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Understanding the Russo-Ukraine War: A View Across Geopolitics, History, and Law

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The tragic conflict we are seeing in Ukraine is a “colossal failure in anticipating and containing threats of violence,” says Matteo Winkler, Associate Professor of International Law at HEC Paris. But there is much we can learn from it, he argues at the beginning of a DiversiTALKS* session he organized, and we must find a way to foster connections and common interest to maintain dialogue and openness. This article summarizes the key insights that Law and Geopolitics professors and businesspeople shared on 20 April 2022, as well as the testimonials of Giuseppe Graziano, Community Manager and LGBT activist who had to flee Kyiv, and Ukrainian Viktoriia Lapa, Lecturer at Bocconi University.

HEC DiversiTALKS Ukraine - cover

Matteo Winkler, Jeremy Ghez, Viktoriia Lapa and Giuseppe Graziano at the HEC DiversiTALKS of April 2022

In 1962, the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear war. U.S. President John F. Kennedy wanted to build a coalition of nations to pressure the Soviets to back down. He engaged an envoy to Paris to visit French president, Charles de Gaulle, armed with a briefcase of evidence for nuclear arms on the island of Cuba. The two leaders were known not to like each other. But legend has it that de Gaulle told Kennedy that he believed him; that he did not need to see the evidence. The briefcase remained shut. And in this way, two nations built a coalition of trust, despite their leaders’ dislike of each other.

The reasons behind the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Much of Ukraine, especially in the east of the country, considers Russian to be their mother language. Vladimir Putin believes this fact represents ownership of this population.

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This marked an escalation of the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War, which first began in 2014 with Russia seeking – and succeeding – in annexing Crimea.

On 16 March, the International Court of Justice issued an order stating that the Russian Federation must immediately suspend its military operations in Ukraine. By continuing, Russia is breaching its international obligations.
Putin claims Ukraine and NATO represent a security concern for Russia. In a letter, he stated that 30 NATO states are funding biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Russian soldiers allegedly found documents that demonstrate Ukraine's’ intention to launch a military attack. As such, Russia claimed its reason for the invasion as self-defense, under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Back when Kennedy offered de Gaulle the briefcase, he was allegedly not concerned with needing to see the evidence. But international law is. When one country makes a claim, they must prove it. As such, Russia’s security concerns must be verified.

“International law tells us that any self-defense, even when justified, must follow two key principles,” explains Winkler. “In essence, the response must be both necessary and proportionate.”


International law tells us that any self-defense response, even when justified, must follow two key principles: it must be both necessary and proportionate.


This means that a country cannot pre-empt an attack. We have seen states grapple with this tricky balance during the war on terror, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia cannot manipulate the law to justify their actions.

“The question that troubles me is that, is it a good thing that Russia is now left out of the networking of international organizations, such as the Council of Europe?” asks Winkler. “Because if we cut the dialogue, we might be losing opportunities for peace. On the other hand, we know that Putin has no intention to stop.”

This leaves us in a paradoxical situation.

Victims of the conflict

“Although it may be hard to swallow, both sides have broken international humanitarian laws that apply to armed conflict,” explains Alessandra Spadaro, Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University.
The atrocities by Russia – murder, torture, and rape – are far larger in nature and scale than those committed by Ukraine. With more time and evidence, they may be proven to amount to a genocide in the eyes of the law.
Yet Ukraine has committed its own violations, including forced conscription. We have seen this in action through Ukraine’s prevention of certain groups of people leaving the country, including men over the age of 18 and people from the LGBTQ+ community, even though this latter group face particular persecution from Russian forces.

Is war inescapable?

Everyone has something to say about the war in Ukraine. But as Professor Jeremy Ghez, Associate Professor in Economics and Decision Sciences at HEC Paris, says: “This is not a soccer match. It is vital we deconstruct the narrative to try and work out what is really going on when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”


It is vital we deconstruct the narrative.


