Vladimir Putin justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by the need to “protect itself,” stop the “genocide” and “denacify” Ukraine. SyriaHR parses the Russian president’s claims.

Russian troops are shelling Ukrainian cities and engaging in full-scale hostilities in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion began on February 24, just before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an address to the Russians, in which he listed the reasons why he decided to order the attack, which, from his point of view, is a defense. SyriaHR – on how objective the main arguments given by Putin are.

Are NATO troops getting closer to Russia’s borders?

Putin’s claim: “The NATO is steadily expanding, the military machine is moving and coming close to our borders.”

Factchecking: this statement is misleading.

What is true about this statement is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 14 Eastern European countries joined the North Atlantic Alliance. Four of these countries border Russia. Ukraine was also given a chance to join NATO in 2008, but the process has been frozen since then. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, during his visit to Moscow in mid-February, stressed that admission of Ukraine to NATO was not on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

It is also true that logistics infrastructure and airfields necessary for possible operational reinforcement have been prepared on the territory of Eastern European NATO member states. However, it is important to note that these steps were taken after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, a violation of international law, and were a reaction to these actions by Moscow.

The North Atlantic Alliance still abides by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which prohibits the additional permanent deployment of significant combat forces in countries that join NATO.

Against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, NATO began rotating four battalion combat groups in the Baltic states and Poland in 2016. However, these battle groups, totaling 5,000 soldiers, are too small to pose a real threat to Russia, which has some 850,000 active soldiers.

Individual NATO members also cooperate bilaterally outside the alliance. Moscow has watched the deployment of Aegis Ashore missile defense systems with great suspicion. They are preparing to be deployed in Romania and have been previously deployed in Poland.

These systems were originally designed for warships. And they can launch cruise missiles that can reach Russia in a short time, explains retired Bundeswehr colonel Wolfgang Richter of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin in an interview with DW. However, according to him, this is not an insoluble problem.

“This problem can be solved by concrete verification. This means that Russia could be given the opportunity to verify that there are no cruise missiles ready to be launched in the Aegis Ashore launch silos. But Moscow rejected the offer to engage in arms control dialogue, Richter says. – Instead it has chosen war and destroyed the prospect of a negotiated solution.”

Is the Russian attack a defense under the UN Charter?

Putin’s assertion: “Circumstances require us to act decisively and immediately. The People’s Republics of Donbass have asked Russia for help. In this connection, in accordance with Article 51 Part 7 of the UN Charter, with the authorization of the Federation Council of Russia and in accordance with the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22 this year, I have decided to conduct a special military operation,” – such statements Putin made in an address on February 24.

In the same speech, the Russian president pointed out: “You and I were simply left with no other opportunity to protect Russia, our people, other than the one we will be forced to use today.”

Factchecking: Both of these statements are false. It is not true that Russia is forced to “defend” itself against Ukraine, nor that it can rely on the UN Charter in doing so.

This claim is part of a series of accusations made by Putin that Ukraine is conducting offensive military operations and even preparing for war against Russia.

Shortly after Russia recognized the self-proclaimed “DPR” and “LPR,” they appealed to Moscow for help, and Putin sent troops to the region occupied by the pro-Russian separatists, which he called “peacekeepers. De facto, however, this was a continuation of Russia’s creeping occupation of Ukraine that began in 2014.

Moscow has yet to provide any evidence that Ukraine attacked Russia; there is no independent information on the matter. There have been false-flag actions in separatist areas in eastern Ukraine that have been fought over for several years, meaning staged attacks that bloggers have exposed as staged.

“The right of self-defense implies an attack by the other side. In the case of Ukraine, this (Ukraine’s attack on Russia. – Ed.) is absolutely not observed,” says Pia Fuhrhop, an international security expert at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP), in an interview with DW. Fuhrhop calls Putin’s argument “treacherous” and explains: “Just the opposite: in recent weeks, Ukraine has done everything to prevent Russia from invoking exactly the right of self-defense.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the situation in Ukraine for years with a special mission, also unequivocally refutes Putin’s claim that the Russian invasion falls under Article 51 of the UN Charter. OSCE Chairman and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau condemned the Russian invasion as a “fundamental violation of the UN Charter. Justifying the attack under Article 51 was “regrettable and shameful,” he stressed.

In his turn, UN Secretary General António Guterres, speaking to journalists, said: “This war makes no sense. It violates the principles of the UN Charter.

