What are the prospects for prosecuting Vladimir Putin for war crimes?

More than 50 innocent people are trying to flee the fighting in eastern Ukraine was killed Friday in a Russian missile attack at a crowded train station in Kramatorsk. Among the first responders: investigators gathering evidence to determine if this is a war crime.

War is full of unspeakable violence, and civilians always suffer. But it is a crime to kill civilians on purpose.

“We are seeing a pattern of deliberate attacks on civilians,” said Ambassador Beth Van Schaack, a State Department official responsible for gathering evidence that could prove Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.

Mass grave in Bucha
Bodies of people murdered by Russian forces will be found at a mass grave site in Bucha, outside Kiev, in north-central Ukraine, on April 8, 2022.

Hennadii Minchenko / Ukrinform / Future Publishing via Getty Images


Every day, it seems that there is another crime scene to investigate. Some of them include entire cities, where the inhabitants are relentlessly bombarded by the Russians.

“I think Mariupol theater attack is really emblematic of it, “said Van Schaack.” Of course civilian, full of individuals who were sheltered from the war around them, and it is being deliberately targeted by Russia’s forces. “

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked: “How do you distinguish between a war crime and just cruel misconduct?”

“What we need to do is focus on deliberate attacks on civilians or arbitrary attacks on civilians,” Van Schaack replied. “These are clear war crimes. There is no fog of war here, right? If you look at a map, for example over Mariupol, you can see where the military targets may be, which would be appropriate targets for a military campaign – and then see you, where the actual strikes took place. “

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CBS News


Then there are the streets of Bucha, on the outskirts of Kiev, where atrocities were committed by Russian forces. “Persons who were clearly remanded in custody with their hands tied [were] shot execution-style, left in cellars, left in fields, “Van Schaack said.” These are not just shells that come from miles and miles away. This is close violence committed by, in the hands of, Russia’s forces. “

Martin asked, “Have you seen any evidence that the Russians are actually trying to cover up crimes?”

“Cruising enough, less of it than you might expect,” Van Schaack replied. “Corpses are being left on the street. They seem to be doing this in an incredibly cheeky way. It’s really shocking.”

“Who are you going after first? The perpetrator who pressed the trigger? The commander of the troops? Or the leaders back in Moscow?”

“Honestly, the answer is all of the above,” she replied. “But you always seek to go up in the chain of command to the architects behind this horrific violence.”

Judge Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor for war crimes committed in Bosnia in the 1990s, said that in the case of Ukraine, the key would be to establish a pattern: “A prosecutor could very quickly go to the higher ranks because of the mass of evidence that is available, “he said. “If Bucha is an exception, it may be difficult to put it on the doorstep of President Putin or his senior generals. But if what we see in Bucha is repeated in one village after another, it is not accidental. Where it is apparently an order for that system to be carried out. “

It took years to investigate Bosnia, but the Serbian president himself, a dictator named Slobodan Milošević, ended up in the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Goldstone said: “President Milosevic, in his wildest dreams he had never thought he would be brought to justice in The Hague. But there was a revolt in his land, and he was thrown out, and he was put on a plane and bundled to The Hague. “

Milosevic rejects lawyers
Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević denies the presence of a lawyer during his initial hearing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, the Netherlands, on 3 July 2001.

Raphael GAILLARDE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


Milosevic, who died in prison before a verdict could be reached were small fry compared to Vladimir Putin, who President Biden says should be prosecuted for war crimes.

“You saw what happened in Bucha,” said Mr. Bid Monday. “He’s a war criminal.”

Martin asked Van Schaack: “How do you make a case against Putin?”

“Because he is basically an autocrat with complete control over the apparatus of the Russian state and the Russian military, it is actually a much easier matter than we have seen in some other situations,” she replied.

“Do you need any kind of verbal guidance that he gave his commanders?”

“Even without the so-called smoking arms order, there is still this idea of ​​command responsibility – that the images are so sharp that it is so clear that his troops are running amok and terrorizing the civilian population of Ukraine,” Van Schaack said.

Martin asked Goldstone, “Have you heard anything Putin has said to date that could be used against him as evidence of a war crime?”

“It’s more what he has not said, I think that is important,” he replied. “He needs to know the facts from watching his own TV screen, and if he has not taken steps to stop it, it would make him guilty of a war crime.”

Van Schaack said she believed Putin would be indicted, adding: “I’m not sure he will be remanded in custody.”

Goldstone said: “If President Putin stays in power and stays in Russia, he will not be brought to justice at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It should in no way deter prosecutors from continuing their work. One never knows what may Spoon. .”

An indictment against Putin would make Russia’s president an international refugee. “It’s not easy for a head of state to fear being arrested when he or she sets foot in a European country or in a North American country,” Goldstone said.

Van Schaack said: “He is inevitably now trapped in Russia. He will never be able to travel internationally because it would be too great a risk that he would be caught and brought before a court.”

The same goes for any other Russian accused of war crimes. “They will enjoy some impunity while staying in Russia,” Van Schaack said, “but what we have seen is that the perpetrators do not stay in their home states. They want to shop in Europe or go on vacation somewhere, and they get identified, and then law enforcement is activated. And we are never more integrated than we are now. “

Martin asked: “If no Russian ends up in court, will this effort have failed?”

“I do not think so,” replied Van Schaack. “I think it’s incredibly important to document the truth about what’s going on, if it’s just for the purpose of preserving an accurate story of this horrific moment in time, but also for the benefit of the victims and the survivors.”


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History produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Joseph Frandino.

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