Russia’s Invasion Has Created Victims the World Recognizes

Over the last month, Ukrainian flags have been raised over state houses throughout the United States, adorned the jerseys of German soccer players, and featured in newly painted street art all over the world. Citizens of European countries have welcomed refugees into their homes, and huge crowds of protesters have mobilized in cities across multiple continents to demand an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the diplomatic level, Ukraine’s Atlantic and European allies have instituted a sanctions regime with unprecedented speed and opened conversations about the possibility of creating an international tribunal to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin for unlawful aggression.

With the horrific images and testimonies emerging from Bucha, Ukraine, over the last few days and the growing certainty that worse is yet to come, the question of accountability for violations of international law has become more urgent. Calls to #ProsecutePutin are spreading on social media, asking world leaders to support demands for war crimes trials.

The outpouring of global solidarity for the embattled people of Ukraine is profoundly moving. It’s also striking how much the justified outrage on their behalf exceeds the usual attention that victims of violent conflict receive. The brutal tactics Russia’s forces are employing to devastating effect against Ukrainian cities today are methods they’ve previously used against Chechen and Syrian civilians; atrocities at Bucha echo the massacres of civilians in Chechnya’s Grozny suburbs in the early 2000s and the “crimes of historic proportions” committed against Syria’s Aleppo residents a decade later. Survivors of these and other conflicts are understandably asking why no one seemed to care as much when it happened to them.

Over the last month, Ukrainian flags have been raised over state houses throughout the United States, adorned the jerseys of German soccer players, and featured in newly painted street art all over the world. Citizens of European countries have welcomed refugees into their homes, and huge crowds of protesters have mobilized in cities across multiple continents to demand an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the diplomatic level, Ukraine’s Atlantic and European allies have instituted a sanctions regime with unprecedented speed and opened conversations about the possibility of creating an international tribunal to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin for unlawful aggression.

With the horrific images and testimonies emerging from Bucha, Ukraine, over the last few days and the growing certainty that worse is yet to come, the question of accountability for violations of international law has become more urgent. Calls to #ProsecutePutin are spreading on social media, asking world leaders to support demands for war crimes trials.

The outpouring of global solidarity for the embattled people of Ukraine is profoundly moving. It’s also striking how much the justified outrage on their behalf exceeds the usual attention that victims of violent conflict receive. The brutal tactics Russia’s forces are employing to devastating effect against Ukrainian cities today are methods they’ve previously used against Chechen and Syrian civilians; atrocities at Bucha echo the massacres of civilians in Chechnya’s Grozny suburbs in the early 2000s and the “crimes of historic proportions” committed against Syria’s Aleppo residents a decade later. Survivors of these and other conflicts are understandably asking why no one seemed to care as much when it happened to them.

There’s at least one obvious answer to this question. Racism and Islamophobia obstruct sympathy, and victims of color of similar atrocities are often explicitly framed as less deserving of attention, sympathy, and protection. Even when this isn’t deliberate or explicit, the sheer volume of Ukraine coverage has helped build solidarity for Ukrainians that victims in Yemen, for instance, are denied.

But there’s something else going on as well that makes Ukrainian victims more legible on the international stage than Chechen, Syrian, Tamil, Uyghur, or Rohingya (to name a few) victims of similar violence. Namely, that international institutions and international law are built to protect states from other states, whereas those under attack from their own government have far fewer protections available to them—and far fewer willing allies.

Syrians facing death from the Assad regime and its Russian allies, for example, did so within the context of an international system built to safeguard the Syrian government’s right to rule over its citizens. Confronted with evidence of chemical weapons attacks against civilians, states in both the global north and south were reluctant to take actions that might challenge the regime’s sovereign right to act within its territory, invoking the Syrian government’s inviolable authority even while they decried its actions. Meanwhile, Syrian victims and their advocates had to turn to a much weaker set of protections: human rights law, which relies on repressive states themselves for enforcement, and doctrines like the Responsibility to Protect, which reframes state authority as a state’s duty of care.

