How Many More Crimes Can Putin Commit Before the World Calls Him A War Criminal?

Protests in London, calling for an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine (Photo: BBC)

On February 24, during a United Nations Security Council meeting, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN was informed that Russia’s invasion of his country had begun. Moments later, Kyslytsya turned to his Russian counterpart Vassily Nebenzia and told him: “There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.”

There is little doubt that Russia’s invasion into Ukraine is a violation of international law and the UN Charter. It is also a crime. It should be called as such, not only by human rights and justice advocates, but by states.

In recent days, many state representatives, media, and scholars have rightly gone to great lengths to stress the abhorrent behaviour of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it is almost as if what Putin is doing now is particularly egregious. This invasion is the Russian president’s calling card and war crimes are his signature.

Everything transpiring now in Ukraine, including reports of rocket attacks on civilian buildings, is par for Putin’s course. Days ago, international law scholars Frédéric Mégret and Kevin Jon Heller predicted that Putin would commit the crime of aggression by invading Ukraine. No one should be surprised if the situation gets worse. Putin’s personal biography is littered with the embrace of atrocity crimes and human rights violations.

Putin came to fame and eventually to power on the back of Russia’s 1999-2000 war in Chechnya. In annihilating the breakaway region’s separatist movement, Russia deployed horrific levels of violence. Human Rights Watch has documented legions of atrocities, including allegations that Russian forces “indiscriminately and disproportionately bombed and shelled civilian objects” and “ignored their Geneva convention obligations to focus their attacks on combatants”. The West responded meekly to allegations of war crimes. Rather than being condemned, Putin was largely hailed as a leader that promised Russians a better life and the West – better relations, when he replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russian president. That was not to be the case.

In 2008, Putin turned his attention to Georgia and ordered Russian troops – whom he called “peacekeepers” – to invade the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They were not there to keep the peace. While Moscow invoked humanitarian language in arguing that it had a “responsibility to protect” its citizens in both territories, Russian forces indiscriminately attacked civilian targets – a war crime. It is also alleged that Russian allies in South Ossetia forcibly transferred ethnic Georgians out of the region.

In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, leading to the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea while also igniting a conflict in Lugansk and Donetsk that has cost an estimated 14,000 lives. During the violence, Russian-backed militants bombed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 people onboard. Attacks by Russian forces against civilians were commonplace and allegations of murder and torture were reported in detention facilities – referred to as “Europe’s last concentration camps” – run by pro-Russian separatists.

These are just a tiny cross-section of Putin’s crimes that have been documented by human rights and investigation bodies.

The alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Putin’s forces also galvanised the International Criminal Court (ICC), which opened an investigation into atrocities in Georgia in 2016 and completed an examination into those committed in Ukraine in 2020, concluding that there were reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed.

And then there’s Syria. For a decade, Putin has propped up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad despite evidence of atrocities that war crimes investigators believe is the “strongest since the Nuremberg trials”. 

Russian air forces have bombed hospitals and attacked civil defence forces working to rescue survivors in the wake of bombing raids. As recently as 2020, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, found that Russia had bombed civilian areas in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Russia also participated in the use of chemical weapons against civilians, including children. As Kenneth Ward of the Arms Control Association has observed, Russia is not only an enabler of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but a direct perpetrator. Moscow protected Syria – and itself – from any judicial scrutiny over its atrocities committed with and on behalf of Assad, by vetoing a referral of Syria to the ICC in 2015.

As if involvement in widespread and systematic international crimes was not enough, Putin has also been accused of ordering numerous poisonings of dissidents in the UK, the attempted murder of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushenko, corruption on a scale that amounts to a human rights violation, and the imprisonment of pro-democracy and human rights advocates.

None of this is the fault of Russia. Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Putin. In the past few days, thousands of demonstrators across Russia have taken to the streets to protest the invasion of Ukraine, while “No to War” graffiti has propped up in numerous Russian cities. It is Putin – and his coterie of sycophants and enablers – who must be held to account.

Addressing the Russian president’s actions now is not just about the attacks on Donetsk, Luhansk or the outskirts of Kyiv. It is also about the atrocities he has committed with impunity in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, Chechnya and elsewhere. It is about the atrocities that he has perpetrated and that too many states have turned a blind eye to in the false hope that he could be contained and reasoned with.

