World

Russian President Vladimir Putin is accused of genocide in Ukraine. The United Nations and International Criminal Court begin investigating alleged war crimes.  By Jonathan Pearlman.

Evidence of atrocities as Russians retreat from Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, this week.
Credit: Reuters / Marko Djurica

Atrocities in Ukraine

In suburbs and towns across northern Ukraine, evidence emerged this week of appalling atrocities, including mass killings of civilians, committed by Russian troops during their brief occupation.

Until now, allegations of Russian war crimes had largely been based on testimony of fleeing Ukrainians or on scattered reports by isolated journalists. But Russia’s recent retreat – as its troops shift focus from seizing Kyiv to supporting separatists in the east – has allowed the international media to quickly enter and document the horrific scenes in territory that has been vacated.

In Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, reporters from The New York Times entered the backyard of a house this week and discovered three men wearing civilian clothes – jeans, sneakers and winter jackets – lying dead. Neighbours said that one of the men, named Serha, had stayed in the town to take care of his dogs. Near the bodies were two dogs that had been shot.

In a forest outside Motyzhyn, a village west of Kyiv, reporters from Reuters described seeing three bodies in a shallow grave. The victims were the mayor, Olha Sukhenko, her husband Ihor Sukhenko, and their son Oleksandr, who had all reportedly been seized by Russian troops on March 23. Nearby, another body in a well appeared to have been tied up before being executed. Vadym Tokar, the head of a neighbouring village, told Reuters: “We can’t get the [bodies] out because there is a suspicion that they are mined.”

Footage from various media outlets showed corpses in civilian clothing strewn across streets, including bodies with their hands tied and shot at close range. Others appeared to have been shot while riding bikes.

Ukrainian authorities reported on Monday that the bodies of at least 410 civilians had been found on the outskirts of Kyiv, including a mass grave in Bucha that contained the bodies of at least 57 people.

Isabelle Khurshudyan, from The Washington Post, reported: “It is just killing for killing’s sake.”

During a visit to Bucha this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, accused Russia of conducting genocide. “We know that thousands of people have been killed and tortured with extremities cut off, women raped, children killed,” he told reporters. “It’s genocide.”

Russia dismissed the footage from Bucha as “video fakes”, saying the killings of civilians had been staged. It said the deaths occurred after its troops left, even though satellite images showed the corpses were on the streets when the Russians occupied the town. The Kremlin called for a special United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the “staged performance by the Kyiv regime”.

The world responds

The atrocities in Ukraine prompted demands for tougher sanctions and other punitive measures, as Russia began to be viewed around the world as a pariah state.

United States President Joe Biden called for Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes, saying that evidence against the Russian president was already being collected.

“You may remember I got criticised for calling Putin a war criminal,” he told reporters, referring to a remark last month that was seen as a gaffe. “Well, the truth of the matter – we saw it happen in Bucha – he is a war criminal.”

French President Emmanuel Macron called for additional sanctions including bans on imports of Russian oil and coal, though not gas. “The scenes are unbearable,” he said. “International justice must prevail.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, condemned the Kremlin’s “unbelievable brutality” and its “boundless will to exterminate”. But Germany, which is reliant on Russian gas supplies, insisted it needed more time before cutting off gas imports.

France, Germany and other European countries – including Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania – moved to expel more than 200 Russian diplomats.

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, described the killings as a “genocide” and criticised Macron for holding regular talks with Putin. “What have you achieved?” he said. “Would you negotiate with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot?”

China, which has taken a “neutral” stance on the conflict, said the reports from Bucha were disturbing but the accusations needed to be verified. India, which has also remained neutral, went further and called for an independent investigation.

Proving war crimes

In addition to killing civilians, Russian troops have allegedly conducted gang rapes, used children as human shields for their tanks, and attacked hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and private cars.

The allegations indicate Russian troops have conducted widespread war crimes. Various investigations are already under way, but any attempt to achieve justice will depend on collection and verification of evidence.

The European Commission and the UN have sent investigators to Ukraine to assist local authorities to document war crimes.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet this week said all bodies found in Bucha and elsewhere should be exhumed and identified to ensure victims’ families can be informed and to collect evidence of war crimes. “It is vital that all efforts are made … to ensure truth, justice and accountability, as well as reparations and remedy for victims and their families,” she said.

Human Rights Watch said it had already documented a case of repeated rape, two summary executions in which seven men were killed, and looting. The details of the cases were based on interviews with 10 witnesses, victims and residents of Russian-occupied areas. Hugh Williamson, from Human Rights Watch, said: “The cases we documented amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians.”

Prosecuting Putin

Although a number of investigations are under way that could lead to war crimes charges, the chances of successfully prosecuting Putin or other senior Russian leaders are slim.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into war crimes on March 1, but Russia, like the US and China, is not a party to the court. The Kremlin has rejected the investigation.

On March 23, the US accused Russian forces of war crimes, a move that formalises a State Department investigation and involves preservation of evidence. The US said its inquiry was launched after consulting with the Ukrainian and European governments.

The UN Human Rights Council has also established an inquiry. The US has called for Russia to be suspended from the council.

The ICC could charge Putin and other Russian leaders and issue warrants for their arrest, but it cannot try them in absentia. Russian authorities are unlikely to hand Putin to the court, at least while he is in power. But it is possible some commanders could be arrested in Ukraine, or outside Russia.

The UN Security Council could try to set up a tribunal similar to those that prosecuted crimes committed during the Balkan wars and the Rwanda genocide. But Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, could veto any such effort.

Others, including Zelensky, have called for the establishment of an international tribunal based on the Nuremberg trials that heard cases against Nazis after World War II. He told the UN on Tuesday that the world has yet to see” the crimes Russia has committed across Ukraine. “Do you think that the time of international law is gone? If your answer is no, then you need to act immediately.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Evidence of atrocities as Russians retreat from Kyiv".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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