Article 51 of the UN Charter guarantees the right of UN member states to “individual or collective self-defense” in case of armed attack. But as Marcelo Cohen, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, points out, this is not the case with Russia. “Putin’s argument is groundless for several reasons,” Cohen argues in an interview with DW. – First, the two breakaway territories (‘DPR’ and ‘LPR.’ – Ed.) are not states from the point of view of international law. Secondly, prior to the invasion (by Russia. – Ed.), Ukraine did not take ‘violent actions’ against these two territories. And thirdly, the massive use of force against military facilities throughout Ukraine is unnecessary and disproportionate, the expert stresses.

Without any evidence of an armed attack by Ukraine, Russia’s actions remain essentially a war of aggression without any justification under Article 51.

Did “genocide” take place in Ukraine?

Putin’s claim: The purpose of Russia’s so-called “special operation” in Ukraine is “to protect people who have been subjected to abuse, genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years.”

Factchecking: this is not true.

The concept of “genocide,” according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, means “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such.”

There are no reports of such targeted massacres of civilians in Ukraine, although all civilian casualties of the conflict have been thoroughly documented by international monitors since 2014. There is no evidence of systematic killing of civilians in the regular reports of the OSCE observer mission, which has traveled to both sides of the contact line in eastern Ukraine since 2014 – also with Russia’s consent. The conflict’s civilian casualties, according to the monitors, are the result of hostilities or their aftermath.

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2021, a total of about 3,000 civilians were killed in the war zone in eastern Ukraine.

The OSCE Observation Mission records all the dead and wounded in its daily reports. The largest number of civilians were killed in the first phase of the conflict in 2014-2015. Since 2016, the number of casualties has been steadily decreasing. The last available summary report from the 2020 observation mission recorded 161 civilian deaths between January 1, 2017, and mid-September 2020 – with roughly equal numbers of casualties on both sides. The predominant cause of death was artillery shelling, followed by landmine and munitions explosions.

“Most of the casualties – 81 dead and 231 wounded – were caused by mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosives. Civilians were killed or wounded in a wide range of circumstances, including while working in the fields, fishing or walking,” the OSCE special monitoring mission said in its September 2020 report. There is no indication from independent sources – OSCE and UN – of the alleged “genocide.” Pia Furhop of the Science and Politics Foundation calls Putin’s accusations of genocide “absolutely baseless.”

In her view, the Russian president does not care about facts: “In the authoritarian system that Russia is today, there is no way for the critical media to verify this in any way. In this respect, he (Putin – Ed.) only needs to justify the war without any factual basis,” says Furkhop.

Should Ukraine be “denazified”?

Putin’s assertion: to prevent the alleged bullying and alleged “genocide” of Russia, efforts must be made to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

Factchecking: This statement is untrue.

Putin’s statement is a propaganda narrative that he has been repeating for a long time and that has no basis in fact. Putin uses the historical concept of “denazification” to implement his plans in Ukraine. It describes the policy of the victorious countries towards Nazi Germany after World War II. The purpose of this measure then was to free the country from the influence of the Nazis and remove the people who supported this course from their positions.

Comparing this to the situation in Ukraine is wrong, stresses Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS), in a conversation with DW. “Talking about Nazism in Ukraine is absolutely inappropriate,” he is sure. – Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenski is a Russian-speaking Jew, who in the last presidential election beat out the Ukrainian candidate without Jewish roots by a wide margin.

According to Andreas Umland, there are indeed far-right groups in Ukraine. However, their influence is relatively small if we compare the situation in Ukraine with the situation in some other European countries, he said. “At the last parliamentary elections in 2019 (in Ukraine. – Ed.) the far-right, radical parties came out as a united front, and this united front won a total of 2.15% of the votes,” recalls the expert.

Ulrich Schmid, a professor of Russian culture and society studies at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, calls Putin’s words about the need to “denazify Ukraine” a “vile insinuation. Schmid does research on nationalism in Eastern Europe. “It is true that during the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014, there were individual far-right groups. Today, however, they play a secondary role in the country,” Schmid says in an interview with DW. “There are such groups, but there are at least as many far-right groups in Russia itself as there are in Ukraine,” he adds.

Right-wing Ukrainian militant groups fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine, such as the Azov regiment, have been criticized. The Azov Regiment was founded by a far-right group, but in 2014 it was incorporated into the internal troops of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, the National Guard, Umland points out. After that, the radical movement and the regiment were separated. The latter still uses right-wing radical symbols, but can no longer be classified as right-wing extremist. During training courses, soldiers were spotted time and again sharing the right-wing extremist ideology, but they were identified, and this caused a scandal, Umland notes.

To summarize, small right-wing extremist groups exist in Ukraine, as in many other countries. However, according to experts, they play a completely insignificant role in society. Accordingly, there is no real reason to speak of “denazification.