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On 21 February 2022, Russian President Putin announced Russia would formally recognise the areas of the Donbas under the control of Russian-backed separatist forces, as independent sovereign states.

President Putin then signed Executive Orders recognising the self-declared independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Russia then signed Treaties of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the leaders of those regions.

Russia also announced it would deploy forces to undertake “peacekeeping” in the DPR and LPR. On 24 February, Putin announced the beginning of a “military operation” in Ukraine. While Putin said it was a special military operation in Donbas and Russia would not occupy Ukraine, the Ukrainian Government has said Russia has begun a full scale assault on the country.

Putin’s announcement of military operations

On 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would launch a ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine.

In his televised address, Putin argued the following legal grounds for this action:

  • in accordance with Article 51 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter (self-defence)
  • in execution of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22.

The President said the purposes were to “protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime.” He also said Russia would “seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”. Putin also said that Russia did not plan to occupy Ukrainian territory.

Relevant international law and reactions

The relevant international law applicable to Russia’s military action is outlined in the briefing. The international response to Russia’s February 24 military action was still being announced at the time of writing. This will be updated as further comments and reactions on the legal aspects of Russia’s military action are available.

Prohibition of force, self-defence, and aggression

Many international responses to the events in Ukraine have condemned Russia’s military action as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. For example, 

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter states:

  • All Members shall refrain in their international relations from 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.

President Putin had previously said troops would be deployed to perform “peacekeeping”. The UN Secretary General expressed his concern at the use of this phrase, stating it was a “perversion of the concept of peacekeeping” and that “they are not peacekeepers at all.”

This briefing explains the international rules on the prohibition of force, self-defence, acts of aggression, and other specific legal agreements that apply to the crisis in Ukraine. It also covers the international legal framework that applies to Russia’s recognition of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

Case at the International Court of Justice

On 26 February 2022, Ukraine initiated proceedings against Russia at the International Court of Justice, calling for the Court to rule on Russia’s military action and declare that Russia had no legal basis for its invasion of Ukraine. This case is in addition to another legal complaint Ukraine made to the Court on 16 January 2017, which is still ongoing at the ICJ.

On 16 March 2022, the ICJ made an Order, legally binding on both parties, for provisional measures before it made any final decision in the case.

The Court indicated the following provisional measures that:

  1. The Russian Federation shall immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine;
  2. The Russian Federation shall ensure that any military or irregular armed units which may be directed or supported by it, as well as any organisations and persons which may be subject to its control or direction, take no steps in furtherance of the military operations;
  3. Both Parties shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.

Developments on international crimes

On 28 February 2022, the ICC Prosecutor announced his intention to proceed with opening an investigation as soon as possible.

Following referrals of the situation in Ukraine by State Parties to the Rome Statute, the Prosecutor was technically able to open an investigation immediately.

In response, the Prosecutor announced on 2 March 2022 that he would immediately proceed with active investigations and that work on the collection of evidence has now commenced.

In a separate, but similar, development, the UN Human Rights Council also established its own Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Ukraine.


This briefing was updated on 24 March 2022 to include developments on the case at the International Court of Justice, the investigation at the International Criminal Court, and proposals for a Special Tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression.

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