Sovereignty and nonintervention underpin the legal arrangements among states. The bedrock principle of international relations is that states acknowledge one another’s equal rights to rule over their own territory and citizens. Russia’s invasion violates both Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its sovereign right to rule. That Ukrainian civilians are dying horrifying deaths is a human catastrophe—yet what makes this an uncomplicated case for issuing a global response is that Russians are killing them, without the consent or complicity of their own government. As the victim of a clear foreign invasion, with war crimes perpetrated by an external power, the government of Ukraine can draw on an unambiguous body of international law prohibiting territorial aggression.

Ukraine’s stunning diplomatic campaign has highlighted the illegitimacy of Russian actions and, crucially, their cost to shared international values. Across arenas—the United Nations Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, the U.S. Congress, and the European Parliament—Ukraine’s diplomats have explicitly tied its fate to the global fate of democracy, rights, peace, and international law. Ukraine’s struggle, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Congress, is “for human rights, for freedom, for the right to live decently, and to die when your time comes, and not when it’s wanted by someone else, by your neighbor.”

It is a powerful call, invoking the primacy of law and rights over force, domination, and subjugation. And resounding victories for Ukraine in the U.N. General Assembly and at the International Court of Justice, alongside a striking number of referrals to the International Criminal Court, reflect the persuasiveness of Ukraine’s appeal to law: States overwhelmingly believe Russia to have committed an illegal act of aggression. Perhaps most striking, representatives of countries across the global south have also stood in vocal solidarity with Ukraine, tying its fate to their own survival and framing Russia’s invasion as a grave threat to international order.

But if Ukraine’s stirring appeal to international law speaks to many audiences—such as powerful states that designed the international system for their own benefit, global south governments seeking to protect their own sovereignty, and marginalized communities living in fear of their own governments—it is not one that is available to many victims of violence. Syrians also died by Russian siege and bombardment, but they died at the behest of their own government. And while Syrians and Ukrainians have the same human rights under international law, primary responsibility for upholding those rights rests with the Syrian and Ukrainian governments, respectively.

The institutional arrangements that protect civilians when their own government fails to uphold their rights are far less robust and far more contested than those that protect states against one another’s malfeasance. Even the most motivated outside observers have few easy tools to mobilize when determined, murderous regimes target their own populations—some interpretations of international law admit no legitimate cause for violating another state’s sovereignty, not even active genocide—and efforts to formalize mechanisms for protecting people from their governments are weak by design and thorny in execution.

The most developed of these mechanisms, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a doctrine and formally adopted principle solidified in 2005, emerged in the aftermath of genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. R2P reformulates state sovereignty as a state’s responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and it assigns the international community the responsibility to help states protect their civilians, charging them to intervene first peacefully and then coercively if states prove unwilling or unable to protect their populations. Although the doctrine has some roots in the global south, many post-colonial governments view R2P as a “Trojan horse” for legitimizing unilateral, neoimperial intervention; if the U.N. Charter maintains international peace and security by prohibiting aggressive war and upholding sovereign nonintervention, the argument goes, then R2P is a way to smuggle aggressive war against weak states back onto the international stage with U.N. approval. And beyond this suspicion, NATO’s 2011 justification for intervention in Libya explicitly invoked R2P, cementing an association between the doctrine and Western-led regime change that has proven hard to break.

Accordingly, even states legitimately concerned with the victims of state violence may be wary of invoking R2P or of suggesting more robust interventions that might call the principle of sovereign nonintervention into question. So states may see no inconsistency in lending full-voiced support to Ukraine’s international law-based arguments while simultaneously opposing action on behalf of civilians under attack by their own governments. Indeed, many of the states that stand in solidarity with Ukraine today, decrying the violence being inflicted on its civilians, are the same that have vehemently rejected greater international involvement in the protection of human rights.

Even the most robust international response won’t give Ukrainians back what’s been taken from them. Thousands of people have lost their homes, seen their loved ones murdered violently, and have had their way of life destroyed. Like all victims of mass atrocities, they’ll be left to grapple with the devastating legacy of this trauma. But they may have a better chance than many victims of seeing the authors of the atrocities perpetrated against them punished. The relatively less contentious international politics of the Ukrainian demand for justice along with the remarkable level of global public outrage and mobilization provide a rare opportunity to impose real consequences on those responsible for mass atrocities. And ultimately, that offers a glimmer of hope not only for Ukrainians suffering under Russia’s unlawful assault but for the victims of state brutality everywhere.

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