U.S. formally accuses Russian forces of committing war crimes in Ukraine

·3 min read

The Biden administration declared Wednesday that Russian forces have committed war crimes by attacking civilians in Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the announcement, which he said was based on a “careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources.”

“We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” Blinken said in a statement, which was released Wednesday afternoon as he and President Biden were en route to Brussels for an emergency meeting with NATO leaders. “Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking to the press about the war in Ukraine on March 17. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Blinken’s statement did not cite evidence of any specific war crimes, but pointed to examples of widely reported incidents since the start of the Ukraine invasion last month, in which Russian strikes have hit sites clearly in use by civilians, including a Mariupol maternity hospital as well as “a Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word ‘дети’ — Russian for 'children' — in huge letters visible from the sky.”

According to the U.N., as of Wednesday, 2,571 civilian casualties had been recorded in Ukraine since Russia began its invasion on Feb. 24, with 977 killed and 1,594 injured — though the U.N. warns that the actual figures are likely much higher.

Dead bodies are placed in a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol.
Dead bodies are placed in a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine. Many people cannot bury their dead because of heavy shelling by Russian forces. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Last week, Blinken said he believed Russians were committing war crimes in Ukraine, saying at a press conference that “after all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”

Though Biden has said he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is a “war criminal,” the formal announcement on Wednesday did not indicate whether the U.S. will seek to prosecute Putin or any other specific individuals for the alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.

Marina Yatsko and her boyfriend, Fedor, mourn over her 18-month-old son Kirill.
Marina Yatsko, left, and her boyfriend, Fedor, mourn over her 18-month-old son Kirill, killed in a Russian shelling attack in Mariupol. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

“As with any alleged crime, ultimately it will be for a court of law to determine individual criminal responsibility,” said Beth Van Schaack, the State Department’s newly confirmed ambassador at large for criminal justice.

Van Schaack fielded questions about the announcement at a State Department press briefing on Wednesday, telling reporters that the U.S. government will continue to track reports from Ukraine about potential war crimes and will consider all options available for prosecuting those responsible, including in domestic courts both in Ukraine and in other countries in the region. She also said the U.S. welcomes the investigation launched by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. While the U.S. is not a member of the ICC, it could still provide evidence to assist with a prosecution.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry a pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling.
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry a pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol. The baby was born dead, and the mother died shortly after. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

In the meantime, Van Schaack said it’s “extremely important to continue to document what’s happening on the ground, to preserve that information as potential evidence for future accountability purposes.”

“I think it's incredibly important to shed light on what’s happening within Ukraine so that the people of Ukraine understand that the world knows what they are suffering, and that they’re suffering at the hands of an aggressive war that was launched unprovoked by Russia,” she said.