State sovereignty, a nation’s absolute right of territorial integrity, is the bedrock of the current international order. The United Nations Charter is based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its Member States, and a violation of a state’s sovereignty is generally a violation of international law. This article will evaluate if and how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official justifications for the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine fit into the current UN framework on interventionism and explore Putin’s unstated justifications, legal and illegal, for the sovereignty-violative invasion of Ukraine. 

Do Putin’s Official Justifications Fit Within the UN Framework on Intervention?

Putin has not declared war on Ukraine, instead referring to the invasion as a “special military action,” presumably out of some degree of deference to the UN Charter. While Putin is operating outside international law, he still veils his invasion in unsubstantiated, but recognized principles of interventionism. This section of the article will evaluate the veracity of Putin’s purported justifications.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized Russian forces to invade Ukraine, he– presumably in order to achieve a semblance of legitimacy–provided two justifications to the world for the breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Putin’s purported justifications, first promulgated by TASS, the Russian state media service, are: “(1) Following a request from the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics for assistance in repelling Kiev’s military aggression…(2) and to protect the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, who have for eight years been exposed to humiliation and genocide by the regime in Kiev…we seek the (3) demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” (Numeration added.)

Putin’s justifications of the invasion of Ukraine are based in at least a facile recognition of the UN’s legitimacy; the UN, in the past, has authorized humanitarian interventions in cases of genocide and at the request of mistreated citizens in states where they face persecution, a doctrine now known as the Responsibility to Protect or “Invited Intervention.” The legal issues become murky when small, arguably fringe groups, not the state apparatus, request or invite international intervention. This often presents a catch-22: invited intervention at the official request of national apparatuses is well-recognized compared to invitation by fringe groups, but it is often the state itself who is conducting the persecution against those groups.

        1) “Following a request from the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics for assistance in repelling Kiev’s military aggression…”

The sole evidence of the truth of this assertion is exclusively found in Russian state media, who generally take Putin’s statement as fact.  No other media outlet in the world, except for Russian-sponsored state media, has  suggested that the leaders in the Donbass region actually reached out to Putin. Furthermore, it is more accurate to characterize Kiev’s response to the simmering Donbass conflict as military defense because the region has been embroiled in a Russian-backed separatist conflict since 2013. Competing attitudes evidenced by a 2015 Razumkov poll, which found over 76% of Ukrainians believe the Donbass conflict to be a war between Russia and Ukraine, 7% of Ukrainians believe the conflict to be fight for the independence of the Donetsk and Lugasnk regions, and 30% of Russians believed the conflict to be a proxy war between Ukraine and Russia. Thes attitudes are likely due to  varying levels of state propaganda. “Invited intervention,” or intervention at request, has some recognition in international spheres, and this justification, while unsubstantiated, points to Putin’s disinformation campaign in the style of 2014 Crimea annexation propaganda.

        2) “… and to protect the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, who have for eight years been exposed to humiliation and genocide by the regime in Kiev…”

Genocide in this context is defined by the UN to include two elements, the mental and physical. The mental element speaks to intent: one who commits genocide must have the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group. The physical element is met when a party kills, or otherwise seriously infringes on the basic human rights of the group.

While roughly 14,000 people have lost their lives in the Russian-backed separatist conflict in the Donbass region in the past eight years, the conflict does not meet either element to substantiate genocide because there is no evidence to suggest that there is any sort of state-sanctioned targeted discrimination or killings, nor is there evidence to suggest that Kiev meets the intent element, aside from that promulgated by Russian state media. Putin’s nebulous references to “humiliation” are not legal justifications for violating sovereignty. The broad policies limiting some citizens’ rights, such as an October 2020 draft law which was meant to reform the Security Service of Ukraine to better react to the Russian-backed separatist threat, are better characterized as wartime security measures to ensure the elimination of Russian-backed forces.

Giving Putin the benefit of the doubt, the UN’s definition of genocide has been recognized as fairly flexible after the United States’ denial of intervention in Rwanda because the conflict did not meet the “strict” definition of genocide. However, Putin has claimed genocide multiple times in the past five years and Russia did not attempt to provide evidence at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearing to evaluate the claims of genocide. That hearing, to note, is one step along the road to UN-sanctioned intervention in a genocide, and the same court, in a 13-2 decision, has ordered Russia to cease military actions in Ukraine immediately because the claims of genocide are unfounded.

        3) “…we seek the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”

There is no principle in international law that permits invasion in the case where a neighboring state is militarized. Denazification has been noted as especially puzzling because Ukraine’s new president Zelenskyy, elected with over 70% of the vote, is himself Jewish. Even assuming that Ukraine is militantly Nazi, which no reputable news outlet has suggested, the world community’s response to Adolf Hitler was only after Nazi Germany’s territorial aggression and predated the UN Charter, now the governing instrument for international intervention.

