Historian Kiran Klaus Patel and international law expert Christian Walter talk about what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the coexistence of nations and international norms. An interview from the magazine EINSICHTEN
Did you lose any sleep when Russia invaded Ukraine in February?
Patel: Fortunately, I am one of those people who can sleep well even at difficult times. The current situation does trouble me greatly, though. It touches on my academic work, but obviously also the way I think about the world.
Walter: Same here. There are other reasons why people sleep badly. That said, this is a subject that affects us not just professionally, but as Europeans, because the war is closer to our doorstep than we have seen for a long time. Even the war in Yugoslavia was something different.
After the invasion
Ambassadors and diplomats walk out while Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (on screen) speaks at the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 01 March 2022.
In 1979, Moscow sent troops into Afghanistan. From the perspective of international law, was the assault by the Soviet Union back then different to Russia’s current attack on Ukraine?
Walter: In Afghanistan there was no clear intent to assimilate part or all of the territory. That is different in Ukraine. Moscow has claimed the right to annex part of the territory of Ukraine – for a time indeed the whole country – to Russia. That is a fundamental difference.
Patel: I take a similar view, although we sometimes distort our recollection of the Cold War. We see it as a steady state and forget that there were phases of escalation back then as well. The Cuban Missile Crisis exactly 60 years ago is one example; and the Cold War heated up in the early 1980s too. On the other hand, there is one important distinction between then and now: Overall, the Soviet Union focused mostly on maintaining the status quo, aiming to safeguard its own sphere of influence. Under Putin, the Russian Federation is now working to revise internationally recognized borders. By referencing a distorted view of history, Russia has become an aggressive and expansionist power.
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Discussions of a “historic turning point” doing the rounds since the outbreak of war
Since the war broke out, there has been widespread debate over concepts such as a “historic turning point” and the “breakdown of world order”. Was the world before February 2022 an orderly one?
Patel: We got a little too cozy and comfortable in our supposedly ordered world. We assumed that the Western form of political order, built around liberal democracy, a capitalist economic system and human rights, was on the home straight. But what might be termed Western universalism is increasingly straining at its limits. We need to deal with that.
What is the role of international law in such universalisms?
Patel: The Paris Charter constitutes a central point of reference on this issue…
…when 32 European countries, the USA and Canada contractually committed to a peaceful, democratic order in 1990.
Patel: Precisely. At the time, people imagined that the Charter would be a cornerstone of Europe’s political order for the decades ahead. But the first cracks in this construct appeared soon afterward, both within Europe and due to Russian hostility, which certainly did not begin only in 2022. From Ukraine’s point of view, the historic turning point came at the latest with the annexation of Crimea and the war in the east in 2014. So, there is room to debate exactly when the turning point came.
Walter: International law obviously has to be universal because it is supposed to be valid for the whole world. On the other hand, we have for some years been engaged in another important discussion: To what extent do varying concepts of legal cultural influence our understanding of what law can and should be able to achieve? Do people in other parts of the world differ from our view of international law? We are only gradually becoming aware of these issues. And there are undoubtedly some areas of international law that are more universalist than others. Right now, however, we find ourselves challenged in what we assume to be the most universal areas one can imagine: the prohibition of force and the protection of territorial integrity.
What part do forums such as the United Nations play?
Walter: In some cases, the game is played on two levels – which would explain the behavior of Indian Prime Minister Modi, for example. At a meeting in the presence of President Putin in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, Modi criticized the war. But shortly afterward, India abstained from voting to condemn it at the UN Security Council. That is an attempt to act on two levels to maintain as much political leeway as possible, including with regard to the West.
How the war is destroying everyday life:
Residents of Kyiv seeking shelter from Russian bombs in the city’s subway.
The West has closed ranks, Nato is stronger than ever
Does the West still exist?
