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Putin apparently believes the head of state of Ukraine is a valid target, suitable to be dispatched by any means. Or at least that seems to be a reasonable interpretation of some reports. Doesn't that imply that Putin himself must be, as well?

What about other senior Russian figures, even if behind a desk in Moscow? Politicians, or those enabling the war effort?

How far across the Russian political and governmental landscape, would count as valid targets?

And under international law, who is entitled to act on that status? Just Ukraine and formally declared allies, or can any third party individual/group/state declare alignment with Ukraine and become a valid actor?

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    I'm a little confused by your "Putin is a military target"....Do you mean if he could be a target of the so-called decapitation strike in military action?
    – No One
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 2:59
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    Basically yes. Cutting off at the head, sort of thing
    – Stilez
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:25
  • "can any third party individual/group/state declare alignment with Ukraine and become a valid actor?" I don't understand that sentence. Why should that not be possible? Or what do you mean by valid actor? Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:41

2 Answers 2

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Russia is currently at war with Ukraine. An attack against not-directly-military targets in Russia (from bridges and power plants to aircraft factories and government offices) is legal if it follows the usual tests of the law of war.

Armed forces can launch attack even if they expect collateral damage, as long as they expect the military damage to outweigh that. This is why protected sites like hospitals must be clearly marked, and not be used for other, military purposes (so they do not meet the necessity test).

The Russian President is the commander of the Russian forces and a legitimate target. So if Ukraine has a cruise missile that can hit his office, or his flat, they can try. Even if that missile may hit the flat next door. If they send uniformed troops hiking overland to Moscow, to make an infantry attack, that would also be legitimate. If the troops get captured, on the way in or the way out, they are entitled to POW status and cannot be punished for killing Russian soldiers.

Sending a plain-clothes assassin would not be covered. If such an assassin (or 'covert operator') is captured, the captors can try him or her in a criminal court, according to their domestic legal system. (So the issue of war crimes trials tends not to come up. Attempted murder is usually sufficient.) The definition of uniforms or 'distinctive insignia' was made to allow popular militas, guerillas, etc., as long as they behave in accordance with the laws of war. Here is an American study which concluded that Russia's 'polite green men' were probably covered, even without national insignia, because they were distinctive.

Other countries could join the war, either as allies of one side or the other, or as co-belligerents fighting the same enemy without being allied. (Finland claimed this status during WWII.) Once they are at war, the same rules apply to them.

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    That's helpful. Sources and authorities if able to.expand and add, or elaborate further?
    – Stilez
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:28
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    "Sending a plain-clothes assassin would not be covered." Why not? Wouldn't it be just a covert operation? I don't see how that violates any of the tests. You basically seem to state that every combatant must wear a uniform at all times. That seems not realistic. Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:47
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    @Trilarion, a combatant who is fighting out of uniform becomes an unlawful combatant. It doesn't have to be standard government uniforms, just "distinctive at a distance," like a certain color. Soldiers can become POW, spies can be shot, and covert ops troops take their risks of being taken for spies.
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:51
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    @Trilarion, they are not protected under the laws of war. See my edit.
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 9:24
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    @user39178, the relevant agreements are written to apply even if one or both sides of an interstate armed conflict forgot to file the paperwork to declare their war. The development of the laws of war started at a time when there was not even a telegraph, and wars could be fought and won or lost before the letters arrived in the respective capitals ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:26
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This question seems to be based on the Law of War which is itself a complex area of law.

The main sources of international law relating to war are the Hague Convention, the UN Charter, and the Geneva Conventions. To grossly summarise, the conventions generally relate to minimising the effects of war by limiting actions to achieving the war's political goals, facilitating the end of war as quickly as possible, and protecting people and property that are not contributing to the war (ie non-combatants and their property).

Vladimir Putin is the leader of the polity responsible for waging the war on the Russian side, so he is definitely a legitimate military target for Ukraine, who are the only other party to the war at present (at least officially). Putin is not a civilian or non-combatant, nor has he surrendered to or been captured by Ukraine or an ally.

That said, it's very important to note that not all countries have ratified the conventions or may have only ratified them in part.

For example, in 2019 Putin's Russia withdrew from the part of the Geneva Conventions protecting victims of war crimes (known as Additional Protocol I).

Additionally, the Nuremberg trials conducted by the allies at the end of World War II held that conventions ratified by "all civilised nations" shall form part of the customary law of war which applies to all countries, even ones which have not ratified the law.

What this means in practice is that the laws and rules of war are open to interpretation and consensus. In practice, each country or party participating in a conflict will apply their own rules of war and their adherence to the international laws of war will vary according to interpretation, custom and need for expediency.

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    Very nicely written and apart from the second paragraph only tangentially important for answering the question. ChatGPT? Added value over the other answer? Commented Apr 3 at 7:47
  • This is quite likely to be ChatGPT-generated. Can you provide at least one reference to support what is written here?
    – Alexei
    Commented Apr 3 at 9:27

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