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Putin is Wrong. Ukraine’s Donbas is Not Like Kosovo

A damaged apartment building after a Russian strike in the city of Slovyansk at the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on May 31, 2022. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)
A damaged apartment building after a Russian strike in the city of Slovyansk at the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on May 31, 2022. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russian president

“The U.N. Charter has a provision about the right of nations to self-determination … This was the case of Kosovo. Is the situation with the Donetsk Republic and the Luhansk Republic not the same? It is the same.”


On September 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the breakaway, Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine have the right to independence.

Putin said:

“The U.N. Charter has a provision about the right of nations to self-determination. During the Kosovo crisis, the International Court of Justice ruled that if a portion of a territory, a portion of a country chooses to declare independence, it does not have to ask the central government of that country for permission. This was the case of Kosovo.

“Is the situation with the Donetsk Republic and the Luhansk Republic not the same? It is the same. Since they have this right – and they do have it in accordance with the U.N. Charter and the right to self-determination – they exercised it and declared independence.”

This comparison is false and extends a long trail of Russian distortions.

Fake ‘Genocide’ vs. Real Ethnic Cleansing

Starting with basics, eastern Ukraine and Kosovo are substantially different.

Since at least the 18th century, ethnic Albanians have comprised the majority of Kosovo's population. Throughout the 20th century, Albanians used both peaceful and military means to gain independence from the Slavic states of Serbia, Montenegro and then Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo was a part.

The same cannot be said about the population of Ukraine’s Donbas region. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census (the country’s most recent), most of the people in Donbas are ethnic Ukrainians, with ethnic Russians being the largest minority. The rest of Ukraine’s regions, except for Crimea, have more or less the same ethnic balance – a Ukrainian majority and a significant ethnic Russian minority.

The separatist foment in Donbas is recent. Fighting there was precipitated by Russia in 2014 after Putin illegally seized and annexed Crimea in outrage for the Revolution of Dignity that had ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, earlier that year.

Allegations of “genocide” have been a Putin disinformation theme ever since. In February, Alexey Kovalev, investigative editor at the independent Russian news outlet Meduza, described how the Kremlin has sustained the fabrication to incite division.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Kovalev said:

“One of the most memorable pieces of fake news during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine was the ‘crucified boy of Slavyansk,’ a canard designed by Russian state-controlled media to whip Russians into a nationalist frenzy by the sheer enormity of the alleged crime. The gist of it was that Ukrainian forces, after retaking Slavyansk from pro-Russian militants in July 2014, supposedly subjected the town’s inhabitants to vicious retribution, including the public execution of a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother…

“The 'crucified boy' was but one of many lies, half-truths, deceptions, and distractions pumped into Russians’ living rooms and onto their mobile phones, 24/7, by an entire industry of national TV networks, newspapers, pundits, and trolls beginning in early 2014.

“This barrage of fabrications did exactly what it was designed to do: It normalized war against Ukraine among ordinary Russians by creating an atmosphere of paranoia and hatred toward an entire neighboring nation. It also fractured families and inspired many Russian men to take up arms by volunteering to fight against what television news — and anonymous comments on the social network VKontakte — told them was a massacre of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.”

That is not what happened in Kosovo. Serbia did in fact persecute Albanians; international prosecutors eventually brought Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, though he died while incarcerated. Others who participated have been convicted at the International Criminal Court.

The conflict over Kosovo, in the south of Serbia, began with peaceful protests against Milosevic over the region’s autonomy. It intensified into an armed uprising with formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, prompting an extreme response by Milosevic and allied Serbs.

According to a May 1999 U.S. State Department report:

“Serb military, paramilitary, and police forces have forcibly expelled over 1 million Kosovars from their homes. Since March 1998, approximately 700,000 Kosovars have fled to neighboring states, including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Montenegro. As many as an additional 600,000 Kosovars could be internally displaced. In the process, Serbian forces have conducted summary executions, separated military-age men from their families, raped women and girls, destroyed mosques and churches, converted medical facilities to military outposts, and looted and burned homes and villages.”

This campaign of persecution is what prompted U.S.-led NATO to launch air strikes without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, which had previously condemned the Serbian violence. Putin also has cited that unilateral bombing campaign, in part, to justify Russia’s attacks on Ukraine as well as Russia’s 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia.

In that short war, Moscow sent troops into Georgia’s breakaway enclave of South Ossetia on the pretext of protecting Russians. The attack on Georgia, another former Soviet republic, foreshadowed Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy that now:

“Putin has gone further, issuing ‘genocide’ claims regarding killings allegedly taking place in the Donbas region. Russia is following its well-known playbook. In 2014, the Kremlin justified its military offensive by claiming ethnic Russians were being threatened in eastern Ukraine. Similar accusations were also at the forefront of Russian information warfare in 2008, when the Kremlin blamed Tbilisi [Georgia's capital] for committing ethnic cleansing — a charge later dismissed by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.”

Kosovo, Independence, Hypocrisy

Kosovo has been part of Serbia since 1913 but had considerable constitutional autonomy until 1989, when things radically changed under Milosevic. The Kosovo parliament was dissolved, state radio and television broadcasts in Albanian were halted, ethnic Albanians were fired from state jobs and teaching in the Albanian language was curtailed. This is what triggered the mass strikes, protests and eventual violence.

In 1991, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority held a referendum on independence and presidential elections. Although Serbian authorities did not recognize those polls as legitimate, and minority Serbs living in Kosovo boycotted them, 87% of the region’s population turned out to vote, and a 99% majority backed independence.

In 1999, after Milosevic capitulated following the NATO bombing campaign, the U.N. moved to place Kosovo under the administration of an interim mission, the UNMIK. Nearly a decade later, on February 17, 2008, Kosovo’s parliament unanimously endorsed a declaration of independence from Serbia.

That declaration set the stage for the court ruling Putin cites to justify independence for the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in Donbas, where Russian troops are dug in.

On October 8, 2008, the International Court of Justice, at the request of Serbia, took up the question: “Is the unilateral declaration of independence by the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo in accordance with international law?”

On July 22, 2010, the court ruled that international law does not prohibit declarations of independence like Kosovo's. But a critical part of the ruling, ignored by Putin, referred to the question of a right to self-determination and secession under the U.N. Charter.

The U.N. court specifically noted that it did not consider this issue: “Debates regarding the extent of the right of self-determination and the existence of any right of ‘remedial secession’, however, concern the right to separate from a State. … that issue is beyond the scope of the question posed by the General Assembly.”

So, Putin’s claim that the International Court enshrined this right for Kosovo – and it should therefore apply to the two “republics” – is false.

Kosovo's declaration of independence sparked a mixed reaction in the international community. Today, Kosovo's sovereignty from Serbia is recognized by only 99 out of 193 (51%) U.N. member states. Russia and China have used their veto power as permanent U.N. Security Council members to block Kosovo’s U.N. membership.

Moreover, on April 16, 2009, Russia told the International Court that Kosovo's declaration of independence was illegal because it violated Serbia’s territorial integrity and could only be realized within an existing state.

“It is important to note that self-determination can be exercised within an existing State,” Russia said at the time. “This ‘internal self-determination’ is in fact preferred in the postcolonial world.”

But not preferred, apparently, for Crimea and other parts of Ukraine that Russia has now occupied by force.