As armoured columns drove into Ukraine, Canadian Ambassador to the UN Bob Rae called Putin “a war criminal”. It may be that Putin never faces justice at an international tribunal like the ICC. But the international community should organize the collection and preservation of evidence of Putin’s atrocities as they happen, in real time before the eyes of the world. Maybe one day that evidence can be used to prosecute Putin and his junta.

Above all, states should treat Putin for what he is and what he has done: a criminal for whom the laws of war and the norms of humanity mean nothing at all.


A version of this post was originally published at Al Jazeera.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in International Criminal Court (ICC), Russia, Ukraine, War crimes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How Many More Crimes Can Putin Commit Before the World Calls Him A War Criminal?

  1. El roam says:

    Important post these days. No doubt.

    One may agree here, that such accusations are reasonable. No doubt.

    Yet, listing here only negative scores, is one thing. Ignoring the positives is another:

    Not to forget, in the Case of Georgia, the Russians, cooperated with the ICC, despite the fact that they are not party to the Rome statute. Later, they have put an end to it. But, it seems because of external reasons, not directly related to the investigation conducted by the prosecutor it seems.

    All this, while the US, never complied with any investigation. Moreover, there is legislation forbidding (generally speaking) any cooperation with the court (“The American Servicemembers Protection Act”)

    Here about the cooperation of Russia with the court:

    Just worth noting.


  2. Dear says:

    Dear mr Kersten

    I’m from Hrvatska (Croatia, ex Yugoslavia) and beforehand, I’m sorry on possible type errors or any other language or grammar mistakes, because english isn’t my mother language.
    I am a humble simple human being with a HOPE that I have a free right to have an opinion, speak and to write, because we live in democratic world (like you).
    I wrote this letter as an answer and questioning about your article published at Justice in Conflict site.
    Title is: How Many More Crimes Can Putin Commit Before the World Calls Him A War Criminal Criminal?

    First of all, I’m not agree with Russian attack on Ukraine, that’s not a right way, everything is better then war. I was in war 1991-1995), and I quit quickly because I make myself aware of starting fraud state and government. A gray eminences of Western countries targeted and dismembered Yugoslavia, to put it mildly. So many inocent lives gone forever! Damned war in 20 cent!?, my youth ruined then, also my young family. I have two sons, adults now, and their life isn’t normal, they have traces of that criminal war and they probably die with that. On the opposite side, they didn’t chose or want that imposed war, but, they dragged into the war, including myself with my wife! Wife dies shortly after war finished. Today I feel terrible to hear anything about civilized and democracy countries because of that war. Now you know more about me then myself.

    I wonder a little bit about our real knowledge and knowing, especially history, or it is imposed knowledge and knowing, especially history? Because of that knowledge etc. we drawing our conclusions. In most cases based on that conclusions we could predict further events. But, Is that just the way it is? Let see.

    And now, did you hear or did you know anything about “The treaty of Versailles” on 1919? Historically speaking one of more treatys in the World. This is very big puzzle, no? At that time (like many times before) some very good hidden folks (A gray eminences) get scissors in his hands and tailored Europe future, without approval or knowledge to the ordinary people. We think how we know everything about Versailles treaty, or any other in past untill today btw, but realy, we “know” only exposed folks there: Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.A. so called Big Four. No big fuzz about Russians that time. Strange.
    I truly hope you know who are behind the exposed tailors of the states borders at that time in Europe? My answer is: I know, but, I don’t care, because the same gang running the show today. So, France, Italy, UK & USA are in game at that time!?

    If you take a look on map (closely) before 1919, Crimea (Krim) was not in Ukraine because Ukraine was not exist at that time like the state and that area had a name “Great Russians”. Name for the future Ukraine was “Little Russians Ukraines”, and please, peep at the Kingdom of Poland (small at that time, even smaller before), but after “The treaty of Versailles” that state become larger, and today, the Poland state is more larger thanks to Jalta & Potsdam confrence in 1945 – tailors working like a worm in wood (again UK & USA, this time with new player – USSR) and Ukraine gone large too and Crimea joined. Obviously they sewed very good suits for themself and without any care for the HUMAN future! That’s the core of today conflict in Ukraine, thanks to bloody POLITICS tailors.

    Before call to lynch Putin, investigate some REAL materials and REAL facts, and then draw your conclusion, and after that – write an article.

