Introduced by Maurizio Arcari and Marco Roscini

It is indisputable that the internal political turmoil that broke out in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev in January 2014 and that very rapidly spread to other parts of Ukraine’s territory – firstly Crimea – opened a sort of Pandora’s box, where some of the most controversial questions pertaining to the international law on the use of force (in both its ius ad bellum and ius in bello facets) and to the legal consequences of serious breaches of peremptory norms of general international law(ius cogens) were bottled up. In fact, the referendumheld on 16March 2014 by the Crimean local authorities and the consequent de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia are events made possible by the presence of Russian military forces in the Crimean peninsula. The Russian intervention in Crimea has almost unanimously been condemned by the international community as a blatant violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and as a flagrant breach of the fundamental norms prohibiting the use of force in international relations as contained in the UN Charter and customary international law. The pertinence of the latter norms in the case at hand was, directly or indirectly, also recognised by the Russian attempt to justify its presence in Crimea by resorting to arguments traditionally invoked to justify the use of military force in foreign territory, such as the protection of nationals abroad or the invitation of (local) governmental authorities. Well beyond the credibility of such arguments, however, there is the more challenging problem of the exact legal qualification of the Russian military intervention and of the ensuing legal consequences. Does this intervention squarely fall within the category of ‘act of aggression’? Can it straightforwardly be filed under one (or more) of the examples provided for in GA Resolution 3314 (XXIX)? Or should the Russian military intervention rather be considered a case of ‘armed attack’ triggering the victim state’s right to self-defence? Does the fact that the military operations were carried out without substantial recourse to armed violence or the occurrence of victims, damage to property, or other material consequences affect their legal qualification? Of course, a use of force needs to reach a certain scale and effects to qualify as an armed attack, but is there a threshold that a use of force needs itself to reach to fall under the scope of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter? Finally, can the Russian military presence in Crimea be qualified as occupation in the sense of the ius in bello, and does this have any bearing on the legality of the ensuing acts, such as the holding of a secessionist referendum, the declaration of independence by local Crimean authorities, and the subsequent agreement for the integration of Crimea into Russia?

This last aspect brings us to the second main problem arising from the Crimean crisis, that of unlawful territorial situations and the legal consequences attached thereto. As confirmed by the vetoed draft SC Resolution of 15 March 2014, the international community is not willing to recognise actions aiming at altering the territorial status of Ukraine and Crimea. In this vein, the Crimean case prima facie endorses non-recognition as a consolidated legal tool used in international law to deal with unlawful territorial situations and the consequences of grave breaches of ius cogens norms. Besides this, uncertainties remain as to the nature and the legal basis of non-recognition, its scope, its legal implications as well as its effectiveness. By way of example, is non-recognition an integral part and component of the primary norms protecting basic values of the international community, or is it provided by the secondary norms on state responsibility spelling out the specific consequences of certain internationally wrongful acts? Is non-recognition conceived with the specific aim to avoid the consolidation of illegal situations, or rather is it functional to a larger multilateral reaction to grave breaches of international law prejudicial to common interests? Can non-recognition be seen as a specific sanction for the violation of ius cogens norms? Should the implementation of non-recognition depend on the previous determination by an international organ or institution (for instance, the UN Security Council) or should it operate also in a strict bilateral, state-to-state dimension? And finally, what is the material impact of non-recognition on unlawful territorial situations and what is its overall effectiveness?

In the light of these important legal questions – to which many others not mentioned here could be added – the ongoing 2014 crisis between Ukraine and Russia represents a test for international law and international lawyers. This justifies our choice to devote the first Zoom out of QIL to the “Crimean conundrum”, and to entrust the task of answering some of the above-mentioned thorny questions to two members of our editorial board who specialize in questions relating to use of force, secessionist phenomena, and unlawful territorial situations.