Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine has been widely condemned as a war of aggression. In Moscow’s narrative, Ukraine has no real or legitimate existence as a separate country – and they portray the military operations as a means to reunify Russia.
But the staunch and effective resistance by Ukraine against the invaders has produced a strange paradox in which the Ukrainian population, which has now largely unified in opposition and resistance against Russia, is not willing to accept absorption into Russia. This situation has created major obstacles for Russia to achieve its objectives because it means that the population essentially has to be subdued and that Russia will need to occupy and forcefully control the territory.
This is exacerbated by the sheer incompetence of the Russian armed forces and the severe difficulties they have encountered in their military campaign that has resulted in massive attacks on civilians.
There are various means whereby Russia is starting to “Russify” the territories it currently occupies. One is to hold “referendums” in various places as a fake democratic process designed to establish the formal legitimacy for the annexation of territories. Another is to send Russian teachers to schools to indoctrinate children.
One particularly disturbing aspect of Russia’s efforts to subdue the indigenous population in the occupied territories is the detention of civilians for interrogation in so-called “filtration camps”. They are threatened, forced to undergo invasive body searches, provide their personal data to Russian personnel and experience ill-treatment and torture.
The sheer scale of the forced deportations is breathtaking, according to a statement from the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken:
Estimates from a variety of sources, including the Russian government, indicate that Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia – often to isolated regions in the Far East.
He added that Moscow’s actions appear premeditated and draw immediate historical comparisons to Russian “filtration” operations in Chechnya and other areas. These filtration operations, he said, are “separating families, confiscating Ukrainian passports and issuing Russian passports in an apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine”.
On September 7, the UK ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, drew attention to this issue, stating that Russia’s actions showed “disregard for the rules that we agreed and observe here at the UN – the collective rules that bind us together. They act as if the Charter and international humanitarian law do not apply to them.”
Although the ambassador made no explicit reference to specific international conventions, there are various prohibitions against forced deportations during war. In particular, Article 49 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV states: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
The convention was designed to address the bitter historical experience of wartime deportations. Mass deportation or displacement deportation of millions of people took place across many countries during the second world war and on all sides. These deportations had political motives, took place in the course of hostilities or were part of systematic ethnic cleansing.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany “deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war” were deemed “crimes against humanity by the Nuremberg Tribunal.
In the Soviet Union there have been mass forced relocations of citizens, especially those deemed to be of "foreign” origin or culture, and move thousands of kilometres away from their home areas in Siberia or central Asia. Between 1936 and 1952, 20 ethnic groups involved eight entire indigenous “nations” were affected. This tool of population control, therefore, has been practised by Moscow often in the past.
The International Criminal Court considers forced deportations a “war crime”. Article 7(1)(d) of the 1998 Rome Statute says: “Deportation or forcible transfer of the population … when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack,” is a crime against humanity.
Similarly according to Article 8(2)(b)(viii): “The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory” is defined as a “war crime”.
A full investigation into allegations of war crimes or genocide in Ukraine since November 21 2013, was opened by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan QC, on March 2 2022. The International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine set up by the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has also initiated investigations.
The office of the Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova stated in July that it was investigating around 21,000 war crimes committed by Russian forces and the office is receiving 200-300 reports of war crimes per day.
Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the Geneva conventions, so they are committed to follow the rules. But there is no mechanism for enforcement, and efforts by the UN to take action is likely to be thwarted by Russia, which has a veto in the United Nations Security Council.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine have ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC, which means that the ICC technically does not have jurisdiction over any war crimes committed in this conflict, unless a non-member accepts the involvement of the court voluntarily.
So the main purpose of public statements and investigations of war crimes is to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Russia and stigmatise Russia in the international community.
It challenges the Russian narrative that it is following international law. It demonstrates that this is a war of aggression. And it brings to the attention of the world the horrendous crimes against civilians in the course of this conflict and is intended to mobilise international opinion against this war.
The extent to which Russian leaders can be brought to justice may depend on whether a new regime in Russia after the war is willing to cooperate with international institutions in order to rehabilitate Russia in the global community.