War Crimes in Ukraine

Russian War Crimes

By Lark S. Escobar.

Not all acts are permissible in war, and the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are more than just the normal or lawful incidents and targets (objectives) of violence in war.  War crimes are grave, criminal violations of international humanitarian law, which can be grouped into three categories: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  Russia appears to be committing crimes in all three categories in Ukraine.

Crimes Against Peace

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, February 24th, 2022, thus committing a crime against peace by waging a war of aggression.  Although Russia is promulgating a narrative that it “had no other choice” and was forced to invade to “de-Nazi-fy” Ukraine and liberate it from “neo-Nazis” committing alleged human rights violations, there is no evidence to support these assertions.  There are no media reports, NGO reports (like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch), or United Nation reports to indicate that there was any such crisis in Ukraine or any legitimate basis for the Russian invasion. 

War Crimes

The Russian forces appear to be committing further violations by their method of targeting.  It is unlawful in war to target civilians, civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, forcibly transfer or deport civilians, plunder public and private property, or engage in unnecessary destruction of cities, towns, or villages.  There are a number of provisions that protect civilians including the principles of proportionality, necessity, and warning – in other words a military cannot target civilian infrastructure unless there’s a clear military necessity and when they do they should warn civilians so the area is cleared and loss of civilian life is mitigated.  

Another war crime is that of perfidy, or pretending to be someone with protected status (chaplains, medics) in order to stage a surprise attack.  It is possible that Russian forces, specifically the Chechnyan fighters, have committed this crime in Kyiv on February 27th, 2022. It is also a war crime to torture civilians, treat them poorly, or enslave them. 

Crimes Against Humanity

Some of the most widely reported allegations of Russian crimes against humanity in Ukraine is those of rape and murder. Reports of gender-based violence including molestation and rape of victims including women and girls.  Another suspected crime against humanity violation is that of forced deportation of Ukrainian civilians. Summary execution without due process and trials for civilians (essentially murder) is also a crime against humanity and has been alleged to have occurred in the town of Bucha  just outside of the capital and also in Chernihiv and Kharkiv. 

An Uncooperative Russia

These allegations are not exhaustive of all the reports of Russian atrocities, and other inhumane acts may be considered crimes against humanity, as well. In all cases, these crimes are challenging to prosecute – even when the individuals carrying out these crimes are being ordered to do so by their superiors.  The International Criminal Court, or ICC, announced it began an investigation into these potential war crimes on March 2, 2022, but thus far Russia remains uncooperative and has not made clear efforts to mitigate these violations.  


About the author: Lark Escobar is a graduate student in the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 where she worked on training programs for the Afghan National Army (including the Afghan Air Force) and Afghan National Police. She has been involved in the Afghan Evac effort since mid-August 2021 and the Ukraine effort since late February 2022. https://www.linkedin.com/in/larksescobar/