    People need to know who are the funders of the famous October Revolution in former USSR and greatest butchers at that time!
    The picture will be MORE CLEANER then.
    Be my guest and dig a little bit about it, I’m convinced that you will be very surprised if you got the right data or files from archives, but, that’s an another story which we must not leave forgoten too.
    I agree the Putin must be punished, BUT . . . WHO and WHEN will punish doers of war crimes in those states: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, Turkey, UK, USA & Israel, (maybe I dropped some) almost forgot the great Vatikan (sadly mention). Everyone of them (in past & present time) are in two simple words – cutthroat conquerors!
    Who will be sentenced about war crimes done throughout the whole World past decades and in present time (Middle America, South America, Africa, Australia, Indochina, Middle East, NZ)? Maybe poor soldiers, just a common people who follow commands. But consequences are far, very far away from REAL MASTER MINDS who must be brought in chains to the REAL JUSTICE (not USA courts – but truly independent World Court, which does not exist, of course)! Not to mention Brussels World crime court, which is farce. Those poor followers are not guilty as much as master minds criminals who are comfortably sitting hidden in states bureaucracy and government. e.g both Bushes, British p.m. Tony Blair, ret. U.S. gen. Tommy Franks, ex. def. sec. Donald Rumsfeld, ex. sec. of State Colin Powell, ex. U.S. v-p Dick Cheney, Israeli p.m. Ariel Sharon, Israeli gen. Amos Yaron etc., concerning to the live criminals of course, that’s the only peak of the iceberg, the list is huge.

    Just one very small example, not long ago: U.S. Airstrikes Regularly Killed Innocents, Confidential Military Documents Show – who will be taken to court and be punished, or that’s not a crime in yours eyes?

    So, in my humble opinion, Ukraine and Russia must take care without interference from outside. There will be few or very small number of casualties in this way. BUT NOOO . . . YESSS – TAILORS sewing again!!! So many human lives will perish again due to TAILORS from the so called WEST blood-money thirsty civilization.

    There is no doubt that the Governments of the states, what I mentioned above carryng out censorship, obviously that’s the rule in Canada & USA past decades and more, but, don’t worry – here, in the Europe is the very same situation.
    Please ask yourself, so called western civilized countries without any guilty conscience easily sending billions of dollars military accessories, equipment, weapons and other devices as a help to Ukraine insted of help homeless, poor and hungry people on these very sad World? Those billions of dollars are killing dollars, interprets as: even more inocent lives will be gone – that is a grey eminences deed through nonexistent word of helping DEMOCRACY arround the globe, very likely correctly spelling is DEMONCRACY.

    Obviously, you forgotten the fact of the evil deeds of your ancestors at American soil (if you are born Canadian). What about indigenous people there, in both Americas? How many indigenous people perrished? By miracle? Who drag black people from Africa, even today? The very same gray eminences. Generaly, EU states from 1990 excluding Denmark and Greece with UK on first place and USA did the worst crimes ever and doing farther, but, without consequences. So leave Putin stand by, please, time will come for him.
    Westerns show his full hypocrisy now, and to my humble predictions FULL HELL will be unleashed very soon. Total disaster, thanks to people like your government mr Kersten.

    BTW, what USA troops and nuclear missiles doing in Europe – spreading demoncracy on foreign soil? Thanks, we have our own demoncracy here.

    Sincerely yours
    Dear Mathey

    Everything is POLITICS, right? Well, in the past time of our bloody human history, Austria ocuppied surrounding states and they said that’s POLITICS, but, when attacked state fight back – Austria called that – declaration of WAR?! That’s a wordplay not POLITICS!
    POLITICS are the same word like a DEMOCRACY word. Words like: DECIEVES, FRAUDS, LIES, ROBBERY, SLAVERY, THEFT, WAR and many other ugly words are sublimation of those synonyms for POLITICS word!!! But, wonders will never cease, and politics word – lives!
    For the end, simple question: What is the core problem of Western civilization (Canada, USA, UK & EU without ex YU)?
    Possible answer: Car, bike, entertainment, family, good home with pool of course, health, healthy food, good & healty job, motorcycle, peace, security, wealth?
    I’m not shure if you will understand MY answer: And all other people in this world want that, be shure on that.

    USA troops are deployed in EU long time ago in Germany, but Lithuania, Poland and Romania are the freshest USA states on EU soil maybe?
    NATO expanding these past years, right? – so Russian security is compromised – how hard is to see that? What politicians did these past years – grab unearned MONEY! Because money is more important then common people of the World, POLITICS right? Those Western monsters draw us into war without any feeling, totaly cold and insensitive.
    Unfortunately no back track for Russia now, only chance for peace is on russian ordinary people now. Damn life.

  3. Dr Philipp Ambach says:

    Excellent piece, brother!


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