An unarmed Ukrainian man stands in protest in front of spetsnaz soldiers of Putin's occupation force capturing Crimea, February 2014.
The decision of the Verkhovna Rada to declare Russian an aggressor country in the wake of the attacks on Mariupol and to appeal to the international community to do the same is important for Kyiv both internationally and domestically and thus a significant albeit formal defeat for Moscow.
That is the judgment of Lyudmia Balabay, a commentator for Kyiv’s “Obozrevatel” site, and of the experts she surveys in a new article on that portal.
Leaving aside the question of why Ukraine waited so long, Balabay says, the new document is nonetheless a very important step forward. “A great part of the document is devoted to the description of the situation” rather than the decision itself, but that too is important for the future both abroad and at home.
The Ukrainian deputies, she points out, “stressed the systematic violations by Russia of the basic norms of international law and human rights, including the right to life, the Kremlin’s support of terrorists (with arms and forces), its involvement with the downing of the Malaysian jetliner, and its unwillingness to fulfill international agreements it has signed.”
From one perspective, of course, this measure does no more than repeat “what everyone already knows,” but from another, this is a major advance because it does all this “in an official document” which can be distributed to others and which will be “not unimportant” for any investigations diplomatic or criminal “after the conclusion of the conflict.”
Having declared Russia an aggressor, Kyiv calls on other countries and international bodies to ensure that those guilty of crimes against humanity will be punished, to declare the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “republics” terrorist organizations and the Russian Federation “a country which supports terrorism,” to increase pressure on Moscow with new sanctions and limitations, and to provide military and humanitarian help to Ukraine to resist Russian aggression.
Some commentators have suggested that Ukraine gains very little from this declaration and unnecessarily complicates its relations with Western powers that want negotiations to start between Ukraine and Russia, but many Ukrainian analysts argue that such a view misses the point of just how important that declaration is both internationally and at home.
Oleksii Horan, the director of the School of Political Analysis at the Kyiv-Mohylev Academy says that by taking this step, Ukraine has made it far easier for the West to impose additional sanctions on Russia. At the very least, he argues, it gives Ukraine “the right to demand sanctions” against Russia from the EU and the US.
That alone, he argues, makes this “a very important formal decision” and not just a “populist” ploy as some have suggested.
Taras Chonovil, a former member of the Verkhova Rada, agrees, pointing out that the new identification of Russia as an aggressor allows the West to “punish him with a clear conscience” because his actions have now been categorized in this way officially by Ukraine’s parliament.
He adds that this declaration opens the way for Ukraine to introduce limits on its relations with Russia, including abrogating agreements, without risking the accusation that it and not Moscow is violating those accords or that it and not Moscow is acting in some kind of “undemocratic” fashion.
But Ukrainian diplomat Bohdan Yaremenko offers a somewhat different conclusion. As important as the document is internationally, he says, it is “more important for the domestic politics of Ukraine” given that “de facto the majority of countries have already recognized that Russia is an aggressor.”
With this declaration, the diplomat continues, Ukraine has formally entered into a state of war, one that opens a broad path “for the adoption of other important state decisions” such as the introduction of martial law, breaking diplomatic ties with Russia, and the introduction of Ukrainian sanctions of various kinds against Russia.
And in addition, Yaremenko says, it will “play a consolidating role in Ukrainian society which is very important given the need to unite for opposing terrorists and Russian Federation forces” on Ukrainian soil. Those are all very concrete consequences and thus the declaration of Russia as an aggressor is no small thing at all.