Russia’s Attack Is Illegal and a Wake-Up Call to the West

The ongoing unprovoked and unjustified attacks on Ukraine by Russian military forces, described by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “special military operation,” are illegal and contravene international law. This groundless aggression has significant long-term ramifications for the U.S. and the West.

Meanwhile, Russia’s so-called peacekeeping in the Donbas region of Ukraine seeks to legitimize Moscow’s current military occupation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that he would come to the defense of ethnic Russians living anywhere whose rights were in jeopardy. He has alleged that ethnic Russians in the Donbas are being subjected to genocide—an outright lie.

The implications of this unlawful action are manifold. Most immediately, it is profoundly threatening not only to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but also to the lives and futures of Ukraine’s people, especially those fighting Russian troops. Some rhetoric by Russian leadership suggests that Moscow may seek to remove Ukraine’s government by force and even to act against specific politicians that the Kremlin dislikes. Prior to the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had already expressed grave concern about the deleterious impact of Russia’s actions over the last months (cyberattacks, false flags, and bombs) on his country’s economy. Ukraine will suffer greatly.

At the global level, Russia’s assault on Ukraine abrogates international law as well as various agreements, including the Helsinki Accords on European security and the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia, the U.K., and U.S. committed to provide these guarantees in exchange for Kiev’s de-nuclearization; failing to live up to them could advance the drive to possess nuclear weapons in other nations as the only way to protect one’s security. Violating understandings like this makes it more probable that neither Iran nor North Korea will ever give up its nuclear arsenals.

The Russian invasion also tests the resolve and unity of the West, and especially the U.S. Will our words be louder than our actions? Or will Washington and other Western capitals impose strong measures to punish Russia? How we handle this aggression will shape how other governments around the world perceive the United States and our commitments to them. Our credibility, leadership, and standing are on the line. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, our ability to underwrite peace and stability in Europe faces an even more serious test.

European countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, such as Poland and the three Baltic States, are deeply concerned about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and what it could mean for their own security. Putin could well outline similarly distorted historical grievances in an effort to justify expanded hostilities. Countries bordering Ukraine, like Poland and Romania, have already begun preparations to receive refugees.

Russia’s illegal actions are also affecting its own economy as well as those in Europe, the United States, and other nations. The ruble and the Russian stock market will likely continue to face considerable downward pressure as the U.S. and its allies announce new financial and technological sanctions. At the same time, stock markets in America and around the world have been shaken by uncertainty surrounding Moscow’s ultimate aims. Energy markets are especially volatile as any disruption of natural gas and oil deliveries from Russia to Europe (some of which travel through Ukraine) could force European importers to seek other supplies and further increase global prices. Longer-term reductions of Russia’s energy exports to Europe could mean inadequate stored gas for next winter, meaning another winter of high prices on the continent.

The attack on Ukraine is a clear wake-up call to all those who have argued that America is not confronting dangerous great power competition with not only China but also Russia. Russia is destabilizing Europe, seeking to undercut U.S. power and influence globally and to fragment our close alliances and partnerships. And Moscow is threatening implicitly and explicitly to use its massive nuclear arsenal against any who resist. These events will shape the international system and American foreign and security policy for years to come.

Originally published in Barron’s.