e live in a world of pervasive and profound asymmetries – in size of countries, in economic power, in military might, and capacity to project and control information. We also live in a world that features rules against going to war, except for defense. When a country elects to go to war, it must thus construct a case for its decision – a casus belli, a “provocation” that justifies its “response”.
In this commentary, I make the case that every casus belli is presumptively false because wars are predatory in nature and almost invariably are started by the powerful against the weak in pursuit of some “interest”. Typically, the difference in power is measured in orders of magnitude. Importantly, in the context of the modern information society, power includes what might be termed “market power” in information space, which is manifest in dominant powers being able to control and shape the narratives aimed at establishing the legitimacy of their actions (Ciuriak, 2021). In nature, predators attack prey, not the reverse. To transform predator into prey thus requires a disinformation offensive, which involves de-legitimizing/demonizing the target country, articulating grievances, asserting provocations, and attacking counter-narratives that emphasize ulterior motives. Given the asymmetry in power, the war will be fought on the territory of the weaker country, and the victor, writing the history, will be in a position to portray its invasion as a “liberation” and the invaders as “saviours”.
Let us apply this template to Russia’s preparation of its invasion of Ukraine.
Evaluating Russia’s Casus Belli for its Invasion of Ukraine
The initial conditions
Russia is much larger and more powerful than Ukraine. In 2021, Russia’s population of about 144 million was about 4 times larger than Ukraine’s population of 44 million; its GDP of US$1.65 trillion (2021) was 9 times larger than Ukraine’s US$181 billion (IMF, 2021). Russia’s defense budget of US$45.8 billion is 11 times larger than Ukraine’s US$4.2 billion (Martin, 2022). Russia is a nuclear power, bristling with strategic and tactical nuclear weapons that guarantee its territory safety from military attack; Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its territorial integrity from, inter alia, Russia.
Not surprisingly, the war is being fought in Ukrainian territory with Russian forces invading and not the reverse. Russia bombards Ukrainian cities with long-range weapons such as cruise missiles routinely with impunity; meanwhile, the threat of escalation to nuclear war creates trepidation over Ukraine striking back and draws explicit assurances from third parties (most importantly the United States) to the aggressor that Ukraine will not receive weapons that can strike at Russia.
However, a great power punching down on a smaller power, using a nuclear threat to dissuade any other country coming to the victim’s defense looks bad in public relations terms. Accordingly, justification is required. This is where the information war comes into play.
First the de-legitimization
Russian President Vladimir Putin is on record as describing modern day Ukraine as an amalgam of “Malorussia and Novorossiya” (Little Russia and New Russia) – essentially denying the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation – and claiming Kyiv, Ukraine’s capitol, as the “mother of all Russian cities” (Putin, 2021). He also claims Ukraine’s cultural heritage as Russia’s, starting with the legacy of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko. The forces that divide these “Russian” territories are thus “evil”: Moscow Patriarch Kirill has denounced these “forces of evil” (the West) “struggling against the unity of two Slavic peoples” (Le Monde Diplomatique, 2022, chapeau commentary to a reprint of Llobet, 2018).
Thus, an independent state and a founding member of the United Nations, which upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, an act that defined the borders of both the modern Russian Federation as well as of modern Ukraine, and which held a referendum on its independence that passed overwhelmingly, both in Ukraine as a whole and in each of its regions (OSCE, 1992), becomes delegitimized as a separate entity and the stage is set for territorial acquisition to be presented as “reunification” – which of course Ukrainians are fighting tooth and claw to resist.[i]
Then the demonization
The epitome of evil in recent memory is Nazi Germany. “Because Nazism has become radical evil, denazification is meant to bestow a moral glow on the pitiless destruction of Ukraine” (Illouz, 2022).
