We asked News Decoder correspondents why young people should care about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Here’s what they said.
“A radical violation of international law”
Since the end of World War Two in 1945, the relations between countries have been more or less governed by certain norms. The United Nations and international law have been the foundations for over 70 years of relative peace. While there have been small outbreaks of violence, there have been no major violent confrontations. The Cold War was not a hot war.
The Russian attacks on Ukraine violate numerous parts of that established order. While the Russian president claims that Ukraine is not a real state and is part of Russia, Ukraine, since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, is a country recognized by the international community. A country bombing another country is a radical violation of international law.
How to respond? While the government of Ukraine will attempt to respond militarily, other countries will try to impose sanctions on Russia in order to stop the fighting while not engaging in a major conflict.
The implications around the world will vary. But the most damaging implication for everyone will be the lack of respect for international norms that have been the bedrock of peace for over 70 years.
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“Inconsistent champions of international norms”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an unconscionable violation of international law, the integrity of national borders and any respect for the rules of the United Nations, where Russia sits as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council.
Anglo-Saxon outrage at the Russian leader’s use of military power would carry more weight if the United States and Britain had themselves proved consistent champions of international norms since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 punched a huge hole in the post-Cold War security system. The war, launched on spurious grounds and without U.N. authorisation, was opposed not only by Russia and China, but also by France and other NATO allies such as Germany.
The assault on Ukraine might seem more shocking to some because it threatens peace in Europe, but the Iraqi debacle helped destabilise the Middle East, spurred Islamic militancy and crippled U.S. influence in the region, leaving a vacuum filled by others, including Turkey, Iran and Russia.
The commitment of the United States to international law also came into question when former President Donald Trump endorsed Israel’s 1981 annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and recognised Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital, including the city’s occupied eastern sector, which Palestinians see as their future capital. President Joe Biden has not reversed those moves.
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“A fear of democracy”
What if the reason for invading Ukraine was nothing to do with NATO after all? What if it was just a fear that the functioning democracy that has developed in Russia’s southwestern neighbor could be contagious?
Amid all the media attention given to Moscow’s calls for NATO to renounce any idea of admitting Ukraine into the western military alliance, there have been commentaries, stirring less debate, that it is President Vladimir Putin’s obsession with “color” revolutions in former Soviet republics — especially the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that led to a re-run of a presidential election and the final inauguration of a westward-looking government — that prompted his decision to use force to bring Ukraine into line.
“On the whole, strategic stability is maintained … NATO forces are not building up, and they are not showing threatening activity,” wrote one commentator at the end of January. And not just any commentator. It was retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, who as a serving general occupied several of the most senior command posts in the Soviet and Russian armies.
The statement was given prominent coverage on Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo) radio, which is owned by the Gazprom gas giant’s media arm, suggesting that Putin had less than total backing for his policy in very high places. Ivashov said Putin threatened to make “Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies” and turn Russia “into a pariah of the world community.”
If the invasion really was motivated by a fear of democracy, then Russia itself — where there are now reported to be more political prisoners than in the Soviet Union 40 years ago and where free speech and other rights are being reined in on a regular basis — can expect yet more erosion of basic freedoms. And if Putin succeeds in bringing Ukraine under control, who will be next? The former communist states of eastern Europe, most probably, and then, perhaps, the rest of Europe.
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“Climate change will go on the back burner.”
Quite apart from the suffering of Ukraine, this war may go well beyond its borders. If Putin attacks the Baltic States or Poland, NATO will be obliged to come in militarily.
NATO member Hungary, which under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has in the past sought friendly relations with Putin, will be forced to make clear where it really stands.
War between Russia and NATO would amount to a third world war, and let us not forget that Russia has nuclear weapons. But Putin is NOT Russia, and his war is not likely to be popular with ordinary Russians. The only hope is that internal opposition will grow.
Ultimately, this war will bring Putin down but at what cost? The world has better things to be thinking about than war, but again climate change will go on the back burner while we focus on this.
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“Ukraine does matter.”