Walter: It exists more again today than it used to. To my mind, the attack on Ukraine has spawned a wave of solidarity in the West of the kind we have not seen for a long time. That solidarity is now crumbling again here and there. Immediately after the attack, however, it led to an astonishing closing of ranks. How long things will stay that way is another matter.
Patel: Interestingly, exactly the opposite of what Putin had hoped for has occurred. He wanted to further divide the West. The war of aggression against Ukraine was intended not only to achieve territorial gains for the Russian Federation, but also to weaken the West as a normative project. What happened is something completely different: The West has drawn closer together. NATO is stronger than ever, and Finland and Sweden are in the process of becoming new member states. The European Union, too, has so far emerged from the crisis stronger: The attractiveness to third-party states that it had lost in recent years is suddenly back again.
Will things stay that way?
Patel: That we do not know. To cite just one problem: In US mid-term elections in November the Democrat camp came out stronger than many had expected. But a good two years from now, the White House could again be run by a person focused wholly on “America first”. Just imagine if Donald Trump had still been in the White House in February 2022. The world would be in a completely different situation today. Seen from this angle, the West’s cohesion is so fragile that we have reason to be worried about the future.
I believe we must have a debate about which values we need. The prohibition of force and territorial integrity are the most elementary ones.
Prof. Dr. Christian Walter
Doesn’t this cohesion become all the more fragile in light of election results in Poland, Hungary, Italy and Sweden, where Euroskeptic and illiberal forces have made significant advances?
Patel: Yes, it does. We underestimated the fragility of cohesion in the Western camp for the last 30 years, because it was never really put to the test. But that is certainly happening now. Such tests did occur in the course of the Cold War, too. Back then, the external pressure created by the confrontation of systems repeatedly restrained centrifugal forces and erosion in the Western camp. But no one knows whether that will work again in the same way this time. I don’t want to overdo comparisons with the period up to 1989, though. I don’t believe we are heading for a second Cold War. The world has grown much more complex; it has long been multipolar. When we look back from, say, 2060 to the 2020s, it could be that the conflict between China and the USA will be seen to have had a much greater influence than the war in Ukraine.
A phony veneer of law and democracy:
When Putin held the disputed referendums regarding accession to Russia in the partially occupied regions of Eastern Ukraine, he made disingenuous use of the language of international law, referring to the UN Charter and peoples’ right to self-determination. Donetsk, September 2022.
Many argue that an international legal order has to be based on values. Does Russia’s invasion not show that it is ultimately all about power politics?
Walter: Of course it is also about power politics. But the core purpose of law is to contain and limit power. And one aspect is the foundation on which our concept of law rests. I believe we must also have a debate about which values we need. The prohibition of force and territorial integrity are the most elementary ones. After that, we can carry on with human rights, democracy and the rule of law. But one thing is for sure: The more specific you get, the less unity there will be. That, however, should not discourage us from standing up for what we believe to be right.
Patel: I do find it remarkable, though, that even Putin borrows selectively from the language of international law. Last September, for example, when four partially occupied Ukrainian territories were annexed, he felt the need to hold pseudo-referendums. And at the ceremony to sign the treaties of accession, he cited peoples’ right to self-determination and Article 1 of the UN Charter. It is interesting that even rulers who break international law with violent measures repeatedly believe they have to speak this language. Putin is being disingenuous in doing so, of course. But it shows that international law is not just some crazy idea cooked up by a handful of people in the West.
Walter: It is nothing new for people who disregard the prohibition of force to present legal concepts to justify their actions. In the case of Putin, however, I ask myself whether he is not warping and abusing the law to such an extent that it will be destroyed from the inside out.
There is always the question of how international law can be enforced. Where do we stand on that score right now?
Walter: It obviously can’t be enforced with the instruments we envisage in the context of domestic law, where the bailiffs or the police come knocking. Although we do repeatedly encounter the metaphor of the global policeman.
Walter: That is misleading, though, because we don’t have – and can probably never have – one global policeman for everyone.
Especially given that the term global policeman has often been associated with the USA.