Every country is vulnerable to comparisons with the Nazis, as each has its far-right fringe that evokes such comparisons. However, some command more popular support than others. Consider, for example, the extent of popular support for far-right parties in the European Union and liberal Canada:
- Germany: Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured 12.6% of the vote in Germany’s September 2017 legislative election (Berning, 2017; on the linkage of the AfD to neo-Nazism, see e.g., Klikauer, 2019);
- France: Marine Le Pen’s National Rally captured 13.2%/8.8% of the vote in the first and second rounds in France’s 2017 legislative election (Michel, 2017; on the linkage to Nazism and neo-Nazism, see, e.g., McAuley 2018; and Alouane 2022);
- Italy: Italy’s governing centre-right coalition has been accused of tolerating and even encouraging neo-fascist politics (Barry, 2019); and Giorgia Meloni’s “Brothers of Italy”, a party labeled as neo-fascist, has surged into the lead as most popular within the coalition (Bruno, 2021);
- Finland: The far-right Finn’s Party captured 17.5% of the vote in the 2019 parliamentary election (The Economist, 2019; on the far-right characterization see Teivainen, 2019; on the neo-Nazi links, see Dite, 2020);
- Canada: Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party tripled its share of the popular vote from 1.5% to 5% in Canada’s 2019 federal election (MacLellan, 2021; on the links to neo-Nazi elements, see, e.g., Rieger, 2019); Bernier’s party is one of several extreme right-wing parties in Canada (Momani and Deschamps, 2021).
By contrast, in the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, the far-right parties, which had formed a common list under the Svoboda (“Freedom”) banner in order to gain parliamentary representation, were humiliated at the polls, capturing only 2.25% of the vote (Colborne, 2019) – in an election that made Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew, President of Ukraine, a country that has legislation on the books criminalizing antisemitism (Illouz, 2022).
Demonization of Ukraine as a bastion of Nazism should have been difficult for Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machinery. But Russia’s intellectuals have risen to the challenge. For example, an op-ed penned by Timofei Sergeitsev and posted on RIA Novosti describes the Ukrainian population as largely “passive Nazis and accomplices” (Brown, 2022). Moreover, it is commonplace in information space today to see the words “de-Nazify Ukraine”, whether amplifying, simply noting, or attempting to rebut (see, e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into the information wars; Knox, 2022). The real question, of course, given the poll numbers cited above, is why is this even an issue?
Then the articulation of grievances
In a 2021 article published by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin listed a set of grievances that presaged the attack on Ukraine:
- The Soviet Union had unfairly transferred historic Russian lands (i.e., imperial conquests, such as Crimea, which Russia annexed in 1783 following its war with the Ottoman Empire) to Ukraine. Russia was thus the victim. In Vladimir Putin’s words, “It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”
- NATO had betrayed Russia by expanding its membership against promises and its takeover of Ukraine: “we are witnessing not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure … In the anti-Russia project, there is no place either for a sovereign Ukraine or for the political forces that are trying to defend its real independence.”
- Forced assimilation of Russian-speaking people: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
In short, Russia has been robbed, betrayed, and threatened with mass destruction by an aggressive, anti-Russia state that is about one-tenth the size of Russia and lacks nuclear weapons.
Regarding Russia’s borders, the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 8 December 1991 was effected by the leaders of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), and the Byelorussian SSR, who declared that the Soviet Union no longer existed, recognized each other's independence, recognized and expressed respect for each other's “territorial integrity and the inviolability of the existing borders,” and signed the founding instrument for the new Commonwealth of Independent States (Tass, 1991).
On NATO’s betrayal: the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed 27 May 1997 in Paris, set out the relationship between NATO and post-Soviet Russia. It has two pertinent commitments:
- Refraining from the threat or use of force against each other, as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and with the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations Between Participating States contained in the Helsinki Final Act; and
- Respect for sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples' right of self-determination, as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents.
The Act does not specifically refer to NATO enlargement, but it does refer to “new [NATO] members” and the US State Department press release explicitly stated: “The Act has no impact on NATO enlargement. That process is proceeding on schedule; NATO leaders at the Madrid summit in July will extend invitations to the first countries to begin accession talks. Those countries admitted will have the full rights and responsibilities of Alliance membership, and the door to membership will remain open to all emerging European democracies” (State Department, 1997). At the NATO Summit held several weeks later, NATO formally offered membership to three former members of the Warsaw Pact, Poland, Hungary, and Czechia. Furthermore, the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine was signed on 9 July 1997, the day after the Madrid summit (NATO, 1997).
It is not uncommon for two parties to exit a negotiation and to give diametrically opposite interpretations of an issue that was “papered over” through “constructive ambiguity.” (For a discussion of this concept, see Elgindy, 2014, on its use in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.) However, there is no ambiguity as to the document that Russia signed – just as there is no ambiguity about Russia’s deep unhappiness about the context, or American awareness of that deep unhappiness. The US awareness is made clear in a US Army War College assessment at that time: “Russia has diplomatically contested the enlargement of NATO since discussions concerning the issue began in 1992. There are many reasons for Russia's concern and at times visceral opposition to NATO enlargement” (Milano, 1998). Russia was not happy with the deal it signed, but it knew up front what the deal was – there was no betrayal (see also Menon and Ruger, 2020, for a discussion about how this unhappiness is not in reference to perceived betrayal).
