International Law, Libertarian Principles, and the Russia-Ukraine War

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.

10 comments


  1. […] 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. Read more>> […]


  2. This is fantastic – finally someone who is pro-Ukrainian (to simplify things) whom I respect. I normally always agree with Dr. Kinsella, and I mean always. Where I initially didn’t, he has won me over. Nobody does careful, step-by-step logical reasoning like Dr. Kinsella.
    I am one of those libertarians avoiding to condemn Russia and I’d like to challenge Dr. Kinsella and be challenged back (and possibly persuaded, like I have been so many times before).
    1) Re the argument “the role of NATO” – I agree that NATO being an aggressor (which is “our” argument) doesn’t mean Russia isn’t but the complete lack of recognizing its role in this and other conflicts by all media, all Western governments and most Western multinationals reveals hypocrisy. It doesn’t mean Russia is the good guy but it does mean that the position of the Five eyes, the EU and Japan (and nobody else’s, interestingly) that invading another country is always pure evil and we have to sanction the heck out of them is a lie. If that was a standard, Nike, Facebook and all the rest of them would have pulled out of the US decades ago.
    2) Still, I agree Russia could be another evil aggressor in the same way as the US has been since the 1950s. They could both be the bad guys worthy of condemnation. I see two problems with that:
    a) Imminent threat against Donbas: Donetsk and Luhansk republics declared independence which I think is legal and certainly is consistent with libertarian law. The USA did it in 1776. Then they asked Russia for help because they had been under attack for 8 years with the shelling dramatically increasing just before the war and with half of the Ukrainian army positioned in the East, presumably about to annihilate the separatists, with the notoriously barbaric Azov battalion playing a major role. Now we can debate the facts, they may be wrong. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are not. Wouldn’t that constitute an imminent threat and wouldn’t violence against such a threat be legitimate and defensive? Even if done by Russia, because Russia was asked for help?
    b) The threat against Russia itself: I’m not so sure NATO would never attack Russia. Firstly, they have been attacking using soft power, toppling one regime after another around Russia, most famously Ukraine itself, bringing military bases closer and closer to Russia. I think an attempt to regime change was all but certain. And with it the 1990s-style plundering and the woke cultural marxism that Putin so despises. I know it’s soft but wouldn’t that constitute aggression? Secondly, bio labs. Again, the facts may be wrong but for the sake of argument, assume Russia is right and the USA is developing WMD right on Russia’s borders. Still no aggression? Thirdly, apparently if you have nuke sites 5 minutes from Russian nuke sites, it’s no longer mutually assured destruction, apparently they could take out Russia’s so fast that Russia wouldn’t have time to send theirs. So sometimes what looks like pure defense may actually be offensive.

    My main argument is 2. With the other two I’m more thinking outloud and curious about your reaction. You have always guided me well.


    • “1) Re the argument “the role of NATO” – I agree that NATO being an aggressor (which is “our” argument) doesn’t mean Russia isn’t but the complete lack of recognizing its role in this and other conflicts by all media, all Western governments and most Western multinationals reveals hypocrisy.”

      How is NATO an aggressor against Russia, exactly?

      ” It doesn’t mean Russia is the good guy but it does mean that the position of the Five eyes, the EU and Japan (and nobody else’s, interestingly) that invading another country is always pure evil and we have to sanction the heck out of them is a lie. If that was a standard, Nike, Facebook and all the rest of them would have pulled out of the US decades ago.”

      I didn’t focus on that, I only said Russia is aggressing against individuals in Ukraine and it’s illegal under international law. Is this incorrect?

      “2) Still, I agree Russia could be another evil aggressor in the same way as the US has been since the 1950s. They could both be the bad guys worthy of condemnation. I see two problems with that:”

      I see may problems with that. The US might do more damage because it’s more powerful, because it’s a state that parasites off a richer economic region– it’s larger and more free market than Russia — see https://www.stephankinsella.com/2009/09/hoppe-on-liberal-economies-and-war/ — but to compare the US and the west to Russia is IMO gross.

