The United States has determined that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, stressing that Washington’s assessment is based on information drawn from “public and intelligence sources”.
In a statement on Wednesday, Blinken said there have been numerous credible reports of “indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians” in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began late last month.
“Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the US government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” he said.
“Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources. As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases.”
Russia denies that it has deliberately targeted civilians in its invasion of Ukraine, which has devastated Ukrainian cities and towns, and forced more than 3.5 million people to flee the country since fighting began on February 24.
But Ukraine and its western allies, most notably the administration of US President Joe Biden, have accused Russia of committing war crimes in its offensive, which will enter its second month on Thursday.
Last week, Biden said he personally believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal” – a remark that drew immediate condemnation from Moscow, which called it “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”.
The Russian government summoned the US ambassador to the country this week over the US president’s comments, warning that ties between Washington and Moscow were on the “verge of rupture”.
Russia told Washington on Wednesday that it would expel a number of American diplomats in retaliation for the US move to expel Russian staff from the United Nations mission, Russian media reported.
In his statement on Wednesday, Blinken said Russian forces had killed or wounded thousands of civilians in attacks on apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, shopping centres and other infrastructure.
He specifically pointed to the situation in Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city that has been besieged by Russian troops for several weeks and where a maternity hospital and a theatre sheltering civilians were attacked.
“Putin’s forces used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya, and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people,” Blinken said.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief this week called Russia’s attack on Mariupol “a massive war crime”.
“What’s happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody,” Josep Borrell said at the start of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.
That was echoed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerboc. “The courts will have to decide, but for me, these are clearly and unequivocally war crimes,” she said.
In early March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor said he would “immediately proceed” with an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine dating back to 2013, adding that the court was beginning to collect evidence as part of the probe.
Karim A A Khan had earlier said there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that war crimes had occurred during the conflict.
A war crime occurs when superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is inflicted upon an enemy. This includes willful killing as well as extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity.
Other war crimes include deliberately targeting civilians, using disproportionate force, using human shields and taking hostages.
James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative, said while the ICC is conducting an investigation, the challenge lies in linking “responsibility to those highest authorities”.
“It is possible for the court to address the responsibility of any actor, including and up to the head of state,” Goldston told Al Jazeera. “The question is whether they can make the case.”
Blinken said on Wednesday that the US would continue to track reports of war crimes in Ukraine and “share information we gather with allies, partners, and international institutions and organizations, as appropriate”.
“We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions,” he said.