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Military occupation of Ukraine by Russia

Conflict type: Military occupation

Since March 2014, Crimea has been occupied by Russia. Furthermore, Russia has been occupying large territories in the south and the east of Ukraine since February 2022.

Since March 2014, Russia has been occupying part of Ukrainian territory, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol ('Crimea'). The alleged consent for a Russian intervention, based on a request by ousted President Yanukovych, does not affect the classification of the situation as a military occupation. Similarly, the Crimean referendum of 16 March 2014 to join Russia does not alter the status of Crimea as occupied territory. 

In addition, Russia has been occupying large territories in the south and the east of Ukraine since February 2022. The alleged request for assistance from the People's Republics in the Donbass does not constitute valid consent, and therefore does not alter the qualification of the situation as military occupation.

For a territory to be considered occupied, it must be 'under the authority of the hostile army'. Article 42, 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land. For an occupation to exist, hostile foreign forces must exercise effective control. Effective control requires three cumulative conditions:

  • First, without the consent of the effective local government, the armed forces of a foreign state are physically present.
  • Second, the presence of the foreign forces prevent the effective local government from exercising its powers.
  • Third, the foreign forces are able to exercise their authority.

These elements illustrate that an occupation does not necessarily have to meet with armed resistance. Common Article 2(2) of the four 1949 Geneva Convention expressly specifies that they apply to cases ‘even if said occupation meets with no armed resistance’. Rather than armed resistance, the decisive element is that the territorial state did not consent to the presence of foreign troops.


Against the background of the crisis in Ukraine, armed men in unmarked military uniforms started to deploy in Crimea from the end of February 2014 onwards. They were widely assumed to be Russian troops already stationed in Crimea under an agreement concerning the Black Sea fleet. Russia initially denied the presence of Russian soldiers, but at a later point President Putin acknowledged that they were Russians. K. Lally, ‘Putin’s Remarks Raise Fears of Future Moves Against Ukraine’, Washington Post, 17 April 2014. During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Russia argued that the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych had made a written request to restore law and order in Ukraine, 7125th meeting of the Security Council, UN doc S/PV.7125 , pp 3-4. or, in other words, that Ukraine, represented by the ousted President Yanukovych, consented to the presence of Russian forces. However, the request is not valid because, at that point, ousted President Yanukovych was no longer competent to express consent on behalf of Ukraine: For further explanation on the role played by consent and who can express consent on behalf of a state, see the section on 'Who can represent the state' under Classification - International armed conflict. Indeed, the Ukrainian parliament had removed him from power and he had fled the country to Russia, although arguably in a manner imcompatible with the Ukrainian Constitution. P. Polityuk and M. Robinson, ‘Ukraine Parliament Removes Yanukovich, Who Flees Kiev in “Coup”’, Reuters, 22 February 2014. S. Walker, ‘Ousted Ukrainian Leader Viktor Yanukovych reported to be in Russia’, The Guardian, 27 February 2014. For a detailed analysis of the conditions for consent to be valid under international law and its application to Ukraine, see T. Ruys and L. Ferro, ‘Weathering the Storm: Legality and Legal Implications of the Saudi-Led Military Intervention in Yemen’, 65 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 1 (2016), p 83 ff, restricted access; T. D. Grant, Aggression Against Ukraine. Territory, Responsibility, and International Law, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, p 50 ff; D. Wisehard, ‘The Crisis in Ukraine and the Prohibition of the Use of Force: A Legal Basis for Russia’s Intervention’, Just Security Blog, 4 March 2014; G. H. Fox, ‘Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Intervention in the Ukraine by Invitation’, Opinio Juris Blog, 10 March 2014.

In a referendum held on 16 March, official results reported that 97 percent of voters wished to join Russia. However, the European Union (EU) and Ukraine disputed the results. Moreover, the OSCE and the EU had previously declared that the referendum would be unlawful and there were no international observers present. ‘Didier Burkhalter juge “illégal” le référendum en Crimée’, Agence France Press, 11 March 2011; ‘Ukraine: MEPs Call for Firm Action on Russia to Prevent Further Escalation’, European Parliament News, 12 March 2013; ‘Crimea Referendum: Voters ‘Back Russia Union’, BBC News, 16 March 2014. On 21 March 2014, Russian President Putin signed a law to annex Crimea. ‘Ukraine: Putin Signs Crimea Annexation’, BBC News, 21 March 2014. On 27 March 2014, with one hundred in favour, eleven against, and fifty-eight abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/262. According to resolution 68/262, 'the referendum held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol on 16 March 2014, having no validity, cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea or of the city of Sevastopol'. 

The purported annexation of Crimea does not change the status of Crimea as an occupied territory: Crimea remains under the control of Russian forces and Russian authorities without the consent of Ukraine. In the same sense, see R. Heinsch, ‘Conflict Classification in Ukraine’, International Law Studies 91 (2015), U.S. Naval College of War, pp 353-354.  It has been reported that Russian authorities systematically transfer citizens from the Russian Federation to the occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, reportedly with the specific intent to change the demographic map of the population of Crimea. ‘Crimea after six years of Russian occupation: fear, human rights abuses and absence of freedom’, Ukrinform, 4 May 2020.

