Analyzing the Ukrainian Crisis with reference to the Responsibility to Protect.


“I have decided to conduct a special military operation… to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide… for the last eight years.

-President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s   “military operation” in Ukraine, 2022.



The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia is indeed a test of solidarity for the international community and a test for the United Nations as well. This is not the first time that Russia has launched a “military operation” in Ukraine. In  2014,  Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed a portion of one of its regions named Crimea. 

The Russian Federation cited a number of reasons for this annexation . Among others, one of them was the newly formed principle of international law called Responsibility to Protect or the R2P. Even in the 2022 war, many experts believe that this will be a likely principle cited to justify this operation.

The making of the R2P.

Nation States and Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention refers to the idea of one nation sending its military to another  for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. A nation, say for instance, could send its military to another nation when the latter has a civil war or any other crisis where its population is suffering.

Soon, especially after the Second World War, humanitarian intervention became a principle that was used by many nations to justify their military intervention into another country.

The principle continued to be used  till it was replaced in 2005 by what experts believed was a “better “principle, called the Responsibility to Protect. 

        A brief idea of the Responsibility to Protect Principle (R2P)

R2P was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2005. Soon after, the Security Council also adopted it. 

The R2P shoulders a global ‘responsibility’ on the international community to protect firstly their nations from 4 instances – a) Genocide b)War Crimes c) Ethnic Cleansing and d)Crimes against humanity. Later, the principle says, if there is another nation which cannot protect its citizens from these 4 crises, then the international community has the responsibility to protect that said nation.

The principle is essentially similar to Humanitarian Intervention with a slight difference.

While Humanitarian intervention is concerned only with the use of the military, R2P puts military  last, that too after being authorized by the Security Council.  The R2P  highlights the primacy of other ways , perhaps like sanctions over military intervention.

R2P, believed to be an evolution of our understanding of international law, has been cited by many countries to justify their interventions in other weaker nations. This was the same principle cited by Russia in 2014 to justify its attack on Ukraine and if one analyzes the quote above, one can see remnants of this principle in Russia’s remarks even now. 

R2P and Russia in  2014 

Background of events

  • Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union ( a bloc of Russia and other countries which associated with it) till the Soviet Union fell. 
  • In 2014, the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych refused to join the European Union. (a union of 27 European Countries for smoother trade)
  • His refusal to join this prosperous organization sparked a massive protest against him by the citizens of Ukraine.
  • The government tried to curb the protests, a move supported by Russia.
  • However, Yanukovych was later ousted from the government. 

Ukraine attacked (2014)

There were various intertwined geo political  factors which ultimately led to Russia attacking Ukraine and taking a portion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.  However, among the various  other factors , Russia was quick to highlight the R2P principle saying that it had a responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea, who were  now  subjected to a lot of alleged persecution after the new leadership  had emerged in Ukraine.

                                           Fast Forward to the Present times 

In 2022, Russia launched a “military operation” on Ukraine on 24th February. Even at present, there were a host of complex factors behind this decision, but one cannot ignore again the justification of ‘saving’ or ‘protecting’ the Russian population in Ukraine.  

So is Russia really acting on its ‘responsibility’ to protect?

  • Firstly, the principle does not apply  to saving a country’s people who are present in other nations, but it applies to saving one’s population in one’s own country. 

  • The principle speaks about intervening in another nation only when that nation is not able to solve its problems.  Thus, even if Russia wants to protect ethnic Ukrainians, it can only do so if Ukraine is unable to protect its people.  With respect to 2014 as well as with respect to present times, notwithstanding if there are problems in Ukraine or not, there is no evidence to point out that Ukraine cannot handle these problems by itself. 

  • Another important aspect of this principle is that military intervention should be last and approved or subsequently ratified by the Security Council. For Russia, neither of these things had happened when it attacked Ukraine in 2014 or even now.

Evaluating the Principle:

Robert Pape, in 2011 had  pointed out that humanitarian intervention had a higher criteria involved because it was solely concerned with sending military help. 

For the Responsibility to Protect,  any nation can interfere, not just militarily but diplomatically, politically, economically, in the affairs of another nation citing that it was their “responsibility”. Hence, the wording of the term  makes all the difference in how this principle is perceived and used.

The criteria for R2P has certain ambiguity. Modern technologies can expand what constitutes “crimes against humanity”.

 The UN could develop a well worded principle regarding when the use of this principle would be an arbitrary use. Legal ramifications should also be developed for nations which use this principle in an arbitrary manner.

The principle could be perhaps better evoked if there was a separate body  other than the UN  to administer it. The body could be given special military and investigative powers to ensure that the principle is not used arbitrarily. 


Though there are a whole host of other factors involved too, the R2P principle can be one of the sources to trace the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The principle has certain advantages and disadvantages. However, implementation of other measures surrounding this principle and making it more watertight  could soon make it into the evolution the UN had envisioned it to be.


  1. Quotes- Russia invades Ukraine. 
  2. . World Summit, 14-16 September 2005, New York, United Nations
  1. Ivan Šimonović ,The Responsibility to Protect, United Nations
  2. Alex Bellamy, Responsibility to Protect, Five years on, 24 Ethics and International Affairs. 143, 143-44 (2010)
  3. Max Fisher, Everything you need to know about the Ukraine Crisis, Vox.
  4. Adam Twardowski, The Return of Novorossiya: Why Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine Exposes the Weakness of International Law,  Minnesota Journal of International Law. 351, 352(2015)
  5.  Noel Crossley, Is R2P Still Controversial? Continuity and Change in the Debate on ‘Humanitarian Intervention. 31, Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 1, 5-8(2018)

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