By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
While Russia’s aggression against Ukraine tramples the United Nations charter, Moscow gets a free ride on its other transgressions of international law. Few have focused, for instance, on how Russia’s military operations in Ukraine violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The failure to challenge this misconduct is profoundly wrong and damages the integrity of this whole body of law.
The Geneva Conventions are a great civilizational accomplishment, tempering how wars are waged. For years, they have been transgressed by non-state actors who fight out of uniform, target civilians, take hostages and engage in torture. But these critical legal norms are far more threatened when such conduct is embraced (in action if not word) by a sovereign state and a party to the Conventions.
The fact that Russian troops operate in Ukraine in unmarked uniforms, or pretend to be civilians, is a significant Geneva violation. States can and do use commandos who operate with stealth and concealment, as the United States did in both Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a fundamental difference, however, between using special forces in an announced armed conflict and doing so while denying that one’s military is engaged at all, as Russia has done.
Moscow is trying to avoid political and legal responsibility for its actions — and Ukraine is not the only place it is prepared to act. Latvian analyst Janis Berzins has analyzed internal Russian military documents describing Moscow’s “new way of waging war” that includes undeclared wars, undercover destabilization, attacks on civilians to create false humanitarian crisis and psy-op operations. Moscow believes this style of waging war could be particularly effective against neighboring countries with large Russian-speaking populations.