“Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea,[…] We do not want a partition of Ukraine. We do not need this. […] it is clear that the imposition of sanctions against us will not go without an adequate response from the Russian side.”
quote by President Vladimir Putin, annexation Crimea
What is currently going on?
The most alarming and dramatic news are currently spreading at a rapid speed around the world, showcasing a world in alert, and demonstrating how quickly warfare, and the idea of occupying territories destroys relationships among nations. The topic has an impact on each of us, on both; emotional, and physical levels. The warfare between the Ukraine and Russia can be traced back to the man who stated the beginning quote and likewise holds full responsibility about the occupation of Crimea: President Vladimir Putin
The president of Russia declared a full-scale invasion on Ukrainian territory, on the 24th of February 2022. No one ever imagined that someone could be capable of such humiliating, damaging, and unjustifiable acts, as we are witnessing them right now . The world is scared of the upcoming times because no one knows what comes next. Putin is unstoppable in his actions and states
Whoever tries to stand in our way (…) should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history!
This type of warfare, and ongoing occupation of Russian troops within Ukraine territory has already caused hundreds of civilian deaths and more than 2.5 million Ukrainians have been enforced, ever since the invasion started, to flee from their home country . Massive destructions made living on Ukrainian ground impossible, hence this occupation compelled the society to start a new life in the face of an unpredictable future for anyone involved.
Now, we are certainly wondering why Putin started this fight and why he wants complete control over the country. We are questioning, how he justifies his act of occupying Ukrainian teritory, such as Crimea, and what kind of actions he is in the current warfare further capable of implying. This being said, we want to look into the position of other nations and neighbouring countries, as well as how the UN and NATO are being involved.
Before we can start answering the questions, let us have a look at some terminologies. What does occupation mean, and how does it differ from for example annexation?
Occupation vs. annexation
When talking about conflicts like these, a lot of terms get thrown around. Annexation; occupation; invasion; what do these terms mean in the context of this conflict? Firstly; territory is considered to be occupied when it is placed under the authority of hostile army. However, occupation can be legal when international laws are being followed. This was not the case for the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, neither the invasion of the Donbas in February. Crimea was annexed; meaning Russia considers it a part of their territory now and thus not respecting their sovereignty. In legal occupation, sovereignty must be respected. As for the Donbas region: this region was controlled by Russian separatists, who declared their independence. However, their independence wasn’t recognised by any country until February 21st, when Russia declared they did recognise their independence. And so, according to Russia, they didn’t invade Ukraine as they didn’t recognize the territory as part of Ukraine. According to the rest of the world Russia landed a full blown invasion.
Historical roots of the conflict
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said the following about the war on Ukraine:
What do we hear today? It’s not just rocket explosions, fighting and the roar of aircraft. This is the sound of a new iron curtain lowering and closing Russia off from the civilized world.
In order to understand this quote, we need to go back in time – to the cold war.
East vs. West
After the second world war, opposing ideologies led to an era of tension between East and West. On the east side, the communist Soviet Union consisted of Russia and current eastern european countries such as Ukraine, who were under Russia’s control. The West’ refers to Western European Countries and the United states. The border between these two worlds was called the Iron Curtain.
Both parties were afraid the opposing side would gain influence and power. Luckily, these tensions never came to actual armed conflict between the two powers; thus the conflict was named the cold war.
In 1991 the Soviet Union fell. Former Soviet states such as Ukraine became independent and many of these countries chose to leave the communist ideology behind. Russia promised to respect their new found sovereignty .
This independence also meant that Ukraine was given the freedom to choose a side: remain close to their former ally Russia or strengthen ties with the European Union? But for Ukraine, this decision seemed extra tough. Ukraïne, bordering Russia, has a lot of ethnic russians. Especially in Crimea and the Donbas region. They would like rapprochement with Russia. But a large percentage of the Ukrainian population wants to mend ties with the European Union. This divide of pro Russians and pro Europeans led to problems during the 2014 presidential elections in Ukraine.
The national Ukrainian elections of 2014 mark the beginning of a series of events that would eventually lead to the annexation of Crimea.
Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukocych was democratically elected as the president of Ukraine. He announced that he would not sign a long awaited agreement with the EU, instead, he would sign an agreement that would strengthen ties with Russia. This led to protests of pro-EU Ukrainians in Kiev. Viktor Yanukovych had to flee the country. With Yanukovych gone, Russia saw their cooperation fail. Instead, Ukraine would partner up with the EU. Vladimir Putin wanted to prevent this at all costs, and in a move of intimidation, he annexed Crimea.
