Defending the rule of law

Richard Branson looking pensive
John Armstrong
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 19 February 2022

As Russia continues to amass troops on Ukraine’s border, one element of this unacceptable aggression has been largely ignored.

I recently shared my views on the situation, and why everyone should be coming together to stand up for Ukraine's sovereignty. This week I spoke to Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK, about the role of the global business community and the need to stand up for peace.

The ambassador raised the very pertinent issue of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Then, Russia signed a commitment "to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine". In turn, Ukraine joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and gave up its nuclear arsenal.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first major violation of the Budapest Memorandum. A Russian invasion in the coming days would rip the Memorandum apart and have catastrophic effects. Blatant disrespect for the rule of law and the validity of international treaties would be disastrous for peaceful coexistence between nations, throwing off the often sensitive balance of power that safeguards peace and prosperity in many parts of the world.

An invasion of Ukraine by Russia would further destroy the cause of disarmament and non-proliferation, which has international agreements at its heart. Without binding agreements and their implementation, there can never be peace. What message does Russia’s aggression send to other nuclear powers prepared to sign up to international disarmament treaties? It’s a slippery slope.

Some argue that if Ukraine had held onto its nuclear weapons, Crimea could well still be a part of Ukraine and there wouldn’t be a build-up of Russian troops. There is no doubt that Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine will disincentivise those previously willing to reduce weapons stockpiles, as it suggests that any agreement can be unilaterally and arbitrarily ripped apart.

On a more fundamental note, unilateral withdrawal and blatant disregard of international treaties also points to a true crisis of multilateralism. Multilateral institutions designed long ago to maintain peace and drive sustainable development no longer enjoy the same level of support and respect. In too many ways, international cooperation has given way to small-minded nationalism. It’s a real threat to the rule of law that humanity hasn't seen since the dark days that led to World War II.

This situation is not just bad news for Ukraine in this very moment of acute crisis; it is bad news for every nation, present and future, seeking to protect its sovereignty.

The world must support Ukraine. We must not abandon a country that voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons in return for peace, and is now on the verge of being invaded by the very country that persuaded it to do so.