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UN report rebuts Putin's justification for war on Ukraine

Jun 13, 2024 (0)

In his book, The Russian Art of War, How the West Led Ukraine to Defeat, Jacques Baud argues that Russia's Special Military Operation in Ukraine is based on and legally justified by the UN Responsibility To Protect (R2P) doctrine, in this case to protect minority Russian speakers from alleged abuse and discrimination at the hands of the Ukrainian government. Baud's credentials include work within Swiss strategic intelligence, UN peacekeeping and NATO, though his "patently false" labeling of the poisonings of Russia dissidents like Navalny as fake has earned him, at least in one analyst's estimation, the title of "Putin's lackey". (

Nevertheless, the resemblance of his justification for Putin's invasion to arguments commonly made in objection to aiding Ukraine in current discourse  requires a response.

Baud identifies the triggering event for repression of Russian speakers in February 2014 as a "coup d'état" leading the "Russian-speaking population" to rise up "en masse" (p. 77) . That "coup" was in fact the Revolution of Dignity, and it was the people of Ukraine who first rose up to protest against the corrupt and Putin-allied Yanukovych government's last minute reneging on plans to move toward joining the European Union. At least 68 protesters died before parliament prohibited the use of force against them, removed Yankovych, appointed an interim president and installed a new provisional government. (The Gates of Europe, Serhii Plokhy, p. 339)

 All that was done by Ukraine's elected parliament - hardly a "coup" - the word  footnoted as a fact when in reality it was just how Putin and also American political operative Paul Manafort sought to spin the downfall of their disgraced mutual client. (

Manafort had first come up with a version of his divide-and-conquer political strategy for Ukraine based on language divisions after the earlier Orange Revolution of 2004 where Yanukovych was caught red-handed fixing the election results and was defeated in a supreme-court ordered revote.  "[Manafort] was pushing something like the idea that there are two types of Ukrainians—there are Ukrainians-speaking Ukrainians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians" (Tetiana Shevchuk, Anti-Corruption Action Center, Kyiv, op. cit.)

Coincidentally or not, Manafort's strategy ran parallel to a "budding Russian intelligence operation that was engaging in 'manipulation of issues like the status of the Russian language to stoke a separatist rebellion,'" also according to the New York Times Magazine article, based on leaked US embassy cables.

As in other cases, political opportunism based on divisions works best when there are real divisions to exploit, and Ukraine had no shortage of those, especially that between the more Russian-speaking industrial east, the Donbas region in particular, and the rest of the country. As Plokhy summarizes the subsequent revolt in the east: "As in Kyiv, people in Donetsk were fed up with corruption, but many in the Donbas oriented themselves on Russia, not Europe, and hoped not for a corruption-free market economy but for a Soviet-era state-run economy and social guarantees." (Gates. p. 343)

So there was real division, and a strong difference of opinion, though likely inflamed by politicians like Yanukovych seeking to exploit it—which to be fair, is just part and parcel of the modern, messy and often bitter political process, one that we've seen in the West too, especially over cultural, ethnic and identity issues.

But, did these disputes go beyond bitter politics to in any way justify intervention by a foreign power claiming to protect a minority embroiled in the midst of an admittedly flawed and sometimes violent, embryonic, erratic, halting, sometimes corrupt, sometimes saintly, one step forward, two back, one sideways and maybe forward again—in other words quintessentially democratic—process?

The United Nations didn't seem to think so.

After her April 2014 official visit to Ukraine, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák reported that:

The overwhelming majority of those minority and other representatives whom I consulted in all locations visited described harmonious inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations and a legislative and policy environment that is conducive to the protection of their rights, including cultural rights. (

And, not only was the "legislative and policy environment...  conducive to the protection of their rights" — that is, they had access to and reasonable faith that peaceful political processes could resolve their issues —  but discrimination and violence were "rare" - even with the charged atmosphere already present at that time:

 Most minority representatives described to me conditions of non-discrimination in all spheres of life and acknowledged that violence, intimidation or aggression against them on the basis of national, ethnic or religious belonging are rare, even in these times of heightened tension.

And no, it wasn't a whitewash either. Russian speakers' concerns were not ignored:  "...ethnic Russians, spoke passionately about their concerns over the language rights of Russian speakers and their desire to see enhanced protection and anti-discrimination measures put in place."

In other words, even though Russian speakers had very serious concerns about their language and their rights, they sought a political/policy solution - that's what you do in a democracy - not violence, insurrection or foreign intervention. Izsák's report called for reforms, with better legal protections for minority language speakers:  "Immediate steps must be taken to ensure ... that the law meets, to the fullest extent possible, the needs and expectations of Ukraine's highly diverse and distinct linguistic communities."

