Russian aggression against Ukraine

Published: 25 January 2018 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 18 January 2018, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, adopted in the second and final reading the Law of Ukraine “On the Specifics of the State Policy on Ensuring State Sovereignty of Ukraine over the Temporarily Occupied Territories in the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions”. The law declared, inter alia, that the Russian Federation was performing “a criminal act of aggression” against Ukraine and “temporarily occupied” a portion of its territory, governing the Donbas region with the help of an “occupation administration” controlled by Moscow. The law held that the Russian Federation, as occupying power, was responsible for ensuring the protection of the rights of civilians in these areas. The law also stated that Russia was to be held liable for all physical, moral or financial damage inflicted on the State of Ukraine, government authorities and local self-government agencies, individuals and legal entities. Persons participating in the armed aggression of the Russian Federation or being involved in the administration of the Russian occupation were to be held criminally liable for acts that violate the laws of Ukraine and international humanitarian law.

At the regular government press conference on 19 January 2018, the Federal Government was asked whether it shared Ukraine’s view that the areas in the Donbas region under the control of separatist forces were occupied by Russia, with the resultant legal consequences of the application of the laws of war. The spokesperson of the Federal Foreign Office tried to sidestep the question by saying: “I do not think that it helps us here to discuss in detail questions of classification and terminology.” However, the government spokesperson stepped in, saying:

“This law has been adopted only recently and we will first have to examine the text [for its compatibility with the Minsk Agreement]. For that reason, we certainly will not come up with a final assessment today. However, the context [of this law] is such that Ukraine is the victim of an aggression backed by Russia and for four years now has been engaged in military conflict. The context is also that there is, of course, ongoing military support of the separatists by Russia through the supply of weapons and material, and that it is undeniable that Russian forces are also present on Ukrainian territory – that view is not unfounded.”

The Government spokesperson did not expressly endorse Ukraine’s position but left no doubt that the Federal Government considered Russia’s activities in Ukraine to amount to an act of “aggression”.

While the Federal Government did not feel able to take a position on the law’s compatibility with the Minsk agreements, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on 23 January 2018 urged the Ukrainian authorities to revise the law “to be based on the Minsk agreements and to fully guarantee the social protection and the basic humanitarian needs of the civilian population in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Categories: Territorial sovereignty; armed conflict and international humanitarian law

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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