February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a territory located on the northern coast of the black sea, on the south Ukraine territory. Already one month later in March, Russian troops had overtaken Crimea, intentionally to protect the rights of Russian citizens within this region. As a matter of fact, Crimea had an ethnic Russian majority of 60 percent , but there was no evidence that any threats are being implied toward the Russians. In any means, Crimeans wanted to join the Russian federation and pro-Russian separatists declared independence of the Ukraine. This caused immediate warfare within the region and already in 2015 a couple of other nations, such as Germany and France intervened, trying to establish ceasefire and reach diplomatic settlement. Unfortunately, Russian troops remained in the occupied territory and even a year later, there was no sign of peace. In 2016, the NATO placed several troops to stop the aggressive warfare and in 2017 the US. army sent tank brigades to support the NATO and serve as an assistant. From there on, the US. started to introduce sanctions. Throughout the years, cyberattacks and lethal weaponry were deployed in the conflict, and nothing appeared to be able to stop Russian forces from conquering Crimea. Until today, Moscow claims that Crimea is legally, and historically part of Russia.
Do we experience a Déjà-vu moment right now? Russia’s invasion looks very similar to what Ukraine experienced back in 2014.
Russia began mobilizing troops and military equipment near Ukraine’s border in March, 2021, implying that an operation might be planned in the near future . As tension increased among several countries, a lot of nations questioned whether Vladimir Putin had planned any military operations, but when asking him he stated, quote :
our military drills [are] ‘purely defensive’ and ‘not a threat’ as Western leaders warn invasion.
In December 2021, US intelligence professionals urged other countries to expect a military invasion of Russia, anytime soon. There were already more than 100,000 Russian troops stationed along the Ukraine-Russia border, but at the same time experts claimed that an invasion would be unlikely while China hosts the Winter Olympics. A couple of days after the games ended, on the 24th February 2022, President Vladimir Putin announced the full-scale invasion. The first military forces demolished the Ukrainian cities Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, with immediate moving troops to other areas such as Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Chernobyl, a particularly dangerous zone, due to the nuclear catastrophe in 1986. In early March, Russias military forces arrived at the coastal cities Mariupol, Berdyansk, and Melitopol, with no signs of troops halting back from invading other parts of Ukraine .
The global community reacted quickly, with the United Nations General Assembly adopting a resolution on the 2nd of March, with 141 countries voting against Russian troops occupying Ukrainian land. Several times at the General Assembly, it has been proclaimed emphatically that :
The world has spoken. The Russian government must immediately stop the aggression, withdraw its troops, and abide by the rules of the UN Charter that apply to all, equally. This is not just about Ukraine[…], This is not just about Europe. This is about defending an international order based on rules we all have signed up to, and the sovereign equality of all states, large and small. This is about whether we choose tanks and missiles, or dialogue and diplomacy.
Just five states, namely Belarus, Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria, voted against the resolution. This has demonstrated how nations collaborate together and are willing to assist one another if one superpower appears to be out of control.
This herewith said, it is vital to convey how eager, particularly the Ukraine’s neighbouring countries are, assisting with humanitarian aid. In fact, more than 1.4 million Ukrainians have entered Polands border, the country’s largest flood of migrants since World War II . But not only Poland has taken responsibility; Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, and several other countries have shown an immediate response in terms of supporting Ukraine refugees, assisting with food, shelter, and medicine. Since the beginning of warfare, thousands of protests have taken place around the world, demanding an end to the occupation and expressing civility, respect, and solidarity for Ukraine .
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky is grateful for all international support he can witness himself, but also shows a strong sense of willpower toward his people. He tries to spread hope among the society and give them at least the feeling of having a chance to win the battle. He confidentally stands behind his nation, encouring them to fight back by stating:
If they [Russia] attack, if they try to take our country – our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children – we will be defending ourselves and […] you [all] need to go out and drive this evil out of our cities!
No one knows how much longer Russian troops remain on Ukraine territory, illegally occupying land that does not belong to them, but one is certain: The rest of the world is monitoring the situation, and willing to assist even if it costs more lives.
The international law
Not only is the current war and conflict happening on Ukrainian ground horrific, costing many lives and damaging relations, also by international law, the occupation of Ukraine by Russia is illegal, and breaking international laws.
One of these law breaking acts occurs within the UN charter, which consists of principles and rules of the United Nations and is binding for any UN members. Russia is a member of the UN but nevertheless violated the UN Charter. In particular the article 2(4) of the Un Charter. The article prohibits any use of force against any other sovereign state and supporting rebel groups in other countries. Putin as the head of Russia, nevertheless tries to justify the attack with the international law, such as acting in self-defense, and on the ground of genocide against the people in Luhansk and Donetsk.
Noteworthy, none of Putins claims can be justified by international law!
