Weapons for Ukraine: When you become a participant in the war

Political discussions on possible arms supplies to Ukraine are very heated in Germany. In this connection, a (still) hypothetical question arises: what legal consequences could it have for Germany if it trains Ukrainian soldiers to handle Western weapons.

An expert report prepared by the Bundestag’s scientific service examines whether this will make Germany a party to the war.

Ukraine has the right to defend itself against Russia

Experts in international law are unanimous that Russia’s war of conquest is a clear violation of the UN Charter’s ban on violence. Russia’s aggression was confirmed and condemned by the UN General Assembly, which called on Russia to withdraw its troops immediately. It follows that in the current situation Ukraine has the right to self-defense.

According to the UN Charter, this self-defense can be carried out “individually or collectively”. Ukraine has urged help, which under international law means that support for Ukraine from other countries is legitimate. This includes not only arms supplies but also the sending of troops. And although all other countries have ruled out this option, it would be acceptable under international law.

The question of when a country becomes a party to the war is not clear enough. However, it is clear that even if this happens, it does not automatically mean a violation of international law.

Arms supplies are not “participation in the war”

Many countries, including Germany, supply arms to Ukraine. International law is clear that arms supplies alone are not enough to make a country a participant in the war. Whether the training of foreign soldiers, in the case of the Ukrainians, changes this situation is not entirely clear.

Experts from the Bundestag’s economic department write that if the supply of weapons is accompanied by the training of foreign soldiers, it will probably “go beyond the guaranteed sphere of non-participation in hostilities”.

However, some experts in international law disagree. They believe that the training of military personnel does not indicate direct intervention in military conflict. According to Philippe Durr of the Institute of Public and International Law at the University of Bonn, only in the following two cases will Germany certainly become a country at war: if Russia invades Germany directly or if Germany sends troops to fight in Ukraine.

There are no other similar cases

Judgments on identical cases are very rare in history – when third countries have trained foreign soldiers to handle certain weapons systems. In 1986, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the United States had violated an international ban on military intervention by supporting Nicaraguan counter-attacks, including military training.

However, this case cannot be compared to the current war in Ukraine, as Nicaragua was a country of internal conflict. In other words, the Hague tribunal’s ruling on the Nicaraguan “counter” case could hardly be a guide to the situation in Ukraine.

In conclusion, from the point of view of international law, the issue of training foreign soldiers is not particularly controversial. Another question is what is the political assessment of such assistance. And here the opinions seriously differ.

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