By Richard Falk
There is no doubt that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine, seemingly yet not exclusively by Russian attacking forces, and in a perfect world, those who so acted would be held responsible. But the world is highly imperfect when it comes to accountability for international crimes.
When the International Criminal Court in 2020 found it had the authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by Israel in Occupied Palestine after painstaking delays to make sure that their inquiry would meet the highest standard of legal professionalism, the decision was called ‘pure anti-Semitism’ by the Israeli prime minister, and defiantly rejected by Israeli leaders across the whole political spectrum.
Similarly, when authorization was given by the ICC to investigate crimes by the United States in Afghanistan, the decision was denounced as void and unwarranted because the US was not a party to the Rome Statute governing the operations of the ICC. The Trump presidency went so far as to express its outrage by imposing personal sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, presumably for daring to challenge the US in such a manner even though her behavior was entirely respectful of her professional role and consistent with relevant canons of judicial practice.
Against such a background, there is a typical liberal quandary when faced with clear criminality on one side and pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side. Was it desirable after World War II to prosecute surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders at the ‘legal’ cost of overlooking the criminality of the victors because there was no disposition to investigate the dropping of atom bombs on Japanese cities or the strategic bombing of civilian habitats in Germany and Japan?
I am far from sure about what is better from the perspective of either developing a global rule of law or inducing respect for the restraints of law. The essence of law is treating equals equally, but world order is not so constituted. As suggested, there is ‘victors’ justice’ imposing accountability on the defeated leadership in major wars but complete non-accountability for the crimes of the geopolitical winners.
Beyond this, the UN Charter was drafted in ways that gave constitutional status to geopolitical impunity by granting these victors in World War II an unconditional right of veto, and this of course includes Russia. In these respects, liberalism defers to geopolitical realism, and celebrates the one-sided imposition of legality, with the naïve hope things will be different in the future, and the next group of victors will themselves accept the same legal standards of accountability that are imposed upon the losers.
Yet the post-Nuremberg record shows that geopolitical actors go on treating restraints on recourse to war as a matter of discretion (what American liberals called ‘wars of choice’ in the course of the debate about embarking upon a regime-changing attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003) rather than an obligation. When it comes to accountability, double standards are still operative, illustrated by the ironic execution of Saddam Hussein for war crimes in the wake of a war of aggression against Iraq.
Another lingering question is ‘why Ukraine’? There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine, yet no comparable clamor in the West for criminal justice and punitive action. Certainly, a part of the explanation is that the Ukrainian victims of abuse are white, European and Christian, which made it easy for the West to mobilize the mainstream global media, and the related international prominence accorded to Volodimir Zelensky, the embattled, energetic Ukrainian leader given unprecedented access to the most influential venues on the global stages of world opinion.
It is not that the empathy for Ukraine or support for Zelensky’s national resistance is misplaced, but that it has the appearance of being geopolitically orchestrated and manipulated in ways that other desperate national situations were not, and thus gives rise to suspicions about other, darker motives.
This is worrisome because these magnified concerns have acted as a principal way that the NATO West has gone out of its way to make the Ukrainian War about more than Ukraine. The wider war is best understood as occurring on two levels: a traditional war between the invading forces of Russia and the resisting forces of Ukraine as intertwined with an encompassing geopolitical war between the US and Russia. It is the prosecution of this latter war that presents the more profound danger to world peace, a danger that has been largely obscured or assessed as a mere extension of the Russia/Ukraine confrontation.
Biden has consistently struck a militarist, demonizing, and confrontational note in the geopolitical war, deliberately antagonizing Putin while quite pointedly neglecting diplomacy as the obvious way to stop the killing, and atrocities, in effect, encouraging the war on the ground to be prolonged because its continuation is indispensable in relation to the implicitly higher stakes of grand strategy, which is the core preoccupation of a geopolitical war. When Biden repeatedly calls Putin a war criminal who should face prosecution, and even more so, when he proposes regime change in Russia, he is cheerleading for the Ukrainian War to continue as long as it takes to produce a victory, and not to be content with a ceasefire.
If this two-level perception is correctly analyzed in its appreciation of the different actors with contradictory priorities, then it becomes crucial to understand that in the geopolitical war the US is the aggressor as much as in the traditional war on the ground Russia is the aggressor. In these respects, despite his understandable anger and grief, one must wonder whether even Zelensky, with Russo-phobic echoing of war crimes allegations and calls for the expulsion of Russia from the UN, has not had his arm twisted so as to support the geopolitical war despite its premises being contrary to the interests of the Ukrainian people.
Could the delivery of weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine come with a large price tag?
So far, the geopolitical war has been waged as a war of ideological aggression backed up by weapons supplies and enveloping sanctions designed to have a great and crippling effect on Russia. This tactic has led Putin to make counter-threats, including warnings about Russia’s willingness under certain conditions to have recourse to nuclear weapons. This normalizing of the nuclear danger is itself a menacing development in a context of an autocratic leader backed into a corner.
The US approach, while mindful of escalation dangers and taking steps so far to avoid direct military involvement on behalf of Ukraine, shows no rush to end the fighting, apparently believing that Russia is already suffering the consequences of greatly underestimating Ukrainian will and capability to resist, and will be forced to acknowledge a humiliating defeat if the war goes on, which would have the strategic benefit, additional to other incentives, of discouraging China from aligning with Russia in the future.
Additionally, the Western architects of this geopolitical war with Russia seem to assess gains and losses through a militarist optic, being grossly insensitive to its disastrous economic spillover effects, especially pronounced in relation to food and energy security in the already extremely stress conditions of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and even Europe. As Fred Bergsten argues, the overall stability of the world economy is also being put at great risk unless the US and China overcome their own tense relationship, and come to understand that their cooperation is the only check on a deep, costly, and prolonged world economic collapse.
The geopolitical war also distracts attention from the urgent agenda of climate change, especially in light of recent indicators of global warming causing climate experts to be further alarmed. Other matter of global concern including migration, biodiversity, poverty and apartheid are being again relegated to the back burners of global policy challenge, while the sociopathic game of Armageddon Roulette is being played without taking species wellbeing and survival into account, continuing the lethal recklessness that began the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima more than 75 years ago.
In concluding, the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that, while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering, is from other perspectives more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war. This geopolitical war of ‘poor’ choice is now being waged mainly by means of hostile propaganda, but also weapons and supplies while not killing directly outside of Ukraine.
This second war, so rarely identified much less assessed, is irresponsibly menacing the wellbeing of tens of millions of civilians around the world while arms dealers, post-conflict construction companies, and civilian and uniformed militarists exult. To be provocative, I would say that it is time for the peace movement to make sure that the US loses this geopolitical war! To win it, even persisting with it, would constitute a grave ‘geopolitical crime.’