The UN and it`s organs
A small explanation to understand the function of the UN in this whole situation will be given first.
The UN main goal is to ensure security and peace in the world. This can be achieved by assigning different functions to different organs in order to keep the whole organization as structured as possible. In total the UN has 193 member states. The UN Charter is the fundamental law of the UN, with the Ukraine, as well as Russia being part of. The deciding organ are the General Assembly and Security Council.
Why is the Security council out of order in this case?
The most important part of the Un is the security council, which could act and stop countries from starting a war and intervene in conflicts to protect the international security. But we must wonder, why are they not stopping the current warfare right now?
The security council only consists of certain member states in total 15, but out of these 15, there are only five permanent members that have the power to vote and make the decisions. The so-called P-5 of the security council, which are China, Russia, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, are states with nuclear powers, which became permanent members after world war 2, since those five countries contributed to the end of the world war, ensuring international peace. The problem hereby is, each of the countries has a veto, meaning it can vote against any proposed decision of the security council and block any action that the council would want to make. In the case of the Ukraine- Russia conflict, Russia is vetoing the security councils resolution to end the attack on Ukraine. Resulting in the unfortunate inability of the security council to authorize any use of force against Russia .
What can still be done in terms of the international law? And what can the UN do to protect the Ukraine, with the most important organ being out of function?
As mentioned above the general assembly is another organ of the UN and can implement resolutions on this conflict. By means of the fact that all member states are involved, a resolution can be made with the majority, and no veto from Russia could be applied. So, what has the General assembly done in this conflict?
On the second of March, the general assembly implemented a resolution, addressing Russia to call back its military out of the Ukraine . 141 of the member states voted in favour of that, showing the worldwide consensus that the attack must immediately come to an end. Unfortunately, compared to the security council, the general assembly has no means to enforce it to Russia, but can put pressure on Russia, as a united community.
The consequences under international Law also include sanctions, enforced by individual states toward Russia and the support of the Ukraine with different means.
The ruling of the International Court of Justice
The International Court of Justice was established by the United Nations as well. The court can settle disputes between two states. Any state can bring a case to the ICJ against another State. In this case the Ukraine brought the case against Russia to the ICJ, on basis of the genocide convention, since Russia claimed Ukraine committed genocide and used it as a reason to invade the territory .
The court, consisting of 15 judges, voted in favor to the claims that Ukraine made and accepted all points that were stated against Russia, ordering provisional measures. Meaning, the Ukraine won the case and the ICJ is calling out Russia to immediately remove all military forces within Ukrainian territory. As a side note, Russia did not even show up to the hearing and is also not complying with the order of the court at all.
The consequence of this will be even more harm toward the reputation of Russia and its relations in the world, whereas Ukraine showed respect to the international law and institutions and tried its utmost to be diplomatic by making use of international law.
NATOs relation with the Ukraine
The North Atlantic treaty organization is an alliance consisting of 30 sates from Europe and North America. NATO aims to protect the security of its members with political and military means.
The Ukraine is not a member of the NATO. One of Putins claims was; the NATO was planning to expand towards the west, which Russia did not agree on.
Since Ukraine is not part of NATO, the organization can not directly intervene into the conflict with military forces. An intervention could result in an expansion of the conflict towards whole Europe and could trigger Russia to attack more european countries.
Nevertheless, the NATO has had a good relationship with the Ukraine and is cooperating closely together. Therefore, the NATO is coming to help Ukraine and is providing all attacked countries with assistance and humanitarian aid. The member states of NATO individually offer support with for instance funds, weapons, and other supplies. Besides that, the neighbouring countries and other EU countries welcoming refugees and trying to help the civilians who are fleeing in many possible ways .
Concluding the International Law perspective
The Security council cannot do anything because of Russia’s veto and the NATO cannot intervene in order to avoid lager scale war in Europe. But, every individual State can support and help Ukraine to their possibilities, with funding and humanitarian aid. Sending other goods, such as military eqipment to help the military troops in standing better against Russia. Furthermore, the neighbouring countries are opening their borders to welcome and help refugees fleeing from Ukraine. The war will have long lasting consequences for Russia’s relations in the world, its economical position, and political situation. Nevertheless, the function of the UN and the power the five permanent members in the security council hold, should be reformed to better ensure peace and security among the globe.
This situation shows that the international law and the collective security system is weak and unable to prevent the use of military force by powerful states.
Palmer, R. R., & Colton, J. (2013). A History of Europe in the Modern World (11de editie). McGraw-Hill Education. geraadpleegd op 13 december 2020
Jansen, M. J. (2014a). Grensland: een geschiedenis van Oekraïne. Uitgeverij G.A. Van Oorschot B.V.