With every inch of Ukrainian soil that is reclaimed from Russian occupation, fresh evidence emerges of the appalling war crimes the Russians have inflicted on Ukraine’s civilian population. In the earliest days of the conflict back in March, when Russian troops were forced into a humiliating retreat from their attempts to capture Kyiv, grim details emerged of atrocities in Bucha on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. They included massacres of unarmed civilians, torture, looting and rape.
It was a similar story in the summer after the liberation of the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces found makeshift Russian prisons, torture chambers, and the bodies of 534 civilians, including 226 women and 19 children who had perished during the Russian occupation.
Now, following the liberation of the southern city of Kherson, the Ukrainians say they have found four Russian torture chambers where abuses were perpetrated against the civilian population on a “horrific” scale. Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General said the Russians had “illegally detained people and brutally tortured them” using a variety of despicable methods, including “a device with which the occupiers tortured civilians with electricity”.
The abundance of evidence accumulated by Ukrainian and international investigators illustrates the industrial scale on which President Vladimir Putin and his henchmen are today committing war crimes in the heart of Europe. With the benefit of modern technology, it is also perfectly feasible to log the names of the commanders and units responsible.
Yet given the deep divisions that have arisen among the world’s major powers over the Ukraine conflict, there is scepticism whether anyone – and that includes the Russian president – will ever be made to face justice for their actions.
Back in the 1990s, when Europe experienced another eruption of barbarous violence in the form of the Yugoslav conflict, there was a similar mood of pessimism that those responsible for committing genocidal horrors, such as the Srebrenica massacre, would ever face justice. Yet, just a decade later, the key perpetrators of such atrocities, including the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and his willing Bosnian Serb accomplice, Radovan Karadzic, found themselves arraigned on war crimes charges before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Whether Putin and his cronies suffer a similar fate depends to a large extent on how the Ukrainian conflict ends, and if the Russian autocrat manages to survive in power after his litany of disastrous miscalculations.
To date, Putin has enjoyed impunity for the violence his forces have committed in war zones ranging from Chechnya to Syria, where a generation of Russian commanders honed their skills levelling the ancient city of Aleppo. These same Russian generals have spent the past nine months subjecting Ukraine’s civilian population in the Donbas to similar torment.
Putin no doubt calculates that he will never be held accountable because, as Russia holds one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, it can veto any move by the West to establish a war crimes tribunal along the lines of the Yugoslavia court. China, too, would object, as it would resist the establishment of any body that could investigate its own genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs.
This assumes, though, that the UN is the only organisation that can oversee such matters. This premise is soon to be challenged by investigators examining Syria’s recent civil war, where unspeakable horrors were committed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, which UN Secretary General António Guterres has called the “greatest crimes the world has witnessed this century”.
With Russia, Assad’s close ally in the conflict, unlikely to authorise the establishment of a UN-sponsored tribunal, moves are afoot to set up an independent body to examine the million or so documents collected by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability detailing the Assad regime’s war crimes. Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues, who has led investigations in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, believes the Assad regime’s criminal responsibility “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area”.
If Assad can be brought to justice for war crimes, then so can Putin. There is already a significant body of international law in existence, from the Geneva Conventions to the Rome Statute laying the foundations for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which provides a firm legal basis for criminal action.
The Dutch court that earlier this month convicted three Russian security officials of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 on board, shows it is perfectly possible to bring war criminals to justice by other judicial means. Therefore, even without UN backing, there is no reason why Putin and his henchman should not ultimately stand trial for the appalling war crimes they have committed in Ukraine.