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What exactly needs to happen in order for these two countries to be at war? Is it enough that one of the two sides make a declaration of war?

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    Since in every single case after WW2 whenever a global superpower invaded another country, they called it a "peacekeeping operation" or something similar, instead of "war", it's quite a complicated topic. Official declarations of war seem to not be in fashion in modern times.
    – vsz
    Mar 25 at 22:20
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    @J... : was there a declaration of war in the examples you showed? Were they officially called wars by the government which started them? The War in Afgahnistan is called so on Wikipedia for example, but the official name was a "counter-terrorist operation" named "Enduring Freedom", not a war.
    – vsz
    Mar 26 at 11:27
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    @vsz Maybe you're too young to remember, but it was called war by everyone - including Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. You could probably spend the rest of your days documenting and counting the number of times each of them referred that to that war as "war". It was daily. Declarations of war are de-facto obsolete.
    – J...
    Mar 26 at 11:38
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    @J... Given that this is law.stackexchange.com, don't you think something SLIGHTLY more rigorous than "lots of people called it that" should be required?
    – barbecue
    Mar 27 at 15:27
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    @J... I reiterate: this is Law stackexchange, not the English stackexchange. Given that, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that the question is in the context of law, rather than the more casual context of common English language usage. The fact that a politician says the word "war" in a speech cannot be taken seriously as proof of a formal declaration of war.
    – barbecue
    Mar 27 at 19:52

4 Answers 4

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Actual hostilities suffice to conclude that there is a war. Per Art. 2 of the Geneva Convention 1949,

the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them. The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.

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    Might it be worth distinguishing between "there is a war" (which your answer already covers) and "at war", i.e. in the legal sense - if indeed there is a difference, given that declarations of war have fallen out of fashion. Mar 25 at 9:19
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    It seems to be the case, at least as far as the internal politics and propaganda are concerned, that Russia simply doesn't recognise the current government of Ukraine as legitimate, citing the "coup" in 2014. This may be one of the reasons they haven't declared war, as, according to state propaganda, they're "liberating" Ukraine from the 'drug-addict junta" and the "nationalist battalions" that have "taken over the country". Mar 25 at 15:07
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    This says that the Convention applies in the Ukraine/Russia conflict. It does not state whether they are considered to be "at war" (from either countries' perspective). I think the crux of all this is how one defines "war". The USA, technically, was never "at war" with Afghanistan, legally anyways, but you'll be hard-pressed to find information not calling it a war, from all levels. I'd say it quickly becomes more of a political question than a legal one.
    – BruceWayne
    Mar 25 at 16:05
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    Critical to understand that declarations of war were a thing of the past - when war was decidedly a "gentlemanly" affair and where wars were fought between armies in pitched battle away from civilians. The rules were similar to duels where both parties would meet for a "fair" exchange of combat to determine the victor. In those times, starting a war with a sneak attack was considered cowardly - like stabbing someone in the back instead of challenging them to formal and fair combat. Today there is no saving grace in a declaration of war - war is seen as purely hostile now regardless.
    – J...
    Mar 25 at 16:33
  • @J... Ah yes, the good old gentlemanly times. With the razing of Carthage, with all the rape of civilians around the battleground villages, with pillaging the grounds whilst the rulers didn't feel a thing and still could eat figs while attending to orgies. Those are the gentlemanly times you mean?
    – D. Kovács
    Mar 27 at 13:23
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Legally

No. No War has been declared, but that's not new, declaring war(that is a specific legal act under international law, that can only be formally concluded by a peace treaty) is old fashioned and neither Russia(as the legal successor of the USSR) nor the US have declared war since in 1941 (EDIT: forgot about the Soviet declaration of war on Japan in 1945 when I wrote that) and if you look at the history of declarations of war since 1945, the last time any country formally declared war on another was Iraq vs Iran in 1980. There have been declarations of a state of war, or of the existence of a state of war since then, but those are a step down).

Practically

Yes, but in a weird way. Ukraine is still transiting record amounts of Russian gas through its territory for European customers and getting paid by Russia to do so while fighting it. I think that conceptions of what war is in the 21st century would look very strange to our ancestors.

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    Do you have legal authority to support that interpretatation?
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 25 at 23:35
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    @ohwilleke which interpretation? That no war has been declared? I challenge you to find any news of Russia announcing a declaration of war on Ukraine or visa versa.
    – Eugene
    Mar 26 at 1:08
  • @Eugene: Sources on the specifics on when Iran declared war on Iraq might improve this answer. Mar 28 at 7:15
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    @AlexanderThe1st added. It's a link to Wiki, but that has the source in the table.
    – Eugene
    Mar 28 at 15:17
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    This is partly incorrect. Under traditional (pre-1945) international law, invasion of one country by anothe creates a legal state od war whether it is declared or not Mar 28 at 17:56
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The present war between Ukraine and Russia started in 2014 and not in 2022. It just intensified in 2022.

The definition of "war" is pretty much elastic, but one can use few common criteria:

  • Military personnel involved (checked, both sides, denied by Russia until it became pointless to deny).
  • Military equipment involved (checked, both sides, denied by Russia until it became pointless to deny).
  • Military hierarchy involved (checked, both sides, denied by Russia until it became pointless to deny).
  • Military personnel casualities (checked, both sides, a significant number that cannot be chalked off as "incident").
  • Prisoners of war taken (checked, both sides, even small number of them exchanged).
  • Civilian casualities (checked, a significant number that cannot be chalked off as "incident").
  • Borders moved de facto (checked).
  • Borders moved de jure (disputed, mostly unrecognized by other countries).
  • Being called "war" in everyday speech (checked).
  • Being called "war" in official sources of both sides (not until 2022, from 2022 on - only by Ukraine).
  • Being called "war" in third-parties international relations (checked).
  • A war being declared (neither side).

Too much "quack like a duck" points.

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Yes

Under traditional (pre-1945) international law, invasion of one country by another creates a legal state of war whether it is declared or not. Traditionally it was usual for the invaded nation to declare war on the invader, but this was not required for a state of war to exist.

Other answers are correct that formal declarations of war have been rare since the end of WWII and the wide acceptance of the UN Charter. But acts of war may create a state of war even thought contrary to the UN Charter, and even though no declaration has been issued. An actual military invasion is one of the most classic and definitive acts of war, and an invasion that results in armed conflict creates a legal state of war.

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