There is much that could be said about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, it seems difficult to pin-point a focus area for a short blog post such as this. But to my mind, this war brings to light three key things that we really needed to be talking about before this crisis occurred. These are: the impact of war on civilians; the weakness of our international peace architecture; and the risk of nuclear weapons.
So first, it has been said in the media that this war is ‘increasingly a war against civilians’. Now this is completely true, however this doesn’t emphasise the real gravity of the situation. All wars are wars against civilians. In a modern war, 90% of casualties are civilians. Ukraine is unlikely to be any exception to this. The attacks against civilians are atrocities, but they are not unique to this conflict, or to the Russian military. This is how modern wars are fought. There is no such thing as a war that is only chivalrously fought on the battlefield.
If we kept this in mind more often, then the prevention of war would be a greater priority for the world.
Which leads me to my second concern. Now that Russia has invaded, we are freshly reminded of the weakness of our current international system. But although we are just reflecting on this now, it also isn’t a new issue. The international system failed to meaningfully respond to the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Iraq, and the war in Yemen. In fact, it very regularly fails to meaningfully act.
This isn’t to say that the UN is useless. It has more functions than just the security council. But it is to say that our global peace architecture is weak. And what’s more, it is weaker for our failure to hold our friends to account. Any one would wish to hold their rivals accountable. It isn’t difficult for the US, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Britain, to say that Russia should face consequences for invading Ukraine and killing civilians there. But why haven’t those who invaded Iraq and killed Iraqi civilians not been held to account? In failing to enforce international rules and norms for peace when our friends were in the wrong, we weakened the international system, making it easier for anyone to break such rules.
And thirdly, the Russian Invasion has the risk of nuclear war on everyone’s minds. But lets stop and think about this for a moment. Is the risk just that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, or is the risk that nuclear weapons will be used in this world? The potential use of nuclear weapons anywhere is the basis of the risk. Of course, ‘anywhere’ includes Ukraine, but it also highlights that the real problem here started when nuclear weapons were invented. And this problem is continued by every country that creates or supports nuclear weapons, and Russia is far from alone here.
So yes, I feel worried that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons. However I feel far more worried that nine nations in this world feel that it is appropriate for them to have nuclear weapons too. If nuclear weapons are a risk, then why did we let Boris Johnson last year, get away with deciding to increase Britain’s nuclear arsenal. How can we possibly expect Russia, or North Korea, or Iran to not have nuclear weapons if ‘The West’ isn’t prepared to get rid of them too? A nuclear weapons ban treaty exists, and if we really were as worried about nuclear war as we currently say we are, then we would see more and more countries start to sign this treaty.
There is no context in which the use of a nuclear weapons could be ‘appropriate’, ‘proportional’, or ‘targeted’. They can only be used to commit crimes against humanity, and as such, their very existence is a threat to the world. We are reminded of this risk today, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a new problem. And importantly, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, as soon as Ukraine stops making the daily headlines.
The invasion of Ukraine is outrageous. And we should bear in mind that it always takes far longer to build than it does to destroy. Ukraine will spend much longer re-building from this destruction than the length of time that this war takes. And it will continue doing this long after the world has stopped checking-in for daily updates.
But we also must remember that Ukraine is only one instance of war. If we think that what is happening in Ukraine is terrible, then we need to act to prevent war. We need to see war as always a threat to civilians. We need to strengthen our global peace architecture, to ban and dismantle all nuclear weapons, and to engage in Proactive Peace work.