Is Russia's accession of four regions justified? How?
Russia’s defiance against Western dominance and ability to follow through with its objectives does demonstrate the emergence of new power centers.
Can the accession of the four regions in Ukraine be justified, and what consequences does this have on the global world order and international law?
President Putin declared that four Ukrainian regions were reincorporated into Russia at a ceremony held on September 30, 2022. This accession follows referenda held in each territory and includes the Kherson region with 87% of the population voting in favor of the accession, the Lugansk region with authorities stating that 98.4% of people voted in favor of joining Russia, Zaporozhye where the figure was 93.1% in favor and the Donetsk where the figure was 99.2%. However, the West has unanimously rejected these referenda and called them a sham. One must consider whether Russia’s recent accessions can be justified or not. According to International law (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), an "annexation" is an act of aggression, knowing that "annexation" is the term used by the west to define the four region's accession.
However, it is possible to argue that "annexation" prohibited under International law implies the use of force by states when the country in question decides to "annex" a territory. In the case of the four regions of Ukraine, referenda were held prior to the regions being "annexed". So, a question arises here: If the "annexation" is based on the results of a referendum, can it still be considered forceful?
Referenda can be perceived as a direct form of democracy since an issue is decided by public vote rather than being decided by representatives (an indirect form of democracy). Therefore, considering that these results are valid and based on the free will of the citizens in these areas, which came overwhelmingly in favor, then the principle of equal rights and self-determination is enshrined in international law and specifically in the UN charter Article 1(2).
One could further argue that according to International law, citizens within a territory should enjoy equality before the law and are entitled to equal protection against any violence or discrimination. This is enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. In President Putin’s address on September 30, 2022, he said that for eight long years, since the 2014 Maidan coup, the people of Donetsk were subjected to genocide, shelling, and blockades; whereas in Kherson and Zaporozhye, a criminal policy was pursued to cultivate hatred for Russia, for everything Russian. This is one of the justifications that Russia has given for annexing the territories. The two separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk did indeed oppose the new government installed in Ukraine in 2014, which led to tensions between the Ukrainian government and these two regions.
The Minsk agreement, signed in 2014, was supposed to resolve the conflict between these two areas and the Ukrainian government. Key terms of the agreement included, for instance: ensuring an immediate ceasefire, taking measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Donbass, adopting a program of economic recovery for the Donbass... etc. This agreement was signed and ratified by Ukraine, however, Russia accused Ukraine of failing to comply with this agreement. If one takes the time to look at the OSCE website, the daily reports highlight the violations of the Minsk agreement, which were recorded by the OSCE. For instance, if we take January 28, 2022, which was before Russia launched its special military operation in Ukraine, they recorded 173 ceasefire violations, including 6 explosions. If we go back to June 30, 2015, the OSCE reported fighting around Donetsk airport. It seems, according to OSCE data, that there were almost daily violations of the Minsk agreement.
Moreover, in 2019, Ukraine introduced legislation that cemented Ukrainian as the primary language and mandated its use in shops, restaurants, and the service industry. Citizens faced fines if they failed to comply with these legislative provisions. As such, it becomes clear that had the West focused on the full implementation of the Minsk agreement initially, then the series of events that led to Russia’s accession of these territories in Ukraine would not have transpired.
The West, over the past few decades or so, has dominated international affairs and the global world order with interventions in countries like Iraq, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia to name just a few. President Putin in his address on September 30, 2022, openly criticized Western hegemony and stated that the West has displayed aggression toward independent states, traditional values, and authentic culture in order to undermine new global currents and international and integration processes that they cannot control. He then went on to state that it is important for the West that all countries surrender to the sovereignty of the US Dollar. It is hard to argue against President Putin’s claims when we consider Western actions against independent states. The basis for these actions against these states was to coerce them into following Western policy, and when they failed to do so, the West instigated regime change and plundered as much of their resources as possible. Iraq is a prime example of this where Saddam’s challenge to the dominance of the dollar and his decision to trade oil in Euros led to a raft of sanctions and the ultimate removal of power.
In the cases of conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia, the West’s actions breached international law and were not sanctioned by the UN. The West has also struggled to effectively manage the consequence of regime changes in countries like Afghanistan and Libya. This has led, in many cases, the West to withdraw from the areas it initially targeted for regime change. These interventions have also had disastrous impacts on the population of western countries themselves with issues such as increased migration and the UK channel's crossings. However, Russia, by incorporating the four territories in Ukraine and making them part of the Russian Federation, demonstrates its long-term commitment and support to their development. As Putin states in his speech, Russia will definitely rebuild the destroyed cities and towns, residential buildings, schools, theatres, museums, etc. It obviously remains to be seen whether this will be done and only time will prove whether Russia can achieve this.
It is evident from the recent conflict with Ukraine that the West cannot, on the one hand, criticize Russia for failing to comply with International law given its own flagrant disregard for its principles. As the bible states in John 8.7 “Let ye without sin cast the first stone." The principles of international law must be complied with and respected, otherwise, they are effectively meaningless. Russia has with its actions in Ukraine been able to resist Western dominance, despite the West launching an economic war of attrition against it. Russia’s defiance against Western dominance and ability to follow through with its objectives does demonstrate the emergence of new power centers, as Putin remarked in his speech. Furthermore, it shows a shift away from Western dominance and hegemony and ultimately may inspire other countries to freely pursue their own political and economic ambitions leading to the collapse of Western dominance and a fundamental change in the world order and the international law and principles which underpin it.