Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine: Legal Rhetoric and Military Tactics

by Chris Borgen

Saturday began with reports that Russia had seemingly used private security contractors to take control of the airport in Simferopol, Crimea. Then reports (like this one from CNN) of President Putin requesting from Russia’s Parliament an authorization to use military force in Ukraine because of “threats to the lives of Russian citizens and Russian military personnel based in the southern Crimean region.” Grigory Karasin, Putin’s official representative in the upper house of the Russian parliament, told the Russian government-funded news outlet Russia Today that The approval, which the president will receive, does not literally mean that this right will be used promptly.”

But, less than a day later it was becoming increasingly clear that those weren’t contractors. And Putin hadn’t been waiting. The New York Times:

Russian troops stripped of identifying insignia but using military vehicles bearing the license plates of Russia’s Black Sea force swarmed the major thoroughfares of Crimea, encircled government buildings, closed the main airport and seized communication hubs, solidifying what began on Friday as a covert effort to control the largely pro-Russian region.

So, why is Russia militarily intervening in Ukraine?  The quasi-legal arguments coming from Russia on Saturday  were the same basic arguments that Russia used in justifying its military intervention in Georgia in 2008. In that case, Russia argued that it was acting as a guarantor of peace in the region and had intervened to protect both South Ossetian civilians, Russian nationals, as well as the defense of its military units that were already in South Ossetia.

As for its actions in Ukraine, the reference to the defense  of the Russian forces in Sevastopol was probably meant to argue that Russia was not in violation of the Budapest Memorandum which states in paragraph 2:

The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

[Emphasis added.] I don’t think anything that has occurred in Ukraine rises to the point of Russia have a claim to Article 51 self-defense, but at this point, this isn’t about adjudicating claims, the Russian strategy is about misdirection and wrapping what it does do in a mantle of (seeming) legality. Well, not so much a mantle as a fig leaf.

Consequently, given the centrality of the norm of non-intervention, the self-defense argument sounds weak to my ears. But consider how the situation in Ukraine is being reported by the Russian-government  funded news source, Russia Today:

The move is aimed to settle the turmoil in the split country.

The upper house of the Russian parliament has voted in favor of sending troops to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which would ensure peace and order in the region “until the socio-political situation in the country is stabilized.

…The common notion was that since the power was seized in Kiev, the situation has only been deteriorating with radical nationalists rapidly coming to power and threatening the lives of those opposing their actions, most notably the Russian citizens living in Ukraine.

The developments follow an appeal by the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, who requested that Russia to help cope with the crisis and ensure “peace and calm” in the region.

Russia as stabilizing force, reacting to a “deteriorating” situation in a “split country” where “radical nationalists” are threatening the lives of Russian citizens.  And this is in response to a request from the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Keep your eye on increasing references to Crimea’s autonomy.

As in the Georgian intervention, Putin focuses the need to protect Russian nationals and the importance of self-defense of Russian troops. But, as mentioned above, I have seen no credible reports that either the Russian naval base in Sevastopol or the majority ethnic Russian population of Crimea was ever threatened by the Ukrainian government.

So why intervene now? Perhaps more relevant to the actual reason for Russia threatening to act at this point is the February 27 announcement by the new Ukrainian government of its interest in signing the Association Agreement with the EU that President Yanukovich refused to sign at the last minute, triggering the unrest that has convulsed Ukraine. Russia had previously mentioned the issue of secessionism, before there was even any unrest, in the run-up to the EU’s Vilnius summit, when Ukraine was originally supposed to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. At that time, back in September, Russian politicians issued warnings that if Ukraine does not reject the EU association program, it would run the risk of Russia supporting the partitioning of  Ukraine to support Russian nationals there. Civil unrest was not at issue then, only Ukraine agreeing to sign the Association Agreement.  While Yanukovich actively courted Putin, and ultimately set aside signing the Association Agreement, Putin as of this past week was facing an interim government in Kiev with which he had no easy political levers to pull. And they said they wanted to associate with the EU. So, military intervention as an extension of politics.

What we saw on these last couple of days was one more example of Russia actively using legal rhetoric as part of its politico-military strategy. This “law talk” does have two potential effects: (a) it makes arguments to which other countries in the international community attempt to respond,  and (b) it reassures the Russian public of the rightness of their cause.  News cycles on Saturday were focused on the Russian domestic process of Putin seeking an authorization to use force and the international discussions and debates over the legitimacy of Russia using force unilaterally.

Meanwhile, there was some confusion about what was happening “on the ground.” Just who are those camo-wearing armed men? Locals? Contractors?  Oh, no. The Russian military.

This misdirection and confusion may be Russia’s third reason for using legal rhetoric in this case. Putin is allegedly an avid chess player. This was a lesson in using legal rhetoric as a feint, while the real action was elsewhere on the board.  You only grasped the new situation once the pieces were already in place.  But, while this was a tactically deft set-piece using coordinated law talk and military force, international law has a way constraining actions when and where people least expect it.  The efficacy of Putin’s longer-term strategy remains to be seen. Of course, this depends on Russia’s goal.

Putin would doubtlessly most desire Ukraine to turn its back on the EU and join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Given the popular protests of the recent weeks, that is an all but impossible at this point. Short of that, Russia could attempt to impede Ukrainian association with the EU and remain a necessary party in any discussion of Ukraine’s future. So what might be  Russia’s next moves? And what may be the roles of international legal argument and international institutions in the strategies of Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the U.S.?

I will consider these questions in my next post.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/02/russias-intervention-ukraine-legal-rhetoric-military-tactic/

6 Responses

  1. I would love to see your opinions on the legality of secession by Crimea given your previous work with Moldova. 

  2. Would the deployment of troops without any military insignia fall afoul of any of the customary rules regarding perfidy or are those restricted to feigning allegiance to enemies/neutrals?

  3. Rebus,
    First, any such rules would apply only in the context of an armed conflict.
    Second, perfidy involves feigning a protected status under the law of armed conflict (for example, civilian status , UN or neutral military) to kill etc the enemy. In my view, wearing a military uniform without further insignia does not amount to feigning civilian status and would only amount to feigning neutral status if the uniform was distinctive to a neutral country.
    Third, to benefit from prisoner of war status and enjoy the combatant’s privilege, the law of armed conflict requires combatants to wear a fixed distinctive sign visible at a distance. Unlike the law of naval warfare, and even more so the law of aerial warfare, there is no legal requirement for a combatant to wear insignia that identifies to which State they belong. As you identify, there is law prohibiting the use of enemy uniforms in certain circumstances — but that is different from not wearing identifying insignia.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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