Can Putin be held accountable?

“360” shows different perspectives on the main stories and debates of the day.

What’s going on

Calls to hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine have intensified in response to reports of mass killings of civilians in areas previously held by Russian troops.

“The Russian military and those who gave them orders must be brought to justice immediately,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech to the UN Security Council on Tuesday. President Biden said on Monday that images of bodies lying on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, had strengthened his administration’s belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal.”

The U.S. State Department formally charged Russia with war crimes nearly two weeks ago after reviewing reports that Russian forces deliberately attacked civilian facilities, including schools, hospitals and a theater used as a bomb shelter. Russian soldiers have also been accused of committing a long list of other atrocities, many of which are carefully documented by international agencies and independent observers.

The phrase “war crimes” is often used as a general term to describe a wide range of horrific acts committed during conflict. But for something to be prosecuted as a war crime, it must meet a much more specific definition set out in a number of international treaties, most notably the Geneva Conventions. The main venue for war crimes is the International Criminal Court, an independent legal body empowered to prosecute international crimes that

individual countries cannot or do not want to persecute themselves. The Interior Ministry launched an investigation into Russia’s actions in Ukraine in late February, just days after the invasion began.

Why the debate is going on

Although there is strong evidence that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are in line with the legal definition of war crimes, many international law experts say there is good reason to doubt that high-ranking Russian officials – let alone Putin himself – will brought to justice. The Interior Ministry and other international courts are bound by a complex network of procedures and restrictions of jurisdiction, which may mean that even the most egregious actions may not lead to litigation. Even things that go forward can take a very long time, sometimes decades, to consider. Because of this, many experts believe, accusations of war crimes are unlikely to restrain Putin’s harsh tactics.

Others see value in prosecuting war crimes charges, even if Putin is less likely to be convicted. At the most basic level, they say, the rejection of accusations against Putin and other high-ranking Russians will send a message that the international community is ready to look the other way, even in the most extreme circumstances. They also say accusations of war crimes will serve to further isolate Putin, undermine his attempts to use disinformation to legitimize his invasion, and possibly persuade ordinary Russian soldiers to disobey orders for fear of prosecution.

However, there are fears that accusing Putin of war crimes could make him even more dangerous. Some experts say that if Putin fears he could be prosecuted after the war, he is likely to abandon any diplomatic solution to the conflict and go all-in on an even tougher attack on Ukraine.

Prospects

Pessimists

It is unlikely that the chief architects of the war will bear any responsibility

“You have to prove that they knew or could have known or should have known. There is a real risk that in three years you will be brought to justice by middle-class people, and the main people responsible for this horror … – Philip Sands, expert in international law, Associated Press

Only military force can protect the Ukrainian people from Russian atrocities

“The inevitable truth is that the way to protect civilians from war crimes during the ongoing war is not only to threaten punishment for crimes in the future, but also to stop them now. And in Putin’s case, this stopping force can only come from military force, not just judges. ” – Charlie Carpenter, Foreign Policy

Any effort to bring Putin to justice is undermined by American hypocrisy

“Justice is not that. Politicians like Biden, who do not take responsibility for our well-documented war crimes, reinforce their moral qualities by demonizing their opponents. They know that Putin’s chances in court are zero. And they know that their chances of facing justice are the same. ” – Chris Hedges, salon

Accusations of war crimes could provoke even more brutality from Putin

“It is also possible that international efforts to bring leaders to justice for human rights crimes could have disastrous results. Leaders who face the prospect of punishment after the conflict have an incentive to prolong the fight. And a leader who commits atrocities has a strong incentive not to leave office, even if it means using increasingly harsh methods – and committing more atrocities – to stay in power. ” – Joseph Wright and Abel Escriba-Folch, Conversation

Optimists

Technology makes war crimes in Ukraine more prosecuted than in any other previous war

“More than any conflict before, the war in Ukraine is registered. About 70% of the country has access to the Internet, which means that almost everyone who has a smartphone can watch. And prosecutors are. … The number of people investigating, combined with almost limitless information from open source – from videos of Russian strikes to satellite images of troop movements – makes it more likely to make specific allegations, which are rare in these investigations. ” – Noah Robertson, Monitoring Christian Science

The prosecution of war crimes will send a critical message to the world

“The important thing is that war crimes in Ukraine are being investigated and, despite the difficulties of their prosecution, at least diligent, determined efforts are being made to do justice so that the world can see that Mr Putin’s war cannot be tolerated.” . – Editors, Wall Street Journal

The world needs to focus on gathering evidence right now and leave the war crimes debate for later

“Choosing a legal platform is a problem of tomorrow. Today I am convinced that the evidence of these crimes is collected, documented and stored so that the world will never forget the horrors committed against the people of Ukraine in the framework of Putin’s election war. ” – Editors, Boston Globe

Fear of prosecution may prove convincing to Russian soldiers on the ground

“While these steps are unlikely to change Putin’s current course, if Russian soldiers and lower-ranking officials see that there is a united and determined effort to ensure that they are held accountable for atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people, they can change their calculations in following Putin’s orders. ” – Carolyn Kenny, Center for American Progress

It is important for international leaders to leave no doubt about the illegitimacy of Putin’s war

“In our lives, the importance of war crimes charges for those concerned about the abuse of American detainees, and especially torture, has been not just to see if they can end this practice, and not just to pave the way for accountability. for the Americans are involved in the practice, but also to make the war seem less legitimate. And so I would say that this is probably the main goal of those who make this statement. ” – Samuel Moine, an expert in international law, for MSNBC

The threat of prosecution can be a powerful tool in end-of-war negotiations

“The specter of war crimes charges may well be useful for Ukraine in end-of-war talks. For example, the government in Kiev may agree to limit the scope of the investigation in exchange for concessions from Moscow. Thinking about his long stay in The Hague, Putin’s inner circle may find such a deal new and attractive. ” – Editors, Bloomberg

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

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