The US accuses Russia of committing ‘systemic’ war crimes

A top US ambassador this week accused Russian soldiers invading Ukraine of “systemic” war crimes, claiming that atrocities are occurring on a scale that implies Kremlin commanders at the highest levels are aware of and condone them.

Russia argued that the charge was unsubstantiated and that allegations of Ukrainian crimes were being disregarded.

During a briefing at the State Department on Monday, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack stated that evidence of Russian war crimes gathered by nongovernmental groups, the media, and dedicated war crimes investigators is considerable.

Van Schaack expressed the United States’ strong support for the numerous initiatives presently ongoing to record war crimes and eventually submit formal charges at the International Criminal Court or other appropriate forums.

“The aggression against Ukraine is a manifest violation of the U.N. Charter, and we have mounting evidence that this aggression has been accompanied by systemic war crimes committed in every region where Russia’s forces have been deployed,” Van Schaack said. “This includes deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population and elements of the civilian infrastructure. We’re seeing custodial abuses of civilians and POWs and also efforts to cover up these crimes.”

She stated that the evidence suggests “These atrocities were committed by no rogue units or individuals. Rather, they are part of a disturbing pattern of reports of abuse in all areas where Russia’s forces are engaged.”

She specifically mentioned “filtration” camps, where an unknown number of Ukrainian civilians, including many children, have been processed and deported to Russia, and said the scale of the operation suggests direct Kremlin support.

“Prosecutors will follow the evidence where it leads, but when we’re seeing such systemic acts, including the creation of a vast filtration network, it’s very hard to imagine how these crimes could be committed without responsibility going all the way up the chain of command,” she said.

Van Schaack’s words on Monday were not the first time a top US official accused Russia of war crimes, but analysts said her remarks appeared to signal a shift in the administration’s approach toward future trials.

Van Schaack’s focus on the “systemic” aspect of the alleged war crimes was significant, according to David J. Scheffer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.

“She is, rather formally, acknowledging that the commission of war crimes by the Russian military is not an isolated string of crimes, but rather, is part of an overall plan and executed on a large scale basis,” Scheffer said.

“That is not stated lightly, because once there is a determination that war crimes are being committed systemically, that involves sophisticated planning, organization and execution, which can only take place, normally, from the leadership level.”

In that case, he added, “the investigation takes on a much broader and significant character, because there you’re going to the top. You’re trying to establish superior responsibility with respect to civilian leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, or command responsibility with respect to military commanders in the Ministry of Defense.”

The US has not always been broadly supportive of efforts to establish international criminal law standards, but in this case, the Biden administration has been actively supporting a variety of ongoing inquiries, including direct cooperation with the International Criminal Court.

“It’s a really remarkable shift in the U.S. stance on international criminal law, from multiple previous administrations, to see this level of involvement,” Marti Flacks, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. “It’s a sign of, in part, just how serious and widespread and systematic the crimes in Ukraine are at this point.”

Prosecution of war criminals has been a slow process in previous conflicts, including the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. However, Flacks believes that the combination of surveillance technology and Russia’s apparent willingness to flagrantly violate international law will result in a faster pace of indictments.

“I would expect that we’ll see some of those charges come out in a matter of months and not a matter of years,” she said. “The question is how long it’s going to take to actually get to a prosecution, which, of course, requires a defendant. And that’s where we may be playing a very long game, in terms of maintaining that evidence and, and having those procedures ready to go when … we’re able to take someone into custody.”

If cases brought against Russian citizens are complicated by the accused person’s continued presence in Russia, Van Schaack said prosecutors have the authority to issue indictments “in absentia” in order to establish evidence and issue arrest warrants.

CSIS’s Flacks predicted that some indictments would be issued under seal so as not to alert individuals that they are the subject of active arrest warrants.

“It’s actually very practical,” she said. “You don’t want to announce that somebody’s wanted and deter them from traveling to a place where they might actually be arrested.”

Van Schaack’s remarks come at the same time that Russian sources claim to have evidence of a war crime committed by Ukrainian forces.

A video snippet widely circulated on Russian social media shows a group of Russian soldiers emerging from a building, appearing to surrender to Ukrainian forces and being told to lie down. With several Russian soldiers already on the ground, another person appears to follow them out of the building and fire a weapon at Ukrainian troops. The video cuts away, but another scene appears to show the Russians who were lying on the ground in similar positions but now dead in pools of blood.

When asked about the video, Van Schaack said that US officials are closely monitoring the situation and that both sides in the conflict must follow the laws of war.

She did, however, add, “When we consider the sheer scale of criminality displayed by Russian forces, it dwarfs the allegations levelled against Ukrainian forces. Similarly, there is a significant difference in how people react to such allegations. Russia will inevitably respond with propaganda, denial, misinformation, and disinformation, whereas Ukrainian authorities have generally acknowledged abuses, denounced them, and promised to investigate them.”

The Russian embassy in Washington responded to Van Schaack’s remarks with a Facebook post.

“We noted the statements of Ambassador-at-Large on International Criminal Justice Beth [Van Schaack] on the murder of captured Russian military personnel by Ukrainian neo-Nazis,” the statement said. “The official refused to directly condemn the massacre of our unarmed soldiers, despite the confirmation of the authenticity of the relevant video materials by American journalists, who did not hush up the tragedy.”

It continued, “The diplomat cynically referred to the fact that the ‘war crimes’ of the Russian Army are recorded ‘many times more often’ than those by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. At the same time the State Department yet again failed to provide any evidence of violent acts allegedly committed by our servicemen.”