On April 18, President Vladimir Putin honored members of the Russian army’s 64th Motorized Brigade by elevating them to the “esteemed” status of “guards.” His decree recognized the brigade’s “mass heroism and bravery, steadfastness and fortitude…for the protection of the Fatherland and state interests.” Putin did not mention that members of the 64th Brigade committed atrocities in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, from which they retreated in April. Left behind were the bodies of hundreds of innocent civilians, buried in mass graves or lying in the streets, many of them dismembered, some bearing signs of torture and rape.
The world has been shocked by the extent and degree of Russia’s brutality. Western leaders, including President Biden, have vigorously condemned the atrocities, and demanded that Russia be held accountable for them. But their words carry little weight in Russia. The latest developments in Ukraine give every indication that Putin and his generals are carrying on with a coordinated strategy—previously implemented in Chechnya and Syria—to brutalize civilians. As the “Battle for Donbas” intensifies in eastern Ukraine, the world will likely see more evidence of this shameless barbarity: residential neighborhoods, hospitals, and train stations bombed; ceasefires disregarded; evacuation corridors blocked. An independent fact-finding report issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces in their conduct of hostilities.”
While the immediate imperatives are to keep Russia from destroying Ukraine and to end the war as soon as possible, securing justice for the victims of Russian war crimes will be an urgent task in the years to come. Every Russian involved in launching this unprovoked war of aggression or carrying out atrocities in places like Bucha, Mariupol, and Lviv should be brought to justice. But where? Ukraine and a post-Putin Russia could both claim jurisdiction, but neither can be reasonably expected to hold fair and impartial trials. President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on the United Nations to create a new Nuremberg-style international tribunal, but that seems both unlikely and unnecessary. Unlikely because doing so would require a two-thirds vote by the U.N. General Assembly and somehow overriding a Russian veto in the Security Council, unnecessary because an appropriate venue for trying war crimes already exists: the International Criminal Court (ICC), headquartered in The Hague.