reminding the international community that the American invasion of Iraq “was carried out […] without any legal grounds.” 

In 2019 under the Trump administration, the United States became the only foreign country to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, a territory it had seized from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. This move faced criticism from the international community, including the Kremlin, who called it an “indication of the contempt that Washington shows for the norms of international law.” Previous American involvement in Syria, such as leading a NATO coalition supporting Syrian rebels in 2014, would be directly invoked by Putin prior to his invasion of Ukraine. For instance, Putin noted how “the Western coalition’s military activities on the territory of this country [were] without the consent of the Syrian government or the approval of the UN Security Council.” Israel’s America-backed occupation of Golan Heights also contradicted a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution that outlined legal prohibitions of “unilateral annexation.” In fact, when pressed by journalists to explain the difference between the Golan Heights annexation and the Russian annexation of Crimea, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struggled to provide an answer, later stating rather ironically that “the US policy continues to be that no country can change the borders of another by force.” America’s contradiction of the international community on questions of Syrian national sovereignty sets a precedent for Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

In 2019, the United States became the only foreign country to recognize the illegal Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, and in doing so, again contradicted a major Security Council resolution. Once again, the United States rejected international norms, supported violations of national sovereignty, and was condemned by Russia for violating “universally recognized international law.” The United States even has active sanctions against members of the International Criminal Court, an institution spearheaded by our European allies in an effort to empower the enforcement of international law and the prosecution of war crimes. In all of these examples, the United States opened the door to Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty by supporting active violations of international law and defying institutions designed to hold aggressors accountable. 

This is the tragedy at the core of America’s critique of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While it is important to publicize and criticize an act as brutally unjust as the Russian assault on Ukraine, if America hopes to prevent such invasions from occurring in the future, our actual commitment to international law must follow that of our rhetoric. We cannot expect Russia to adhere to international law after decades of America having undermined and defied its authority.