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Public International Law

“Annexation of Crimea”

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1.      Background: briefly about Crimea

Crimea is a peninsula, autonomous region of Ukraine, located in the southern part of the state on the coast of the Black Sea. Through its history it was controlled by the Turkish and Russian Empires. In 1954, during the Soviet times, it was transferred from Russian SFSR to Ukrainian SSR. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 Crimea got status of the autonomous republic. Nearly 60% of the Crimea population are Russians, 24% ? Ukrainians, 12% ? Crimean Tatars1. 

2.      Annexation of Crimea: how did it happen?

The annexation of Crimea took place in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 through a carefully staged process.  

On February 26, 2014, a week after President Victor Yanukovych escaped from Ukraine, unknown armed men started to seize control over the government institutions in Crimea. The next day the Russian flag was put on the top of the Crimea’s parliament and Sergey Aksyonov was declared to be a new prime minister. More armed men, referred to as “little green men” appeared. Meanwhile, temporary government in Kyiv was caught by surprise: the Ukrainian military at Crimea was commanded to stay at their military bases.

On March 16, 2014 the referendum with only two options to choose: a) join Russia or b) return to the Crimean Constitution of 1992 giving Crimea a sovereign status was held. Referendum was held breaking the Ukrainian national law, without approval from the central government, no western observers such as OSCE or ODHIR were present. According to the referendum organizers, 83% of registered voters took part in the poll and 96.7% voted to unify with Russia. Most of the world’s countries have not recognised the results of the referendum and referendum itself as it was held violating Ukrainian national law.

On March 18, 2014 President Vladimir Putin and Sergey Aksyonov signed the Treaty on Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia, which three days later was ratified by the Russian Parliament. In less than a month, Crimea became a subject of Russia2.

In the aftermath of the annexation the oppression of the Crimean Tatars followed. The latter continue to be arrested for expressing political views that are unpopular with the Russian government, face increased travel restrictions, unwarranted raids and extremely costly fines3. Since 2014, 37 Crimean Tatars had been arrested in politically motivated cases, 20 Crimean Tatars were in prison, and 17 were under house arrest or under travel restrictions4.

3.      Russia’s arguments for the legitimacy of the referendum and their invalidity in terms of the international law

Annexation is the forcible acquisition of the territory by one state at the expense of another state5.

Annexation of Crimea was achieved through the use of force, breaking basic principles of the international law concerning sovereignty and territorial integrity: “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”6.

It should be noted, that Russian actions break also a number of bilateral agreement, signed between Ukraine and Russia. For instance, the 1997 Treaty on Friendships, Cooperation and Partnership: “both parties  shall build their mutual relations on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for their sovereign equality, territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, peaceful resolution of disputes, non-use of force or the threat of force, including economic and other means of pressure, the right of peoples to freely determine their fate, non-interference in internal affairs, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, cooperation among states, the conscientious performance of international obligations undertaken, and other generally recognized norms of international law”7

The Russian Federation opposes the term “annexation” used describing its actions in Crimea, defending the legality of the referendum and justifying use of force through arguments presented below.   

3.1. Russia acted in defence of the Russian ethnic population in Crimea

Russian Federation claims that their intervention in Crimea was necessary and legitimate applying to the principle of the self-defence as Russia protected its nationals living in Crimea from the violent Ukrainian revolution, targeted persecution, discrimination, etc8.

However, the principle of the self-defence can be used only “if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”9. Russia’s use of the armed force in the territory of another sovereign state to protect Russian minority does not qualify as self-defence. Even if Russian population in Crimea was threatened by targeted persecution, such actions won’t be considered as an “armed attack”. Consequently, Russia’s argument lacks legal background.

3.2.Russia intervened in Crimea because of the request made by a Ukrainian President to restore law and order

A photocopy of the letter requesting Russian military assistance was presented by Vitaly Churkin, Russian Representative to the UN Security Council. A letter is signed by Victor Yanukovych and is dated 1st March 2014. In such way Russia tried to classify its actions not as intervention upon invitation.

It can be argued whether the document was real, as only photocopy was presented, and whether Victor Yanukovych was still a legitimate Ukrainian president on the 1st March 2014, but even if the document was real and Victor Yanukovych was a legitimate leader of the state, he still did not have a right to ask for military assistance from the foreign state: “The authority of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine comprises: approving decisions on providing military assistance to other states, on sending units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to a foreign state, or on admitting units of armed forces of foreign states onto the territory of Ukraine”.10

Under the Ukrainian Constitution President does not possess a right to request military assistance from the foreign state, this power is given to the Ukrainian Parliament. That’s why Russians actions are not considered as a lawful response to the government request.

