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Ukraine: Did Mercenaries Secure the Crimean Anschluss?

On March 6,2014,  at an open forum event in the State Duma, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, said Russia is “… strongly against a paternalistic relationship with Ukraine. But I want to say that in reality, that has never been the case. We’ve always been partners. And there’s never been any arrogance on our side towards our partners.” On March 16, 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin illustrated that modest partnership; he conquered Crimea with his shadow.

If they’re not Russian, and not Ukrainian, who are they? The law is clear; they must be mercenaries, and of necessity, war criminals under international law.

Since the first week of March, Putin has insisted, according to National Public Radio, that heavily armed men who have occupied or surrounded Ukrainian government buildings and military bases are “local self-defense forces.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says there are no Russian troops in Crimea outside the bases it has leased from Ukraine. The Ukrainian government says those uniformed, masked, heavily armed and homogeneous troops are neither their soldiers nor rag-tag local militias. The presence of these forces has caused the Crimean Anschluss.

Ukraine, Crimea unidentified soldiers

Soldiers without insignia guard buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, March 2, 2014. Voice of America photo by Elizabeth Arrott

Given those assertions, whoever’s lying is playing a dangerous game in the Black Sea peninsula. Someone has taken control of Crimea and displaced Ukrainian military forces from their own installations. In fact, less than 48 hours after the referendum of capitulation, these armed individuals killed a Ukrainian military officer for defending his post, according to Ukrainian Regional Defense Ministry Spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov. If they’re not Russian, and not Ukrainian, who are they? The law is clear; they must be mercenaries, and of necessity, war criminals under international law.

Article I, Section 1 of The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (United Nations Mercenary Convention) defines a mercenary as any person who:

Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict; Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces of that party; Is neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict; Is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict; and Has not been sent by a State which is not a party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

Which means that if Putin is the puppeteer behind the curtain the entire world suspects him to be, than he faces the prospect of being an international war criminal.

This is the same definition as Article 47 of the 1977 Protocol I of the Geneva Convention.

Without knowing the compensation these professionals have received, they cannot be identified as mercenaries with certainty. However, taking both Ukraine and Russia at their word, there has to be a reason those soldiers are controlling streets, bases and buildings, and since they allegedly aren’t acting under orders from any responsible national commander, and aren’t Ukrainian citizens, there is at the least a strong presumption they’re acting for pay.

What does it mean in international law to be a merc? Well, first, the status itself is a crime; you’re subject to prosecution or extradition by any party to the Treaty (Ukraine is; Russia isn’t). So is whoever recruited and sent you. Which means that if Putin is the puppeteer behind the curtain the entire world suspects him to be, than he faces the prospect of being an international war criminal.

Putin signs law admitting Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents officially admitting Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation on March 21, 2014. President of Russia photo

Second, and perhaps even more interesting, because you aren’t a member of the armed forces of a power signatory to the Geneva Conventions, or of a militia or volunteer unit forming part of those forces, and since you’re not under the command of a person responsible to obey international law (that is, a military officer of a signatory state), you are not entitled to protection as a prisoner of war.

Which is to say, it only makes sense for Russia and Ukraine to cooperate to arrest every one of those fellows and prosecute them for war crimes. Indeed, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia could also propose an International Criminal Tribunal to prosecute the mercenaries. The Security Council created such a tribunal to address war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and another for the Rwandan Genocide. Nevertheless, Putin has recently expressed an affinity for Russian-speaking persons and a desire to protect them, and so no doubt he’d prefer these Russian speaking mercenaries to be tried under Russian law.

Putin has recently expressed an affinity for Russian-speaking persons and a desire to protect them, and so no doubt he’d prefer these Russian speaking mercenaries to be tried under Russian law.

Article 208 of the Russian Criminal Code has been amended to allow for the prosecution and sentencing of up to six years for “Russian citizens participating in combat operations in foreign countries.” The amendment was spurred by a report from Deputy Director of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) Sergei Smirnov that about 300 to 400 Russians were fighting in Syria for the opposition. Smirnov sharply identified how dangerous individuals like that could be when they returned to Russia. Imagine how dangerous these folks in Ukraine could be if they showed up in Mother Russia.

Putin often tells the world how sensitive he is to the western trilogy of law, history and literature. The law at issue is obvious, as are the historical analogies, and Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels’ famous quote springs to mind: “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle.” His literary bent seems most apt here.

Crimea Crisis

Armed men, presumably Russians, outside the parliament building in Crimean capital, Simferopol, March 1, 2014. oice of America photo by Elizabeth Arrott

Remember Mr. President, what Sir Walter Scott famously said: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”