He expressed concern about the pervasive sense that violence, conflict, and war are inescapable and will always be present due to international rivalries. Events such as the example given above, the Cuban Missile Crisis, remind us that the world can act to contain violence.

“There’s nothing to be fatalistic about,” he said.

Sanctions are one approach that the West is using in support of Ukraine. In a 2015 paper by Winkler and Montana, sanctions against Russian companies have been growing since the war began in 2014. Back then, there were marked discrepancies. Although Gazprombank was targeted by the U.S., the European Union, and Canada, Bank Rossiya -- the private bank of Putin’s inner circle – was not subject to any sanction by the EU.


Sanctions have grown and intensified today, but they are neither coordinated nor steadfast.


Sanctions have grown and intensified today, but they are neither coordinated nor steadfast. Different countries and organizations are targeting Russia in a variety of ways – for example, some are attacking the military sector, while others focus on the commercial sector.
China watches and waits

There is also a debate about what China represents in the Russo-Ukraine conflict. It is a powerful nation, watching events unfold from the sidelines.
“I think there’s this untold story that this may be China looking to events in Ukraine as a rehearsal for the day they decide to take back Taiwan by force,” says Ghez.

China certainly appears to be acting in response to the sanctions it has seen against Russian banks, namely their removal from the SWIFT network. China is developing its own SWIFT equivalent to attempt to shield themselves from this threat. It is also talking about digitalizing its currency to further protect itself from sanctions.

The West is united, but alone

Putin may have been surprised by the extent to which the Western world has united against him. NATO is not dead after all. Yet the extent of action from the U.S. and Europe has been criticized by African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern counties, who were quick to point out the West’s hypocrisy when it comes to administering sanctions.


The extent of action from the U.S. and Europe has been criticized by African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern counties, who were quick to point out the West’s hypocrisy when it comes to administering sanctions.


The question is what the outcome of this will be. In 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, came a suggestion from the U.S. about forming a new international organization, the League of Democracies. The idea of a new alliance to maintain peace led by the U.S. raised discomfort. But we may see something similar rise from the ashes of this war: a club that allows free trade and partnership to those who abide by its rules – rules that Russia is currently ignoring.

“The West is united,” says Ghez, “but it is all alone. So where does it go from here? And is it ready to take responsibility?”

President Macron has laid out a roadmap of strategic autonomy that goes beyond the realm of the military. It views the world in a way that corresponds to the gradual fragmentation of globalization that we are seeing. His view is that if Europe wants to do well, it must be bold enough to go it alone more often, even if that path is the more expensive one. That goes against the European philosophy of the past.


Macron’s view is that if Europe wants to do well, it must be bold enough to go it alone more often, even if that path is the more expensive one.


The fact is that we may have to pay a higher price to protect our freedom. That may prove to be the legacy of this war.


Giuseppe Graziano, Community Manager and LGBT Activist

Giuseppe was living in Kyiv at the time of the Russian invasion of the city. Originally from Italy, he moved to Ukraine two years ago to work in a tech startup.

Upon arriving in the country, Giuseppe was excited to discover a thriving digital community. He was surprised to learn that Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of IT services, with digital IDs in place of physical cards and a legalized cryptocurrency. He quickly made friends within Kyiv’s queer community and was inspired by a flourishing creative scene full of artists, designers, filmmakers, and photographers wanting to create a new image of Ukraine.

Yet, in the months running up to the invasion, there was rising tension: “Everybody had been reading up on how to dress to show that you’re a civilian, where to get a gun, how to pack what you needed for the road.”

For the queer community in particular, Giuseppe says there was a sense of fear, because people remembered the purge of gay people in Chechnya. They all knew they would be one of the first groups Russian forces would target. “But I’d decided to stay and build a life in Kyiv,” he says. “The day before the invasion, I’d even applied for my residency permit.”

