The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on January 25 that cases brought by Ukraine and the Netherlands against Russia were admissible. This intermediate decision is a significant legal milestone in the quest for justice over Russian aggression against Ukraine, as it recognizes that parts of eastern Ukraine seized by so-called separatists in spring 2014 were in fact controlled by Russia. “The Court found that areas in eastern Ukraine in separatist hands were from May 11, 2014, and up to at least January 26, 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation,” the court stated.
This ruling confirms what had long been the world’s worst-kept secret. Ever since the appearance of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in spring 2014, it was apparent that these nominally independent entities were in fact closely tied to Russia. Nevertheless, Moscow continued to officially deny any direct involvement in eastern Ukraine until the launch of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.
Russia’s blanket denials complicated the numerous international court proceedings initiated over alleged crimes committed in Ukraine following the outbreak of hostilities in 2014. The recent ECHR decision will have potentially wide-ranging implications in this context. It now paves the way for a series of international cases that had been put on hold pending a ruling over jurisdiction.
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The case in question at the ECHR relates to claims from both Ukraine and the Netherlands. The Ukrainian claims were brought against Russia in 2014, while later claims by the Netherlands are in connection with the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine, which resulted in the deaths of 298 people including 196 Dutch nationals.
One of the ECHR’s main conclusions was that Russia exercised effective control over the regions of eastern Ukraine nominally held by separatist forces. The court cited extensive evidence to support this conclusion including the presence of Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine from April 2014 and the large-scale deployment of Russian troops from August 2014 at the very latest. Evidence was also provided to highlight the extensive provision of Russian weapons along with comprehensive political and economic support.
In political terms, the ECHR ruling is undoubtedly a victory for Ukraine. It confirms that the invasion of February 24, 2022, was actually a continuation of the war which began eight years earlier in 2014. It also debunks Russian attempts to depict the so-called separatist republics as legitimate representatives of the local population in eastern Ukraine. This exposes the absurdity of later Russian efforts to portray the current full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a response to appeals from their own puppet regimes.
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Looking ahead, the ECHR will now consider numerous human rights violations that have allegedly been committed by Russia in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The list of crimes is extensive and includes summary executions, torture, sexual violence, and the abduction of children. These offenses will be very familiar to the many Ukrainian human rights activists who are currently attempting to document alleged Russian war crimes in recently liberated parts of Ukraine such as Bucha, Kherson, and Izyum.
The ECHR decision is also an important step toward unlocking thousands of individual claims against Russia submitted to the ECHR as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine. To date, there are more than 8000 such claims relating to gross violations of human rights in eastern Ukraine and Crimea following the Russian seizure of these Ukrainian regions.
Even though Russia is not currently a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, it is still responsible for all violations of this Convention committed until September 16, 2022, the date when Moscow terminated its participation. Nobody expects the current Russian authorities to comply with ECHR decisions or recognize the authority of the court. However, any future Russian government seeking to return to the international community will be obliged to do so. In the meantime, international human rights rulings against Russia are expected to deepen the Putin regime’s isolation and toxicity.
The recent European Court of Human Rights decision marks a new stage in the struggle to hold Russia accountable for its attack on Ukraine. However, it is important to stress that there remains a very long road ahead before justice is truly served. In parallel to the many ongoing cases against Russia relating to events dating back to 2014, discussions continue over the establishment of a special tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, which could potentially see Russia’s political and military leadership put on trial for the current full-scale invasion. Additional war crimes probes are also underway.
These efforts are vital for the future of the international security system. Russia’s nine-year campaign of aggression against Ukraine represents an unprecedented challenge to the rules-based international order that cannot go unpunished. Thankfully, while the wheels of international justice turn slowly, they appear to be moving in the right direction.
Zakhar Tropin is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Defence Strategies in Kyiv.
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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.
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