Does Ukraine matter to the wider world? Well, if armed gangsters took over your neighbour’s house, what would you do?
Would you, like Donald Trump, say “genius move,” shrug your shoulders and go back to your golf game? Or might you think that your house, and your friends’ houses, could be next?
This is the situation facing all western governments today as they watch the invasion of a democratic European country. We live in a sophisticated, digitised world. But we can see plainly that our comforts can be undone by old-style tanks, missiles and bombs. The atrocities of war have not been consigned to history.
If you are American, your reaction might be that this is happening a long way away, so why should I care? Someone else’s problem! But remember that the United States too was attacked in 1941 and 2001, resulting each time in American involvement in long global conflicts and the loss of many American lives. Because of past traumas, the U.S. is party to numerous alliances, agreements and friendships. These benefit Americans just as much as other people around the world. Thanks to strong alliances, a third world war has been averted.
So far. It is for mutual self-preservation — leaving aside moral outrage at Russia’s attack on Ukraine — that Western countries now need to unite to starve Putin of money and support, so that the venture in Ukraine fails and global conflict is averted. It does matter.
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“None of this bodes well economically.”
The conflict in Ukraine is already raising energy prices and that in turn will make climate change policies, which entail higher costs or wholesale energy system changes such as eliminating oil and natural gas, less palatable to voters. Politicians will correspondingly find it less attractive to support aggressive steps to mitigate climate risks until energy prices trend lower.
The realities of war in Ukraine and the global economic spillover will necessarily put more aggressive carbon-zero efforts to the wayside because of cost concerns. The tradeoff there is that practical, achievable energy and climate policies will fall back into vogue with politicians — who fear high energy costs as the election risk they are — instead of activist/pressure group-driven policies like those that are faring disastrously in the UK and Europe. Good sense and appropriate urgency may now be able to coexist in the sphere of energy prices versus climate ambitions.
There are already about 20 U.S. liquified natural gas cargoes diverted to Europe from Asia on a pure arbitrage market play because of Ukraine. Already they’re running up against offloading capacity issues. High crude prices fund the war, and you can already see the Biden Administration greens doing everything they can to avoid the U.S. stepping into the gas supply breach with Democratic Senators urging a liquefied natural gas export ban.
With the highest inflation in 40 years and gasoline (petrol) back at seven-year highs, none of this bodes well economically unless Biden goes Keynesian and cranks up the war machine.
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“Europe needs Russian gas.”
Putin has very openly been using energy as an economic and political lever on Europe for some time. I reckon Europe needs Russian gas on balance rather more than Russia needs Europe’s gas market. It has VAST resources of untapped gas such as the Shtokman field and can always supply elsewhere given time. China is a good option there.
But both Putin and Xi appear to have megalomaniac tendencies — although one is rather more thuggish than the other, at least on the surface — and an alliance between the two might be a bit fragile in much more than the immediate term.
Given that the Ukraine venture seems rather unlikely to have been a spur-of-the-moment thing, I assume Putin calculates Europe will fold quietly in a relatively short time, giving him carte blanche to act at will and isolating the U.S. even further.
The Brits may crow about the fact the UK does not import much if any Russian gas. But gas is a pure commodity. Supplies of floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) frequently change destination several times on any given voyage. So if Russia fiddles with gas supplies — or Ukraine taps off even more than it usually does — then Qatari LNG heading for South Wales or London will simply divert to Belgium or France, and the UK, which has minuscule storage facilities, will be left hanging.
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“No legal standing”
Putin’s legal justification for the invasion is very flimsy, to say the least. He said he acted “in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter” after two provinces in eastern Ukraine sought Russia’s help.
The UN Charter recognises the right of a member state to self-defence in case of armed attack. Even allowing Putin’s breath-taking claim that Ukraine was the aggressor, the breakaway provinces are not UN member states and have no legal standing under the Charter. And Russia, which is a member, is not under attack.
The Charter goes on to say that an attack on a member state must be reported to the UN Security Council so it can take measures to maintain international peace and security.
