28th Mar 2023


Why the new ECHR Ukraine-Russia ruling matters

  • Judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Photo: Council of Europe)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The inside of the court (Photo: paulbavo)

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.

Author bio

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.

How to apply the Nuremberg model for Russian war crimes

A Special Tribunal on Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be convened, because no permanent or existing international judicial institution is endowed with jurisdiction over Russian high-ranking officials, writes the head of the Ukraine delegation to the Council of Europe.

Europe is giving more aid to Ukraine than you think

'Europeans need to pull their weight in Ukraine. They should pony up more funds.' Such has been the chorus since the start of the war. The problem is the argument isn't borne out by the facts, at least not anymore.


Okay, alright, AI might be useful after all

Large Language Models could give the powers trained data-journalists wield, to regular boring journalists like me — who don't know how to use Python. And that makes me tremendously excited, to be honest.

How much can we trust Russian opinion polls on the war?

The lack of Russian opposition to the Russo-Ukrainian War is puzzling. The war is going nowhere, Russian casualties are staggering, the economy is in trouble, and living standards are declining, and yet polls indicate that most Russians support the war.

Latest News

  1. Biden's 'democracy summit' poses questions for EU identity
  2. Finnish elections and Hungary's Nato vote in focus This WEEK
  3. EU's new critical raw materials act could be a recipe for conflict
  4. Okay, alright, AI might be useful after all
  5. Von der Leyen pledges to help return Ukrainian children
  6. EU leaders agree 1m artillery shells for Ukraine
  7. Polish abortion rights activist vows to appeal case
  8. How German business interests have shaped EU climate agenda

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality
  5. Promote UkraineInvitation to the National Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine on 25.02.2023
  6. Azerbaijan Embassy9th Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting and 1st Green Energy Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us