war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia actively used human shields and committed other war crimes in its annexation of Crimea

Halya Coynash

It is a war crime to use human shields to prevent Ukrainian soldiers from opening fire on the enemy, and this is only one of the methods that Russia used to achieve its blitzkrieg invasion and annexation of Crimea. Others included the use of armed soldiers without insignia, or so-called ‘little green men’ and treacherous subterfuge where, for example, Russian FSB [security service] or soldiers dressed up as Ukrainian soldiers in order to obtain access to Ukrainian military sites or to create an erroneous impression about pro-Russian sentiments in Crimea.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea was already illegal, does it matter that the methods it used were in grave violation of international humanitarian law?   It categorically does, and Anton Korynevych, the President’s Representative on Crimea and one of the authors of a new report on the methods Russia used stresses that this was no report for the sake of a report, but material that is already with the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

In late February 2019,  the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union [UHHRU], together with the Regional Centre for Human Rights and the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea passed to the International Criminal Court their report on Russia’s use of the civil population as human shields during the annexation of Crimea.

They informed ICC then of cases where Russian forces had deliberately placed civilians near Ukrainian military objects, hiding behind them during the blocking or seizure of such objects to prevent Ukrainian soldiers opening fire against attack.  This is a classic case of the use of human shields which is a war crime according to the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 28); the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention (Article 51) and Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  While Ukraine has yet to bring its legislation on war crimes into line with international law, and has, most frustratingly, still not ratified the Rome Statute, the Crimean Prosecutor has qualified such behaviour as falling under Article 438 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, which covers violation of the laws and practice of warfare.

Among such human shields were Crimeans with pro-Russian views and Russians brought in to take part in Russia’s seizure of power, but there were also civilians with pro-Ukrainian views.  In some cases, deceit or blackmail were used to ensure such human shields which Russia is known to have used to seize at least 10 Ukrainian military objects.  

Material from monitoring visits by UHHRU and RCHR from 2017-2019 were used both in the 2019 report and in this new extended study, as was testimony from a large number of witnesses.

The new report focuses on all prohibited methods of warfare which Russia used in 2014 and which to a large extent explain the speed with which it managed to seize control. During the presentation of Occupation of Crimea: “Without insignia, without names and hiding behind civilians”. UHHRU lawyer Maxim Tymochko stressed that the published report was not all that they had uncovered and passed to ICC, since some of the material was, for example, part of criminal investigations and could not be revealed at this stage.  

The report contains three main sections, each of which covers one of the methods and provides both legal assessment and examples. 

The first section is an expansion on the 2019 report on human shields.  During the presentation, Korynevych pointed out that there have yet to be any cases before the International Criminal Court over the use of human shields by a state participant in an armed conflict, rather than by organized criminal groups.  For this reason, they have sought to present the ICC Office of the Prosecutor with maximum proof.

One very important question in this respect was the murky and unclear status of the so-called ‘Cossacks’ and ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitary groups whom Russia used for its seizure of control.  Such lack of clarity meant that, despite obvious deployment by Russia for its aggression of these ‘Cossacks’ and paramilitaries, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had to apply ‘the presumption’ that they were civilians, as per Article 50 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention.

This was used by Russia to gain military advantage during the annexation, and specifically to defend some of those carrying out Russia’s aggression from the legitimate use of weapons by Ukrainian military servicemen.

Section 2 addresses Russia’s use of ‘little green men’, or soldiers without any identifying insignia.   While there have been cases of this before, the fact that these were soldiers  or players deployed by an aggressor state is something quite new.  Even after Russian President Vladimir Putin finally admitted that the men were Russian soldiers, he and Moscow generally have continued pushing a false narrative according to which Russian soldiers were deployed to ‘protect’ the population during the pseudo-referendum on joining Russia.  This is in glaring conflict with the facts, since it was these armed soldiers without insignia who forced the meeting of the Crimean parliament at which the marginal pro-Russian MP Sergei Aksyonov declared himself ‘prime minister’.  Those leading the so-called ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitaries, such as Igor Girkin,  were also brought in from Russia.

It is the duty of any side to an armed dispute to ensure that combatants are distinguished from civilians. Korynevych noted during the presentation that any specific need, for example, of identifying insignia, is not actually clearly stated in international humanitarian law, however that is because it had seemed to go without saying. What is clearly articulated is that a state is obliged to ensure that combatants can be identified as such.

The report notes that from the beginning of March 2014, these armed soldiers without insignia changed their clothes in order to pretend to be ‘self-defence armed paramilitaries’.  It was only after the pseudo-referendum that Putin admitted to the presence of Russian soldiers, while pretending that these were only deployed to ‘protect people’ during this illegal event.

Part 3 addresses known cases of treachery where Russians illegally used the uniforms and / or emblems of their opponent, i.e. the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  This is prohibited by the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. 

In July 2015, InformNapalm published a journalist investigation in which they presented proof of the involvement by Russian paratroopers from the 31st brigade in the seizure of the Crimean parliament, who were dressed like officers of a unit of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.  One of the photos, for example, shows two of these paratroopers in such Ukrainian uniform.

This particular unit is also known to have been involved in the fighting in Donbas in November that same year.

Worth noting that the investigations carried out by InformNapalm, Bellingcat and others, who often simply tracked down fighters from their revelations on social media, led Moscow to introduce a total ban on Russian soldiers using social media.

UHHRU has also received testimony from members of the Ukrainian Naval Forces command who say that individuals, dressed in Ukrainian naval uniform managed to get into the headquarters.  Witnesses also speak of occasions where naval uniforms were stolen, and of one time when five individuals dressed in Ukrainian military gear were detained by real Ukrainian servicemen.

While the authors of the report did not uncover cases of war crimes in the form of treachery resulting in death or serious injury, they are satisfied that treachery as a prohibited method of warfare was used by Russian soldiers in February and March 2014 to achieve military advantage and specifically to seize government buildings and to get into territory of Ukrainian military units, including the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy.

These and other cases which have been passed to the ICC, but cannot be made public, demonstrate that the actions of members of the Russian armed forces in February-March 2014 in Crimea often seriously violated international humanitarian law and deployed prohibited methods of warfare.


 Share this