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Will Russia Be Prosecuted For Thousands of Alleged War Crimes?

Ukrainian servicemen walk on the destroyed street on April 4, 2022 in Bucha, Ukraine
Getty Images
Apr 7, 2022

Ukraine is investigating more than 4,600 alleged Russian war crimes after the Kremlin's invasion in February. And they aren't the only ones: The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also looking into this. Investigators are pointing to growing evidence of Russia's alleged actions against innocent civilians — including attacks on a maternity hospital, shelters, and apartment buildings.

In April, images from Bucha — a town on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv — showed  bodies on the streets and mass graves. Margaret Brennan, moderator of “Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan,” told our “Skimm This” team that the evidence is “undeniable.” 

“These are credible reports of atrocities. It’s Human Rights Watch. It is reporters, including CBS reporters, on the ground going to Bucha outside Kyiv and seeing men tied up, hands behind their back, shot execution style, seeing mass graves,” she said. “This is no longer just painted as a [bloody] war. This is far beyond the code of conduct for the army of a major world power.”

In response, the US and European countries are promising to issue more sanctions against Russia. President Biden wants Russian President Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes. But holding the Kremlin accountable could take years. And there’s a lot of attention on one particular court to get it done: The ICC. So let’s get into…

What’s the ICC? And what’s considered a war crime?

The ICC’s a court of last resort. It tries people for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. But only when a country is “unable or unwilling” to do so. The court has the power to make legal decisions in cases involving its members, countries who grant it authority, or countries that are referred to the court by the UN Security Council. The ICC prosecutor can also launch an investigation with judges’ or member states’ approval.

Even in war, countries have to follow certain rules. International humanitarian law aims to protect soldiers, journalists, medical personnel, and civilians from inhumane treatment during war. There’s no single document that outlines all war crimes. But as the name suggests, the crimes have to happen during armed conflict. Here’s what the ICC considers to be a war crime: 

  • Deliberately targeting civilians and buildings like schools, places of worship, or hospitals

  • Enlisting children under 15 to serve in the armed forces

  • Rape, sexual violence, or slavery

  • Mutilation or torture

  • Murder

  • Holding hostages 

Since 2002, the ICC has overseen a total of 30 cases. And judges have convicted three people for charges including war crimes. The longest sentence for war crimes was 14 years in prison. And that happened after it took years to prosecute the case. 

Ukrainian soldiers and journalists are finding a trail of devastation on the outskirts of Kyiv | Getty Images

What crimes is Russia being accused of?

The Associated Press and FRONTLINE have verified more than 90 potential war crimes. Here’s a timeline of some (we repeat, some) of the atrocities that Ukrainian officials and investigators have pointed to as possible war crimes:

March 1 — Kharkiv’s Freedom Square. Russian airstrikes hit Ukraine’s second-largest city. Officials said at least 10 people died and dozens were injured when the strikes hit an opera house, concert hall, and gov offices in the city's main square. 

March 9 — Maternity hospital. The Russian airstrike in Mariupol killed at least three people, including a pregnant woman and her baby. And injured at least 16 others. Images of wounded pregnant women sparked outrage. 

March 16 — Mariupol Theater. Ukraine accused Russia of bombing the theater, which was sheltering more than 1,000 people. Officials estimated at least 300 people died. 

April 3 — Bucha massacre. Witnesses have described seeing dozens of dead bodies on the town’s streets. Bucha’s mayor said more than 300 civilians were killed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called this a “genocide.” And Human Rights Watch said it documented a case of repeated rape. International rights groups have also accused Moscow of using banned cluster and vacuum weapons in their attacks, which can put civilians at increased risk. Vacuum weapons, for example, suck the oxygen out of an area. 

“[Zelenskyy] sees this as intentional and premeditated and that does change the framing of how the world understands what's going on,” Brennan said. “It makes it harder for countries to choose not to pick a side.”

As for Russia, officials have denied allegations that its forces committed any war crimes. And labeled what happened in Bucha as “fake” and “Ukrainian propaganda.” One official said “Ukrainian nationalists” were the real people responsible.