But even if Ukraine reports the invasion to the UN, Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council with the power to veto any of its decisions.
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“A carnivore among herbivores.”
Before leaving Paris last week, I heard the French philosopher Luc Ferry say on French radio: “Putin is a carnivore in a world of herbivores.” That goes to the heart of what is happening now. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that most countries were playing by the post-World War Two rules that say borders are inviolable and problems between countries should be solved peacefully. That has not always been the case, of course, but all knew the rules and mostly kept by them. The speech by the Kenyan ambassador to the U.N. the other day was a good example of that.
Biden keeps on saying we will not send U.S. troops to Ukraine, and that’s both a recognition of reality in U.S. politics and admission that Russia should not be unduly provoked. But the U.S. has been willing to send U.S. troops to a lot of countries in recent decades, like Kuwait, Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. They were smaller and the wars were theoretically winnable. The wars did not always turn out as planned. Both the U.S. and its adversaries in those countries were carnivores — think Saddam Hussain or Slobodan Milosovic — but the forces were unequal and politics messy.
Russia has been a carnivore in recent years — Georgia, Crimea, in a lesser way Belarus — and continues now. NATO now shows admirable resolve in standing up for the rules-based world order. But how long will that last? Putin is thinking of history and ready to play a long game here. The West — for lack of a better term — has to adjust to the long term too. This doesn’t mean the West has to become a carnivore as well, but it has to think far more strategically about Russia than it has so far. Ukraine is bigger and more central than those smaller wars. That Putin opted for a full invasion rather than more green-man salami tactics tells us that his goal is to turn the clock back to bloc-style divisions.
A lot of commentators have been saying this crisis is like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and in many ways that’s true. But I think another important comparison is with the 1948 Berlin Blockade, when the USSR blocked Allied rights to ship goods through East Germany to West Berlin. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a perilous standoff that ended quickly. The Berlin Blockade lasted about a year and a half and required sustained Allied solidarity and the famous airlift to West Berlin. We’re going to need that kind of sustained solidarity to ensure we can hold the line on the rules-based world order.
One of the elements in any sustained strategy is weeding the Russian oligarchs out of the Western economic system. Suspending Nordstream 2 was a good start. How about stopping all the money laundering the oligarchs get away with in Western countries? All the property they’ve bought up in London, New York and elsewhere to squirrel their money abroad? And what about their relatives, like the children who get to study in the best universities we have? Part of Putin’s power lies in the way he has allowed oligarchs make money as long as they do not play politics and contribute to soft-power causes he likes, such as the “Russkii Mir” (Russian World) projects promoting Russian culture and the massive church-building of the Russian Orthodox Church? These non-governmental organizations are not non-political.
A carnivore among herbivores. Not all carnivores have won against smart herbivores, but Moscow has a far more crafty carnivore in power this time around. We need sustained solidarity now to deal with this challenge, probably more than we seem to be capable of these days. Let’s hope we can do it.
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“A major blow to Pax Americana”
Russia’s armed thrust into Ukraine marks a major blow to the so-called Pax Americana, the state of relative peace since the end of World War Two. That’s when the United States became the world’s top economic and military power.
The land, air and sea attack on an increasingly pro-Western Ukraine supercharges a Great Power rivalry as U.S. clout has been slipping and China-Russia solidarity is growing.
The old Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 after a 40-year “Cold War” with the U.S. — a geopolitical struggle that also dominated the world view of both powers’ respective allies and blocs. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, its 15 former Communist-controlled republics gained independence, leaving the U.S. the sole remaining superpower.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has called that fall “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of a 20th century that was also wracked by two world wars. In launching the biggest attack by one state against another since the end of World War Two, Putin said he was protecting Russian citizens among others subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine, which has infuriated Moscow by aiming to join the U.S-led NATO military alliance.
Putin warned against outside interference, saying Russia is “a powerful nuclear state.”
