Log in Subscribe

International lawyer’s thoughts on Ukraine

Posted 3/7/22

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted some to ask my thoughts on the matter. I spent a large portion of my career in national defense and national security, and I’m honored to respond.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

International lawyer’s thoughts on Ukraine


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted some to ask my thoughts on the matter. I spent a large portion of my career in national defense and national security, and I’m honored to respond. Yet, I remind others that my thoughts are nothing more than the personal views of one who has been retired from government service for several years. I am nonetheless still a news junkie who cares deeply about the world in which we live.

My response has been along the following lines. These events remind me so very much of my years on the Air Force Academy's faculty, teaching international law. In this context, we began with a discussion of World War II and the devastating effects that aggression by Japan and Nazi Germany had on the world.

After the war, the consensus among the family of nations was that such aggression must be prevented in the future.No nation or nations should be permitted to redraw national borders through the use of force.As a result, the family of nations established the United Nations.

The U.N. Charter is actually a binding treaty to which all the Member States are signatories--193 nowadays. That's almost everyone on the planet--even Russia, which took the place of the former Soviet Union for these purposes.

To put it in a somewhat oversimplified sense, under the Charter’s provisions, there are only three lawful reasons for the use of armed force:(1) self-defense, (2) humanitarian intervention, and (3) action pursuant to U.N. Security Council resolutions. No aggression is permitted, and sovereignty is respected.

Where does NATO fit?

The NATO Treaty is a pact among its members (30 members nowadays) for mutual self-defense.Initially, its primary concern was the Soviet Union.After the USSR's breakup, the primary focus became Russia.

Article 5 states that an attack on one member will be deemed an attack on all--among other things, a further attempt to deter aggression.

All the above was intended to prevent the very sort of aggression in which Russia is currently engaged.Putin couldn't care less about such international laws and norms, and he has almost complete, unrestrained control within Russia to do as he pleases.To him, the absolute worst thing to have happened during his lifetime was the breakup of the former Soviet Union. There's nothing he wants more than to reassemble it as much as possible--at all costs--even though several of those former Soviet states, including Ukraine, have no desire whatsoever to return.In the present, he wants to be not unlike a czar over an empire.

In the future, he wants to be remembered as the hero who reestablished the Russian empire to the glory he believes it once enjoyed. Making matters worse, it’s been reported that Putin's inner circle of yes-men not only tell him only what he wants to hear but that their views are often far more aggressive than his as they urge him toward even more nefarious deeds.

Putin has proved himself to be a verbal contortionist as he stretches and strains in a failed attempt to justify/legitimize his invasion.He contends that Ukraine has no legitimate right to claim sovereignty as a nation-state.His other remarks likewise have little or no basis in fact, and they attempt to rewrite history. Nevertheless, he makes the attempt, hoping that many in the world will view his remarks against those of the West in

something of a "he says, she says" manner, not knowing who or what to believe.

So, now what?

Threats of economic sanctions and actual sanctions didn't deter Putin's invasion.Russia is moving across Ukraine, and it's becoming more apparent that Putin will no longer be satisfied with little bites.He wants the entire apple of Ukraine.At the very least, he wants to make it to the capital, oust all West-leaning leaders—especially Pres. Zelensky--and install a pro-Russian regime, thus bringing Ukraine within his Russian sphere of influence.For Putin, that would be the ideal outcome in this context. If he does try to annex all of Ukraine, he’d find the Ukrainian people fiercely resistant and ungovernable. He’d then be like the proverbial dog that chased a car, caught it, and then couldn't drive it.

So, what if Putin eventually succeeds in his gaining regime control? Ukraine is not a NATO member, and the U.S. has thus far made it clear we'll only directly engage Russia in armed conflict if it's in defense of a NATO member.The concern is that our going beyond sanctions and logistical support with U.S. armed force, either on the ground or in the air, could provide a slippery slope to World War III.

Why, then, are we sending more and more U.S. forces to the immediate region? Two reasons immediately come to mind:(1) To demonstrate that we are indeed serious about our using force to protect our NATO allies if Putin gets too full of himself and tries to bite more apples, and (2) To assist others in the region as large numbers of Ukrainian refugees stream across the border--for example, into Poland.(Some estimates indicate that number of Ukrainian refugees could reach 5 million.)

Putin has made thinly veiled threats to those who would

dare to get in his way, reminding the world that Russia is a nuclear power.Yet, it’s far more likely he’d unleash potentially devastating cyber attacks rather than uncork the nuclear genie. No one wins once nukes start flying.(That applies even to smaller tactical nuclear weapons, not just the larger strategic weapons).Yet, as is the case with Kim Jong Un, Putin is unpredictable.They both enjoy it that way, and they're both laser-focused on power and the perceived glory of their respective regimes.

It's a threat that we cannot afford to take lightly. Given the recent indications of Putin’s stress, outrage over setbacks, and perhaps even a growing mental instability, we absolutely must remain cautious.

Nothing good could come from our backing Putin with his nuclear arsenal into a corner where he perceives he has nothing to lose. (We’ve seen reports that he may have already used cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons in densely populated areas.He may already perceive that nothing is off the table.)Most experts think that, at least for the moment, we're doing just about everything that can be done. I concur.

Furthermore, it's currently hard to imagine any diplomatic solution that would satisfy Putin's lust for a larger empire and provide him a face-saving means of deescalation.Things are going to get much, much uglier before they get better--all around the world, but especially across Europe.

May God bless the brave Ukrainian people for their resistance and our friends and allies who have joined in defiance of Putin’s illegal aggression.

Col. Wayne E. Dillingham, U.S. Air Force (Ret.)