Ukraine: Debunking Russia’s legal justifications

Russia is violating international law in Ukraine using baseless allegations, and states’ responses should be guided accordingly.

Expert comment Updated 25 February 2022 Published 24 February 2022 3 minute READ

Russia has begun a large-scale military attack on Ukraine, having first declared it recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk as separate states. It scarcely needs saying Russia is violating international law – violating the prohibition in the United Nations (UN) Charter on the use of force, violating the obligation to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, and violating the prohibition on intervention.

But Russia is using the language of the law to defend its actions. In all the recent verbiage of President Vladimir Putin, some attempts at legal arguments can be elicited – but they do not stand up to scrutiny.

There have been no threats of force against Russia from Ukraine nor from NATO member states. There is nothing to support a legal justification for Russia’s military attack against Ukraine

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the threat or use of force with the only two Charter exceptions to this prohibition being self-defence and action mandated by the UN Security Council. In his speech on 23 February, Putin points to two grounds on which Russia relies on self-defence – defence in aid of the two breakaway republics and self-defence in the light of threats against Russia itself.

Donetsk, Luhansk, and collective self-defence

Putin said ‘the people’s republics of Donbass turned to Russia with a request for help’ and went on to seek to justify his military action under Article 51 of the Charter. But it is only in respect of states that the right of collective self-defence exists – humanitarian intervention on behalf of individuals in a state has not gained a place in international law. And it is only Russia which has recognized the statehood of the two regions.

Putin repeated on 23 February his earlier allegation that the people of the two breakaway republics are being repressed by the Ukraine government, and even that genocide is being committed against them. This baseless allegation is relevant not only to the claim of self-defence on behalf of these regions but also to Russia’s ‘recognition’ of them as separate states.

International law does not give the inhabitants of a part of a state the right to secede from that state. The aspect of self-determination which allows for independence of a ‘people’ applies to peoples in colonies and other overseas territories under the occupation of another state. The other aspect of self-determination is ‘internal’ and comprises the right to freely choose political status and pursue economic, social, and cultural development within the state – as the Minsk accords sought to provide for Donetsk and Luhansk.

There is a somewhat controversial theory in international law that would give a right of secession from a state if the people in question were subject to extreme abuse of human rights and systematic oppression. This is the theory of remedial secession, which some countries, such as Switzerland, used in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in relation to Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia – an independence still not recognized by Russia.

But the theory has no support from the international courts and, even if it did, Russia itself has stated previously that a right of remedial secession is ‘limited to truly extreme circumstances, such as an outright armed attack by the parent State, threatening the very existence of the people in question’ (see Russia’s submissions to the ICJ in the Kosovo case, para 88).

Ukraine retained its membership in the UN at the dissolution of the USSR, having been one of the founding members of the UN as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

The facts do not substantiate Russia’s claims anyway. The law is as stated on behalf of the UN Secretary-General on 21 February – that Russia’s decision to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions is a ‘violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.’ There are no ‘states’ which can request the use of military force.

Is Ukraine a threat against Russia?

Putin refers to the ‘further expansion of the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Alliance, the military development of the territories of Ukraine’ as creating an ‘anti-Russia’ comprising a ‘real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty’.

Article 51 allows for self-defence ‘if an armed attack occurs’. This has been interpreted by many states to include defence against the threat of an imminent attack – for example, there is no requirement to wait until a nuclear strike has begun. But under no interpretation of ‘imminence’ can the situation in Ukraine constitute a threat to Russia. There have been no threats of force against Russia from Ukraine nor from NATO member states. There is nothing to support a legal justification for Russia’s military attack against Ukraine.

The myth of Ukraine never having had ‘real statehood’ also does not give any legal justification for Russian aggression. The UN is based on the ‘principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members’ (Art. 2(1) of the UN Charter). Ukraine retained its membership in the UN at the dissolution of the USSR, having been one of the founding members of the UN as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

What are the legal consequences of Russia’s actions?

Within the UN, it is the Security Council which has the mandate to uphold international peace and security, and act when there is a threat to the peace. But there will be no help from there with Russia’s status as a permanent member holding a veto.

The UN General Assembly may act instead. Since 2014 it has adopted a series of resolutions (the latest on 9 December 2021) requiring Russia to withdraw immediately and unconditionally from Crimea. But the General Assembly does not have the powers of the Security Council, and cannot mandate peacekeepers or the use of force.

In due course there may be the need for a UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry to be launched if there are breaches of human rights law and international humanitarian law, and human rights cases may be brought against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. But international institutions do not have the necessary powers to stop what is going on right now.

International law gives the right to Ukraine, being attacked, to call for support from other states. And as well as imposing sanctions, states may wish to consider cyber countermeasures. Some of the recent cyber activity against Ukraine has been attributed by the US, UK, and Australia to the Russian Main Intelligence Unit (GRU).

Ukraine: Debunking Russia’s legal justifications 2nd part

On the negative side, international law (specifically, Article 41(2) of the 2001 Draft Articles on State Responsibility which reflects customary international law) imposes obligations on states not to recognize situations resulting from the use of force. This includes the obligation not to recognize the independence of the two breakaway republics.

Putin complains in his 23 February speech about past violations of international law by the West – and his reference to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is telling. But the naked aggression exhibited against Ukraine cannot be justified by any violations of international law in the past.

Russia has presented itself as a defender of international law – in 2016, Russia and China made a joint declaration ‘on the Promotion of International Law’. Russia would do well now to call to mind the reaffirmation in its declaration of ‘the principle that States shall refrain from the threat or use of force in violation of the United Nations Charter’ as well as the statement that ‘sovereign equality is crucial for the stability of international relations’.