On cultural assimilation, the purported grievance illustrates the saying that when someone “points the finger” (in the sense of making an accusation), there are three fingers pointing back at the accuser. As Vladimir Putin himself acknowledges, Russia has a history of “russification” of non-Russian-speaking territories under control of the Russian Empire: “I am not going to idealise anything. We do know there were the Valuev Circular of 1863 and then the Ems Ukaz of 1876, which restricted the publication and importation of religious and socio-political literature in the Ukrainian language” (Putin, 2021). But perhaps more to the point, Russia is home to 144 million native Russian speakers who are not at risk of forcible assimilation into Ukraine, because Ukraine is not invading Russia. Meanwhile Russian is commonly spoken in Ukraine’s major cities, is the dominant language in Eastern Ukraine, and the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens identify as “Ukrainian”, including in the contested Donbas region (Bilewicz, 2022). Indeed, it is the first language of Ukraine’s President.
Then the casus belli
Small countries never create excuses to attack great powers; but great powers need excuses to attack the small countries. Russia’s formal announcement on February 24 was that the invasion was “to defend people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime.” This is of course reference to the Donbas region, which Russia had invaded in 2014 and which was already under Russian control and in a state of “frozen conflict” (Grossman, 2018).
As has been pointed out above, Russia’s war aims were far broader, making this pretext the equivalent of the proverbial fig leaf – it covers very little of what is actually at play.
In passing, it is interesting to observe that the estimated number of fatalities in the Donbas conflict since 2014 is estimated at 13,100 to 13,300. Of these, 3,393 were civilians; the rest were military personnel roughly evenly split between Ukrainian forces and volunteers on one side and separatist forces and Russian military personnel on the other. By comparison, in Russia’s suppression of Chechnya’s separatist movement in two wars, the civilian death toll was several orders of magnitude higher, on a much smaller population base.[ii]
As noted by Muggah and Dryganov (2022), Ukraine has “…extraordinary resource riches, including some of the largest energy, mineral, and agricultural assets in the world.” Apart from the agricultural and coal resources, these are largely undeveloped.
As regards energy, Ukraine is dependent on gas imports notwithstanding that it has the second largest gas reserves in Europe, located mainly in the Donbas and Crimea. For the record:
Excluding Russia’s gas reserves in Asia, Ukraine today holds the second biggest known gas reserves in Europe. As of late 2019, known Ukrainian reserves amounted to 1.09 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, second only to Norway’s known resources of 1.53 trillion cubic meters. Yet, these enormous reserves of energy remain largely untapped. (Amelin et al., 2019)
The proven reserves are only a fraction of the estimated total reserves, which are thought to be more than 5 times larger. Moreover, Ukraine also has “one of the most well-developed and all-encompassing gas transportation infrastructures of any country in the world, in terms of both domestic deliveries and export facilities.” (Amelin et al., 2019).
Ukraine launched a major oil and gas privatization effort in 2013 in order to develop its energy reserves. This was interrupted almost immediately by Russia’s 2014 invasion with the following consequences:
When Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014, they seized subsidiaries of Ukraine’s state energy conglomerate Naftogaz operating in the Black Sea. The Kremlin appropriated these companies — and billions of dollars of equipment — and delivered them to Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant. (Cohen, 2019)
While Ukraine’s energy reserves represent only a small fraction of Russia’s (see, e.g., Marcinek, 2022), the hostile takeover to pre-empt competition and preserve Russia’s political leverage over Ukraine and the EU in the politically important medium term can hardly be excluded as a material rationale for Russia’s interventions in 2014 or one of its major war aims in 2022 of seizing the Black Sea coast.
In addition, the value of Ukraine’s agricultural and mineral potential has steeply risen due to technological developments that have made rare earth elements (REEs) much more valuable and accelerated climate change impacts on agricultural production that have created new food scarcity concerns worldwide. Ukraine’s accelerated licensing for mineral resource extraction (“Ukraine was busily expanding investment in critical minerals, including earths, just months before the invasion”; Muggah and Dryganov, 2022) and Russia’s overt use of food supply disruption for political leverage suggest such calculations were not absent in the planning of the invasion.
