The United States on Wednesday formally accused unnamed members of Russia’s armed forces of committing war crimes in Ukraine and promised to hold Moscow accountable, including through potential criminal prosecutions.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the accusation in a statement, which came days after U.S. officials raised the possibility of such allegations. President Joe Biden, in fact, recently said he thought that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal,” though Blinken’s statement on Wednesday did not directly accuse the autocrat.
“Based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” Blinken said.
The exact impact of the accusation against Russian troops is hard to predict at this stage, though the symbolism of making the declaration could, in theory, sap morale among Russian forces. People accused of war crimes can be tried in a variety of forums, such as the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal, but it’s often difficult if not impossible to gain custody of those individuals.
In laying out the case against Russia, Blinken repeatedly made clear that the United States sees the Russian armed forces as acting under Putin’s orders. The troops, he noted, “have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”
Still, in leveling the accusation of war crimes, Blinken did not specify Putin or anyone else. “Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources,” he said. “As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases.”
The ICC has launched its own investigation into Russian actions in Ukraine, as have other entities including the Biden administration. But, in an example of how tricky this area of international law is, the United States itself has not always recognized the authority of the ICC.
Beth Van Schaack, the Biden administration’s ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, told reporters in an appearance after Blinken’s statement was released that U.S. officials will consider even domestic courts to litigate the war crimes cases.
Asked if the U.S. assessment could be used to prosecute Putin, Van Schaack said, “I think that’s a question that’s left to a court of law that has appropriate jurisdiction over individuals involved in the conflict.”
Still, she noted that chains of command do matter in such contexts.
“The doctrine of superior responsibility allows for commanders to be held responsible for acts committed by their subordinates if they’re aware of those acts and they fail to either prevent them in advance or punish them after the fact,” she said.
Also this week, Blinken formally declared that Myanmar’s military had carried out a genocide against Rohingya Muslims in 2017, offering new U.S. support to international legal cases against those armed forces.