by Daniele Scalea

The international crisis surrounding Ukraine, which has been focusing the world's attention for weeks (and is actually only an acute moment of a multi-year, if not multi-decade, dispute), has reached a turning point with the formal recognition of the People's Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk by the Russian Federation. The moment is appropriate to make some considerations about the crisis. Since the commentary is intended to be pragmatic and adherent to factual reality, we will begin by clearing the field of some misunderstandings induced by the rhetoric of the two sides.

The myth of "international law"

International law does not exist. Or rather: it exists, but only to regulate minor issues in moments of peace between mutually friendly actors. When the climate is overheated and the divisions between the parties involved are deeper, each tries to assert force more than law, or if we want to turn its own force into law ("might makes right", say the English-speaking world). Silent leges inter arma, the ancients used to say: when weapons speak, laws are silent. And in our age, in which wars are no longer declared, they never begin and never end, but continue unceasingly (almost always at low intensity). Weapons are no longer just sharp swords, but any instrument or action aimed at damaging the adversary, according to the dictates of asymmetrical and hybrid warfare. These sui generis weapons are never silent, always overriding the voice of rights, laws and even treaties.

The "international community" exists only as a journalistic or diplomatic formula. There is no "rule of law" among nations with impartial courts of justice. International courts always represent the "justice" of the victors, generally exercised with the fairness of Brennus. This does not mean that the facts exposed in these courts are false and the convicted innocent, but only that the courts are by constitution partisan and exercise a targeted and partial justice: in Nuremberg were sentenced real Nazi criminals, but on the judgment of Iona Nikitchenko and on the basis of the indictment by Roman Rudenko - that is, real communist criminals.

The accusation against Russia of violating international law is both well-grounded and purely propagandistic. Undoubtedly, jurists can identify specious arguments put forward by Moscow, as well as the violation of the Helsinki Accords (in reality not binding) and of the Budapest Memorandum (by which Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons stored within its borders in exchange for guarantees on territorial integrity). On the other hand, it is all too easy to see how these Russian arguments - full of calls for self-determination of peoples, denunciations of genocide, responsibility to protect - are nothing but a mimicry of those used by NATO countries, in recent years, to justify military attacks against Libya and Yugoslavia. Let's think of the Kosovo crisis in 1999: the situation is similar but the parties are reversed. At that time Moscow did not recognize the right to secession of the region with an Albanian majority; a right that NATO defended and imposed with weapons in hand. In the same years - and this is still the case today - the same NATO countries frustrated the right to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina of the Serb-majority Republika Srpska.

The "right" is almost always a mere propaganda issue. The positioning of countries on issues and crises is determined by will, interests and alliances. The assessment of what is right and wrong can affect that determination, but it is seldom the decisive element and certainly not in this Ukrainian crisis.

The myth of "historical rights"

If NATO relies on law, Russia defends the morality of its actions mainly by referring to history. A good part of President Putin's speech yesterday was dedicated to historical reconstruction. The arguments put forward by Putin were not at all peregrine, as some critics claim. It is true that Ukraine was born in the bosom of the same Russian civilization (indeed, one could say that Russia was born from a rib of Ukraine) and that for a long time it was one with Russia itself; it is true that Crimea and most of today's south-eastern Ukraine were wrested from the Muslims by Moscow and repopulated by Russian settlers, so as to be called "New Russia"; it is true that the borders of post-Soviet Ukraine are descended from those of Soviet Ukraine and are largely the result of the arbitrariness of the communist leadership.

To these very good and correct arguments of historical nature Ukraine can reply with equally good and correct arguments of equal nature. The particular Ukrainian identity developed only in the modern age (Ukrainian nationalists predate it by many centuries, but this is not necessary), but it is now a self-evident reality. Ukrainians can argue that if it struggled to take root, it was also because Moscow fought and repressed it for a long time: if it had not persecuted the Taras Ševčenko, Ukrainian identity would probably have been more successful. The fact that many Ukrainians have Russian blood in their veins does not mean that they cannot perceive themselves as a distinct nation. If the inhabitants of the Donbass are mostly Russian-speaking and of Russian identity, it is also because, in the era of industrial development of that region, it received overwhelming immigration from Russia. Finally, it is not Ukraine's fault that the Soviet communist regime gave it these borders, or at least it is no more so than Putin's own, for twenty years a member of the CPSU and the KGB.

