On September 30, 2022, Russia declared its annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. Not only none of the oblasts was under complete Russian control at the time of annexation, the unilateral proclamation of “new Russian territories” took place amid Russian military setbacks seen by many as one significant continuing retreat.
To make the annexation look legitimate, the Kremlin staged “referendums” in all four oblasts. Then, according to the “will of the people” there, the State Duma voted for admitting these four into the Russian Federation, with the Russian Constitutional Court acknowledging in a hasty overnight session on October 2, 2022, that four new treaties with “the newly-acquired territories” fully correspond to the Russian Constitution.
In the Kremlin’s view, this set of obviously illegitimate actions showed its complete legitimacy. It seems to have worked for the internal political agenda as Putin’s Goebbels-style propaganda gurus have used billions of dollars much more effectively than his military aides. At the same time, it has shown the absence of the Rule of Law with its basic presumption that no one – including the most highly placed officials – is above the law. The “legal documents” supporting the annexation prove that Russian authorities live in virtual reality.
February 21, 2022, Putin acknowledged the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk Republics to use it three days later as a pretext for the military invasion of Ukraine. But the document he signed stated that Russia recognizes the whole territory of Donetsk oblast as the Donetsk Republic, which means that for the Donetsk Republic to become a part of the Russian Federation, all people of Donetsk oblast should have been represented at the staged referendums. Failing to seize the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk oblast by the end of September, the Kremlin couldn’t do it. And neither the Kremlin nor the State Duma or should-be highly-professional judges of the Constitutional Court expressed any care for the fact.
The preamble of the Russian Constitutional Court’s approval of the four treaties states that as a consequence of arbitrary decisions of the Soviet government, the territory of the Ukrainian SSR was primarily comprised of lands with a predominantly Russian population without the will of the people. Moreover, according to the viewpoint of the Russian Constitutional Court, the situation in Ukraine began to deteriorate after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it became even worse after the government change in Kyiv in 2014.
The Russian Constitutional Court also noted that “admitting belief in good and justice as one of the founding values of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation, and being a social state governed by the Rule of Law, Russia can not ignore massive facts of violations of the right to life and discrimination based on ethnic and linguistic affinity, more so on the territory with the population of which Russia has long-lasting historical, cultural and humane connections.”
This official statement provides legal grounds for the revision of the collapse of the USSR. The Russian Government may use this official legal ruling of the Constitutional Court to acknowledge the void of the Belovezh Accords of December 1991, which declared that the Soviet Union ceases to exist, effectively overturning the will expressed by more than 76% of the Soviet people, who in March 1991 voted for preserving the Soviet Union.
In 2017 Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Kremlin internal policy team and an architect of the structure of the contemporary internal politics in Russia, declared that “the Russian state functions on principles different from the treaty principle.” His statement justified why the Kremlin did not want to re-sign a treaty between Tatarstan, a subject of the Russian Federation, and the federal center. The treaty that was refused to sign was approved by the Russian Parliament in 2007 to be effective for ten years, and to be re-approved in 2017. And the 2007 Parliament’s approval followed the 1994 Treaty signed by Tatarstan with the Kremlin, after Tatarstan refused to sign a Federative Treaty between the Kremlin and all Russian regions, which became the basis of the Russian Federation and its Constitution of 1993.
Openly loyal and Kremlin-supporting Chechnya never had any treaty signed with the Kremlin. After two wars there is not even a valid peace treaty between Chechnya and Moscow, let alone a Federative Treaty. May 12, 1997 Aslan Maskhadov, the then President of the Chechen Republic Ichkeriya signed a peace treaty signed with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That peace treaty provided legal grounds for controversies to be resolved only by peaceful means and according to the norms of international law (needless to remind you that Putin violated it three years later). It is interesting that Boris Yeltsin declared that the Treaty “put an end to the war and 400 years of conflict”.
This treaty followed the Khasavyurt Accords of 1996, titled “On principles of the basis of relations between the Russian Federation and the republic of Chechnya”. Both documents do not clearly define the status of Chechnya within or outside of the framework of the Russian Federation. The documents de-fact treated Chechnya as an independent state, and at the same time the Russian Parliament never ratified the documents, which is obligatory for international treaties and agreements.
This mix of misleading title and content demanded a particular provision of the Russian Constitutional Court stating on December 26, 1996, that the signed Khasavyurt Accords did not regulate any relations between the Russian Federation and one of its subjects, clearly leaving Chechnya outside the existing legal structure of the Russian state. Moreover, the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, whose President signed the treaty, was declared “ceased to exist,” replacing it with the Republic of Chechnya, leaving any documents signed before legally void.
As we see from the legal point of view there are at least two subjects of the Russian Federation that have no legally effective treaties with the central authority.
Most regions signed the Federative Treaty of 1992, which later was transformed into the Russian Constitution. The signing needed to repeat in a new format in 2002. The initial treaty provided for a later re-signing revision of approval only for the regions initially formed as Republics, and usually, these are ethnicity-based regions. But Putin’s negligence of the law when he felt that he had authority, which he already possessed in 2002, let the resignation issue out of his attention scope. In 2017 Tatarstan demanded this attention but only received Kiriyenko’s statement that the Russian Federation was not based on any treaties.
And this is when legal cover for acquisitions of new territories plays a role. In 2014 Moscow signed a treaty with the Republic of Crimea. In September 2022, four “new subjects of the Russian Federation” became its part through treaties.
Looking at the Russian state legal structure, we see one republic with a treaty not re-signed (Tatarstan) and another that changed its name without signing any legal treaty with Moscow (Chechnya). There are also 18 republics that initially signed the federative treaty. Still, later the Kremlin declared that there was no need to prolong it without talking any supporting legal actions. Finally, there are also three republics with existing treaties whose legitimacy is not recognized internationally (Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk republics), and of course, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.
This context shows the total absence of the Rule of Law in Russia and undermines its Constitution and legal principles of interrelations between the regions and the Kremlin.
The current mobilization state of Russian politics and economy drives the Kremlin to re-organize its administrative structure based on purely economic effectiveness reasoning. An obvious target for future reforms will be ethnic republics, as now different level Russian media start spreading statistics proving the predominance of Russians in the historically ethic-based republic. A good example is a Krasnodar Krai discussion of why the Maykopsky district of the Republic of Adygea can’t be a part of Krasnodar Krai since 85% of people in the community are Russians, raising a question about Adygea as a whole with 65% of Russians leaving there.
This Kremlin-inspired discussion presents an existential threat to many smaller ethnicities abiding in Russia. Many ethnic people already feel they are being exterminated by the war in Ukraine, with just a handful coming back from hundreds sent to the frontline. And suppose they look closely at the legal grounds of why they live in the Russian Federation to find out their absence. In that case, the centrifugal forces of Russian internal politics, becoming increasingly evident with every war defeat, may become unstoppable.