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.

ICC arrest warrants deal fatal blow to demand that Ukraine accepts Russian occupation 'in exchange for peace'

Halya Coynash
The International Criminal Court has now issued six arrest warrants of high-ranking Russians, including Vladimir Putin and the top men waging Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine

From left Valery Gerasimov, Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu Photo Alexei Nikolsky, TASS

From left Valery Gerasimov, Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu Photo Alexei Nikolsky, TASS

The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants against Russian military leaders Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov are unlikely to result in their trial any time soon, but they will have impact, and not only by seriously limiting the Russians’ travel options.  The International Criminal Court [ICC] has found grounds for charging Shoigu, until recently Russian defence minister and Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian armed forces general staff, with war crimes and crimes against humanity.  As a former Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Justice has pointed out, such warrants will make it harder for populist politicians to put pressure on Ukraine to accept Russia’s territorial demands in supposed exchange for ‘peace’.  This is particularly true as the warrants coincided with a damning European Court of Human Rights judgement finding multiple and systematic violations in occupied Crimea.  Ukraine is not ‘just’ defending territorial integrity by rejecting Russian occupation of any Ukrainian land, it is protecting its citizens, with the same shocking crimes against civilians and violations in any part of Ukraine that is currently under Russian control.

Importantly, ICC considers that Russia’s deliberate attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure constitute both a war crime and a crime against humanity.   As ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan explained on 25 June 2024, the new arrest warrants are part of an application for arrest warrants lodged in February this year.  On 5 March 2024, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber issued arrest warrants against Sergei Ivanovich Kobylash, then Commander of the Long-Range Aviation of the Aerospace Force and Viktor Nikolayevich Sokolov, Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, over missile strikes carried out by the forces under their command against the Ukrainian electric infrastructure from at least 10 October 2022 until at least 9 March 2023.  The war crimes charges are over having directed attacks at civilian objects (article 8(2)(b)(ii) of the Rome Statute) and caused excessive incidental damage to civilian objects (article 8(2)(b)(iv). They are also accused of a crime against humanity under Article 7 (1)(k) – namely inhumane acts targeting the civilian population and intentionally causing great suffering or injury. 

The Pre-Trial Chamber has now issued additional arrest warrants against Sergei Kuzhugetovich Shoigu, then Russian defence minister, and Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, Chief of the RF armed forces General Staff over the attacks during this period on critical infrastructure, including strikes against power plants and sub-stations.  The Pre-Trial Chamber found that this “represents a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts against a civilian population, pursuant to a State policy, within the meaning of Article 7 of the Statute”, with this forming the basis of the charge of a crime against humanity (Article 7(1)(k) of the Statute.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that these senior members of the leadership of the Russian Federation are criminally responsible for committing these crimes (i)  jointly and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute), (ii) ordering the commission of the crimes (article 25(3)(b) of the Rome Statute), and/or (iii) for their failure to exercise proper control over the forces under their command (article 28 of the Rome Statute.  The report further stresses that “these acts were carried out in the context of the acts of aggression committed by Russian military forces against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine which began in 2014.

The move is particularly welcome since Russia has recently stepped up the same war crimes and crime against humanity, with constant attacks on energy infrastructure, and seems intent on ensuring maximum suffering to the civilian population, both now and during winter months. 

Serhiy Petukhov, lecturer at the National Kyiv Mohyla Academy and former Deputy Minister of Justice, believes that these arrest warrants mark a victory for both international justice and for Ukraine.  They provide “further confirmation that Russia is, on a mass scale and systematically, carrying out war crimes, as well, importantly, as a crime against humanity on Ukrainian territory”.

Petukhov stresses the political importance of such warrants.  Russia constantly claims that allegations of war crimes, etc. are ‘Ukrainian propaganda’, with western media also tending to ‘play safe’ by reporting news in “Moscow says … Kyiv says …” mode.  ICC conclusions are a much greater obstacle for those populist politicians who want to pressure Ukraine into ‘peace negotiations’  despite Russian insistence that these are, essentially, on Russia’s terms and with Russia occupying huge parts of Ukrainian territory. 

The same is true of the 25 June European Court of Human Rights judgement in the inter-state case of Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea0. Aside from the prohibition of slavery, there was not a Convention right that Russia was not found to have violated, with such violations of a mass and systematic nature.  The damning nature of that judgement is of critical importance given the lack of serious attempts by Ukraine’s allies to stop Russia in 2014, and a fairly prevalent view that Russia’s occupation cannot be changed.  While ECHR examined only cases in occupied Crimea, the violations of rights enshrined in the European Convention and of international law have been seen wherever Russia seized control.  Like the ICC arrest warrants, the ECHR judgement leaves no scope for justifying Russia’s occupation of any Ukrainian territory. 

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