One of the surprising outcomes so far in the conflict in Ukraine has been how the international community has united so resoundingly against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Just as many didn’t foresee Russia launching a full-scale invasion of all of Ukraine, many doubted the international community would mount much of a response to a possible incursion, given its dependency on Russian energy and its weak response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Those expectations so far have mostly been proven wrong, with the West and other nations united in lobbing a series of severe financial sanctions at Russia and cutting off business in the country, a goal broadly supported by private industry. That’s left some asking — what other surprises are around the bend?
“I think the last few years are just a list of things that we would have previously thought were unthinkable,” said Professor Kristen Eichensehr, director of UVA’s National Security Law Center, at a March 30 faculty panel at the Law School. “And to me, one of the lessons I’m taking away from that is that we’re really not thinking hard enough or creatively enough. And we need to learn to adjust to a world where previously unthinkable things are happening with some frequency.”
Hosted by the Virginia Journal of International Law and moderated by Professor Mitu Gulati, the event offered a snapshot of faculty reactions to a fluid situation.
Pierre-Hugues Verdier said the financial sanctions against Russia — such as imposing sanctions on Russia’s central bank and cutting off Russian commercial banks from international payments — have been “much more sweeping” than in the past and have “never been used or ramped up so rapidly.”
As sanctions are added, he said, “to what extent does it incentivize not only the targets of the sanctions to find ways around them, but third countries that want to keep dealing with them to find ways around the sanctions?”
India has already set up a ruble payment system with Russia, a move that was controversial even among its own citizens.
Professor Paul B. Stephan ’77 suggested the change in attitude toward cooperation was due to a newfound anxiety in the West, pointing to Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, which “made us feel less resilient, less confident, less sure about this international order and system of international rules that we believe in, so that when we have a rerun of [Russia’s invasion of Crimea in] 2014, now we’re anxious. Now we feel threatened. And we do respond.”
Stephan’s forthcoming book, “The World Crisis and International Law: The Knowledge Economy and the Battle for the Future,” argues that the need for balance-of-powers politics never really went away.
He said the war would take a huge toll on Russia, economically and for the “morale of their human capital,” as well as on Ukraine.
“Ukraine is suffering terribly. I mean, not all the four million people who’ve emigrated so far are going to come back.”
He questioned whether the European alliance will hold.
“And we still don’t know that come the fall, and things get cold, when energy becomes important, what the Germans, what the Italians, what the French will be doing and whether there’ll be good diplomacy and generosity and cohesion and resilience, or whether finger-pointing will start to unfold and we squabble among ourselves.”
Verdier added that the trend in the international community over the past several decades toward greater integration and interdependence, and of bringing countries with divergent interests into multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization, may be at a crossroads.
“On the one hand, [that interdependence] means we can sanction the Russian banks, and it has a big impact on Russia because Russia has, for the past 30 years, integrated itself in the world economic system,” Verdier said. “But it also means that everyone from that point on has an interest in cutting these ties and becoming more autarchic, less interdependent. The Germans have all the incentives in the world now to try to reduce their energy dependence on Russia. And if they manage to do that — which will take years and will be hard, but once it’s done, it’s done, and the world will not be the same — there will not be the same incentives to have the kind of political, legal, economic ties as there were before.”
Similarly, once Russia creates paths to work around sanctions, for example by shifting exports from the West to China, those changes will be difficult to take back.
“I think this is a reorganization of the world economy that’s been going on for a few years, but is being accelerated by this,” Verdier said. “And it’s really going to change the world we live in unless it’s reversed much quicker than I anticipate.”
Lecturer Richard N. Dean ’80, a partner at the law firm Baker & McKenzie who is an expert on business in Russia, agreed it was likely to be years before normalcy can be restored there. In pointing out the challenges businesses connected to Russia are facing, he noted the number of sanctions Putin has instigated in response to the West’s sanctions.
“More legislation is pending on the Russia side that would put enterprises whose operations have been suspended by foreigners under administration. This is code word for, ‘We’re going to steal your business,’” he said. “You can see how difficult it is for companies to navigate this, both on the U.S. and the Russian side. And it’s a mess — just a mess.”
Eichensehr said the international legal system has a chance to grow and hold Russia accountable not just for starting a war of aggression, but to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes.
With horrific human rights violations in Bucha, Ukraine, coming to light, the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday suspended Russia’s participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council. In recent weeks, the International Court of Justice ordered provisional measures against Russia, arguing that Russia’s invasion was an unlawful abuse of its obligation to prevent genocide under the Genocide Convention. The European Court of Human Rights has taken similar action for human rights violations by Russian troops, and the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Human Rights Council have open investigations.
“I think the international system is facing a tremendous amount of stress. It is more fragile than we thought,” she said. “But I think it may also have a chance to shine, eventually, in the aftermath of this. So I think we need to think more creatively about how to protect the institutions and values we care about, internationally and domestically.”
An expert in the law of cyberattacks, Eichensehr said that despite some activity against Ukraine’s satellite internet service, Russia so far has not been successful at, or attempted, as much cyberwarfare as expected.
“Is that because Russia tried and failed? Or is it because Russia didn't try? I think either one of those things is pretty interesting,” she said.
It’s possible the lack of attacks is due to Russia’s incompetence, or because the U.S. and others are mounting strong defenses.
Or perhaps cyberattacks are “just not that valuable.”
“If you're facing an adversary that’s willing to bomb TV towers, bomb communications infrastructure, bomb all sorts of horrible things, then maybe cyber is just not that useful. Cyber is better when you’re trying to be deniable, when you’re trying to be precise, when you're trying, maybe, not to be escalatory.”
More action on the cyber front could be forthcoming, she said, noting that President Joe Biden recently warned U.S. critical infrastructure to ramp up their defenses.
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