In a week punctuated by allegations between Moscow and Kiev, including the bombing of a prison of Ukrainian POWs, horrifying new images emerged of the torture and summary execution of a Ukrainian POW.
The videos, not linked in this article, show a Ukrainian POW gagged, castrated, shot and dragged down a street; they appeared on Russian Telegram channels, the Kiev Post reported. While independent verification of when or where the videos were recorded has not yet been possible, said Aric Toler, the director of research and training for the research collective Bellingcat, told the Washington Post that the “Z” symbol, used to show support for the Russian war effort, belies some claims that the video predates the Ukrainian war.
This is not the first time that Russian soldiers have been documented in ill-treatment of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. From the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian authorities and international human rights organizations have cataloged a constant stream of violence. In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported 10 witness or victim accounts of executions, mock executions, sexual violence and looting in Russian-occupied territories. A woman told HRW that while she was sheltering in Malaya Rohan, a village in the Kharkiv region, a Russian soldier sexually assaulted and beat her. Another witness said Russian soldiers made five men kneel with their shirts pulled over their heads before shooting and killing one of them.
“Rape, murder and other acts of violence against people in custody by the Russian armed forces should be investigated as war crimes,” said Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director, in the release.
The bombing of the prison by POWs, some of whom were involved in the defense of Mariupol’s Azovstal iron and steel plant, has sparked an even sharper conversation about Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian prisoners and prisoners of war. The attack, in a municipality called Olenivka, resulted in at least 53 people dead and 75 injured, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a statement request access to those injured “to determine the health and condition of all those present on the property at the time of the attack.”
Under the Geneva Conventions, Russia is obliged to grant the ICRC free access to all prisoners of war. Although the ICRC has requested access to the prison where Ukrainian POWs died in Olenivka and has offered to help evacuate those injured in the attack on the facility, as of Sunday it has has not received permission to do so.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy requested an inquiryconsider the bombing of the facility where Ukrainian POWs are held as a war crime.
“When the Azovstal defenders left the factory, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross guaranteed the life and health of our soldiers. The Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Security Service, the Chief Intelligence Directorate and the representative of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine issued a joint statement to the UN and the Red Cross as guarantor of these agreements regarding the defenders of Azovstal. I support this statement. Now the guarantors must respond. They must protect the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Zelensky said in a statement.
The European Union has already condemned Russia for its “unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine and its people”, noting that the conflict “brings more heinous atrocities day by day”, but now also expresses support for a specific investigation into the bombings.
Both Moscow and Kiev have accused each other of being responsible for the bombing.
Russia is also involved in other violations of international law, including the forcible removal and relocation of people, including children, from occupied Ukrainian territories. Ukrainian Attorney General Iryna Venediktova told Reuters in June that she is currently investigating multiple investigations into the forced transfer of people to Russia. “From the first days of the war, we started this case about genocide,” Venediktova told Reuters. She cannot say exactly how many victims are involved.
The US State Department suspects between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizensincluding 260,000 children, have been detained and transferred to Russia, often to isolated regions.
“Moscow’s actions appear premeditated and draw direct historical comparisons to Russian ‘filtration’ operations in Chechnya and other areas. President Putin’s ‘filtration’ operations are separating families, confiscating Ukrainian passports and issuing Russian passports in an apparent attempt to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in the statement. Reports also show that Russia is deliberately separating children from their families and putting children up for adoption.
Meanwhile, diplomacy in Africa and the Middle East duel
As Russia loses face and becomes more isolated from the West, it is digging into other strategic partnerships.
Russia’s allies in the Middle East and Africa are feeling the pinch of Western countries that expect to distance themselves from Putin’s actions and create an uneasy dance based on necessity on both sides. Access to Russian grain exports and other food products remains a major pressure point for countries in Africa and the Middle East. In East Africa, extreme drought and the conflict in Ukraine are pushing countries, according to a United Nations report.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov was recently in Cairo as part of his geostrategic Africa journey, targeting organizations related to Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. He said the West has incited Russia to invade after ignoring concerns about NATO expansion.
The US is making a geopolitical move of its own by sending President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to Ghana in the coming weeks, as well as Secretary of State Blinken to multiple African countries. The head of the US Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, was also recently in Somalia and Kenya.
Hoping for the best but fearing the worst
International calls to prosecute Russia for its crimes continue to mount, and the European Union is pushing for action in The Hague.
“The perpetrators of war crimes and other serious violations, as well as the responsible government officials and military representatives, will be held accountable,” the Union said. in a statement shortly after the bombings in the Donetsk prison. “The European Union actively supports all measures to ensure accountability for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law committed during the Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
While it is technically possible that Putin and other members of the Russian government will be tried, the chances of it happening are slim.
The International Criminal Court is known for prosecuting crimes against humanity, but it is intended as a last resort when all other systems fail. Investigators from the ICC are already collecting evidence in Ukraine, and while they recognize the court’s jurisdiction, Russia does not, so the ICC can only prosecute crimes committed by Russia within Ukraine’s borders.
Since Russia is not one of the 123 countries that are members of the court, violations of international law within their borders cannot be prosecuted. That means Ukrainians who have been tortured or harmed in Russia cannot be helped by the court.
Putin and his officials could easily get around the problem of possible prosecution by remaining in power and not leaving Russia’s or their allies’ borders. Because the ICC cannot try defendants who are not present in The Hague for the trial itself, and it has no mechanism to enforce warrants, it relies entirely on member states to arrest and transfer defendants to The Hague.
Ukraine has already prosecuted Russian soldiers, one of whom pleads guilty to killing a civilian and gets a 15-year sentence after appeal. This is arguably Ukraine’s best way to find some sort of justice, no matter how tough, that the monumental task of locating, arresting and bringing Russian soldiers to justice requires.