Patel: Yes. And we also need to take a critical look at the actions of the West over the past 30 years. I would recall the speech by US Secretary of Defense Colin Powell to the United Nations in 2003, when he presented what was alleged to be proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The strategy used by the leading power in the Western world to justify the war was extremely problematic. That is not to say that all violations of international law carry the same weight, but simply that everyone plays with the power they have. Still, we must ask ourselves what has gone wrong in the West, too. The inconsistencies, the double standards that are observable in some cases are used by the global south as an argument to say: You didn’t care then, but here you are today with all your high-sounding demands.
Under the influence:
A new railway line links Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya’s two largest cities. It was financed largely by a state-owned Chinese bank and built by CRBC, a state-owned Chinese construction firm. Kiran Klaus Patel says that, in terms of infrastructure programs and trade policy, for example, China has a large footprint in Africa. He sees this as an example of “the realignment of the world”.
When we look back from 2060, it could be that the conflict between China and the USA will be seen to have had a much greater influence than the war in Ukraine.
Prof. Dr. Kiran K. Patel
Large Chinese and Russian footprint on the African continent
What future do you see for institutions such as the UN Security Council?
Walter: That all depends very much on how the war unfolds. There are many calls for Russia’s right of veto to be revoked, but that is hard to imagine. And there are widely differing scenarios as to how things will develop in Russia itself, including speculation surrounding a change of leadership and even collapse. I believe it is too early to venture a forecast about what this all means for the United Nations.
Patel: Yes, everything is wide open. In this regard, it is also interesting to delve back into history. The notion that the United Nations could evolve into some kind of world government making big decisions about war and peace has long since been shelved. Notwithstanding, it is frequently the forum for smaller but by no means unimportant steps that the global community often fails to see. This is where the United Nations can play a major role. At the same time, the UN reflects the realignment of the world: It is like a microcosm that shows how far Western positions are shared around the globe and what part China now plays. What is our position on the fact that both Russia and China have a presence in Africa in terms of infrastructure projects, trade policy and other strategic issues that we could not have imagined 40 years ago? And what is Europe’s response, the West’s response?
What role do you see for the EU? Eight months after the outbreak of war, the EU’s own web presence, in a list of its most important achievements, still claims to be “a continent at peace”.
Patel: Much of the European Union’s own role has always been wishful thinking. The EU and its predecessor organizations have undoubtedly contributed to peace in Europe, but not in the way that is claimed in many political sermons. It was founded too late and put in charge of the wrong issues to establish peace at the level of security policy. And for the majority of its history, it included only the Western part of Europe, which made it both an expression of and a player in the Cold War.
Walter: I see that a bit differently. Having former enemy states begin to cooperate as closely as Germany, France and the Benelux countries only seven years after the war, in 1952 – I would say that that is definitely a successful peace project.
Patel: Of course we can say that the European Community and the European Union have played a part in peace. But they have done more for social peace in and between the member states than for peace in the world. That is why I believe we must be very cautious about raising hopes that the EU can play a key role in the current conflict. Unfortunately, its history shows that it is not particularly well suited to this role.
Interview: Nikolaus Nützel
Prof. Dr. Kiran Klaus Patel holds the Chair of European History at LMU, where he is also Director of “Project House Europe”. Born in 1971, he studied modern and contemporary history, English and ancient history, initially at the University of Freiburg and later at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where he also earned his doctorate. After serving as junior professor at the Humboldt-Universität and holding professorships at the European University Institute in Florence and Maastricht University in the Netherlands, he came to LMU in 2019.
Prof. Dr. Christian Walter holds the Chair of International Law and Public Law at LMU. Born in 1966, he studied law at the Universities of Würzburg, Geneva and Heidelberg, earning both his doctorate and qualifying as a professor at the latter. Walter has worked as a research clerk at Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe and as a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. He held professorships at the Universities of Jena and Münster before moving to Munich in 2011.
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