By William Goodhind, The Euobseprver, 27 January 2023
LONDON - The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) has made a landmark ruling recognising Russia's occupation of Eastern Ukraine since 2014. The finding, part of the Court's decision on the admissibility of Ukraine's case against Russia, has far-ranging consequences.
The ECHR announced on 25 January that Russia was in "effective control" of separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine from 11 May 2014. In doing so, the court has formally acknowledged the inter-state character of the conflict and Russia's culpability for human rights abuses.
The ECHR's decision marks an important step in progressing three inter-state applications submitted by Ukraine against Russia, one in conjunction with The Netherlands over the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight MH-17.
Moreover, this legal development aligns with the ECHR's 2021 finding that, since 27 February 2014, Russia was also in "effective control" of Crimea, more than a fortnight before the peninsula's staged 'reunification' referendum.
The ruling comes amid a surge of national and international judicial efforts to hold Russia to account for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A week earlier, the EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly for a UN-backed Special Tribunal to try Russia's political and military leadership for the crime of aggression.
Others, including former UK prime ministers Gordon Brown and John Major, have favoured a Nuremberg-style tribunal — a treaty-based court created by a collective of like-minded states.
Armed with the ECHR's legal position, the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office, UN courts and national delegations now have a binding reference point on when and where Russia's military operations in Ukraine began.
But the significance of this finding goes far beyond just legal fora.
The ECHR's decision helps to set the record straight on the causes (and responsibility) for the 2014-22 war in Ukraine.
Dispelling 'civil war' myth
Russia has persistently framed the war in Ukraine's eastern regions along ethnic and linguistic lines. The portrayal of events as a domestic affair has served to perpetuate outlandish claims of a Ukrainian genocide of Russians in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
These lies set a path towards all-out war.
Putin's justification for the so-called Special Military Operation hinges on the false assertion of the need to 'protect' ethnic Russians from a fascist, neo-Nazi Ukrainian government.
Regrettably, this civil war mischaracterisation has lingered in Western thought for almost a decade, in part due to a concerted disinformation campaign that continues to this day.
Even in the face of damning evidence and Putin's own admission of a Russian military presence, media and policy commentators referred to the situation as an internal conflict. Rebels in the east were described as 'pro-Russian' or 'Moscow-backed', but rarely Russian-controlled.
On the contrary, in 2014, a fringe separatist movement was bolstered by a massive Russian military incursion, forcing Ukraine to capitulate to the Minsk Peace process. Then, as fighting continued, a Russian occupation regime emerged.
The Ukrainian government later changed the name of its deployment in eastern Ukraine from the Anti-Terrorist Operation to the Joint Forces Operation.
The re-labelling in April 2018 sent a message that Ukraine was, for all intents and purposes, at war with Russia.
However, it was only until Russia's disastrous 2022 invasion that mainstream media followed suit.
The ECHR's decision represents a small victory for Ukraine, who have doggedly pursued legal routes for redress. Similarly, Russian allegations of genocide are being contested in the International Court of Justice in what has been likened as a state defamation case.
The de-facto recognition of Russian occupation is not a silver bullet — it will be years before the ECHR's inter-state cases are concluded — but it marks an important turning point in history.
Just as it is making gains on the battlefield, Ukraine is seizing back control of the information space.
William Goodhind was a monitoring officer with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine between 2015-17 and 2020-22. He is now a consultant and deployable civilian expert with the UK government's Civilian Stabilisation Group.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.