As a teacher of international law, I'm struck by the reductionist rhetoric concerning international law in the coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. 'International law' has become a leitmotif in both journalistic and policy accounts, captured in headlines like: "Has Putin violated international law?", and "Crimea: a Breach of International Law." Violations of international law are echoed in policy discourse, from the latest statement of the G-7 leaders condemning "violations of international law" to the statement of the Kremlin's working group on Ukraine regarding efforts to "reframe [the situation] in terms of international law" (ввести в рамки международного права).
Despite the centrality of international law to the ongoing crisis, there has been remarkably little substantive discussion regarding the precise conventions, norms, and principles of international law at issue. Given reciprocal allegations of breach of international law by Russia vis-a-vis Ukraine, US vis-a-vis Russia, EU/US vis-a-vis Ukraine, and the difficult issue of Crimea vis-a-vis Ukraine/Russia, it's vital to map the full range of existing and potential international law issues. The need for this type of analysis is dire. Just today, for instance, Ukraine's Council on TV and Radio has threatened to block Russian television channels, in response to reports of Russian warships jamming Ukrainian broadcasts into Crimea. On March 13, press reports suggested that Ukrainian authorities denied border entry to Russian Aeroflot pilots in contravention of International Civil Aviation Organization rest scheduling requirements. These latest potential violations of international administrative law may seem less consequential than the intervention, sovereignty, and self-determination arguments advanced in relation to Crimean secession, but they are very important nonetheless, as they constitute particularized violations of well-settled norms. As important, the current unregulated restrictions on border entry can have lasting long term effects on bilateral Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Thus far, the only attempts to lend systematic expert analysis to the cascade of international law violations have been aggregators like Oxford University Press' Debate Map on Ukraine, individual mapping exercises, or organic insta-symposia on prominent blogs like OpinioJuris. Curiously, even among these efforts, there has been little to no analysis of the international law arguments from the perspective of Russian jurists or policymakers (for example, here and here) notwithstanding the fact that the Russian blogosphere is alight with international law coverage.
At a time when Ukrainian opposition militia leaders are podcasting hours-long lectures on the Peace of Westphalia and the political origins of the modern nation state -- lectures that amass 50,000 view counts in the space of a month! -- Western observers would be wise to take notice. To start this dialogue across language barriers, professional jargon, and political commitments individual scholars will need space to collaborate, lest we return to Cold War postures where international law occupies an uneasy place alongside ideology and propaganda.