      “a) Imminent threat against Donbas: Donetsk and Luhansk republics declared independence which I think is legal and certainly is consistent with libertarian law. The USA did it in 1776. Then they asked Russia for help because they had been under attack for 8 years with the shelling dramatically increasing just before the war and with half of the Ukrainian army positioned in the East, presumably about to annihilate the separatists, with the notoriously barbaric Azov battalion playing a major role. Now we can debate the facts, they may be wrong. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are not. Wouldn’t that constitute an imminent threat and wouldn’t violence against such a threat be legitimate and defensive? Even if done by Russia, because Russia was asked for help?”

      I mean I clearly stated UN law: Art 2(4) and 51. This doesn’t fit that. Sorry.

      “b) The threat against Russia itself: I’m not so sure NATO would never attack Russia. Firstly, they have been attacking using soft power, toppling one regime after another around Russia, most famously Ukraine itself, bringing military bases closer and closer to Russia. I think an attempt to regime change was all but certain. And with it the 1990s-style plundering and the woke cultural marxism that Putin so despises. I know it’s soft but wouldn’t that constitute aggression?”

      Do you really think Finland, Sweden, and others like Turkey, Ukraine, and those from 1990 to recent times, want to join NATO just for kicks? It’s for fear of Russia. Russia is the threat. Ask someone who lives there, please. Russia is a backwards thuggocracy. If they simply joined the modern world then NATO could disband.

      “Secondly, bio labs. Again, the facts may be wrong but for the sake of argument, assume Russia is right and the USA is developing WMD right on Russia’s borders. Still no aggression? Thirdly, apparently if you have nuke sites 5 minutes from Russian nuke sites, it’s no longer mutually assured destruction, apparently they could take out Russia’s so fast that Russia wouldn’t have time to send theirs. So sometimes what looks like pure defense may actually be offensive.”‘

      Do you realize how evil the USSR and communism was? And how evil Russia, the thuggocracy, still is? Why are you playing mini-violins for these mafioso?


      • I don’t want to distract from my main argument so I will start with that and will continue with what I consider secondary underneath. I will just mention now that I am someone who “lives there”, I live in Prague, Czech rep.

        “I mean I clearly stated UN law: Art 2(4) and 51. This doesn’t fit that.”

        You did and I get that it doesn’t fit it, Donbas is not a member state. I’ll set aside that I don’t think UN law is the only source of international law and there are principles higher than the UN charter such as the right for self determination. I’m not a lawyer but that seems to be the view of a lawyer I respect (like you), Robert Barnes.
        But far more importantly I’m surprised to see you quote from positive laws as a source of justice. I know you said UN law is largely compatible with libertarian law : but is it when it only applies to member states? So the USA would be in the wrong today until recognized as a member state? The Czechs were within their rights to shell Slovaks in 1992 because Slovaks wanted to break off?
        Yes, Ukraine didn’t invade Russia but it did invade Donbas, Donbas declared independence and asked Russia for assistance.
        Or is my focus on “member state” as the sole reason for noncompliance a red herring and I’m missing the real reason why you think Russia’s action is in breach? Honest question.

        Now to the (from my PoV) less important points:
        “Do you realize how evil the USSR and communism was? And how evil Russia, the thuggocracy, still is?”

        Like I said, I lived in it so I have an idea, yes. I was born and lived the first 15 years of my life in a country occupied by the Soviets. Then in the 90s I lived a year in the USA as an exchange student. So I think I can reasonably compare. Was being occupied by the Ruskies cool? Heck no. Was it hell on earth? That would be exaggerating too. I respect Dr. Maltsev and it’s likely he had it worse but his personal experience is hardly representative of most people.

