Guest Editorials, Opinion

As war crime evidence mounts, is Putin getting the message?

Evidence of war crimes has mounted daily since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion to “denazify” Ukraine. Russian forces carrying out Putin’s orders targeted civilian areas and bombed clearly marked shelters. Convoys of non-combatants fleeing the fighting were hit with artillery — even after Russia had agreed to honor a safety corridor so refugees could leave. Video footage of civilian apartment buildings being blasted by tank fire eliminated any question of civilians merely being victims of collateral damage.

Now comes the hardcore evidence from the formerly Russian-occupied town of Bucha of people shot dead with their hands tied behind their backs. Even in the unlikely event that the dead were Ukrainian fighters taken prisoner by Russian troops, the execution-style killings would still constitute war crimes. Russia is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, even though Putin in 2019 ordained that his country would no longer recognize protocols requiring the protection of non-combatants in international conflicts.

That’s no excuse for the atrocities occurring as Russian troops withdraw from Ukrainian urban centers. International investigators have a mountainous trove of photos, videos and other evidence distributed worldwide on television news and social media.

“They shot and killed women outside their houses when they just tried to call someone who is alive,” Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy told the U.N. Security Council last Tuesday. “They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies. I am addressing you on behalf of the people who honor the memory of the deceased every single day and the memory of the civilians who died. They were shot … in the back of their head after being tortured. Some of them were shot on the streets.”

Despite overwhelming evidence, prosecuting such war crimes in the International Criminal Court would be no simple task, mainly because neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the court or recognizes its authority. The United States, which is also not a member, has repeatedly scoffed at efforts to put top American officials on trial. But the mere issuance of a complaint, such as one involving then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his approval of waterboarding and other torture tactics against post-9/11 detainees, was enough to raise his concerns about travel in Europe for fear of being arrested the way former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet was in 1998.

Putin already is reluctant to travel abroad, and as long as he stays in Russia, prosecution would be nearly impossible. But his country at least deserves expulsion from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and tightening international sanctions on Russian petroleum exports would help deny Putin the revenue he needs to pay for his Ukraine fiasco.

If he hasn’t gotten the message already, perhaps the image of prisoner Saddam Hussein emerging from his underground mud hovel near Tikrit, Iraq, would serve to remind Putin: You can run, but you can’t hide.

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Thursday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.