Losing a Generation: Russia’s War Crimes in Ukraine

In February of 2022, Russia ended an era of peace in Europe by invading Ukraine.[1] Over a year later, the war continues with an estimated 5,987 civilian casualties.[2] Now, organizations are beginning to investigate the actions of parties involved in the conflict, and in March of 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for  Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and Children’s Rights Commissioner for Russia, Maria Lvova-Belova.[3] Both Putin and Lvova-Belova are accused of war crimes, with these warrants specifically alleging that they had a role in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.[4] While Ukraine views this action by the ICC as a significant win, there are questions regarding how Putin, Lvova-Belova, and other officials will be held accountable and what repercussions they will face if convicted.[5] While the ICC arrest warrants’ allegations are narrowed to how Putin and Lvova-Belova are responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children, United Nations (UN) reports have also cited additional crimes committed by Russian forces according to further investigations.[6]

This blog will start with an overview of what factors led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It will then discuss crimes that Russian officials and soldiers are accused of committing before examining what laws govern international conflict and war crimes. Finally, the blog will analyze possible repercussions for the crimes committed and how Russian officials and actors may be held accountable for their actions.

Background on the War Between Russia and Ukraine

There has been a strained relationship between Russia and Ukraine for years, with tensions going back as far as the fall of the Soviet Union when Ukraine declared independence.[7] Ukraine’s independence was significant, with “many Russian politicians view[ing] the divorce with Ukraine as a mistake of history and a threat to Russia’s standing as a great power.”[8]  Ukraine stood out from other countries announcing their independence due to their nationalism, size, industrialization, population’s education, and geographic location.[9] This history contributes to the long-standing tensions between the two countries, and despite Ukraine’s separation from Russia over thirty years ago, Putin has continued to publicly refer to “Russians and Ukrainians as ‘one people.’”[10]

In February of 2022, Russia declared two areas in eastern Ukraine, “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republics,” as independent states.[11] Following the announcement of the two territories’ independence, Putin ordered the military to conduct peacekeeping in the areas.[12] Shortly after, Russia invaded Ukraine, and in a speech declaring war, Putin stated that Russia’s goal “was to ‘demilitarise and denazify’ Ukraine.”[13] Putin claimed that Ukraine’s government was responsible for committing genocide against individuals in the eastern regions of the state.[14] Ukraine vehemently rejects Putin’s claims and alleges that Russia is using false claims of genocide to justify their invasion of Ukraine.[15] Later that month, Ukraine filed suit in the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) based on their allegations of Russia’s use of false statements.[16] In their ruling, the ICJ found that Russia should stop military operations immediately.[17] Despite this ruling, Russia has continued military actions.[18]

Some analysts blame North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)  expansion for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[19] Ukraine’s efforts to “align more closely with Western institutions” and indications that the country seeks a future with the NATO stands in stark contrast with Putin’s vehement opposition to these groups.[20] Russia has openly protested NATO expansion, even warning in 2008 that allowing Ukraine to join NATO “would be a hostile act towards Russia.”[21]  While Ukraine has become an enhanced opportunity partner, NATO has not brought Ukraine into the alliance.[22]

The Crimes Occurring

In March of 2023, the United Nations (UN) reported 5,987 civilian casualties from the war between Russia and Ukraine.[23] The UN Human Rights Office released a report documenting Russian strikes on infrastructure, summary executions of civilians, disappearance of children, and sexual violence conducted by Russian forces.[24] The report also cited human rights violations committed by Ukraine, including enforced disappearances and sexual violence.[25] The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, tasked with  overseeing the compliance of member states with the convention, discussed reports it has received since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[26] The reports cite numerous human rights violations committed by Russia, such as “instances and practices of excessive use of force, killings, extrajudicial and summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.”[27]