Russia’s actions sparked protests around the world even before it invaded Ukraine | Getty Images

Can Russia be held accountable?

Yes. But it’s complicated. Ukraine and Russia aren’t members of the ICC, but Ukraine’s given the court permission to gather evidence of attacks in the country. Moscow isn’t expected to cooperate. In the meantime, investigators are working to gather evidence on allegations against Russia that date as far back as 2013 — before Russia annexed Crimea. Here’s how the ICC’s process typically works: 

  • Evidence gathering. Prosecutors have to gather forensic evidence (think: DNA testing or autopsies) to determine how victims were killed. They may also talk to witnesses and review photos and videos. This process can take as long as necessary. In order for a case to be considered a war crime, prosecutors have to show it happened during an ongoing armed conflict. As is the case in Ukraine. 

  • Arrest warrant(s) issued. After the initial investigation, the ICC can issue a warrant if there’s “reasonable grounds to believe” that war crimes were committed. But the ICC doesn’t have its own police force. So it relies on the cooperation of the country where the suspect’s located. But that doesn’t always happen. The ICC has outstanding warrants in 11 cases — one dates back to 2005. It’s unlikely that Moscow would cooperate. But suspects could be arrested in another country.

  • The trial. That can only happen when the suspect is physically present in court. The court proceedings can be public or private to protect witnesses. Trial judges (typically three of them) hear evidence from prosecutors and the defense. Victims can also testify. 

  • Giving out a conviction. Prosecutors have to prove a person’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.” In a case involving a Russian suspect, prosecutors could do this by showing that Russian forces attacked an area with no military threat or targets. Trial judges are the ones who issue a verdict and sentence. 

Could Putin be tried for war crimes? And what punishment could he face?

Yes. But it’s unlikely. In order for this to happen, prosecutors would have to show evidence that he directly ordered an illegal attack. Or, that he knew crimes were being committed but did nothing to stop it. And that’s a tall order to prove. Plus, experts say it’s unlikely that Russian authorities would hand him over, if the ICC put out a warrant for his arrest. It’s typically easier to establish war crimes cases against soldiers and generals. 

If a person actually makes it to trial and is convicted, here’s what the ICC judges can do:

  • Issue a prison sentence. The maximum is 30 years. But in extreme cases, it can be life imprisonment. The court doesn’t issue death sentences. 

  • Impose a fine. It’s unclear how much.

  • Require suspect(s) give up property and assets that they directly or indirectly earned from the crime.

Is the ICC the only court that can get involved? 

No. Here are the other courts that experts are also talking about:

  • The International Court of Justice (ICJ). Aka the UN's highest court. Ukraine opened a case against Russia. But if the ICJ issued a ruling against the Kremlin, the UN Security Council would have to enforce it. One problem? Russia sits on the council...and can veto resolutions against them (as it’s done in the past). That’s why Zelenskyy’s calling on the Security Council to remove Russia or “dissolve” itself. 

  • A special tribunal through the UN. In 1993, a criminal tribunal was established to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. And another for the 1994 Rwanda genocide. There are growing calls to establish a tribunal to investigate Russia’s alleged crimes. But it’s unclear what the next steps for that would be. 

  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in France. It handles cases against individuals, groups, and countries who’ve allegedly violated people’s civil or political rights. Ukraine’s already taken its case against Russia to the ECHR. But Russia isn’t likely to comply with any rulings from this court. Especially since the Kremlin was expelled from the Council of Europe last month.

  • Universal jurisdiction. This legal principle allows heinous offenses (think: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide) to be investigated and tried by any national court. German courts have been able to convict Syrian gov officials under universal jurisdiction. So far, at least 10 European countries have reportedly each opened investigations against Russia. 

theSkimm

Russia’s alleged war crimes have sparked calls for justice around the world. But the path toward accountability can be slow, complex, and uncertain. All the while, innocent civilians in Ukraine are at risk of losing their lives every day in an unprovoked war. Meaning, the world may be far from having a full picture of the atrocities and damage in Ukraine — and to its people. 

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