These are terrifying times for the people of Ukraine and horrifying for the rest of the world, witnessing a superpower invade its European neighbor for the first time since World War Two. On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, claiming there was a constant threat to Russia and announcing his intention to “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian government. For the democratic West, this is the biggest test of its power and integrity in the 21st Century.
The Minnesota Journal of International Law welcomes Staff Member and incoming Editor-in-Chief Zack Taylor, 2L, who served for nine years as an active-duty U.S. Army intelligence professional, to share his opinions on this international conflict.
Would you first Introduce yourself?
I am Zack Taylor, 2L at the University of Minnesota Law School. Next year I have the honor of serving as the Editor-In-Chief for the Minnesota Journal of International Law, Volume 32. Prior to coming to law school, I served in the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2020, first as a Human Intelligence Collector and later, after graduating from West Point, as a Military Intelligence Officer. My final assignment in the military was as the Battalion Intelligence Officer for 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). In this role, I had a focus on narco-terrorism in the south and central America, conventional military operations in Asia, and finally ongoing counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Throughout my institutional training we kept coming back to a scenario in which Russia invaded Ukraine and NATO had to expel the forces. What we are witnessing unfold on TV each day is eerily familiar to the training I did over 5 years ago.
We keep seeing conflict in numerous international organizations, like the UN and the EU. What’s your take on this?
Setting aside the conventional war that is ongoing, there is also a battle for control of the information domain—who has the dominant narrative? Russia continues to assert that it invaded Ukraine in an effort to protect the separatist region in eastern Ukraine comprised of ethnic Russians, while the Ukrainian government views this conflict as a Russian war of aggression to restore a greater “Soviet Union.” Russia has repeatedly defended its actions as a “denazification” of the so-called neo-Nazi Nationalist Ukrainian regime. Although the Ukrainian and Russian people do hail from the same people hundreds of years ago, they are separated by a lot of history since then in which they have each been on opposite sides of numerous conflicts. During World War Two, Ukrainian nationalists began actively resisting Soviet rule of the region. When the Nazis occupied Ukraine, some of those Ukraine nationalists collaborated with Nazis against what they saw as their common enemy—Russia. Each sides’ respective narrative has a grain of truth, which is often portrayed in a way that is most advantageous to whoever is asserting it. What we are seeing on the international diplomatic scene at the UN is the manifestation of the ongoing battle for the high-ground in the informational domain.
Could you talk about your opinion on the current war and how it’s going to proceed?
Following the Euromaidan uprising in 2014 that overthrew a pro-Russian regime, Russia has sought to restore its power and influence in Ukraine as a means to counter NATO. We saw Russia annex Crimea essentially unopposed and begin to foment a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. This latest venture by Russia seems to be the next phrase in restoring Russian influence within Ukraine. Although Russia’s initial justification for invading Ukraine was to protect Ukrainian citizens from “genocide,” Russia’s siege tactics since then do not really support that goal.
Russia appears to have grossly underestimated how fiercely Ukraine would resist. They arrayed their forces in such a way that seems to indict that they expected to find success through a lightning invasion. Russia’s advances have thus far been slowed down by two things – morale and logistics issues; and a reluctance to use its full indirect fires capabilities. The supply and morale issues the Russian military has been experiencing demonstrate that they just weren’t prepared for a long campaign. Russia has been hesitant to engage with heavier firepower because of the severe civilian casualty that would result. I think they are coming to a conclusion now that this is not going to be the easy victory they anticipated. I expect Russia will continue to ramp up its use of artillery, airstrikes, missile strikes, and siege tactics, which will unfortunately very likely resort to more civilian casualties.
I also think Russia underestimated how quickly this conflict would unify the West and solidify its resolve to support lethal aid to the Ukrainian military. Since the lethal aid is coming overland through Poland, I would expect to see increased Russian efforts to disrupt these shipments throughout western Ukraine in the coming days and weeks.
Would you talk about the international sanctions being levied against Russia?
Compared to the Western economic sanctions regime against the Taliban, this is a very different situation. Russia is far more globalized and generally more dependent on international trade for the health of its economy. It’s pretty apparent how quickly these sanctions are impacting Russia’s economy. However, I think the sanctions as they stand won’t disrupt ongoing Russian military operations in the short run, but it will make it significantly more difficult to maintain the campaign in the long run. The more international pressure put on Russia, the more difficult it will be for the Russian government to downplay the significance of the war in Ukraine. I am also surprised to see how western European countries have begun pivoting their defense policies. The European Union has authorized the distribution of lethal aid to Ukraine, a first. The more support the West provides Ukraine, the longer it will take Russia to secure the country, if at all.
Are there things we can do? What do you want to say to our law school community?
I would encourage people to stay informed about what is going on. There is a lot of misinformation out there right now and it is only growing by the day. I would recommend the Institute for the Study of War for anyone who is interested in daily updates on the operational and strategic situation in Ukraine.
It’s pretty surreal to be living through such historic times. Given recent developments on the diplomatic front, I am optimistic about the ability to secure a possible ceasefire in the near term—whether that will be enduring is another matter. However this ultimately ends up, it’s clear we are dealing with a more aggressive Russia that is willing to take significant risks to achieve its core security interests. There will continue to be a pressing need for international legal scholarship as we all continue to navigate this uncertain time.