        I will say one thing: without trying to belittle it, I will definitely take the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia (150 dead in 20 years) any day over the barbaric, monstrous, scorched-earth American-style occupation. You know, the kind that is often legal according to the libertarian UN law. The kind that murders civilians by the hundreds of thousand. That regularly targets civilian infrastructure and deliberately throws poison on them. The kind that according to you is gross to compare to Russia for some (unstated) reason. Apparently we are now using GDP as the denominator when measuring how libertarian countries are (“The US might do more damage because it’s more powerful”). It’s okay to drop the A-bomb – we’re rich!

        I am being sarcastic now and I apologize about the tone. I thought it was warranted though because I find it hypocritical to want libertarians to condemn Russia’s actions while avoiding condemning actions by your own country an order of magnitude worse ever since Putin took office.

        I know you didn’t know I lived in communism. I still find it somewhat amusing that you would be asking “do you know how bad communism was” when you don’t know that yourself, at least not first-hand. Well, I do and it was. But do you know how bad YOUR regime is?

        And no, the Czech republic did not join NATO because we were scared of the Ruskies, by and large. There was an element of fear but mostly we joined because we always thought of ourselves as being part of the West. We weren’t running away from the Russians, we were running towards the Americans. In fact, we thought Russians would join us later. We understood ordinary Russians were suffering under communism the same way as us. They were not inherently evil and we are not either. At least that’s what we think.

        You seem to be putting an equal sign between USSR and Russia/Putin. I wonder what your reasons are. I see a lot more signs of backwards thuggocracy in the USA today. We are talking about a country that can’t tell the difference between men and women, fires people for attempting to find it, throws hundreds of people into the dungeons of solitary confinement with no bail for the crime of walking into the People’s House, can’t organize its own elections in a transparent undisputable way, censors its sitting president, impeaches him twice for crimes completely made up and no-one ever faces any consequences, persecutes top journalists one of whom is kept in a dungeon for a decade and another one had to stay in Russia of all places… And I didn’t even touch on the covid madness where the US/UK once again led the way. The mind boggles.

        “How is NATO an aggressor against Russia”
        I’m more brainstorming here, I’m not convinced I’m right and would like your feedback: in short (I already talked about it): toppling of regimes friendly to Russia and installing hostile puppets (incl Ukraine), moving military bases to Russia thereby cancelling the mutual destruction principle, the bio labs that don’t exist and that Psaki desperately wants not to fall into Russian hands. None of them assaults, but a threat of one.

        And you taught me that it is legitimate to use real force in response to “just” a threat – otherwise you don’t really have a right to respond and threat of aggression becomes meaningless. Or did I imagine that?


  3. Does this not presuppose that the UN’s international law is legitimate? And the Existence of the Russian and Ukrainian States (and all other States) was already illegal, nothing a State does can be legal.


  4. This is all reasonable, and I’m not sure who Stephan means in his opening para. But if one is forced to take “sides,” keep in mind that analogizing Putin to Hitler, terming him a war criminal, and arguing his full intention is to retake the old Warsaw pact nations is truly “viagra for the state.” If Putin is Hitler, bent on expansionism, wouldn’t even libertarians agree the US should intervene militarily, full-bore?


    • That I don’t know about. Maybe. All I’m saying is Russia is aggressing. I agree NATO should not have provoked them, I oppose military aid, I oppose the sanctions we are imposing. I don’t think Zelensky is some great hero nor is what he is doing wise. He will probably end up having to settle this and compromise, so he might as well do it sooner than later. I don’t think the US should be egging him on and perpetuating this. I don’t think we should risk nuclear war or a hot war with Russia at all. But none of this, in my opinion, means we have to (a) blame the US for this more than Russia or view the US/NATO as a “threat” to Russia, (b) avoid recognizing and opposing Russia’s blatant and horrific acts of aggression and violence, or, worse (c) whitewash Russia’s status and regard it as an innocent victim just defending itself from the US.

      As for who I’m referring to in the first para, it’s some friends arguing privately, plus some cryptic and not so cryptic comments I’ve seen some “post libertarian” types make online.


      • Since we are all agreed on doing absolutely nothing, why are we arguing over which side deserves more sour looks?

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