On February 24, 2022, Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine, reactivating and expanding the 2013 Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula into a total war over all of Ukraine’s territory that brought unprecedented levels of violence and uncertainty to the area. As of June 2022, the Ukrainian Government has reported over 15,000 suspected war crimes carried out by Russian soldiers, and over 200 to 300 new war crimes are reported daily. Out of 600 Russian politicians, propaganda agents, and top military officials suspected of being war criminals, 80 of them are facing prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
War Crimes are specifically defined as actions during a war that violate international norms of war, which include inflicting superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering on an enemy. They are not to be confused with crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or genocide.
The concept of war crimes had not surfaced much before World War II: horrors of war were accepted as the result of a conflict, and commanders and politicians who inflicted these crimes often escaped punishment if they won the war.
However, after World War II, the Nuremberg Tribunals served as a way to prosecute Nazi military officials and soldiers involved in carrying out the Holocaust; which brought war crimes to an international judiciary forefront as punishable offenses for the first time.
War crimes were subsequently officially defined by the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which were a series of international meetings that set norms and violations of international conduct during war; including treatment of soldiers, prisoners, civilians, and those wounded or sick. Despite these attempts at defining and prosecuting war crimes, there is no single document in international law that defines every war crime because it is difficult for multiple countries to come together to establish international law and then ensure that all countries truly abide by those regulations.
Russia has posed deliberate attacks against civilian targets and indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas in Ukraine. The Russian strike on the Mariupol theater back in March was the first location of a mass killing, followed by a hospital airstrike and residential areas in Mariupol. Journalists have further found evidence of deliberate killings of civilians in Bucha and the outskirts of Kyiv. The use of cluster munitions, as well as the targeting of nuclear power plants, hospitals, medical care facilities, and cultural properties demonstrate the devastation of war crimes Russia has committed against Ukraine.
Russian soldiers have also committed rape and sexual violence toward Ukrainian citizens, as well as displaced them through deportations and imprisonment with poor and negligent treatment. Many cities have been targeted in these violent attacks, such as Odesa, Bilohorivka, Kreminna, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, Bucha, and many more.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy speaks to the press in Bucha, Ukraine. Photo Credits: US News
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into Russia’s war crimes, starting with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2013. In the past, the ICC has been a global leader in analyzing and prosecuting individuals and states who have committed genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and other actions that threaten the international community. Notable examples of prior prosecutions include the 1994 Rwanda Genocide and the 1990s dissolution of Yugoslavia. While the ICC can rule on disputes between states - and has been successful in doing so - it is notoriously difficult for the organization to prosecute individuals.
The ICC has also faced significant international criticism: according to the Washington Post, the ICC struggles to go through with successful cases without state cooperation. Member states can decline to help the ICC, meaning it is often difficult for the organization to indict a member of a government's ruling party. Political elites who commit war crimes also learn how to maneuver around the timing of the ICC’s investigations and indictments, and therefore can often avoid or postpone ICC persecution. Al Jazeera mentions how the ICC has a notoriously slow response to cases and doubts that trials currently in progress against Russian war criminals will reach a verdict anytime soon.
As for the United States’ perspective, in 2003, the US Department of State criticized the ICC, noting that the organization has “insufficient checks and balances on the authority of its prosecutors and judges”.
The US Institute of Peace further noted that all ICC indictments have been against African defendants, which seems to signal unfair bias on the part of ICC judges and prosecutors. Despite these concerns, the Institute of Peace positively notes that with the recent Russian-Ukrainian War, 43 out of 123 States parties, or countries that consent to the Rome Statute of the ICC, have offered their cooperation in prosecuting violations that occur during the conflict in Ukraine; a partnership which has increased the power of the ICC and enhances its ability to indict Russian war criminals in the near future.
The US has also been increasingly willing to denounce Russian war crimes: on April 4, President Joe Biden referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal. Putin has also faced criticism from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who also believes that Russia is carrying out war crimes in Ukraine.
The participation of many global superpowers such as the US and the UK in condemning Russian actions bolsters the ICC’s ability to prosecute war criminals and seems to point to a future in which Russian war criminals receive proper punishment for their violent, inhumane crimes.