Politics Teach-in Series: Is Russia’s Ukraine invasion justified under international law? Professor Martha Bradley weighs in

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Associate Professor Martha Bradley, Department of Public Law at the University of Pretoria
Associate Professor Martha Bradley, Department of Public Law at the University of Pretoria

By Sam van Heerden, Freelance Writer



The Russia-Ukraine conflict has dominated the news and is having global ramifications. This week’s Politics Teach-In, hosted by the Department of Politics and International Relations at Rhodes University, focuses on the ins and outs of this war. Yesterday, the seminar series began with insights from Associate Professor Martha Bradley from the Department of Public Law at the University of Pretoria. She looked at how Vladimir Putin has justified the invasion and how this holds up against international law.

Putin defended his invasion on the grounds that Ukraine has subjected some Ukrainians, as well as Russians within Ukraine, to abuse and genocide. He said in a speech: “To this end, we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine and put to justice those that committed numerous bloody crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals.”

But according to Professor Bradley, this reasoning does not fit with the logic of international law. Under Article 2(4) of the United Nations (UN) Charter, states are prohibited from using military force or the threat of it against another state. The only exception to this is self-defence.

“The wording of the Charter is very specific; a state can only act in self-defence ‘if an armed attack has occurred'. 'Occurred' is in the past tense. Did Ukraine attack Russia first? No,” said Professor Bradley. “Narratives such as demilitarisation and denazification are not legitimate reasons for the attack.”

Professor Bradley suggests Putin may have other reasons for touting this narrative. “We can conclude these justifications are perhaps for domestic consumption,” she said. “As a way to get the Russian population to support his military ventures in Ukraine. But it is a breach of UN law and the law of the prohibition of the use of force.”

As part of a Q & A session, a member of the audience said the Ukrainian military has been accused of turning a blind eye toward attacks against both Ukrainians and Russians in Ukraine. He also added that there are armed groups in Ukraine with neo-Nazi ties and questioned whether Russia was not justified in protecting its citizens.

“Not according to international law,” said Professor Bradley. “States must respect the territorial sovereignty of other states, except in the case of self-defence against an attack.” There is a contentious piece of international law called the ‘responsibility to protect’, and under this, it may at times be possible to legitimately send a military force to another state, such as in the case of genocide. But this justifies only the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops and must be agreed upon by the UN Security Council.”

The narrative of the ‘NATO threat’ does not hold up against legal scrutiny either, Professor Bradley emphasised. Putin fears the growing strength of the military alliance of NATO in the region, particularly if Russia’s neighbour, Ukraine, joins the alliance (a possibility that partly sparked the conflict in the first place). Recently, Putin has threatened Finland and Sweden at the prospect of them joining NATO. “But it's not justified [to attack another state because a military alliance might become stronger than your military state,” said Professor Bradley.

“But the same thing happened when Cuba had an alliance with Russia,” replied the audience member. “The United States (US) went there and stopped Russian ships from even entering Cuba. Just like Russia now viz a viz Ukraine, the US didn’t want a Russian stronghold as its neighbour. And there was silence within the UN Quarters.”

Professor Bradley added that Putin appears to have broken international law in other ways. Once a state has used force against another, it is considered an international armed conflict and the law of war applies, monitoring what can and cannot be done during wartime. This is where International Humanitarian Law, largely stemming from the UN Geneva Convention, comes into play. It ensures a solid line is drawn between armed soldiers and civilians.

“You cannot directly target civilians or civilian infrastructure; it's a war crime,” explained Dr Bradley. “Meaning you cannot bombard Mariupol because it's too indiscriminate. You cannot target hospitals; these are protected. The bombing of whole cities or areas is an extreme violation.”

Importantly, this rule of war applies equally to all warring parties regardless of the justifications for the conflict or who started what. It is meant to protect those most vulnerable, which are victims, political prisoners, and civilians.

“It seems Putin is trying to avoid triggering the law of armed conflict because he is refusing to acknowledge he is in an international armed conflict,” said Professor Bradley. “The narrative or labels used are, for example, ‘the Russian invasion’, ‘continued aggression’, ‘special military operation’, or the ‘battle for Kyiv’.”

There is no legitimate reason for this, according to Professor Bradley. “Even if there are Ukrainian Nazis, hypothetically, would that be an excuse not to employ the law of armed conflict?” she asked, “No, it doesn’t matter what your political alliance or beliefs are. You’re still protected as civilians.”

The conflict shows how states, such as Russia, can try to conceal their intentions and circumvent international law using wordplay. “Labels and words matter,” explained Professor Bradley. “How conflicts are classified can have serious implications for international law.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict raises many issues of controversy both locally and globally as this week’s Teach-in will show, but as far as international law is concerned, Putin is clearly in the wrong. Russia unjustifiably used force against another state and has since continued to violate the law of war, killing hundreds of civilians and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.