One of the biggest allegations about Russia’s conduct comes from reports that indicate Russian forces are deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.[28] Reporting revealed one family’s struggles with deportation of children during this war.[29]  Olga Lopatkina shared that during the war, she made the painful decision to evacuate without her children because they were not with her when the opportunity arose.[30] Lopatkina remained dedicated to getting her children back, urging officials to find and evacuate them.[31] However, authorities from a Russian controlled territory informed her that to get her kids back she would have to go through Russia, risking the possibility that she would not be permitted to leave afterwards.[32] Her son, Timofey, shared his story, speaking of how Russian officials informed him that he would have to go to school in a Russian territory while his siblings were to be sent away to new Russian families.[33] Fortunately, Lopatkina’s family was reunited following months of negotiation.[34] However, this process was extremely difficult and taxing, something not every family going through a similar situation can successfully complete.[35] A human rights defender explained that the names of children are not always published and that many parents are unaware where their children are, making it impossible to ask Russia to return them.[36]

Reports have led ICC to issue arrest warrants for Putin as well as Lvova-Belova.[37] According to reports from Ukraine, Russian forces are responsible for deporting more than 19,384 children.[38] Lvova-Belova confirmed that there were over 1,000 Ukrainian children in Russia as of March.[39] Justifying the deportation of Ukrainian children, Russia claims the children taken were alone, lacking parents or guardians.[40] Russia’s government is also working to make transfers easier, with Putin signing legislation that allows Ukrainian children to become Russian citizens if the children do not have any parental figures to care for them.[41] In addition, Russia encourages citizens to adopt or foster the children transferred from Ukraine and provides financial incentives for those who choose to do so.[42] Despite Ukraine’s outcry against this deportation, Russia characterizes these actions as kind, with Lvova-Belova explaining how these children are relying on Russia due to traumatic experiences they have endured from the war.[43] However, the UN Commission of Inquiry has rejected these justifications.[44]

There are arguments that the deportation of children is a form of genocide, as the displaced children are being adopted and becoming Russian citizens.[45] The removal of groups of children from their home country may have long lasting repercussions such as an inability for the country to continue to see growth in their population.[46] This is essentially resulting in the loss of Ukrainian identity in the state’s youth, as the displaced children now have Russian educations, language, and families.[47]

Some analysts and historians argue the intent of Russia was to eradicate Ukraine.[48] In support of this argument, some historians analyze Putin’s statement that his goal was to ‘denazification and demilitarization’ Ukraine. [49] Historian Timothy Snyder stated Putin’s references to the term “denazification” indicate the perception of Ukrainians who support their country and deny Russian notions of a “one people” are “Nazis” in the eyes of Russia.[50] Russia’s intent is to eradicate this type of nationalism, utilizing war as a means to achieve this goal.[51] By taking Ukrainian children, re-educating them, housing them with Russian families, and giving them Russian birth certificates, Russia is achieving their goal of forced assimilation, effectively creating an issue regarding the survival of Ukraine in the future.[52]

Laws Governing War Crimes

Under international law, a state may attack another sovereign state for one of the following reasons:

  1. “In self-defense;
  2. When one state asks another state to send troops…; and
  3. If the U.N. Security Council determines that the war is legal under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter…”[53]

While Russia cites acts of genocide as the justification for the attack on Ukraine, the ICJ ruled that Russia’s attack should stop immediately.[54] Analyzing the criteria listed for a justified act of war, Russia fails to meet the standards required.[55]

International humanitarian law governs the conduct of Russian and Ukrainian actors during the war.[56] The foundation of international humanitarian law comes from the four Geneva Conventions.[57] The Geneva Conventions ensure protections for the sick and injured and require members of the UN to reprimand parties responsible for committing criminal acts.[58] These laws attempt to mitigate the danger war presents to civilians by prohibiting certain actions that put civilians at risk.[59] These protections may not prevent all civilian casualties, but the objective is to minimize intentional acts of harm toward civilians and noncombatants.[60]

However, when countries violate international laws, there are different ways to ensure the responsible party takes accountability.[61] One way to hold individuals accountable for their actions is through the government of the accused, as there is a responsibility on the state to investigate allegations.[62] Additionally, the ICC may conduct trials for those accused of grave actions, such as crimes against humanity.[63] There are certain requirements before the ICC may have jurisdiction over the matter. One of the following must apply for the court to exercise jurisdiction:

  • “The crimes occurred in the territory of a country that is a party to the ICC treaty;
  • The person accused of the crimes is a citizen of a country that is a party to the ICC treaty;
  • A country that is not a party to the ICC treaty accepts the court’s authority for the crimes in question by submitting a formal declaration to the court; or
  • The United Nations Security Council refers the situation to the ICC prosecutor.”[64]

The ICC has already demonstrated its jurisdiction over the allegations of crimes in the war between Russia and Ukraine by issuing arrest warrants.[65] Ukraine previously granted the ICC authority over accusations of crimes within their territory, obligating Ukraine to comply with the ICC now.[66]

What Does this Mean for the Future?

As Putin and Lvova-Belova face arrest warrants for crimes committed since the invasion of Russia, the process of accountability for international law violations has already begun.[67] However, international law experts are doubtful that the two accused parties will ever face trial as the ICC lacks the ability to enforce warrants without the actions of other states, and Russia refuses to recognize the ICC’s authority over the matter.[68] Moscow’s recognition of the ICC’s jurisdiction is unlikely to change, as a spokesperson for Russia expressed outrage at the ICC’s warrants.[69]

While there are concerns about Putin and Lvova-Belova facing judgment by the ICC, their reputation is unlikely to recover in the eyes of the international community.[70] Following investigations and reports, the allegations of grave crimes against humanity, such as the excessive use of force and the deportation of Ukrainian youth, cast a shadow on Russia that the international community will not forget easily.[71] If responsible actors are to face judgment for their war crimes, there will be a large responsibility placed on other states to act.[72]

[1] Jeffrey Mankoff, Russia’s War in Ukraine: Identity, History, and Conflict, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Apr. 22, 2022), https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-war-ukraine-identity-history-and-conflict.

[2] Human Rights in Ukraine Still ‘Dire’ Amid Wide-Ranging Violations: OHCHR, UN News (Mar. 24, 2023), https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/03/1135012#:~:text=During%20the%20reporting%20period%2C%20OHCHR,to%20forced%20transfers%20or%20deportations.

[3] Mike Corder et al., International Court Issues War Crimes Warrant for Putin, Associated Press News (Mar. 17, 2023, 9:35 PM), https://apnews.com/article/icc-putin-war-crimes-ukraine-9857eb68d827340394960eccf0589253.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Keith Gessen, Was it Inevitable? A Short History of Russia’s War on Ukraine, The Guardian (Mar. 11, 2022), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/was-it-inevitable-a-short-history-of-russias-war-on-ukraine.

[8] Jonathan Masters, Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia, Council on Foreign Relations (February 14, 2023), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-crossroads-europe-and-russia.

[9] Gessen, supra note 7.

[10] Id; Mankoff, supra note 1

[11] Russia, Ukraine & International Law: On Occupation, Armed Conflict and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch (Feb. 23, 2022, 5:25 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/23/russia-ukraine-international-law-occupation-armed-conflict-and-human-rights.

[12] Id.

[13] Paul Kirby, Has Putin’s War Failed and What Does Russia Want From Ukraine, BBC News (Feb. 24, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589.

[14] Id.

[15] Stephanie van den Berg, Russia Using Genocide ‘Lie’ as Pretext to Destroy, Ukraine Tells World Court, U.S. News (Sept. 19, 2023), https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2023-09-19/ukraine-tells-world-court-russia-uses-genocide-as-a-pretext-to-destroy

[16] International Court Orders Russia to ‘Immediately Suspend’ Military Operations in Ukraine, UN News (Mar. 16, 2022), https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1114052#:~:text=The%20ICJ%20asked%20Russia%20to,punishing%20Ukraine%20for%20committing%20genocide.

[17] Id.

[18] Berg, supra note 15.

[19] Masters, supra note 8.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Masters, supra note 8; Enhanced opportunity partners is a status for states that are not members of NATO but encourages stronger relationships between the state and allies.  See, NATO Grants Ukraine ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partner’ Status, RFE/RL (Jun. 12, 2020), https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-grants-ukraine-enhanced-opportunities-partner-status/30667898.html.

[23] UN News, supra note 2.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Lisa Schlein, UN Accuses Russia of Grave Human Rights Violations in Ukraine, Voice of America English News (Apr. 30, 2023, 1:09 PM), https://www.voanews.com/a/un-accuses-russia-of-grave-human-rights-violations-in-ukraine-/7072552.html#:~:text=Committee%20member%20Mehrdad%20Payandeh%20said,and%20summary%20executions%2C%20enforced%20disappearances%2C.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Sarah El Deeb et al., How Moscow Grabs Ukrainian Kids and Makes Them Russians, Associated Press News (Mar. 17, 2023, 4:45 PM), https://apnews.com/article/ukrainian-children-russia-7493cb22c9086c6293c1ac7986d85ef6.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Corder, supra note 3.

[38] Schlein, supra note 26.

[39] El Deeb, supra note 29.

[40] Id.

[41] Yulia Loffee, Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Children to the Russian Federation: A Genocide, J. of Genocide Rsch. 1, 17-18 (2023).

[42] Id. at 18.

[43] El Deeb, supra note 29.

[44] Denys Azarov et al, Understanding Russia’s Actions in Ukraine as the Crime of Genocide, 21 J. of Int’l Crim. Just. 233, 262 (2023).

[45] Id. at 263.

[46] Id. at 262-263.

[47] Id.

[48] Id. at 243.

[49] Id. at 245-246

[50] Id.

[51] Id. at 262-263.

[52] Azarov, supra note 44, at 249; Human Rights Watch, supra note 11.

[53] Lise Morjé Howard, A Look at the Laws of War – and How Russia is Violating Them, United States Institute of Peace (Sept. 29, 2022), https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/09/look-laws-war-and-how-russia-violating-them.

[54] International Court Orders Russia to ‘Immediately Suspend’ Military Operations in Ukraine supra note 16.

[55] Howard, supra note 53.

[56] Human Rights Watch, supra note 11.

[57] Howard, supra note 53.

[58] Id.

[59] Human Rights Watch, supra note 11.

[60] Id.

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Id.

[65] Human Rights Watch, supra note 11; Schlein, supra note 26.

[66] Human Rights Watch, supra note 11.

[67] Schlein, supra note 26.

[68] Corder, supra note 3; Russian actors accused of war crimes from the war in Ukraine are unlikely to face trial. The ICC relies on the actions of member states to enforce arrest warrants. Additionally, without anyone to arrest the accused actors, the ICC will not proceed without the accused party being present. The ICC has issued warrants against accused members of government previously, and many of these individuals have yet to be turned over to the ICC. See, Eric Larson, Could Putin Really Be Prosecuted for War Crimes?: QuickTake, Bloomberg News (Mar. 17, 2023, 2:23 PM), https://www.bloomberglaw.com/product/blaw/bloomberglawnews/bloomberg-law-news/XRMOBCO000000?bc=W1siU2VhcmNoICYgQnJvd3NlIiwiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuYmxvb21iZXJnbGF3LmNvbS9wcm9kdWN0L2JsYXcvc2VhcmNoL3Jlc3VsdHMvYjMzNzE0YTdlMjUyN2U3MjA1ZmQ5MDAzNDZjMjQxODIiXV0–0619b2ed34a435462d1ef8947e17fb4b0a5ca6dc&criteria_id=b33714a7e2527e7205fd900346c24182&search32=F0j1Mon5PXwKIusvTbrkYQ%3D%3D24SJu8_-R7nwNmXApZEwgoJUUkwavE6l-4G14w-O0A5zCho4hCGtJGD5sSzG1FxNuPC2TtwmAChDdjxbqNeUuxGAVbIuoZmJ5cIial6mBR0ztZCd_ZZtOWdfH25_-AbeFjovh2ltCx49YJW93iPpheHUWyOJ–KQyegqtik27ETumE_Qg63HlSDHP2WJPgmbkZ6SI0O-CsK8QTWedPPpIu8EhapzlSBcnWid3FPxDX-GPTJmK0cSccFOotJPQiLtSRKdtIY0HozQpZedQF8keFNi12I4gjuBbFW7dxdG14k%3D.

[69] Corder, supra note 3.

[70] Id.

[71] Id.

[72] Id.