There's one issue that I haven't seen discussed about the current Crimea situation that feels strange - what are the international law consequences of having your soldiers abroad without identifying them as your soldiers?

Let's sidestep the factual issue, since the facts are currently disputed - if the troops and military vehicles seen in Crimea belong to a regular military of any other country than Ukraine, it seems that it automatically implies:

  1. The country has violated the Geneva conventions;
  2. Any such troops are unlawful combatants and as such lose all kinds of rights if any fighting starts;
  3. Attacking/killing any of them wouldn't legally be a declaration of war (well, practically it most likely would be, but that's a different issue).

Am I mistaken somewhere? Or is that true, but simply irrelevant because everyone cares about the de facto situation and the legalities have no teeth anyway?


1 Answer 1


It is currently not a violation.

The Geneva Conventions apply to international armed conflicts between state parties (Ukraine and Russia are both parties). Russia has contended that it is not invading, but has actually been invited by the legitimate government in Crimea to protect Crimea from evil Ukrainian fascists. However, Article 1 of Protocol I includes a clarification that it does apply to intra-state "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination". According to Russia's own position, combat in Crimea appears to qualify under this provision.

Wearing of uniforms

It is a widespread assumption that soldiers engaged in combat have to wear uniforms. However, looking at the text of the protocol, I only see that this is a requirement for combatants to qualify for protected POW status, and it isn't explicitly banned. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention says

Prisoners of war [...] are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy: [...]

  • Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, [provided they] fulfil the following conditions:
    • that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
    • that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
    • that of carrying arms openly;
    • that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Members of regular armed forces qualify under the other categories, regardless of whether they're wearing a uniform. I'm not sure whether the Russian troops would be considered paramilitary or whether they're part of the regular army.

My best guess is that the Geneva Conventions are merely referring to a preexisting requirement established in customary law, as evidenced by the article several times saying "provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war". The conclusion is that fighting without wearing a uniform might still be illegal.

There is apparently some dispute over how restrictive international law is on the uniform requirement, but regardless, all the interpretations permit Russia's actions. An article by Toni Pfanner for the Red Cross (PDF, page 12/104) vaguely refers to a belief that customary international law requires combatants to wear a uniform in hostilities (I presume the argument is that not wearing a uniform implies that you are a non-combatant, and fighting would therefore be considered perfidy). However, the author argues that the purpose of uniforms in modern international law is not to distinguish different armies, but only to distinguish combatants from civilians, as Protocol I, Article 48 says:

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

Pfanner therefore concludes that

While there is a practice to wear uniforms in armies, there is not an obligation in international humanitarian law to wear them. The wearing of civilian clothes is only illegal if it involves perfidy.

As applies to this situation, Russian soldiers are not in violation, because they are wearing military uniforms. There is no requirement that their uniforms be marked with Russian military insignia.

Furthermore, it is generally accepted that you're even allowed to wear the enemy's uniform, as long as you discard it before entering combat. (Otto Skorzeny was acquitted based on the argument that this is a legitimate ruse de guerre.) Even under the interpretation that uniforms are required in combat, there is no violation (currently), as Russia invaded unopposed (no shots fired, and no combat, thus far).

  • 1
    I see this article, which says substantially the same thing. Mar 7, 2014 at 0:17
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    Are you interpreting this "that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;" as "an uniform, i.e. a distinctive sign that you are a soldier", as opposite to "a distinctive sign of your allegiance to a specific army/troop/whatever", then?
    – o0'.
    Mar 9, 2014 at 18:53
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    According to 2005 ICRC study, common practice is that uniform indeed is a sufficient distinguishing factor. Different countries have different opinions whether a distinct insignia is enough in case no uniform is present, but inverse is okay. Interestingly, according to that site, Russia and Ukraine treat open carry of weapons as a minimum necessary distinction of combatant in regard to Article 4, not presence of a uniform. May 12, 2021 at 11:09

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