This case exemplifies how, rarely, in an international diatribe the reasons are all on one side and the wrongs on the other. Generally, each side has good reasons and dead wrongs. This is all the more true when history is involved, which is by its very essence terribly complex, multifaceted and open to countless interpretations. Protagonists and observers of a crisis may be genuinely convinced that they are acting driven by morality, but their identification of " fair" is always influenced by prejudices, affinities with one or the other side, or the brutal cynicism of material interest.

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The strategic reality

The reality is that there is no fighting for law or history. In Ukraine they are fighting because the strategic balance between NATO and Russia passes through there. Less than 500 km of highway separate the Ukrainian border from Moscow. If the country were in NATO - Putin said yesterday - the Atlantic alliance would be able to dominate the Russian skies up to the Urals and to launch missile attacks (potentially also a nuclear first strike) difficult to counter. The Russian President has even expressed fears that Ukraine might acquire nuclear capabilities on its own. And he made it clear that he doesn't trust reassurances from Western capitals: "They tell us that Ukraine's entry into NATO is not on the agenda, that it won't happen tomorrow. But the day after tomorrow?"

Moscow has some justification for not trusting mere verbal reassurances. At the time of German reunification and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the Kremlin received assurances from the US, Germany, France and Britain that NATO would not expand eastward. This Russian version of events has recently been confirmed by new British archival documents published by "Der Spiegel". As is well known, the commitment was fulfilled for less than ten years, after which NATO expanded eastward until it reached Russia's borders at the Baltic.

Herein lies the crux of the matter. Moscow does not want NATO to encompass Ukraine, now or ever. Putin has argued that all the necessary infrastructure already exists for the neighbor's rapid integration into NATO's military structure. His demand is blatant and public: formal guarantees that such NATO accession will not happen.

In fact, it must be remembered that, if this chapter of the crisis was undoubtedly provoked by Moscow's moves, the wider Ukrainian issue owes much to those previously made by Western countries. The independent post-Soviet Ukraine lived for a long time as a buffer state between Russia and NATO: a condition that reassured the Kremlin and did not cause us major headaches. Things changed in 2005 with the "Orange Revolution", which led to a re-run of elections and the triumph of anti-Russian politicians determined to bring the country into the EU and NATO. A people's revolt against the endemic corruption, of course, but in the eyes of the Russians (and not wrongly) also a maneuver of Washington to extend its sphere of influence. Things went badly for the pro-Westerners and, after a few years, the elections were won by the pro-Russians. At the turn of 2013 and 2014 a new revolt, more violent than the first one, that of "Euromaidan", led to the ouster of the government and the establishment of a new regime in Kiev, neither more nor less democratic than the previous one, but decidedly more anti-Russian. It was this last blow that pushed Moscow to the well-known actions in Crimea and Donbass. It cannot be ignored that they came in response to a push, promoted by NATO countries, to bring Ukraine towards us and make it lose the buffer role it had had until then. To tell the truth, that buffer role was already wavering because President Yanukovich had talked about joining the Eurasian Economic Union: but in all the previous years Ukraine had pursued membership in the European Union without this shifting its center of gravity in Moscow's eyes.

Choices to be made

Now it is up to us to decide what to do. We have to do it bearing in mind that international law counts for little, in this crisis, and that those who want to identify "good" and "bad" are sinning in simplicity, naivety or bad faith. There are only interests and choices of will. If Russia were to attack Poland, there would be no doubt: the Atlantic alliance would commit us to fight alongside Warsaw. Ukraine, however, is not a member of NATO and this opens up a wide range of choices. It will be good to share them, agree and coordinate them within the Atlantic Alliance, as is obvious, but this does not mean that Italy should be subjected to the determinations of others and follow supine.

Italy must develop its own stance and can do so by beginning to answer some questions. How do the following scenarios increase or decrease Italy's security: Ukraine in NATO, "Finlandized" Ukraine, Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence, Ukraine divided in two. Whether it is acceptable for Crimea and part of Donbass to be annexed to Russia. Whether it is desirable to one day recover Russia to the Western sphere, or to fight it as an enemy to be eradicated to the extreme consequences (including that of consigning it to the predictable alliance with Communist China).

Once the Italian national interests have been determined, it will be necessary to compare them with those of the allies and the parties directly involved. It would be a mistake to participate in this crisis without having a goal: because no wind is favorable to those who do not know towards which port they are headed.

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Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (written with Stefano Graziosi) is Trump contro tutti. L'America (e l'Occidente) al bivio.