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Trump muses about a really bad — and evidently illegal — idea to bomb Russia using Chinese flags

Former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As Russia was ramping up its invasion of Ukraine, former president Donald Trump chose the moment to hail President Vladimir Putin’s moves as “savvy” and “genius.” Now the military strategist former president has weighed in with his own idea for what the United States could do next. And it’s … something.

At a speech in New Orleans on Saturday night, Trump mused that we could simply apply Chinese flags to our F-22s and then “bomb the s--t out of Russia,” setting off a conflict between those two countries.

“And then we say, China did it, we didn’t do it, China did it, and then they start fighting with each other and we sit back and watch,” Trump said, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey.

The audience laughed. A joke, perhaps! But also one about something that might well violate international law. And that’s if you can get past the idea that Russia would ever mistake F-22s — a highly recognizable airplane that the Chinese don’t use — for Chinese aircraft.

“Using the flag of a neutral state or any other state that is not a party to the conflict is prohibited,” said Laurie R. Blank, an expert on international law at Emory University’s law school. “This idea would bring the U.S. into the conflict (because it would be actually engaging in military operations against Russia) and be in violation of the rule prohibiting the use of the flags, emblems or insignia of neutral states or states not party to the conflict.

“It would escalate the conflict dramatically, and the rules on neutrality and neutral states are designed to prevent exactly that.”

Blank cited Article 39(1) of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which states, “It is prohibited to make use in an armed conflict of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict."

Other experts say the idea floated by Trump sounds akin to perfidy.

“A ruse like that one is perfidy and violates [international humanitarian law] and customary international law,” said William C. Banks of Syracuse University. “Perfidy in lay terms is treachery.”

Vanderbilt University’s Michael A. Newton, though, noted that perfidy generally deals with misuse of the enemy’s flag, rather than that of a third party.

“It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that misuse of Chinese markings would actually be perfidy in the legal sense, because they’re not even remotely a party to the conflict,” Newton said. “It’d most likely just cause confusion among Russian forces, accompanied of course by immediate video footage to show how unwise such a strategy would be.”

Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University noted that though the law is complex, “the short answer is that putting another state’s insignia on U.S. bombers would be unlawful.”

“Whether it would be considered a war crime (leading to criminal liability) or just a ‘violation’ (leading to loss of protected status) would depend on the specific circumstances,” Brooks wrote in an email.

The United States has affirmed the prohibition on using neutral countries’ flags in its military manuals. The U.S. Naval Handbook, for example, says that vessels at sea can use markings to deceive when not engaged in combat. But in the air, “Use in combat of false or deceptive markings to disguise belligerent military aircraft as being of neutral nationality is prohibited.”

Again, a joke perhaps. But it certainly constitutes pretty loose talk from the man who served as commander in chief for four years — and could again one day.

Of course, this is not the first time Trump has proposed bombings (however seriously) that might run afoul of the law. Back in 2020, he spoke of bombing Iranian cultural sites, setting off a rush of assurances from top administration officials that the U.S. military would be doing no such thing:

On Twitter late Saturday, Trump said that the United States was targeting 52 Iranian sites, representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran four decades ago, and that some of those are “a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property bans the targeting of cultural sites with military action; there is a provision that allows for a waiver due to “military necessity.”
Iran has 24 locations on the U.N. list of cultural world heritage sites.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appeared across the Sunday public affairs shows, struggled to explain Trump’s warning. He did not directly state whether cultural centers in Iran would be considered fair targets, but insisted that any U.S. action would be legal.
... Pompeo said Trump’s reference to the 52 potential target sites in Iran was “entirely consistent” with the administration’s message of de-escalation.
“Iranian leadership needs to understand that attacking Americans is not cost-free,” Pompeo said during that interview. “Setting out conditions that say these are our expectations, these are the things that America is expecting from you and if you don’t do them, the cost will be clear and direct.”
A few hours later, however, Trump contradicted Pompeo by doubling down on his threat of striking cultural sites.
“They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One during his flight home to Washington. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”