3.3.Crimea became a subject of Russia as a result of the democratic referendum 

A result of the referendum on the status of Crimea is the final Russia’s argument which applies to the principle of self-determination11. The referendum was held on 16th March 2014 and 96.7% voted in favour of joining Russia as a federal subject.

However, the referendum seems to be controversial and illegal for several reasons.

First of all, “Issues of altering the territory of Ukraine are resolved exclusively by an All-Ukrainian referendum”12.  “An All-Ukrainian referendum is designated by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine or by the President of Ukraine, in accordance with their authority established by this Constitution. An All-Ukrainian referendum is called on popular initiative on the request of no less than three million citizens of Ukraine who have the right to vote, on the condition that the signatures in favour of designating the referendum have been collected in no less than two-thirds of the oblasts, with no less than 100 000 signatures in each oblast”13. Consequently, the referendum on the status of Crimea broke the Ukrainian national law, as according to it referendum can be called by the Ukrainian Parliament or President and it should be held in each oblast, not only in Autonomous Republic of Crimea. That is the main reason, why this referendum is illegitimate.

Secondly, violations of the voting procedure took place. There were no international observers, such as OSCE; there is evidence that some bulletins had marked answers already before the referendum; there were only two options to choose neither of which was about the keeping of the remaining status quo of Crimea. 

4.      The reaction of the international community to the annexation of Crimea

On March 27, 2014 the UN General Assembly has adopted the resolution, drafted by Ukraine, declaring Crimea’s referendum illegitimate, refusing to recognise Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. The resolution was passed with 100 votes in favour, 11 votes against (Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) and 20 countries did not vote14. 

The USA, the EU, Canada and Australia responded to the events in Ukraine with sanctions against Russian Federation.

Since March 2014, the EU has progressively imposed different types of restrictive measures against Russia: diplomatic measures; individual restrictive measures (asset freeze and travel restrictions); restrictions on economic relations with Crimea and Sevastopol; economic sanctions; restrictions on economic cooperation15. Most of the sanctions were extended by the Council till March-July 2018 (different type of the sanction has a different date).

The USA authorized sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine (restriction on the travel for certain individuals, etc.)16. The USA has imposed targeted sanctions limiting financing to 6 Russian banks and 4 energy companies (such as Rosneft). Other important restrictions are concerning exportation or re-exportation of goods and technology used for exploration of Arctic deepwater and shale projects that might have a potential of oil production in Russia. The USA sanctions are open-ended.

The combined effected of the sanctions and fall in oil price resulted in the inflation and fall of the GDP growth in Russia. In sum, Western sanctions have been a success in terms of the proximate goal of inflicting damage on the Russian economy17.


Annexation of Crimea is illegal as it breaks the Constitution of Ukraine and basic principles of the international law stated in the UN Charter.

For Ukraine annexation of Crimea means loss of the strategic geopolitical region and state property located there, substantial reduction of the exclusive economic zone on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the breakup of the Ukrainian crisis. For Russia annexation of Crimea was a short-term success, followed by great political and economic costs.

International response to the events occurring in Crimea was immediate and followed by the sanctions imposed by the EU and the USA. It should be noted, that these sanctions represented joined efforts of the Western power to put pressure on Russia.

The question of the Crimea status and its return to the control under the Ukrainian jurisdiction is unlikely to be solved in the nearest future, because of the lasting Ukrainian crisis, arm conflict in the Eastern Ukraine and instability in the region.



1 About number and composition population of Ukraine by data: All-Ukrainian population census 2001 data State Statistics Committee of Ukraine

2 Borislaw Bilash Article “How it all happened-The Annexation of Crimea”

3 UNPO, Article “Crimean Tatars: Despite International Condemnation, Russia Continues with Repressions”

4 Crimea SOS

5 Max Planck “Encyclopedia of Public International Law”  Oxford Public International Law

6 Article 2 Charter of the United Nations

7 Treaty on Friendships, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russian Federation (1997)

8 John Balouziyeh  Article “Russia’s Annexation of Crimea: An analysis under the principles of Jus ad Bellum”

9 Article 51 Charter of the United Nations

10  Article 85, paragraph 23 of the Constitution of Ukraine

11 John Balouziyeh  Article “Russia’s Annexation of Crimea: An analysis under the principles of Jus ad Bellum”

12 Article 73 of the Constitution of Ukraine

13 Article 72 of the Constitution of Ukraine

14 Dawn News Article “UN rejects Russian annexation of Crimea”

15 Council of the EU “EU restrictive measures in response to the crisis in Ukraine” (consillium.europa.eu)

16 U.S. Department of State, Ukraine and Russia sanctions (state.gov)

17 NATO Review Magazine, Article “Sanctions after Crimea: have they worked?” 


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