As a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Russia has been military controlling an increasingly large part of Ukraine. On 26 May, after three months of hostilities, the territory controlled by Russia stretched from Kherson in the west, through Mariupol and large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, to the vicinity of Kharkiv in the north. However, when the invasion started, the Russian army also controlled areas in northern Ukraine, mainly around Kyiv and Kharkiv. ‘Russia invade Ukraine’, Reuters, 11 May 2022; ‘Ukraine war in maps: Tracking the Russian invasion’, BBC News, 24 May 2022; Javier Galán and Luis Sevillano Pires, ‘How the map of Ukraine has changed in three months of war’, El País, 24 May 2022; ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in maps – latest updates’, Financial Times, 26 May 2022.

We can speak of a belligerent occupation as soon as the 3 cumulative criteria are met. Since this requires a fact-based exercise, and the facts on the ground show that Russia, through its military presence, has taken control of the above-mentioned areas, preventing Ukraine from exercising its sovereignty there, it can be concluded that Russia is occupying a large part of southern and eastern Ukraine. ‘Shots fired in Ukrainian city as locals protest against Russian occupation’, RFE/RL, 2 March 2022; Liam James, ‘Russia claims it has seized Kherson as mayor agrees to conditions to keep city running’, The Independent, 3 March 2022; N. Kalandarishvili-Mueller, ‘Russia’s “Occupation by Proxy” of Eastern Ukraine – Implications Under the Geneva Conventions’, Just Security, 22 February 2022. Nevertheless, the situation is evolving rapidly as the IAC between Russia and Ukraine is still ongoing.

Views of parties to the conflict and other actors

Ukraine considers that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol are occupied by Russia. See for example the statement by Ukraine to the General Assembly,  General Assembly, Official Records, Seventy-first Session, 56th Plenary Meeting, UN doc A/71/PV.65, 19 December 2016, p 34; Letter Dated 3 October 2016 from the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General, UN doc A/71/540-S/2016/839, 11 October 2016; Letter Dated 14 September 2016 from the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General, UN doc A/71/379-S/2016/788, 15 September 2015. In its June 2015 derogation from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, Ukraine highlighted that in light of the 'annexation and temporary occupation by the Russian Federation' of the Crimea, 'the Russan Federation is fully responsible for respect for human rights and implementation of the relevant treaties in annexed and temporary occupied territory of Ukraine.' Depositary Notification, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Ukraine: Notification under Article 4(3), Reference C.N.416.2015.Treaties-IV.4, 5 June 2015, and  Note Verbale, Permanent Representation of Ukraine to the Council of Europe, Declaration Concerning Article 15 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom,  JJ7979C, Tr./005-185, 10 June 2015.

Following the occupation of Crimea, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failed to adopt a resolution that would have urged the countries not to recognize the results of the referendum: Russia managed to block the resolution with its veto right, while China abstained. Liu Jieyi, Permanent Representative of China to the UN, said that Beijing sought a ‘balanced’ solution to the conflict. The United Kingdom representative, Mark Lyall Grant, affirmed that the result of the vote highlighted Russia's isolation over Crimea within the UNSC and from the international community, while the French representative, Gérard Araud, declared that Russia ‘vetoed the UN Charter’ with its negative vote. ‘UN Security Council action on Crimea referendum blocked’, UN News, 15 March 2014. Some days later, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) reaffirmed in its resolution 68/262 ‘the paramount importance of the Charter of the United Nations in the promotion of the rule of law among nations’ and called ‘upon all states, international organizations, and specialized agencies not to recognize any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.’ UN Doc. A/RES/68/262 (2014), 27 March 2014. Furthermore, the UNGA adopted by a majority vote the Resolution 71/205 on 1 February 2017, whereby it condemned 'the temporary occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine - the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (hereinafter "Crimea") - by the Russian Federation', and reaffirmed 'the non-recognition of its annexation.' Furthermore, the General Assembly urged Russia 'to uphold all of its obligations under applicable international law as an occupying Power.' In the same vein, the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights has repeatedly described Crimea as an occupation in various reports in 2017. See Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine, 14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017, 16 February 2017, §2 and §22 and Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 March 2017,§125 and §128. Earlier reports, before the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 71/205, abstained from qualifying the situation as an occupation, see for example Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Ukraine, UN doc A/HRC/27/75, 19 September 2014. Similarly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has consistently considered Crimea to be an occupied territory and has called on Russia to fulfil its obligations under the law of occupation. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Resolution 1990 (2014), 10 April 2014;  Resolution 2028 (15), 27 January 2015; Resolution 2132 (2016), 12 October 2016. Apart from oral condemnations of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, some governments and international organizations, led by the United States and the European Union, imposed sanctions against individuals, businesses, and officials from Russia and Ukraine involved in the occupation. ‘Ukraine crisis: Russia and sanctions’, BBC News, 19 December 2014.

Under the law of occupation, an occupation is supposed to be temporary and does not alter the status of the territory in question. The occupying power does not enjoy sovereign rights over the territory in question.

The law of military occupation applies to the occupied territory of Crimea. The law of military occupation is set forth in Articles 42 to 56 in the 1907 Hague Regulations, the fourth 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to international armed conflicts. Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the 1977 Additional Protocol I.

In addition, both Russia and Ukraine are bound by customary international humanitarian law. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

International human rights law also applies. Under the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, an occupying power, including when acting through local administrative authorities, is obliged to secure the European Convention on Human Right. ECtHR, Cyprus v Turkey, Judgment, App no 25781/94, 10 May 2001, § 77; ECtHR, lIascu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §314. In the case of Ilascu, the European Court also stressed that even after having lost effective control, the territorial state still has positive obligations to take measures to secure the Convention rights through diplomatic, political, and economic measures, § 331.

Last updated: Sunday 14th August 2022