Throughout his long political career, the Russian president has been accused of countless atrocities.
Mark Kersten Consultant at the Wayamo Foundation and a Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
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 of 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, the Russian government 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 who 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.
In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, leading to the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea while also igniting a conflict in Luhansk 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. A 2020 report by 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. As Kenneth Ward of the Arms Control Association has observed, Russia was also an enabler of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Moscow protected Syria from any judicial scrutiny over its atrocities committed with and on behalf of Assad, by vetoing a referral of Syria to the ICC in 2014.
As if involvement in widespread and systematic international crimes was not enough, Putin has also been accused of ordering the poisonings of Russian dissidents in the UK and the imprisonment of pro-democracy and human rights advocates. He has also been linked to corruption on a scale that amounts to a human rights violation.
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 popped 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 organise the collection and preservation of evidence of his 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 regime. 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.