As the saying goes, “When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money”.
In recent memory, we have two prominent instances where a casus belli was developed in preparation of an invasion – the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. In considering how Russia prepared its case, it is instructive to review how the US/UK prepared their case.
The US/UK “military operation” (CFR, 2022) was launched on 20 March 2003 under the label “Iraqi Freedom”. It was justified as pre-empting the use of weapons of mass destruction, with a particularly infamous comment from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “We do not want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” (one of 935 comments from the Bush Administration in the run-up to the invasion compiled by Reuters, 2008, all of which proved to be false).
The force asymmetry in the case of the US/UK invasion was massively greater than that between Russia and Ukraine – not surprisingly, the war was fought in Iraq (subsequently rationalized by President George W. Bush on the following basis: “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America”; White House, 2007).
Saddam Hussein was presented as the epitome of evil (the demonization of Saddam had started much earlier in the run-up to the 1990 Gulf War, charging him with his first murder at age 10 – and his mother was ugly; Anderson and van Atta, 1990).
A litany of complaints was made concerning non-compliance with weapons inspections etc., notwithstanding the insistence of UN inspectors that Saddam was complying (Powell, 2004).[iii]
The operation was mounted as a “shock and awe” campaign intended to decapitate the Iraqi government (CFR 2022); the American public was assured its forces would be welcomed by Iraqis (US Vice President Dick Cheney: “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators” NBC News, 2003). They weren’t.
Importantly, the US/UK narrative on the casus belli generally was presented as reasonable and compelling in the English language press despite the fact that it could not pass any reasonable “smell test” (see, e.g., the assessment by one of the few US Congressmen to have read the classified report; Graham 2005). The failure of the press was acknowledged in a defensive mea culpa by the editors of the New York Times, one of the main guilty partners in promulgating the narrative:
"Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all." (The Editors, 2004)
Whether the US/UK case was lies or self-deluding spin (Kessler, 2019) and/or what the real objectives in the war might have been – oil, Israel, spreading democracy, or a “demonstration effect” to impress US rivals of its willingness and ability to use massive force – becomes a matter for ex post scholarship (e.g., Hinnebusch, 2007; Butt, 2019).
In considering Russia’s case for war for war on Ukraine, it is therefore important to start by examining the case through a quantitative lens. We see a similar asymmetry in power and it is all downhill from there.
In Russia’s case, it was necessary to create the appearance that Russia was not attacking but defending, and since Ukraine could not provide a sufficiently convincing threat, Russia was presented as defending itself from the US-led NATO. Ukraine, however, is not part of NATO and Russian forces in Ukraine are not fighting NATO forces. The success of the information campaign is thus to be judged by the extent to which there is an argument taking place in the public at large, pro and con, over whether Russia’ concern over NATO expansion legitimizes its invasion – or as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it, a reasonable “explanation” to third parties: “We didn't invade Ukraine. We declared a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way of explaining to the West that dragging Ukraine into Nato was a criminal act" (Rosenberg, 2022).
Further, part of the ostensible casus belli is to obtain precisely the kind of self-evidently worthless security guarantee that Vladimir Putin himself was breaching with his invasion – and that the parties that were to provide said guarantee were not honouring for the Ukraine! Objectively, the security guarantee that Ukraine obtained under the Budapest Memorandum when it relinquished its nuclear weapons (which would have guaranteed its territorial integrity) was not honoured by NATO powers, the United States, and United Kingdom, just as it was devastatingly not honoured by Russia itself. The illogic could not be more brazen. Again, the fact that such a line of argument has no plausibility whatsoever is not the point in information wars – what is important is that Putin set the agenda for what was to be debated. Once the question is defined, then influence campaigns can enter the fray to shape opinion. The fact that the question is in all truth irrelevant ceases to matter.
The scene was thus set for the invasion and the “shock and awe” campaign, which was supposed to be over in a matter of days. The joke that made its way around Russia subsequently was that it was “24 days into the 2 day war” (as of this writing, 113 days). The Russian troops were not met as liberators, but as occupiers – including by mass protests of unarmed civilians in the towns that were taken. Objectively, this is the surest way to know the casus belli was false – although this is presumptively the case with all such excuses, given the context in which they are made.
