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Are Russia's positions on Ukraine and Crimea legal?

By Ali Omidi - posted Monday, 17 March 2014

Generally speaking, two political and legal approaches can be taken to the analysis of international issues. When countries have different viewpoints on how to interpret, adapt and implement international laws and regulations, their difference is of a legal nature. However, when differences among governments are about changes in a political situation or when they want to show an appropriate reaction to changes in a political situation, this is called a political difference. At any rate, to justify their political measures, governments take advantage of legal covers because this will legitimize their measures and will also reduce public opinion's pressure on them.

This issue has been quite evident during the course of the ongoing developments in Ukraine. Each side of the political contention in Ukraine has described the other side's measures as illegal while trying to show that their own measures have been totally legal and legitimate. This article will focus more on the arguments provided by the Russian government for the measures it has already taken in Ukraine. In order to prove that the measures it has taken in Ukraine are totally legal, Moscow has resorted to the following legal doctrines:

  1. Saving citizens from a major risk;
  2. Humanitarian intervention;
  3. Being invited by the ruling government for military intervention; and
  4. Protecting the independence of a minority population in case of a human calamity.

One of the legal arguments to which Russia has resorted is that it is ready to militarily intervene in Ukraine in order to save the lives of ethnic Russian people in Crimea and Ukraine. This point had been explicitly mentioned in the letter sent to the Russian parliament by President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have also frequently emphasized on it. This argument, however, is flawed because firstly, the ethnic Russian people living in Ukraine and Crimea are not considered Russian nationals. Therefore, Russia is not legally authorized to resort to saving citizens doctrine and try to find a way to protect them. Secondly, these people are not facing the threat of discrimination, criminal acts against them or other major risks in order to provide legal ground for that justification.

The second argument to which the Russian government has resorted is that Moscow supports the independent-seeking drive of the Crimean people and backs their bid to join Russia on the basis of humanitarian grounds. This argument is also flawed. Humanitarian intervention is justified only when some people are exposed to serious risk, criminal acts or discrimination. The ethnic Russian people living in Ukraine are not currently facing such a situation.

The third argument provided by Moscow is that Russia is going to launch military intervention in Ukraine and Crimea upon the invitation of the country's legal president, Viktor Yanukovych. The point is: Can Yanukovych be still considered as the legal president of the Ukrainian government? In the jargon of international law, there is a difference between de facto and de jure governments. As a result, the interim government in Kiev is actually considered as the country's de facto government. In international relations, other states usually recognize de facto governments. Therefore, even if Yanukovych were the legal head of state, he would not be authorized to use foreign forces in order to divide his homeland and accept the risk of the breakout of civil war with the ensuing risk of possible massacre of citizens.

The fourth argument offered by Russia is based on the situation in Kosovo. In fact, the Russians are trying to base their argument about Ukraine on the positions taken by the Western countries on Kosovo. When the former Yugoslavia was falling apart, heavy clashes took place between ethnic Albanians of Kosovo and Serbs. Finally, the Western countries recognized the independence of Kosovo in order to prevent a human catastrophe. So far, more than 100 countries have recognized the new political entity in Kosovo as an independent state. Russians are drawing an analogy between the current situation in Crimea and what took place in Kosovo and argue that they welcome the decision of the Crimean people to join Russia in order to prevent more humanitarian calamities in the region. In reality, however, there is little, if any, similarity between the situation in Kosovo and Crimea. Furthermore, the ethnic Russians in Crimea have not been exposed to the risk of discrimination, pressure or criminal acts by Ukrainians of far. Therefore, there is no logical ground for their separation from Ukraine and annexation to Russia. By the way, there is no previous precedent in which a political entity had decided to get separated from one government and join another government just in order to get rid of an existing political situation.

A review of the aforesaid arguments provided by Russia to justify its actions in Ukraine clearly proves that the legal grounds used as basis of the Kremlin's reactions to developments in Ukraine are relatively faulty. It also proves that Moscow is actually trying to achieve its own political and geopolitical goals by taking advantage of the current turbulent situation in Ukraine. In other words, the measure taken by Russia is a reaction to the measures taken by the West's political and ideological hegemonic system. Russians believe that the West is trying to establish its own hegemony in the region. Perhaps Russians and some other governments may be of the opinion that the measure taken by Russia is politically correct. This would be just the opposite of dominantly negative reaction that the West has so far shown to Russia's measures in Ukraine. However, Russia's measure can be hardly explained on the basis of the procedures recognized by international law. Therefore, the ongoing developments in Ukraine and the role that Russia is playing in those developments can be best explained through theories of international politics and international relations.

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About the Author

Dr Ali Omidi is Assistant Professor of International Relationsat the University of Isfahan-Iran.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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