It would seem that Putin’s ‘denazification’ refers to groups like the Azov battalion, ultra-nationalist far-right groups recently folded into the Ukrainian military after the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014. “[Far right groups in Ukraine] exist, but in Russia itself there are at least as many far-right groups as in Ukraine,” said Ulrich Schmid, professor of Russian culture and society at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen who studies nationalism in Europe. Ukraine’s far-right party received only 2.15% of the vote that elected Jewish candidate Vladimir Zelenskyy and created Ukraine’s first one-party majority and thus cannot serve as evidence of outright state Naziism.

To emphasize, even if all three of Putin’s given justifications were true, Russia would still be required to report their findings to the UN and undergo a fact-finding investigation to evaluate the veracity of the claims. Only then would the UN Security Council vote on a Resolution for either more fact-finding or intervention, and the ICJ has found no evidence of genocide.

What Are Putin’s Unofficial Justifications for Invading Ukraine?

In evaluating Vladimir Putin’s justifications for the ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine it is essential to note that Putin rose to power in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. In a sense, many of Putin’s operations are performed with the goal of reunification of the former Soviet States, particularly given his FSB and KGB background. Most worryingly, Putin has described a grand Tsarist ethno-Russian state, noting that the origin of the Russian people was historically Kievan Rus, an ethnic group originating from modern Kyiv. His new approach to ethno-national identity is particularly dangerous and recalls Hitler’s goals of trans-national Aryan unity.

The West is understandably cautious to intervene when nations raise concerns their international ethnic groups are subject to international discrimination, and the West’s hesitancy to intervene was recently illustrated by the West’s lukewarm response to Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and subsequent illegitimate referendum. This “ethno-nationalist” justification falls in the gray area between unstated and stated; it is not an official justification given by Russia but Putin has opined on his belief that Ukraine and the other former Soviet States should be reunited because of their similar ethnic background in national television addresses: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” Thus, Putin’s goals, given this background, are likely to install a Russo-subservient government in Kyiv, increase international recognition of Russia’s ‘right’ to its sphere of influence in post-Soviet nations, and to revisit the end of the Cold War in a Warsaw Pact image.

Putin’s post-Soviet roots are also valuable in evaluating Putin and Russia’s concern of increasing NATO presence in the previously Soviet sphere of influence. The Cuban missile crisis, in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s mind, was a direct result of U.S. and NATO incursions on Russia’s doorstep. Putin’s anti-Western actions have been cited as “channeling” Khrushchevian policies of retaliatory escalation that create a security dilemma. To this point, Putin’s concerns about the presence of the defensive alliance on Russia’s doorstep go beyond state television addresses, stating in a draft treaty that the U.S. and NATO had “ignored” Russia’s main security demands. In an eight-point demand “intended for rejection,” Putin demanded, among others, a guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO.

In this demand, Putin has made clear that he sees the West, the EU, and NATO as existential threats to the authoritarian stability he enjoys in Russia, despite NATO’s definite status as a defensive alliance. Many commentators and observers have noted that, in addition to the direct threat of Ukraine’s NATO membership, stability in neighboring countries to Russia, particularly functional democracies, poses a threat to Putin’s cultural domination and propaganda machine. While there was no popular opinion in 2022 indicating a clamor for war in Ukraine, Russia’s salami tactics are important to Putin’s goal of eliminating domestic opposition through military adventurism. Putin’s cult of authority is largely based in his self-imposed “strongman” image and salami-slicing incursions, if successful, help increase his domestic legitimacy. Like Khrushchev’s goal of the perpetuation of the Soviet Union, Putin’s sole goal is the perpetuation of his cult of authority and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is evidence of his determination and absolutism on this point, regardless of norms of international law.

 Discouraging Putin in the Future

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of international law cloaked in a veil of legitimacy. His stated justifications are without evidence and Putin did not follow the UN Charter’s procedures for sanctioned intervention – he based  those justifications upon nebulous norms of international law. The buildup to the 2022 Ukrainian invasion looked much like the buildup to Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, replete with vague references to violations of principles of international law. It is likely Putin framed the 2022 invasion of Ukraine with the theory that he may enjoy the same lukewarm international response as he did after the Crimean annexation, having learned that Ukrainian state sovereignty is not as absolute as the UN Charter prescribes. This has proved to be a severe miscalculation, as international response to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been more robust than in 2014 and Putin has acknowledged the toll the invasion is extracting on his personal regime. In addition, because Putin’s unofficial justifications for Russia’s invasion are based in perennial Soviet (and thus unlikely to change) themes of fear and distrust of the West, NATO, the UN, and the U.S. must carefully weigh the benefits of direct confrontation against the concern that Putin will stop at nothing to ensure the continued existence of his regime. 

Ultimately, Putin’s lofty visions of a grand Tsarist Russia, combined with the international community’s relatively mild international response after Crimea, have likely emboldened him to engage in the current invasion of Ukraine. Moving forward, the international community must respond swiftly to any future violation of state sovereignty in line with the current robust response emerging across the international community, taking care to not trigger Putin’s final nerve.

Author Biography: Alec Goodrich is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor of Arts in political science and international relations from Tufts University, where he concentrated in International Security.