Skip to main content

Has Putin broken international law?

By Karen Alter
updated 1:15 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families. Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
HIDE CAPTION
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Karen Alter: Obama says Putin violated international law; Putin wants to make it look otherwise
  • She says Putin argues Ukraine asked for help. And Russia veto would let it block U.N. response
  • She says Russia rejects much of international law's jurisdiction. It's not much help here
  • Alter: Lawsuit from Ukraine likely wouldn't fare well, but threat helps channel Russia response

Editor's note: Karen J. Alter is a professor of political science and law at Northwestern University and the author of "The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights." She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated international law by sending troops into the Crimea. Law is on Obama's side, which is why Putin is organizing his justification counter-offensive.

The United Nations charter (article 2(4)) prohibits "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations." Ukrainian lawyers have said there are additional treaties Putin is violating.

Putin's forces were apparently concerned enough about the U.N prohibition to strip the identifying markers off Russian soldiers before sending them into Crimea, and to now call these troops "local defense forces." But removing their insignias does not change the facts.

Putin's new tactic is to claim that Russia has been invited in. It is illegal to invade another country, but not illegal to send in help when a legitimate government requests it. Putin has asserted that Ukraine's ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, remains the Ukraine's legitimate president, and he has asked for help. Putin may also be behind the influx of protest tourists to Ukraine who pretend they are Ukrainians asking for Russian help.

Opinion: Putin's Ukrainian endgame

There is a long and storied tradition of governments inventing a legal premise to justify their actions. During the Cold War, President Reagan justified U.S. intervention in Grenada as necessary to protect Americans living on the island. Reagan also defended U.S. military support in Nicaragua as collective self-defense requested by El Salvador. These claims were just as credible as Putin's claims, which is to say: not very.

Putin cares little whether his actions violate international law. But the Europeans and Americans who will organize a response do care, and ordinary Russians may also care, which is why Putin is working to create the appearance of legal intervention. While only the U.N. Security Council (where Russia holds veto power) can authorize a collective response to Russian aggression, the legal principle of "responsibility to protect" allows individual states and groups of states to legally justify their response to illegal acts of aggression.

Where might all this lead? The answer depends on who ends up ruling Ukraine. And this is the point. Each side is now wooing its future dance partner: Americans and Europeans are wooing Ukraine's pro-Western political forces, and Putin is stirring fears of ethnic Russians and seeking support for a pro-Russian government.

An anti-Putin Ukrainian government could try to bring a case to the International Court of Justice over the illegal use of force in Russia's incursion into Crimea. This is the strategy Georgian leaders tried after Russia's last foreign intervention, but the effort failed. Since Russia does not accept the International Court of Justice's general jurisdiction, Georgia instead charged Russia with the illegal use of force, and with violating the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which Russia has ratified.

Is Putin looking for a Ukraine 'off-ramp'?
Russian threat to seize U.S., EU assets
Report: Clinton compares Putin to Hitler

The ICJ rejected jurisdiction in the case, however, because without Russia's preconsent the ICJ could not decide claims about illegal force. For the racial discrimination convention, Georgia would have to first try to negotiate with Russia over its disagreements. Any Ukrainian government would find itself similarly hampered.

Imagine that an anti-Russian Ukrainian government gained power and actually won its legal suit. Then what? In the best-case scenario, Ukraine would win a legal declaration on its side, which might make Russia liable to compensate Ukraine for its losses. Russia could then refuse to comply, or it could do what the United States did to settle the illegal use of force suit that Nicaragua won in front of the ICJ. Russia could require that Ukraine relinquish its claim if it wants to receive its aid package. And Ukraine would have few options, since ICJ rulings can only be enforced by the Security Council (again, on which Russia holds veto power).

Opinion: How Putin carries out power grab

A more likely scenario is that the issue will never get this far. Even if an anti-Putin government wins the upcoming election, Ukraine is still too dependent on Russian energy to antagonize it by bringing a legal suit that will achieve so little.

The International Criminal Court is not likely to become involved, in any event, since neither Russia nor Ukraine have ratified the Rome Statute, which would give the International Criminal Court the right to claim jurisdiction over the case. Nor would the Security Council refer the matter to the court.

The reality is that international law has little to offer right now. This will only be the case, however, as long as Russia does not engage in mass atrocities; these would change the political calculus

Human rights violations can be pursued by Ukraine's new government, or by individuals raising legal claims in front of the European Court of Human Rights, where both Russia and the Ukraine are signatory members. Russia actually has a good record for paying awards ordered by the European Court of Human Rights.

At this point, international law's largest contribution may be to channel Russia's response. International law is leading Putin to step back from the more overtly illegal strong-arm tactics associated with sending in troops, and he knows that any mass atrocities would provoke a more serious international response.

International law won't stop an invasion, and in light of the events in Syria, odds are that neither side wants to escalate to the point of mass atrocities. So international law stands ready on the sidelines, a tool of both sides to justify their actions.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Karen Alter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT