Can Russia be taken to court for war crimes?

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

We’ve heard so many stories about Russian atrocities in Ukraine by now that people are likely starting to become numb to them. Hundreds of bodies have been discovered in the suburbs of Kyiv following the Russian withdrawal from the region, many with their hands bound and having close-range gunshot wounds to the head. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti both called yesterday for a thorough investigation and punishment in response to the discoveries. Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, took it one step further, calling the actions of the Russian army genocide, and he urged the allied nations to bring Russia up on charges in international court. But it’s unclear how that could be done and what sort of penalties could be imposed that would make any sort of impact on Putin.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez says Russian troops’ alleged atrocities against civilians in Ukraine should be judged in an international court and may amount to genocide.

Sánchez said Monday: “I hope that everything possible can be done so that those behind these war crimes don’t go unpunished, and that they can appear before the courts, in this case the International Criminal Court, to answer these alleged cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes and, why not say it, of genocide, too.”

He was speaking at an economic forum in Madrid after Ukrainian authorities said the bodies of at least 410 civilians have been found in areas outside the capital Kyiv after last week’s withdrawal of Russian troops. Many had their hands bound, close-range gunshot wounds and signs of torture.

Sánchez said he felt indignation at “the horror of these deaths that we have seen in recent days.”

A Kremlin spokesperson immediately rejected the claims, saying the Ukrainian assertions “can’t be trusted” and that they “categorically reject the accusations.”

What’s being seen in Ukraine this week runs far beyond my father’s frequent warnings to me about how “bad things happen in war.” It certainly appears that war crimes have taken place on a massive scale, grossly exceeding the inevitable violence that takes place under the normal rules of engagement. But calling for a war crimes trial is a complicated matter. The International Criminal Court of the United Nations, with locations in The Hague and New York City, is quite limited in what it can do beyond show trials if the nation being charged chooses not to cooperate. And that’s really not a bad thing, as I’ve written here in the past. I doubt many of us would want to see that court taking Americans to trial and overruling our own system of courts.

Even if we imagine a situation where Vladimir Putin is put on trial in The Hague, does anyone honestly believe he would show up? And even if he were to be found guilty, nobody is going to march into the Kremlin and try to slap some cuffs on him. What’s left after that? Sanctions? We’re already running out of ways to sanction Putin and his country. The sad reality is that it’s been historically rare for anyone to be held accountable from an international level for crimes committed during wars.

But Russia certainly seems to be doing its level best to earn such a judgment. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the Russian troops have been doing more than just executing civilians. Ukrainians attempting to clean up some of the mess they left behind have been finding dead bodies rigged up with tripwires and land mines, obviously intended to try to kill the relief squads.

Locals buried scores of the dead in mass graves as a cold rain fell. Others flagged down troops to show them where the dead lay.

The withdrawing Russian forces “left in their wake a complete disaster and many dangers,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an overnight address. He added that the region remained unsafe. “Firstly, the bombing might continue,” he said. “Secondly, they are mining this entire territory.”

Mr. Zelensky said retreating Russian forces had placed mines in houses, laid trip wires and booby-trapped corpses.

We have no way of knowing how much of this activity is taking place under direct orders from Putin and how much may be the actions of troops that are freestyling as they lay waste to the country. But that really doesn’t matter. We’re not talking about independent actors engaging in terror attacks. The Russian troops are there because Putin ordered them to attack. He bears the responsibility for their actions. But as I noted above, holding him accountable may prove impossible unless his own people do it. And that seems increasingly unlikely at this point since his approval ratings at home are currently soaring.