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Giuseppe awoke to the sound of banging. His two closest friends were at his door shouting at him to get his stuff: “They told me the Russians were in Kharkiv. My mind went blank. My friends had to drag me around my house to get my stuff.”

As they rushed out of the house, they heard the first sirens: “On the streets, people were frenetic. Some were leaving bags on the street and just jumping into their cars. It was chaos. I was thinking about my friends, my house, my investments, my colleagues. It took me some time to shut out all those thoughts and just run for my life.”


I was thinking about my friends, my house, my investments, my colleagues. It took me some time to shut out all those thoughts and just run for my life.


Their plan in case of war had been to look for bomb shelters, but they could find none. The three friends headed to one of their parents’ apartments, in the east of the city. 

“One of my friends was originally from Donetsk, the other from Luhansk – they were already refugees in their own country. The grandmother had survived three wars. I didn’t expect it to take so much energy to convince them to leave. They finally started listening to us when we heard a loud bombing a couple of kilometers away. They froze, we looked at them, and we all agreed to go.”

It took the group ten hours to cover the first 300 kilometers. Each night, they slept in the car or in empty buildings, taking turns to keep watch. Over the next ten days, they passed through Romania, then Hungary, then Slovakia. Then Giuseppe and one of his friends took a plane to Belgium, where they are now staying. 

“It felt so sad driving out of the country,” he says. “The last day, before crossing the border, I had to say goodbye to my friend. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be conscripted, so he decided to stay. It was heart-breaking having to leave one of my best friends behind, not knowing if I'd ever see him again.”

Viktoriia Lapa, Lecturer at Bocconi University

Viktoriia came to Italy from Ukraine six years ago to do her PhD. Since completing her studies, she has been teaching both in Italy and in a university in her native city of Dnipro. She was in Ukraine a lot for work, and to spend time with her friends and family there.

“On 24 February, my life changed forever,” she says. “I woke up at six a.m. Italian time and saw all these messages from people I know in Ukraine, telling me that they were being bombarded.

“Here in Bocconi, everything seems fine, and life goes on as it did before, but in Ukraine people I know are being killed. Our neighbors went to fight. My brother cannot leave the country because he's a 25-year-old male, so he had to send his wife and one-year-old child to Poland.

“I contacted one of my professors – the dean of faculties when I was studying there. He refuses to leave Kharkiv. He’s still teaching online, and he sent me photos of other professors preparing lectures in bunkers. He is staying behind to supervise and care for 27 people, including children, who are living in local car parks.”

Viktoriia has relatives in Moscow, who she feels are brainwashed. One older, female relative told me that Ukraine deserves this war because it had executed a genocide in Donbas.

Desperate to help and to channel her stress, Viktoriia has joined a group of volunteers working with the Ukrainian consulate in Milan. They are acting as mediators, helping Italians who want to offer accommodation to Ukrainian refugees. She is also part of a group at Bocconi University which offers support and advice to Ukrainians arriving in Italy. 

“I go to a lot of protests,” she adds. “From the first day of war, a group of young Ukrainians has been coming to the Piazza del Duomo all day, every day.”

Viktoriia was last in Ukraine in January. “Kharkiv is resisting so much. I’m impressed by the courage of the people who are volunteering amidst the shelling to help people who are still there; to keep the city alive.”

Based on the HEC online conference of the DiversiTALKS* series, “Understanding the Russo-Ukraine War: Geopolitics, History, and Law” held on 20 April 2022. The speakers were Jeremy Ghez, Associate Professor in Economics and Decision Sciences at HEC Paris and Co-Director of HEC Paris Center for Geopolitics; Alessandra Spadaro, Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University; Matteo Winkler, Professor of International Law and CEMS Academic Director; Giuseppe Graziano, Community Manager and LGBT activist; Viktoriia Lapa, Lecturer at Bocconi University; Dana Abdul Samad and Vitalii Poiarkov, Association HEC Ukraine.

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