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Putin has a history of atrocities, how far can he go in Ukraine?

Date: October 2, 2022 Time: 18:57:47

Russian troops invading from Ukraine are facing stronger and more effective resistance than the Kremlin likely expected. The main question is: what can happen now? The Russian armed forces have a history of meeting such resistance with serious violations of the laws of war, including deliberate attacks on civilians and their indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

Between 2015 and 2016, Russian and Syrian bombing raids largely devastated opposition-held areas in eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city by population. Opposition forces eventually surrendered, as residents suffered the consequences of a brutal siege, as well as indiscriminate shelling with cluster munitions and barrel bombs, incendiary weapons and high-explosive bombs.

Later, the Russian army repeated the same tactics in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib with the same devastating results. They deliberately bombed hospitals, markets, schools and residences, in some cases repeatedly. Their goal was to make life so difficult for civilians that they decided to leave, isolating opposition forces and facilitating the advance of Syrian ground troops.

Similarities with Chechnya

However, in Aleppo and Idlib, Russian forces operated mainly from the air. Now ground forces are involved in Ukraine. Probably the closest analogy to the current situation is the second war in Chechnya between 1999 and 2000, when the Russian army completely devastated the capital Grozny, using overwhelming amounts of indiscriminate weapons. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on Earth.” The Russian Army also committed several massacres, tortured and disappeared thousands of people, and committed other serious violations during the “cleansings”.

There are already signs that in Ukraine the Russian army is also acting indiscriminately against civilians, but we are still at the beginning of a conflict. Russian soldiers stationed in the east have used cluster munitions that pose a danger to civilians not only because of their direct use, but also because of the large amount of unexploded ordnance they leave behind.

Although neither Russia nor Ukraine has joined the treaty banning cluster munitions, these strikes violate the ban on indiscriminate hostilities, an aspect of customary international law long enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and their protocols that both governments have ratified.

In addition to firing ballistic missiles and rocket artillery, Russian troops use explosives with far-reaching effects, which is completely inappropriate in densely populated areas. And they can move to surround and lay siege to the capital Kyiv and the second most populous city of Kharkov. While sieges are a legitimate tactic, they can serve as a breeding ground for other serious abuses against civilians in a besieged area.


So what can be done to stop the spiral of indiscriminate warfare that endangers countless Ukrainian civilians? Much has been said about how multiple social media posts about attacks can serve as a deterrent by documenting and publicizing any war crimes. However, shelling in Syria was also duly videotaped and shared on social media to little effect.

In the case of Idlib, international pressure helped stop the targeted bombing of civilian infrastructure. Military pressure from Turkish drones against Syrian forces, diplomatic pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and repeated revelations from UN Security Council members helped stop Russian attacks in March 2020. To a large extent, they have not resumed.

But political interests are much higher in Ukraine, where Putin’s legacy is at stake. And the Kremlin is already under much stronger pressure.

The possibility of an international trial of war criminals remains a potential mitigating factor. Because Syria has never ratified the Treaty of Rome, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC), it does not have jurisdiction over serious crimes committed in the country. The UN General Assembly has established a body based in Geneva to collect and preserve evidence of serious crimes. This contributed to the national prosecution of the Syrian authorities, especially in Germany, in accordance with the concept of universal jurisdiction.

But even though Human Rights Watch was able to pin the line of responsibility for war crimes in Idlib directly on Putin, not a single high-ranking Russian official has been held accountable for such actions. It’s not too late to start.

In particular, the ICC has jurisdiction over serious crimes committed in Ukraine on the basis of applications submitted by the Ukrainian government. The ICC prosecutor has already announced the opening of an investigation, and 39 members of the court support him. It is now up to the international community to ensure that this investigation, as well as the bulk of the work of the Court, is fully resourced.

The strength of the Russian people

Ultimately, the most powerful deterrent to possible Russian military atrocities may be the Russian people. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest, even though they knew they were likely to be arrested. The petition against the war was signed by more than a million people, and famous personalities – artists, musicians, scientists, writers – signed open letters against the war.

The urgent discussions of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council lead to global condemnation and the creation of a special mechanism for monitoring, reporting and collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. These UN bodies should create a similar mechanism of repression in Russia.

In the same way that governments around the world impose targeted sanctions against those involved in the war and repression, they should avoid harming ordinary Russians as much as possible. Supporting the Russian people in their attempt to stop Putin’s brutal tactics may be the best tool we have to prevent Kiev and Kharkov from becoming the next Aleppo and Grozny.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Translated by Emma Reverter.

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