The most dramatic moment at Monday’s Security Council meeting on Ukraine came when the Russian representative, Vitaly Churkin, produced a letter, purportedly from ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, inviting Russian military intervention. This seemed to indicate a shift in Russia’s legal justification for its actions in Ukraine. The resolution adopted by the Russian legislature authorizing the use of force referred to the alleged threat to the personnel stationed at the existing Russian bases in Ukraine, while at the previous Security Council meeting on 1 March, Mr Churkin appealed primarily to a request from government of Crimea. It appears that Russia has now decided to rely much more heavily on Yanukovych’s consent. Not only did Mr Churkin emphasise it at the Security Council; President Putin, in his press conference on Tuesday, laid great stress on it:
“[W]e have a direct appeal from the incumbent and, as I said, legitimate President of Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych, asking us to use the Armed Forces to protect the lives, freedom and health of the citizens of Ukraine.”
This shift, which has already attracted some attention in the international law blogosphere, is an understandable move. For the reasons explained by Daniel Wisehart in his post on Tuesday, both self-defence and the invitation of the Crimean government are patently inadequate as legal justifications for Russia’s use of force. There is no evidence of an armed attack on the Russian bases in the Crimea, nor can it be seriously maintained that the consent of the government of a sub‑national unit within a State can legalise military intervention, especially when the intervention is opposed by the federal government.
In contrast, it is much easier for Russia to use Yanukovych’s consent to muddy the waters. For it has been argued, with at least some plausibility, that the international community has accepted the legality of foreign military intervention in support of a ‘legitimate’ national government, despite the fact that it has lost effective control of the state. The use of force by ECOWAS in Liberia in 1990, and in Sierra Leone in 1997, could be given as examples. In Liberia, the incumbent President, Samuel Doe, dispatched a letter to ECOWAS requesting assistance at a time when his forces controlled only a small part of the capital city, Monrovia. And in Sierra Leone, after being overthrown by a military coup, the democratically elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had already fled the country (just as Yanukovych has done) before he requested ECOWAS assistance to restore him to power. Despite these facts, in both cases military action met with support rather than censure from the international community. Read the rest of this entry…