One year on, the war in Ukraine is going through a phase of equilibrium. Ukraine has carried out significant counter-offensives but has failed to recover all its territories, including the Donbas and Crimea, both occupied since 2014. Russia, in turn, unable to advance any further, is limiting itself to maintaining its positions and continuing with war crimes, shelling electrical infrastructure and water dams in recent months.
The end of the war may thus not be as near as it seemed last fall, which underscores the importance of the multiple, parallel arenas where this conflict is being fought. The first “systemic” European war since 1945, as such it is, will have far-reaching effects in both time and space.
A year later, this war implies three things. First, a strategic vision—that is to say, a geopolitical design for the future of Europe and the international system as a whole. And second, a communications struggle—namely, winning the narrative battle while cultivating empathy. On this latter point, it is revealing that the engagement levels and volume of posts from Russian state-controlled media have declined since the invasion began a year ago. And third, soon, this war might also entail an international legal dispute.
Convenient for Russia, the current status quo is not an option for Ukraine. Invaded illegally and unprovoked, stripped of territories internationally recognized as its own, and with a decimated economy, Ukraine was forced to produce a shift in the current military balance decidedly in its favor. But although Putin’s attempt at occupying the country has failed, let alone the chimera of annexing it, the current stalemate nonetheless makes a free, democratic, and firmly aligned-with-the-West Ukraine impossible.
In this sense, it is auspicious that—finally—Germany has approved the shipment of the Leopard tanks and the United States of the Abrams while neutral Switzerland has agreed to supply ammunition. Western delays and indecision have usually been justified by Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons to respond to any escalation or direct NATO involvement in the conflict.
On the one hand, giving in to such threats is not conducive to the very peace and stability of the international system, and is contradictory to the new European reality. If Putin concludes that his nuclear threats are enough to emasculate Ukraine within an amputated geography and a fragmented sovereignty, that would only serve as an incentive for future invasions. It happened in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and, outside of Europe, in Syria in 2015.
On the other hand, sustaining non-intervention ad infinitum is a flimsy argument, as the space for European neutrality has been significantly reduced. Indeed, with the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, due to Putin’s own fault, Russia’s border with NATO has effectively doubled. And precisely on the occasion of the application of these Nordic nations to NATO membership in May 2022, Putin threatened very serious reprisals that never occurred.
Europe and the world cannot live hostage to Russian imperial megalomania; the respective maps of NATO and the Union thus converge toward one. Perhaps Joe Biden’s trip to Kyiv signals the end of Western vacillations.
That is why this war represents a transcendental strategic challenge: rebuilding the international order and consolidating a united Europe in democracy and with a revitalized NATO. Ukraine’s victory is a necessary condition for resuming the post-Cold War project that was truncated in 1994. It was precisely by the Budapest Memorandum that Russia’s conditions were accepted: Kyiv handed over its nuclear arsenal and its applications to NATO and the European Union were shelved. That is when Ukraine was abandoned.
Ukraine today has won the battle of the narrative. Always wearing his olive-green attire, the charismatic Volodymyr Zelensky has become a symbol, rallying Europe behind his cause as rarely happened in history. But this is not enough, he himself repeats it in every meeting with the press and with foreign leaders. His prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, did the same while in Washington and New York at the end of January. Tanks are welcome, he said, but Ukraine’s victory needs more money, fighter jets, and Western support in the arena of international law.
The Legal Arena
Ukraine needs more weapons, but it also needs allies for its legal initiatives. Kostin traveled abroad to seek support for the creation of a “special tribunal” to try Russian leaders for the crime of aggression. Introduced during the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945 by Aron Trainin, paradoxically a Soviet jurist, the crime of aggression is one of the four established international crimes, along with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
The Kostin’s office reports having documented 67,000 war crimes, including 155 cases of sexual violence. It also estimates that 15,000 children were kidnapped and deported to Russia; the forced transfer of the population is a crime against humanity. And he is working hard to document the crime of genocide—“the deliberate intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
There is evidence of all three types of crimes, but the threshold of proof is very high, their documentation is laborious, and the identification of those responsible is not always crystal clear.
Proving the crime of aggression, however, is a simpler matter, since it defines responsibilities in terms of political decisions, thereby specifically charging political leaders. Thus, it is defined as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any way that is inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”
In other words, it is unequivocal: the crime of aggression occurs when another country is invaded without reason or prior provocation. The first special court for this purpose was that of Nuremberg in 1945. The one being proposed today is also inspired by the special courts of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. That is why the Zelensky government has centered the discussion within international organizations, given the need to achieve a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly. It is the natural place for such, as a permanent member of the Security Council is itself violating the fundamental principles and provisions of the UN Charter.
Enter Latin America
The issue will also reach the American continent, where, unlike in Europe, it will be difficult to reach a consensus in favor of Ukraine’s position. This is for various reasons. There is a long history of “neutrality” in Latin America, almost always not out of principle but out of hypocrisy. The only country aligned with the Allies in World War II was Brazil. There was no shortage of countries that declared war on the Axis, but only after their capitulation.
Latin American duplicity is observed today in the position of several countries in relation to this conflict. Zelensky himself exposed the ethical and political miseries of the region. “Which side would Simon Bolivar be on in this war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine? Who would Jose de San Martin support? Who would Miguel Hidalgo sympathize with? I think they would not help someone who is just plundering a smaller country like a typical colonizer,” he told them in a video last October.
Timely indeed, as Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro always talks about “imperialism,” though its “American” imperialism. His problem though is that, in addition to thousands of Cuban intelligence officers, he has three Russian military bases on Venezuelan soil. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega as well, who in his recent speech declared he is still at war with the Contras. But last June, the Nicaraguan National Assembly authorized the entry of Russian military equipment and personnel into the country at his request. And of course, the Russian military presence in Cuba, still present, dates back to the Soviet era and continues.
Then there are the inconsistent governments who display contradictory positions in international forums: Bolivia always abstains on this issue, while Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico vote erratically on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in both the UN and the Organization of America States. Maintaining the status quo, or an eventual victory for Russia, would serve to further empower Putin-allied dictators. Ukraine’s victory, in contrast, is also necessary for the survival of democracy and the enforcement of human rights in Latin America.
The Maduro regime is under investigation for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court; there are complaints against the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship for similar crimes—this last week for the forced transfer of “liberated” political prisoners—and the documentation in Cuban even points to “contemporary forms of slavery.” Having Putin face an international tribunal is bad news for all of them.
But there is more. Bringing Putin before an international tribunal and charging with the specific crime of aggression would be a direct message, a powerful and much-needed deterrent, for the expansionist ambitions of Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela has a claim on Guyana’s Esequiba region, a territory that represents no less than two-thirds of the country. The dispute has existed since the nineteenth century, but it has grown in intensity since 2015. The reason is simple: that year, gigantic oil reserves were discovered on the ocean floor off Esequiba’s coast, making Guyana one of the fastest-growing economies and projected to become the country with the highest oil income per capita in the world.