Also though, and significantly, the UN report acknowledged the importance and value of Ukraine having a shared language to foster unity: "At the same time, Government objectives of promoting the widespread knowledge and use of Ukrainian as the national language are legitimate and important to national unity." (emphasis added)

Izsák's report also condemns both censorship and the use of media for propaganda purposes, and its link to violence: "media outlets and those who control media content have a responsibility to accurately and objectively convey information and to avoid any propaganda or misinformation which may incite unrest or violence." (emphasis added)

Finally, the Izsák's UN report summarizes both the problems facing Ukraine, and if there was any doubt, the total unacceptability of violent solutions—including by foreign actors:

While recognizing the legitimate concerns of minorities and their right to peaceful protest and to freely express their opinions, it is my view that the current human rights and minority rights situation and the civil and political, economic, social and cultural conditions experienced by minorities cannot justify any violent actions or incitement and support of those actions by any party, national or international. (emphasis added)

Yes, there were issues, and still are, but by the UN's own report, they do not justify violence, much less foreign intervention. Claiming otherwise had no basis in fact, and has led to a profound abuse of the UN Responsibility to Protect doctrine as justification for Putin's invasion.

And the consequences of that invasion demolished any already tenuous remaining claim to be protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. As Yaroslav Hyrysak put it in Ukraine, the Forging of a Nation:

Putin declared war under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, but the reality is entirely different. The war is being waged mainly in the Russian-speaking parts of the country and while claiming to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, Putin and the Russian army are systematically destroying it. Russian attacks and shelling of Mariupol,  Odesa, Kharkiv and Kherson, are killing people and destroying their homes. (p. 396)

While physically destroying the cities, home and lives of Russian speakers in Ukraine, Putin and the Russian army are also "destroying the special status of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine. One year after the full-scale invasion, 45 percent of people who identified as Russian speakers or bilingual report that they are now speaking more Ukrainian."

Aided by the continual decline of Russian as a world language since the collapse of the USSR, Hyrysak sees the eventual fate of Russian in Ukraine as being similar to other European minority languages as "just one minority language among many. And so, Russian will experience the very fate that Russian and Soviet officials tried to impose on Ukrainian. History loves a paradox. "

As in weakening NATO, it seems that Putin's war on Ukraine is actually harming, rather than helping, the achievement of his goals.

Baud also cites the "10,000 civilian deaths in the Donbass" and self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter (p 80), as justification for Russia's Special Military Operation.  The closest reference within his footnotes may be the previously cited New York Times Magazine article that refers to Donbas "where Kremlin-armed, -funded and -directed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war that had left nearly 10,000 dead."

Plokhy cites 14,000 dead in Donbas by 2020 "on both sides of the divide" (Gateway p. 355),  a number both more sobering and realistic, including combatants from both sides and civilians, tragically but not surprisingly caught up in a conflict waged amidst their homes and cities.

Owen Matthews in his Overreach, The Inside Story of Putin's War on Ukraine, characterizes Kremlin claims that "Russia was fighting a defensive war against Ukrainian 'genocide' of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine" as of "dubious veracity",  though he notes Kremlin propaganda "was relentless, and increasingly well packaged, and successfully convinced many Russians," (p. 254) at least partly because they wanted to be convinced, wanted to believe their soldiers were noble liberators, not invaders.

The 10-14 thousand deaths in the war prior to Putin's full-scale invasion in February 2022 are tragic, even more so when they are exploited for propaganda—defying common sense and even temporal causality—as justification for a war of aggression for which they are not a concocted, fake cause, but a very real, horrendous result.

As for the self-defense claim under Article 51 of the UN Charter, that would apply to Ukraine defending itself, as a member of the United Nations. The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics were illegally created by Russia, then annexed. They were never recognized by the UN, and have no legal claim to 'defend' themselves, all the less so when the UN itself found, as noted above, that conditions in Ukraine  in 2014 could  not "justify any violent actions... by any party, national or international."

The UN report summarized much of what has gone tragically wrong in this conflict, not unlike many others around the world and through history. An ethnic or linguistic minority has legitimate concerns  and those are exploited by others for political, and in this case strategic/military objectives, often as not with little or no relation to best interests of the aggrieved minority.

Similar to the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia prior to World War II taking cues from Hitler as they attacked police stations and other government facilities to commit and incite violence, the separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, rather than pursuing the political and policy reform paths open to them, chose violence at the behest of their preferred foreign master, Putin. Like the Sudeten Germans and many others, they may discover the real motives of their new master too late to avoid consequences utterly at odds with their aspirations and likely tragically and painfully harmful to their people and everything they hold dear.


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