US formally accuses Russian forces of committing war crimes in Ukraine

Secretary of State Blinken announced the State Department finding.

March 23, 2022, 3:32 PM

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday announced that the State Department has made a formal assessment that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

"Based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia's forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources," Blinken said in a statement.

The assessment does not come with any new U.S. sanctions, but it backs a global push for accountability for Russia's artillery and airstrikes on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

President Joe Biden has said he believes Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a "war criminal," an accusation that the Russian government said threatened diplomatic relations between the two countries, already strained to their breaking point over Putin's war against Ukraine.

But whether the war crimes assessment means Putin himself is a war criminal will depend on an individual court of law, according to U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack.

A satellite image shows the Mariupol Drama Theatre before being bombing, with the word "children" in Russian written in large white letters on the pavement in front of and behind the building, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 14, 2022.
Maxar Technologies

"There are doctrines under international law and domestic law that are able to reach all the way up the chain of command," she told reporters Wednesday, but whether that includes the Russian leader "would depend on a court that has jurisdiction," she said.

Van Schaack wouldn't say how the U.S. will push for accountability for what it has now deemed war crimes, adding, "Everything's on the table. We're considering all the various options for accountability."

That includes the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into potential war crimes, and domestic courts, including in neighboring countries who may gain custody of Russian service members or conduct trials in absentia.

But the U.S. legal system is ill-equipped to handle cases, Van Schaack said, because the U.S. War Crimes Act limits prosecutions to U.S. citizens who are perpetrators or victims. Congress is considering amending that law, she said.

This image made available by Azov Battalion, shows the drama theater, damaged after shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 17, 2022.
Azov Battalion via AP

Because the U.S. is not a party to the ICC, she said they have no "affirmative cooperation duties," but left open the possibility for cooperating with it.

Russia and Ukraine are also not parties to the ICC, but Ukraine reached an agreement with the court to grant it jurisdiction to investigate potential war crimes dating back to Russia's first invasion in 2014 when it seized the Crimean Peninsula and sparked the separatist war in eastern provinces known as the Donbas.

Van Schaack declined to speak to individual attacks that backed up the new U.S. assessment, but she and Blinken pointed to Russia directly targeting sites that were clearly marked for civilian use.

"Russia's forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded. Many of the sites Russia's forces have hit have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians," Blinken said in his statement.

A medical worker walks through the hall of a maternity hospital damaged in a shelling attack in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

This includes the Mariupol maternity hospital and "a strike that hit a Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word 'дети' -- Russian for 'children' -- in huge letters visible from the sky. Putin's forces used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya, and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people," Blinken added.

Van Schaack said individual Russian service members who conducted these attacks could be prosecuted, but so too could their commanders who were responsible for them and were either complicit in the attacks or even just because they didn't stop their forces from conducting them.

PHOTO: Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. The woman and her child died at another hospital.
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. The woman was rushed to another hospital, but doctors were unable to save the lives of the child and her mother.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

The State Department will continue to compile evidence of war crimes and share them with the appropriate bodies, including Ukraine's prosecutor general's office, which has said it's recorded over 2,400 "crimes of aggression and war crimes" in the month-long war and identified 127 suspects, prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova told the AFP.

That evidence includes not just video, photos, and other publicly available information, but U.S. intelligence, including intercepted communications between Russian service members, according to Van Schaack, who said all of it is being preserved for future trials.

Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022, as people cannot bury the dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

"We don't want to lose that evidence. We don't want that evidence to be tampered with. So it's extremely important that it be collected now and preserved with an eye towards future accountability," she told reporters.

For weeks, U.S. officials, up to and including Biden, hinted that the U.S. was seeing evidence that Russia was committing war crimes, but deferred to a formal assessment from Van Schack's office, the State Department's office of global criminal justice.

Still, Biden told reporters last week he believed Putin is a "war criminal" -- a comment that the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. ambassador John Sullivan over, warning it put U.S.-Russian relations "on the brink of collapse."