How Long Will Russia Keep Pretending That Yanukovych Is Still President?

How It Works
March 4 2014 4:43 PM

How Long Will Russia Keep Pretending That Yanukovych Is Still President?

A poster showing ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is stuck onto a building overlooking Independence Square in central Kiev on Feb. 28, 2014.

Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Borgen at Opinio Juris takes note of the fact that Russia’s legal rationale for its actions in Crimea depends on the assumption that Viktor Yanukovych, now in exile in Russia, is still the president of Ukraine.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

During a debate in the U.N. Security Council yesterday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin held up a letter from Yanukovych that appeals “to the President of Russia Vladimir V. Putin to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to re-establish the rule of law, peace, order, stability and to protect the people of Ukraine." The letter is dated March 1. Yanukovych fled Kiev on Feb. 22.


Therefore, as Borgen notes, the argument that this is not an “invasion, but rather a lawful response to a request for assistance by a  government” is “predicated on the idea that Yanukovich was empowered to ask for Russian assistance and military intervention.”

Yanukovych clearly believes he is still president, telling reporters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, "If a president hasn't resigned, if he hasn't been impeached, and if he is alive – and you see that I am alive – then he remains the president."

The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, argues that Yanukovych “lost his legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities.”

The general practice in U.S. foreign policy has been to recognize countries rather than governments. The U.S. deals—or in the case of more hostile governments, doesn’t deal—with whomever holds power. There have been a few notable exceptions involving the U.S. recognizing rebel groups or government in exile. Most recently, the Obama administration briefly recognized Libya’s main opposition group as “the legitimate governing authority" of that country while Muammar al-Qaddafi was still alive and nominally in charge of the country.

Other countries and organizations handle this differently. The Arab League has allowed Syria’s opposition to take over the country’s seat, for instance.

In this case things are complicated by the fact that the current government in Kiev’s legitimacy is being challenged not just in Crimea but in several cities in eastern Ukraine. However, going just by the facts on the ground, they certainly seem to have more of a claim than Yanukovych does from Rostov-on-Don.

Assuming that Yanukovych doesn’t make a miraculous return, Russia seems likely to keep up the premise that he’s still actually the president of Ukraine for as long as it’s useful. The country’s voting for a new president on May 25, and at some point, Moscow’s going to have to deal with the winner. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

The U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS in Syria Will Probably Benefit America’s Other Enemies

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 23 2014 11:30 AM A Rope Mistress, the Rubber Master, Sadomasochist Sisters: Portraits in Kink
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google CEO: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.