The European Union and the United States have framed their defence of Ukraine as a principled stance against an aggressor and a war criminal, Russia.
But Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza is undermining their moral high ground and weakening criminal prosecutions against Russia, international relations and law experts say.
“When attacks on public infrastructure happened in Ukraine, it led to a discussion in terms of how they violated the Geneva Convention,” said Christian Bueger, a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen.
“Now we’re facing a situation where in the Gaza hospital and so on, we are clearly beyond the borders of international humanitarian law,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to Israel’s siege and subsequent raid of al-Shifa Hospital, where the lack of electricity, water and medicine has put patients’ lives at risk.
“That opens up a discussion of what justified warfare looks like in terms of our contemporary age,” he said, and “shatters what we thought was the set of norms of how military operations should be carried out”.
For Ukraine’s Western allies, “the moral high ground is shrouded in fog”, said an editorial by Chatham House, a British think tank.
This has political and legal ramifications, complicating the task of holding Russia accountable for its crimes in Ukraine.
UN and European investigators have been documenting the suspected torture, rape and summary executions of civilians in Bucha, Izyum and elsewhere in Ukraine. These alleged war crimes and atrocities will be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction Ukraine accepts.
In March, the ICC indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights for allegedly ordering the abduction of Ukrainian children, a war crime.
The ICC is also documenting alleged war crimes in what the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, on Friday referred to as the State of Palestine. Israel does not recognise Palestine or the ICC’s jurisdiction on what it considers its territory.
“The US and UK support the Israeli view. So it would be very difficult for these states now to argue, ‘Yes, the ICC has jurisdiction over Russians who commit crimes in Ukraine, but no, it does not have jurisdiction over Israelis who commit crimes in Palestine,’” said Marko Milanovic, a professor of public international law at Reading University.
The US-UK view is clearly opposed by several Muslim-majority nations and some countries in the Global South.
Five of them – South Africa, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros and Djibouti – asked Khan to investigate and prosecute suspected crimes in Gaza.
The Global South’s more ambivalent view of Russia’s actions has further ramifications for Ukraine.
For a year, Ukraine has led an international effort to set up a special court that will try Russia for its war of aggression – a crime under the UN Charter. To create this court, Ukraine needs to win a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly.
“For that court to have any chance of being remotely legitimate and successful, it needs to get support not just from Western allies of Ukraine but also from the nonaligned/Global South countries,” Milanovic told Al Jazeera.
“And now, after Gaza, most of these countries are not going to be willing to play ball… The West has lost whatever moral leverage it had in pushing for this new institution … the more the Gaza [war] goes on and the US supports Israel, the less other states will support this.”
Russia has been quick to capitalise on the moral and legal murkiness Israel’s counterattack on Hamas created.
Two days after the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel, Russia refused to endorse a US-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the attack, which killed about 1,200 Israelis.
“Their goal is to portray themselves as peacemakers, and they can’t be seen as following the US lead,” said Maxim Alyukov, a researcher at Manchester University’s department of Russian and East European studies, who monitors Russian official language and propaganda.
Russia’s narrative, he said, is that “terrorists have to be punished … but you don’t blame the nation for a few individuals, and you don’t bomb Gaza for an Islamist group”.
That could be seen as indirect criticism of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after al-Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pinned some blame on the United States regarding the latest Middle East conflict.
“I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” Putin said in late October.
‘They don’t seem concerned that Palestinians are dying’
Russia claimed to support “a multilateral approach to the Middle East settlement issue” in a November 7 Foreign Ministry statement that also criticised Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“Nobody criticises Israel, and there are double standards here because when it comes to Ukraine, they openly criticise the fact that civilians are dying, but they don’t seem concerned that Palestinians are dying,” said Alyukov, summarising the Russian position.
He called the Gaza war “a gift to the Kremlin”.
Russia’s position potentially weakens the rules-based international order Western states say they are trying to uphold, said experts, and many countries agree with Russia’s accusations of double standards within it.
On November 18, US President Joe Biden asked, in an op-ed published in The Washington Post: “Will we relentlessly pursue our positive vision for the future, or will we allow those who do not share our values to drag the world to a more dangerous and divided place?”
Earlier this year, Russia held a summit with African countries, a part of the Global South it is making particular efforts to cultivate with promises of cheap oil and grain, despite the fact that its war in Ukraine has raised the prices of both.
“African nations clearly signalled to Russia: ‘Yes we are interested in cheaper supplies, but we are not willing to play the game of translating that into diplomatic support for Russia,’” said Bueger. “The countries in the Global South know what game Russia is playing there.”