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“Off the Earth, For the Earth”
At the moment onboard the International Space Station is a crew of seven: two Russians, four Americans and a German. Other than the German and one American – who is a doctor – they are bred and trained in the military.
The crew all speak English & Russian.
In fact, one of the Americans, Kayla Barron, is a Submarine Warfare officer. The doctor has been working with Russians — and on joint missions with the Russians since 1997. His Russian is particularly good.
The United States and Russia — NASA and Roscosmos — were in the process of negotiating more crew exchanges. And at the moment there are three Russian cosmonauts — who are certainly military as all cosmonauts are — training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Finally, on March 30, one of the Americans, Mark Vande Hei — also a professor at West Point — will be landing in Kazakhstan with the two Russians. Traditionally, a NASA team flys in through Russia and joins their recovery team, then bounces back through Russia to the United States. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Twitter posts today from the international space community were saddened and alarmed by the Ukraine crisis but agreed that solidarity in space, which one called “the pinnacle of human cooperation” would not be threatened. After all, the U.S. Astronauts and the Russian Cosmonauts of the Cold War era held each other in high regard and the crew members onboard “have trained together for years and are personal friends.”
There is a club of Space Explorers which are all the astronauts and cosmonauts who have flown. They say they simply regard themselves as earthlings after looking down and seeing no borders on our planet. But surely the ISS motto of “Off the Earth, For the Earth” will be in their minds now.
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“Embers of dead empires”
An immediate African perspective on the Ukraine invasion was shared by Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani, who used a speech at the UN Security Council on Tuesday to warn Russia to respect its border with Ukraine, using Africa’s colonial past to highlight the dangers of stoking the “embers of dead empires.”
More controversially, he went on to say: “At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later. Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited. But we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known … not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.”
For some commentators, who are concerned about neo-colonialism on the African continent, this invoked the somewhat cynical conclusion of the late Tanzanian leader, Julius Nyerere, who said: “You multiply national anthems, national flags and national passports, seats at the UN and individuals entitled to 21 guns salute, not to speak of a host of ministers, prime ministers and envoys, you have a whole army of powerful people with vested interests in keeping Africa balkanised.”
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“Floods, COVID-19, Ukraine”
Obviously the UK government, as a committed member of NATO and a devoted ally of the United States, has joined the international clamour denouncing Russia’s attack.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has labelled the Russian offensive as “a tidal wave of violence” and declared that a “massive package” of sanctions will be introduced against Moscow.
No doubt many young UK graduates and university students will see the Russian attack with alarm and deep concern about where this will all lead and how it may affect their future. But many others, young and older, will be reaching for an atlas to check where Ukraine is and wondering how much this matters.
The UK itself has just come through a period of three consecutive typhoon strength storms which have caused major damage and severe flooding in many parts and given millions of people, young and old, plenty to worry about in their own lives.
And those who follow national politics at all will have been hooked by the still ongoing saga of the prime minister’s involvement in a string of illicit drinks parties held in No.10 Downing Street during the peak months of COVID-19 lockdown. Smart young people don’t have to be super-cynical to see how the floods and now the Ukraine drama could divert public attention from Boris Johnson’s role in the lockdown parties scandal.
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“Russian nuclear missiles feel very close to home.”
News of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an awful awakening. Putin has shown total disdain for international borders, agreements and customs. I wonder what his real motivations are – a way to build domestic consensus? I do not understand who is benefitting from this.
This morning at a bakery in Milan, someone attached a sign – “Putin = Hitler”. World War Two — a story often told by my parents and grandparents. I feel relieved that I am burying my Mom today. My parents are not here anymore to see the world going on that path again. They were sincerely convinced that wars were something of the past.
I feel thrown back into the Cold War years. Russian nuclear missiles feel very close to home in Milan and even closer to Germany, where my son lives. First the pandemic and now the war. I can’t believe we are really living this.
Three questions to consider:
- What reasons did Russian President Vladimir Putin give for invading Ukraine?
- How has the West and its allies reacted to the Russian aggression?
- Does the conflict in Ukraine matter to you, and if so, why?