by Stephan Kinsella
In a discussion with some fellow libertarians about the current Russia-Ukraine war, I noticed some of them kept avoiding condemning Russia’s invasion, criticizing pro-Ukraine western media and state propaganda, and kept changing the subject to the baleful role the US and NATO have played. NATO should have disbanded after the Cold War ended; NATO is “provoking” Russia, and so on. “Of course Russia doesn’t want NATO on its doorstep and perceives it as a threat; how would the US feel if Russia were to position missiles in Canada?” And so on. They didn’t come right out and take Russia’s side, but I have seen some people literally defend Russia and claim it is simply defending itself from aggression from the US/NATO and Ukraine or via Ukraine, and, moreover, that Russia is exercising heroic restraint in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damages.
Some of them even repeat the Putin line that there is no such a nationality as Ukrainians—that they are Russians and Ukraine was/is an incremental part of the Russian sphere of national interests. As the great libertarian and Austrian economist Yuri Maltsev, himself a defector from the Soviet Union, pointed out to me, however, this is as absurd as saying that there is no such nation as Irish—that they are just disgruntled Englishmen. Also, Yuri pointed out to me that since 1709 Peter “the Great” initiated a reign of terror in Ukraine and it existed for hundreds of years and culminated in the Soviet genocide of holodomor in 1932–33 with the murder of 10–12 million Ukrainians.
So I asked my friends whether they were actually defending Russia’s invasion, on the grounds that it’s “self-defense.” The responses were something like: the invasion was a predictable response to US/NATO provocation, but no one was willing to either condemn Russia, or to clearly say that they are the aggressors here. There seems to be a sustained effort to keep the focus on the US/NATO as the “bad guys” here and to subtly imply that NATO is in fact threatening Russia, which in my view is problematic. NATO is threatening thug-Russia’s territorial expansion ambitions, sure, but Russia is as aware of the logic of mutually assured destruction as NATO countries are, and surely knows we will not attack them.
As I responded to them, all this analysis is fine, and the best result is probably for Ukraine to settle this matter and return to the status quo, which is no NATO membership, neutrality towards Russia, and independence or Russian control of Crimea and Donbas regions. And then, no doubt, Ukraine will soak the west for billions of dollars in Marshall plan type aid to rebuild.
But we can still recognize Russia as an aggressor, right? It is not acting in self-defense. In fact its invasion of Ukraine is not only unlibertarian and immoral and horrific, it is clearly illegal under international law. Why is this? Well, for one, the UN charter attempts to prohibit international aggression, and limit force only to defensive force against an armed attack, or as authorized by the Security Council. The UN rules are largely compatible with and complement libertarian law. (See KOL250 | International Law Through a Libertarian Lens (PFS 2018).)
Art. 2(4) provides:
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
The only exception relevant here is Art. 51, which provides:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.
There is no doubt that Russia is using force against Ukraine, and Ukraine did not mount an armed attack against Russia. It’s an easy case. The International Court of Justice has, in fact, ruled on this already (see the Guardian article “UN international court of justice orders Russia to halt invasion of Ukraine“; provisional order. As the Guardian article explains:
The court ruled by 13 votes to two for a provisional order that “the Russian Federation shall immediately suspend military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine”. Only the Russian and Chinese judges on the court voted against the order
(For further discussion of force and self-defense under the UN Charter,, see Adil Ahmad Haque, “The United Nations Charter at 75: Between Force and Self-Defense—Part One” and Part Two.)
So it seems clear that Russia is the aggressor, and has no justification under either libertarian principles or international law for what it is doing. It is almost certainly committing war crimes in violation of customary international law and various conventions such as Geneva, and it is clearly in violation of the UN Charter which prohibits use of force against another state unless you are defending against an armed attack.
I feel like this is hard to controvert, yet libertarians who have a monomaniacal seething hatred of US and NATO can’t seem to bring themselves to condemn what Russia is doing. Every time it comes up people say “well this is what you get” or “blowback” or they blame US/NATO. You can do all that, but there is no reason not to acknowledge what Russia is doing is murderous and barbaric and horrific and totally evil and unjust. I don’t get the reluctance of principled libertarians to just admit this.