04 Mar Tracking State Reactions to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Resource for Research
By now, many readers -especially those who follow me on Twitter, will have figured out that I have a weird hobby: I like keeping track of who says what about international law in times of crisis. I’ve done it for the Syria strikes of 2018, the Venezuelan elections of 2018, the recognition of Juan Guaidó as President of Venezuela in 2019, the attack on Qasem Soleimani in 2020, and now, of course, the crisis in Ukraine.
In the beginning, I tracked the reactions to Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, on February 22nd. For that thread, click here. On the 24th, however, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At that time, I started a new thread, tracking specifically reactions to what was (evidently, in my opinion) a war of aggression against Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk are not states. They are a part of Ukraine. The right to self-determination cannot be manipulated in this fashion to fabricate a consent-based argument for the use of force. Russia is not under attack from Ukraine and so has no right of individual self-defence against it.
But this post is not about my views on Russia’s legal basis (a topic I may yet return to). This is about states’ views. Initially, and as is by now tradition, most states shared rapid responses on Twitter, which facilitated my job. As the war raged on, however, states began to issue more than one statement in more than one forum. Several OAS members, for instance, issued a joint Declaration on February 25th strongly condemning the “illegal, unjustified and unprovoked invasion” of Ukraine. Other states addressed the matter at the UNHRC. The Security Council met on February 25th trying to pass a resolution condemning the aggression – which was of course vetoed by Russia. On the 27th, it met again to convene an emergency session of the General Assembly, under the framework of the Uniting for Peace Resolution. That session met between February 28th and March 2nd, concluding with Resolution A/ES-11/L.1, which deplored “in the strongest terms, the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine”.
Evidently, the Twitter thread was getting out of hand, and it was unable to convey the varied set of statements being produced. Given the gravity of the situation, I decided to discontinue the thread and do something a little bit more systematic. This post contains the result of this work: a chart containing all the statements I have been able to track, by state, date, and forum, as well as a map.
The methodology is straight forward. I focused on statements by the head of government, ministry of foreign affairs or representatives at the UNSC and UNGA as of the day of Russia’s full-scale invasion (February 24th). This, of course, left some amazing interventions unaccounted for, including the speech by the Ambassador of Kenya at the UNSC on February 22nd and the Estonian Parliament’s Statement of February 23rd. While significant, it was the only way to keep the tallying targeted and manageable.
I organised the statements in six broad categories. States that specifically called the invasion an “aggression” have been colour-coded red. Those that specifically called the invasion “illegal” or a “violation of international law” but did not go as far as declaring it an act of aggression, were colour-coded orange. States that omitted legal claims and simply voiced support for the UN Charter system on an abstract fashion and/or merely expressed their concern over the situation without taking a specific legal position, were colour-coded yellow. States that supported Russia’s actions but did not make legal claims, were colour-coded blue. States that specifically stated that Russia’s actions were legal or, more commonly, that Russia had a “right” to invade Ukraine / defend itself, were colour-coded green. Finally, states that issued no statement at all were colour-coded grey.
I should clarify, given that most states issued more than one statement, that I have considered the “most extreme” claim as the definitive position. This means, for example, that a state, like Brazil, that voted in favour of Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 (which calls the attack an aggression) will be coded red even if their initial statement was less categorical. Brazil’s initial reaction of February 24th simply called for a cease of hostilities and a solution that “takes into account the legitimate security interests of all the parties” – which initially coded it yellow. Likewise, Turkey’s initial reaction deemed the Russian invasion “unacceptable” and a “grave violation of international law”, but it did not call it an act of aggression. As such, Turkey was initially coded orange. On March 2nd, however, it voted in favour of Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 and therefore shifted to red.
On the other end of the spectrum, Venezuela’s initial reaction was coded blue. It blamed the invasion on the “grave threats” Russia faced against its territorial integrity and sovereignty, arguing that NATO and the United States had “breached international law”, but without making any claims as to whether Russia was legally allowed to invade. The next day, the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs rejected “the actions of those who pretend to weaken Russia”. And yet, on March 2nd, the day the GA approved Resolution A/ES-11/L.1, the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs “supported Moscow’s right to defend itself from NATO’s threats and encirclement” – key-word, “right”. This made Venezuela shift from blue to green.
