Kyiv before the war, photo: Konstantin Novakovic
Kyiv before the war, photo: Konstantin Novakovic

A protest in support of Russia in its attack on Ukraine was held in Belgrade on Friday, March 4, organized by right-wing associations and attended by several thousand citizens. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution strongly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (with 141 votes in favor (including Serbia), 35 abstentions and 5 against (Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria)), mass protests against the war are taking place around the world, while the only anti-war protest in Belgrade was organized by Women in Black. With thousands of people chanting “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia” at the protest in support of Russia, Vucic’s regime is pretending to be moderate on the issue. And I don’t even want to get into tabloids and social networks.

That slogan – Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia – fully summarizes the ability of a large number of people in Serbia to keep two contradictory ideas in their heads without any problems: on the one hand that NATO had no right to attack Serbia in 1999 and that Kosovo had no right to secede from Serbia, and, on the other, that Russia did have the right to kidnap Crimea from Ukraine and now openly attack it with the aim of changing its government. The truth is this: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is as contrary to international law as the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These are all examples of aggression, with the current one being the most obvious. There is no meaningful legal argument by which a Russian attack on Ukraine could be justified. States cannot attack other states just because they see them as a potential threat at some point in the future. Nor is Russia’s argument that Donetsk and Luhansk became independent states and that Russia is now acting in their collective self-defense acceptable. Self-defense must be necessary and proportionate, and the invasion of the whole of Ukraine and the forceful change of the regime simply isn’t that. In the past days, dozens of academic associations for international law have condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine as aggression, without hesitation. The illegality of this attack is an objective reality, just like the sky being blue, the Earth revolving around the Sun, or two plus two being four.

If we in Serbia invoke international law regarding Kosovo, then we must be consistent and condemn violations of these principles and rules in other cases. The fact that Western powers themselves have violated international law – primarily by attacking Iraq, which has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives – certainly undermines their ability to condemn Russia. Their criticism, at least in the case of America and Great Britain, is definitely extremely hypocritical. But the fact that America and Britain have violated international law cannot justify the same (or worse) violation by Russia. If someone kills or rapes someone else and goes unpunished, it does not mean that murder or rape have suddenly become morally or legally justified.

To summarize: there is not a single moral, legal or principled reason why one could condemn the NATO attack on Serbia and justify the Russian attack on Ukraine. Not one. People who somehow avoid cognitive dissonance by keeping contradictory thoughts in their heads (“Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia”), justifying Russia and condemning the West, resort to various meaningless rationalizations. They did not come to their views by reason, guided by moral or legal principles, but by emotion. Serbian Russophiles are not really that – they do not like Russian culture, language, food, music or literature. The vast majority of them have never been to Russia, they do not speak Russian, they do not eat borsch or shchi, they do not read Solzhenitsyn and do not listen to Tchaikovsky. Their logic is based on emotion and identity. It is both simple and simply perverted. By defending Russia, Serbian Russophiles are actually defending a stronger version and vision of themselves and Serbia. Russians are merely big Serbs and Ukrainians, although Orthodox and culturally just as close to us, have become foreign. And since the evil West and NATO attacked us back then, and now they support Ukraine, that must mean that Ukraine is evil and Russia is good.

That’s all; any further contemplation is unnecessary.

The author is a professor of international law at the University of Nottingham.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 09.03.2022.