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War Crimes and the Russian Defense Minister’s Fantasy World

A clean up worker walks past buildings that were destroyed by Russian shelling, in Borodianka, in the Kyiv region, Ukraine, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
A clean up worker walks past buildings that were destroyed by Russian shelling, in Borodianka, in the Kyiv region, Ukraine, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Sergey Shoigu

Sergey Shoigu

Russian Defense Minister

“We strictly comply with humanitarian law during the special operation.”


In face of a fire hose of war crimes accusations, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on August 24 defended the behavior of his troops in Ukraine.

“We strictly comply with humanitarian law during the special operation,” he said, using Kremlin-speak for the war.

“Attacks are carried out with high-precision weapons on the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ military infrastructure facilities, including command points, airfields, depots, fortified areas and defense industry sites. At the same time, every effort is being done to prevent civilian casualties.”

That is false based on accounts from numerous witnesses, reports by international observers and independent media reports that give evidence of egregious violations of the law of war.

In times of war, international humanitarian law seeks to protect civilians, medical and aid workers, the wounded, the sick and prisoners of war (POWs). To name just two examples from the law, it is forbidden to torture prisoners and deliberately kill civilians.

The Geneva Convention of 1949 and its additional protocols, ratified by almost all countries, including Russia, comprise most of the international humanitarian laws. The most severe violations of the conventions are referred to as war crimes.

Does Russia abide?

Russian forces have been destroying civilian structures throughout Ukraine. Russian bombs, rockets and artillery have killed thousands of noncombatants since invading in late February.

On February 25, Amnesty International took issue with Moscow’s claim that its forces were using only precision-guided weapons.

“The Russian military has shown a blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas. Some of these attacks may be war crimes,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general.

According to the United Nations, at least 102 civilians, including seven children, were killed in the first five days of the war. “Most of these civilians were killed by explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and air strikes,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on February 28.

During the first month of the war, Russia tried to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, bombing and rocketing residential areas and injuring and killing civilians.

Borodianka, a small town in the Bucha district 50 kilometers northwest of the capital, was on the main line of the Russian advance. On March 1, Russian aviation and artillery delivered a devastating attack on it, which only eight of the town’s 29 high-rise buildings survived. There was not a single military facility in the town.

According to news reports, Anatoly Rudnichenko, an adviser to Borodianka's mayor, estimated that about 200 people, mostly civilians, died in the bombardment.

Other Bucha district towns and villages also came under fire. The village of Vablya near Borodianka was nearly razed. In Andreevka, Russian troops are alleged to have shot many men and raped several girls. One father who tried to protect his daughter was brutally killed.

The city of Bucha, which is the district’s administrative center, was the site of the most notorious war crimes allegation – a massacre.

Photo and video evidence emerged on April 1, after Russian forces were pushed back from areas around Kyiv. According to Bucha’s mayor and other local officials, 1,316 bodies were eventually found on its streets, in mass graves in nearby forests and elsewhere.

Around 650 civilians were shot in what a senior police official described as executions, the BBC reported. Moscow claimed that the West and Ukraine staged all the killings. (The Kremlin continues to maintain that reports of war crimes in Bucha are fake or “false flag” operations.)

At least 52 people were killed, and about 100 others were injured in a rocket attack on a railway station in the city of Kramatorsk, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on April 8. The attack occurred as some 4,000 people, including many women, children and elderly people, were at the station trying to flee the city.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that the strike – and others targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure – constituted “gross violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, for which the perpetrators must be held accountable.”

On April 13, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a report on Russia’s attack on Ukraine focusing on incidents that took place from February 24 to April 1. According to the OSCE, Russia struck civilian targets with missiles and bombs, violating international humanitarian law and committing war crimes.

On June 27, a Russian missile hit a busy shopping mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the missile “caused devastating loss of civilian life.

“The incident should be investigated as a potential war crime,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at HRW.

A U.N. human rights report released on June 29 stated that many means and methods of the Russian-Ukrainian war violate international humanitarian law. While attributing most of the violations to Russia forces, the investigators did not absolve Ukraine.

“While on a much lower scale, it also appears likely that Ukrainian armed forces did not fully comply with [humanitarian law] in eastern parts of the country,” the report said.

A residential building in the Donetsk region town of Chasiv Yar was shelled on July 9, killing at least 48 people. According to the head of the Donetsk region, the Russian military fired four rockets from a Uragan multiple rocket launcher.

“The attack in Chasiv Yar killing 34+ innocent people shows the brutal truth behind its campaign of lies,” the British Ministry of Defense wrote on July 12. (At that time, there were 34 confirmed victims of the strike.)

On the morning of July 14, Russian forces launched a missile strike on the crowded center of the city of Vinnytsia. The strike killed at least 27 civilians, including three children.

A second OSCE report, published on July 14, confirmed that Russian attacks had killed many civilians, and damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure in many Ukrainian cities and villages, including houses, hospitals, cultural heritage sites, schools, high-rise residential buildings and administrative buildings.

The report also documented evidence that Ukrainian civilians had been forcibly transferred to Russia, as well as evidence of rapes, torture, executions and looting perpetrated by Russian military personnel.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), between February 24, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and August 21, there were 13,477 civilian casualties in Ukraine5,587 killed and 7,890 injured.

“Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, including shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, and air strikes,” the report stated.

Ukraine has begun prosecuting Russian POWs accused of war crimes. Meantime, Russian occupation officials in the Donetsk province plan to prosecute members of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment captured in the fall of Mariupol. On August 10, Reuters reported:

“Though the Azov prisoners have not yet been formally charged, on Aug. 2 Russia's supreme court ruled the regiment was a terrorist organization, clearing the way for captured fighters to be charged as such.

“Ukraine, which has itself tried and convicted a string of Russian soldiers for war crimes committed against civilians, says the Azov captives are prisoners of war, deserving of protection under the Geneva Conventions.

“‘The first tribunal will take place probably in Mariupol, and it will be organized before the end of summer,’ ”Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters during a tour organized by Russia's defense ministry."

Handling the thousands of accusations against Russian forces would likely overwhelm Ukraine’s justice system. An August 12 analysis by journalist Justin Ling in Foreign Policy reported:

“Ukraine has already begun laying charges against captured Russian soldiers: Its first conviction, of a tank unit sergeant who executed an unarmed civilian, resulted in a conviction in May. That case was relatively straightforward: The sergeant admitted to shooting the Ukrainian man but said he was merely following orders. (This so-called Nuremberg defense is generally not accepted under international law.)

“Ukraine’s legal system simply does not have the capacity to handle the sheer volume of cases that are expected: Then-Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told the BBC last month they have received reports of some 21,000 war crimes. Even a peacetime Ukraine would be stretched beyond capacity.

“They are not entirely alone. The International Criminal Court has established a full investigative team in Ukraine and is actively collecting evidence for possible prosecutions. Kyiv has launched proceedings at the International Court of Justice, accusing Russia of genocide. Another case, albeit largely symbolic, was launched at the European Court of Human Rights. Ukraine’s allies, including the United States and European Union, have offered support for these war crimes investigations."