For a country under attack since 2014 from Russian-backed forces, Ukraine certainly has faith in the power of moral law. On March 6, it opened a legal case against Russia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The suit seeks remedies for the killing of civilians in Ukraine based on several international laws. Merely convincing the United Nations’ highest court of such atrocities could help put a needed spotlight on President Vladimir Putin’s role in this hot conflict.
“Truth is stronger than arms!” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page as the court case opened before 16 judges in The Hague. Russia’s forceful taking of the Crimean Peninsula three years ago and its ongoing military support of separatists in eastern Ukraine have challenged the security order in Europe at its core. The court case is an attempt to restore the Continent’s moral norms, such as respect for territorial integrity, that have kept Europe at peace for decades.
Russia is a party to the ICJ and obliged to follow its rulings. Ukraine’s suit also seeks remedies for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, which killed 298 passengers and crew. An investigation led by the Netherlands found the plane had been shot down with a Russian-made missile from an area controlled by pro-Russian forces. The suit also calls on Russia to end discrimination against the non-Russian minorities in Crimea.
The EU has already imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine but with little effect so far on Kremlin behavior. If the ICJ decides in Ukraine’s favor, it could deliver a blow to Russia’s reputation. Mr. Putin’s aggressive meddling in European elections, as well as Russian hacking in last year’s American presidential campaign, has begun to backfire on him.
Putin may now realize that Russia needs to use “soft power” to achieve its objectives in Europe. Last week, for example, he finally admitted that Russian athletics had engaged in large-scale doping at international competitions. Russia’s anti-doping system had failed, he said, adding that it was “our fault and we should acknowledge it.” His admission may help persuade Olympic organizers to allow Russian athletes to participate in future Games.
If Ukraine’s president is right, a court’s recognition of the truth about Russian-backed violence in his country may be an effective weapon. Exposing a grievous error against the light of universal justice is a way to triumph over it.