There have also been some curious shifts. On February 25th, Myanmar’s Junta stated that Russia’s invasion was “justified”, which coded it green. On March 2nd, though, Myanmar voted in favour of Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 – a full 180° turn – which coded it red. I decided to keep the latest intervention as the “final” one, but left the green colouring in the February 25th statement, to mark the extreme discrepancy.
I tracked statements by 197 sovereign entities (193 UN Member states, plus Kosovo, Taiwan, Palestine and the Holy See). Of these, 143 (72.59%) considered Russia’s invasion an act of aggression – most, of course, because they voted for Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 (Kosovo and Taiwan splitting the difference). Every single state that called the invasion illegal eventually shifted to call it an act of aggression. 19 were coded yellow (9.64%), 4 were coded green (2.03%) and 1 (North Korea), was blue.
I do not claim this list to be exhaustive. I was unable to find statements from 30 states, including Palestine. This does not mean that these states remained silent, merely that I was not able to find any statement they may have made. And yet, for most of these 30 states, the decision to stay silent seems to be intentional. They had the opportunity to voice their opinion at the UN General Assembly but didn’t.
I have argued in the past that silence should not be confused with neutral or ambiguous statements in support of existing rules. I think this analysis holds for this case as well. States that were coded yellow were always emphatic about their respect for the UN Charter and the use of force regime. More than a decision not to participate in the debate or a desire to acquiesce to Russia’s views, these statements seem more nuanced. Instead, I maintain, they are meant to promote the state’s specific understanding of the jus ad bellum expressed in a way that does not alienate Russia.
The case of China is a good example. China has been consistently coded yellow. While it has stated it understands Russia’s concerns, it has never actually justified the invasion, be it on political or legal grounds. Its initial response, on February 24th, called on all parties to “exercise restraint” and respect “the legitimate security concerns” of all parties. On the 26th, China said that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and upheld”, as well as the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This was, China said, a “basic norm governing international relations”. At the same time, it argued that the Ukrainian issue had a “complex and special historical context” and that it understood “Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues”. This defence of the Charter regime plus understanding of security concerns was later repeated at the UN General Assembly, where China abstained. China argued that “one country’s security should not come at the expense of another” and that “regional security cannot be promoted by expanding military blocs”.
Reading China’s position as a failure to condemn Russia’s aggression, and therefore acquiescence on its arguments, seems mistaken. By focusing on the Charter, China is instead avoiding alienating a frequent and important ally, while at the same time taking advantage of the situation to promote its own vision of international law. China is not saying that Russia is right by walk-over, it is instead saying that it has its own point of view, but that now is perhaps not the time to voice it. The way I read this, for China, the Charter should be respected, but in the way China conceives it. It’s a similar position to that of Latin American states whenever the United States violates the UN Charter. As I wrote in the context of Latin America’s reaction to the Syria strikes of 2018:
“Any ambiguity in language cannot be construed to mean an attempt to acquiesce to legal change, but rather as a diplomatic move to sustain the longstanding Latin American tradition of support for non-intervention, while at the same time not triggering a response from a world superpower, already distanced from the region, and involved in several complicated hot-topic issues, such as trade and immigration.”
Likewise, states who were ambiguous enough to be coded yellow in the case of Russia are not trying to say that Russia’s course of action should become the norm by acquiescence. Instead, they are trying to defend the system as they understand it without alienating Russia. I insist, as I did in 2018, in the difference between silence and ambiguity.
Finally, it is worth highlighting that most states that I was unable to track and are thus marked as grey were in Africa and central Asia. This is a frequent problem that requires addressing. Global South nations usually avoid getting involved in crises involving military powers they may need in their international relations. This limits Global South participation in the formation of international law. Because of this, Global South states need a more engrained and programmatic approach, like the one led by Mexico in 2021 during the Arria-formula meeting on use of force.
In closing, I hope that this chart is helpful to my colleagues working on issues of jus ad bellum. If you find a statement that I have missed, please let me know and I will update the post. I will continue to do these tracing exercises into the future. Hopefully, they will offer us a clearer outlook for how international law is perceived globally.
To download the chart, please click here.