Dan Ciuriak is a Canadian economist who holds fellowships with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, where he writes on the digital economy, the C.D. Howe Institute (Toronto), where he writes on trade policy, and with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (Vancouver), where he focuses on Asia-Pacific issues. Formerly he was deputy chief economist with Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.
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 While this is not the time or place to go into the nationalities issue in any depth, it may be observed that Ukraine has its own historical foundational narrative, which also reaches back into antiquity. See, e.g., Magosci (1996), Dashkeyvych (2014), and Kuzio (2020). On who is winning the narrative war, see Garrood (2020). On the significance of this in the current conflict, see, e.g., Snyder (2022); and King et al., (2022).
As a bit of a digression, it is notable in considering claims to the past that the coat of arms of the modern Russian Federation incorporates the two-headed eagle of the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, whose capital was modern-day Istanbul in (recently renamed) Türkiye! The two-headed eagle was incorporated in the coat of arms of the original Tsardom established in 1547 by Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) to enhance the imperial pretensions of the expansionist Duchy of Moscow (Tsar = the Roman Caesar). Peter 1 (“the Great”), who moved the capital to Petersburg in 1721, renamed the Muscovite Tsardom as the Russian Empire but retained the two-headed eagle. Vladimir Putin's empire re-building under the modern Russian Federation as a follow-on to Byzantium and the Russian Empire, thus can be seen as an eastern version of Germany’s "Third Reich", which followed the western Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne, and the German Empire that spanned 1871–1918. What is key here – apart from the ominous parallels, which were underscored by Vladimir Putin’s comparison of himself to Peter the Great (Roth, 2022) – is that, in identifying territories incorporated into the Moscow/Petersburg Russian Empire as “Russian lands”, Putin expresses Russian imperialism as Russian nationalism. It is instructive in this regard to see that Lenin, in his article, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, in describing the nationalities issue in the Russian empire, drew a clear distinction between the “Russian people” and the “subject peoples”, which included the Ukrainians:
Russia is a state with a single national centre – Great Russia. The Great Russians occupy a vast, unbroken stretch of territory, and number about 70 million. The specific features of this national state are: firstly, the ‘subject peoples’ (which, on the whole, comprise the majority of the entire population – 57 per cent) inhabit the border regions; secondly, the oppression of these subject peoples is much stronger here than in the neighbouring states (and not even in the European states alone); thirdly, in a number of cases the oppressed nationalities inhabiting the border regions have compatriots across the border, who enjoy greater national independence (suffice it to mention the Finns, the Swedes, the Poles, the Ukrainians and the Romanians along the western and southern frontiers of the state); fourthly, the development of capitalism and the general level of culture are often higher in the non-Russian border regions than in the centre. (Lenin, 1914; published 1977: 407-408).
The battle of the narratives is of consequence as the outcome influences external perceptions and preparedness to support the claims of one side or the other in the actual kinetic conflict.
 The civilian death toll in the first Chechen War, launched by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and extending over 1994-1996, is estimated at between 35,000 (Dunlop, 2000) and 50,000 (the Moscow-based human rights organization, Memorial, as cited in Zurcher, 2007). The civilian death toll in the second Chechen War, launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and extending over 1999-2001, is much more speculative. During the First Chechen War, The Russian media was relatively independent. The Kremlin laid the blame for Russia’s military failure in Chechnya on the media reporting and, in the Second Chechen War, the flow of information from the war zone was suppressed (Askerov, 2015). Estimates of civilian deaths in the second war thus vary wildly: several estimates place the total in the hundreds of thousands, most of them civilians (see, e.g., Cherkasov and Lokshina, 2005), with as many as 200,000 Chechens having fled to neighbouring countries. In terms of population size, Chechnya has a population about one-third that of the Donbas region (about 1.3 million in Chechnya vs. 3.6 million in the Donbas).
 “The important thing to remember, Blix said repeatedly, was that Saddam was cooperating with the inspections, despite the difficulties they create for a leader. "No one likes inspectors, not tax inspectors, not health inspectors, not any inspectors," Blix chuckled. Not only did Saddam have to endure the indignity of submitting to searches of his palaces, he explained, but the dictator also harbored the valid fear that the inspectors would pass on their findings of conventional weapons to foreign intelligence agencies, providing easy future targets.” (Powell, 2004).