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Unlawful even by Russian standards Contrary to his claims, Vladimir Putin didn’t have ‘legal grounds’ for invading Ukraine
When Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine on February 24, he cited the Russian Federation’s “obligations” as an ally of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” As it turns out, no such alliance existed at that time. The agreements regarding mutual cooperation did not come into force until a day later, on February 25. In other words, according to both international and Russian law, Moscow couldn’t possibly have had any legal basis for invading Ukraine.
Please note. This explainer was first published in Russian on February 28, 2022.
Russia’s agreements with the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ came into effect after the full-scale invasion began
The texts of the agreements on “cooperation, friendship, and mutual assistance” between the Russian Federation and Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (the “DNR” and “LNR”) appeared on the Russian government’s official legal portal on February 28, 2022 (archived copies are available here and here). The provisions of these agreements served as the foundation for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
This official portal publishes the reference texts for laws and regulations — decrees, resolutions, agreements, and so forth. When international agreements are published, the website clearly indicates the date when they were ratified by the parliament and, separately, when they have come into force. These happen at different times.
These particular cooperation agreements were ratified on February 22, 2022. And Vladimir Putin referenced them when he declared war on Ukraine two days later, on February 24. The problem (one of many!) is that the agreements between the Russia and the “DNR” and the “LNR” only came into force on the following day — February 25.
In fact, both agreements were meant to come into force on the day of the exchange of ratifications (as stated in Article 28). Citing a press release from the Russian defense ministry, state news outlets reported that this exchange took place on February 25.
Russia had no legal right to start a war before the agreements came into force
In a televised address on February 24, Putin (who loves to justify his actions with appeals to the necessity of “obeying the law”) explained why he had the right to “initiate a special military operation” in the Donbas. To this end, he cited the agreements with the “DNR” and “LNR,” as well as Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Article 51 does in fact establish the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense” in the event of an armed attack against a UN member state. “Collective self-defense” is defined as the defense of an ally with whom the state has signed a mutual cooperation pact.
This article is cited in Russia’s agreements with the two “people’s republics.” Indeed, these were the provisions that the leaders of the “DNR” and “LNR” appealed to when, on February 22 (the day the agreements were ratified), they asked Putin to help them “defend themselves against Ukrainian aggression.”
This agreement does not allow the parties to defend each other until it comes into force — in other words, it’s simply words on paper without any legal weight. The documents published on the Russian government’s official legal portal clearly state that these agreements only came into force on February 25, when the war was already raging.
Putin may have had a loophole. But he didn’t take advantage of it.
The federal law “On International Agreements of the Russian Federation” permits the authorities to temporarily allow agreements to wholly or partially come into force before their ratification in the following instances:
- If this is provided for in the text of the agreement
- If the parties have come to a special agreement on this matter
The agreements between Russia and the “DNR” and “LNR” do not provide for this kind of “early” application. Theoretically, Putin and the heads of the self-proclaimed “republics” may have come to these agreements “in some other manner.” But if this were the case, the law requires that the provisionally adopted international agreement be “immediately” published on the government’s official legal information portal. This requirement has been in force since 2012.
As previously mentioned, the cooperation agreements between Russia and the “DNR” and “LNR” only appeared on the government’s portal on February 28 — after they had officially come into force. This means that on February 24, they really had no legal weight. Even by the standards of Russian legislation, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unlawful.
Translation by Bela Shayevich
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