FAST THINKING: How will the West punish Russia for its war crimes?

quick thinking

April 4, 2022 • 11:24 a.m. ET

FAST THINKING: How will the West punish Russia for its war crimes?

Atlantic Council


Horrifying images of murdered Ukrainian civilians – evidence of apparent Russian war crimes uncovered in Bucha and other newly liberated towns outside kyiv – have shocked the world. Nearly six weeks into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, Western countries are facing renewed pressure to act. But how? Our experts explain what this grim development means for warfare, and how the United States and its allies and partners should respond.


Deadly Truths

  • After weeks of reports of indiscriminate Russian shelling of non-military targets, Gissou tells us that last weekend’s revelations represent “the most damning evidence to date” that Russia systematically targets civilians and thus commits war crimes.
  • Rather than an aberration, these killings – along with the brutal bombardment of Ukrainian cities and recent accounts of rape, looting and mass deportations of Ukrainians from occupied territories to Russia – offer a chilling reflection of Kremlin thinking, Dan adds: “For Putin, Ukraine does not exist as a nation except in alignment and subordination to Russia.” This, he says, means only one thing: “Ukrainians are fighting for their national and physical survival.”
  • We have seen this before, Dan Remarks. Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine – which he says “combines Stalinist and reactionary tsarist thinking” – informed the Russian military methods that “recall those used by the Soviet security services against the Baltic, Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe” under the Moscow yoke in the 20th century.

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Crime scene

  • When it comes to punishing the perpetrators of atrocities in places like Bucha, Gissou points to a silver lining: “Unlike the conflicts in Syria, Ethiopia or Myanmar… war crimes investigators investigating accountability in Ukraine will have the advantage of having access to it.
  • This means they will be able to collect more evidence, and faster, than is typically possible in other conflicts, where “government-aligned perpetrators often block independent investigators from accessing crime scenes.” “, she says. But investigators, whether from the International Criminal Court or Ukraine’s own law enforcement, will always need substantial financial and technical support to collect and preserve evidence quickly.

Take on the killers

  • For now, Dan believes, a lot depends on “Increase Ukraine’s stamina and decrease Russia’s.” This means stepping up US and European arms deliveries to kyiv and sanctions against Russia, and accepting a crucial fact: This should be Ukraine’s call when to keep fighting and when to settle [with Russia] and under what conditions.
  • And even if kyiv chooses a settlement, Dan adds, the West should refrain from pushing him to agree to any deal that cedes territorial gains to the Kremlin in the name of a quick peace. “We now know what the Russians can do to the inhabitants of the territories they control.”
  • The United States can also help in other ways, Gissou says: In addition to helping authorities gather evidence of Russian war crimes, U.S. lawmakers should pass legislation giving U.S. prosecutors more leeway than they currently have to prosecute Russian war criminals.
  • Congress, for example, could “pass a crimes against humanity law to criminalize widespread or systematic attacks on civilian populations.” Gissou explains, and an amendment to the Federal War Crimes Act to allow jurisdiction over perpetrators of atrocities like Bucha’s who enter the United States. Simply put, she tells us, Washington must “strengthen its own atrocity accountability toolkit.”

Further reading

Associate specialists:
Daniel Fried and

Image: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks on with Ukrainian servicemen, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, outside kyiv, Ukraine April 4, 2022. Photo via REUTERS/Marko Djurica.

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