The Case for Pursuing the Issue of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

Russian leader Vladimir Putin.


Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, according to President Biden. This was due to the atrocities committed by Russian forces in the war against Ukraine. It is right to condemn Putin. Putin and other Russian leaders have clearly been guilty of war crimes on an enormous scale. It is true, however that they will likely be hard or impossible to bring charges against them barring any change of government in Russia. Although war crimes proceedings could still hold some truth, they may be limited in their value.

The evidence of war crimes is abundant. There is no denying that the Russian military launched the war with an enormous crime. They killed civilians, deported mass numbers, and pillaged rampantly. Here are the main reasons I listed before the invasion started:

It is very simple. The law is simple. There are very few violations that violate international law more gravely than the taking of territory of other countries by force with the intent of annexed it or creating a puppet government. According to the United Nations Charter, “the use or threat of force against any state’s territorial integrity or political independency is prohibited.” This description matches Russia’s attack on Ukraine exactly.

One of the major accusations against Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials was that they had waged wars of aggression. However, the Nuremberg tribunal found that starting wars of aggression is “the ultimate international crime.” Putin’s rationales for seizing Crimea in 2014 and later the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine are very similar to those Hitler offered for his attacks on Poland and Czechoslovakia: the supposed need to protect co-ethnic populations facing largely trumped-up threats (ethnic German minorities in Poland and the Sudetenland in Hitler’s case; Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine in Putin’s case)…

Putin will not be able to take any more territory in Ukraine if he continues his already illegally aggressive policies. The  best historical analogy would be Hitler’s shift from taking the Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia with a large German population) in 1938 to occupying all of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

In the next post I explain why Russia cannot defend its aggression on moral grounds. This could possibly justify illegal actions.

Many Nuremberg indictments were given the death penalty because they participated in war planning and execution. Putin and his high-level collaborators are  guilty of the same type of crime. I do not claim that Putin and his minions are as bad as the Nazis  overall. They haven’t yet committed mass murder and genocide on a similar scale, but they are working towards it. However, they These are Similar when it comes down to the crime that you incite a war against another nation, even if there is no moral or legal justification.

Even if you don’t believe in the death penalty, there are good reasons to conclude that Putin and the other Russian high-ranking officials who were involved in the war should be punished. Maybe life imprisonment, perhaps without parole.

Russian forces may have committed atrocities in Ukraine due to the reckless actions of untrained units that acted on their own. Others, such as mass executions or deportations of civilians, are more likely to be the results of directives from above. According to many international laws, forcible displacements of civilians is the worst atrocity committed by Russia.

If soldiers are guilty of crimes, it is possible that high-ranking commanders can be held accountable if they fail to act to stop them. The 1946 case was referred to the US Supreme Court. In re YamashitaA military commander must “. A commander who fails to follow these steps is considered a “failed military commander.”

As a basis for its decision, the court relied on various provisions in the Hague Conventions as well as the Geneva Convention. Russia is, naturally, a signatory of these agreements. The fact that Putin and the other Russian commanders did little to stop atrocities committed by their troops is quite obvious. These men are likely to be guilty of the same crimes as General Yamashita.

It is true that not all people agree with Yamashita being convicted. Robert Murphy of the Supreme Court wrote a strongly worded dissent, arguing that Yamashita wasn’t afforded fair trial. Many also believe Yamashita did not have the ability to stop his troops’ atrocities.  However, there is no doubt that commanders at the highest levels have a duty to stop war crimes committed by their troops.

The odds of Putin and his minions being tried and convicted for war crimes is high despite the growing evidence. Any such punishment or trial will not be possible as long Putin and his minions are in power. Putin would never consent to this, as it is obvious.

There is value in investigating war crimes and helping to lay the groundwork for future trials and possible indictments. If the war ends badly for Putin, then there’s a chance that he will be forced out of power. There are many examples in history, including Russian history, of despots losing their power following defeat in war.

Second, even though it is impossible to sanction Putin, this may not apply to other Russian officials or military personnel. Some of the Russian prisoners held by Ukraine may have committed war crimes. Other Russian officials and military officers could potentially be arrested and detained if  they travel beyond Russia’s borders in the future. They might avoid this travel for that reason. But that denial itself functions as  modest (though far from properly proportional) form of retribution.

Last but not least, focusing on war crimes can be an effective way to keep international opinion from being mobilized against Putin’s West-Russian war. Russia has become a quasi-pariah because of its criminal enterprise. This is despite the fact that it was not the only factor behind the opposition to this war.

These modest gains are not as rewarding as the Nuremberg tribunal, in which Putin or other top-ranking Russian officials are tried and convicted and then punished. Unfortunately, these proceedings can only be made if the government in question is removed. We should not allow the worst to be an enemy of the good, even those who are modestly successful.