The US government has determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity during its war in Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris announced Saturday in Germany.
“In the case of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, we have examined the evidence, we know the legal standards, and there is no doubt: These are crimes against humanity,” Harris said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference.
She added, “To all those who have perpetrated these crimes, and to their superiors who are complicit in those crimes, you will be held to account.”
The declaration marks the strongest accusation yet from the US as it seeks to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The US government declared last March that members of the Russian armed forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said it was their personal opinion that war crimes have taken place and Biden has gone as far as saying that atrocities at the hands of Moscow’s troops qualify as “genocide.”
While the latest crimes against humanity determination are significant, it remains largely symbolic for now. It does not immediately trigger any specific consequences, nor does it give the US the ability to prosecute the Russians involved with perpetrating crimes against humanity. However, it could provide international bodies such as the International Criminal Court, which works to hold perpetrators accountable, with evidence to effectively try to prosecute those crimes.
International Criminal Court (ICC)
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an intergovernmental organization and international tribunal seated in The Hague, Netherlands. It is the first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. It is distinct from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an organ of the United Nations that hears disputes between states.
Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions. That’s key for this story, as neither Russia nor Ukraine — nor for that matter, the US— part of the agreement.
Harris’ announcement Saturday comes days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The vice president is in Germany as a part of the Biden administration’s efforts to show commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and unity among Western allies who have provided billions in aid, funding and weapons to combat Russia’s aggression. Biden is scheduled to visit Poland on Monday.
In her speech, delivered inside the famed Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Harris laid bare some of what could be used as evidence of Russia’s crimes against humanity. The vice president outlined specific instances that have peppered news clips and official reports.
“First, from the starting days of this unprovoked war, we have witnessed Russian forces engage in horrendous atrocities and war crimes,” Harris said.
“Russian forces have pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population – gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape, and deportation. Execution-style killings, beating and electrocution,” she added. “Russian authorities have forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine to Russia, including children. They have cruelly separated children from their families.”
Harris’s speech cited evidence of indiscriminate Russian attacks that deliberately targeted civilians, including the bombing of a maternity hospital that killed a pregnant mother and of a theatre in Mariupol, where hundreds were killed.
The vice president spoke of the horrific images out of Bucha that showed men and women shot and left to rot in the streets and reports by the United Nations of a 4-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by a Russian soldier.
Since 2022, the US has provided $30 million to support the investigation of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine, according to a White House fact sheet. The Biden administration is seeking another nearly $30 million from Congress to bolster efforts on this issue.
As it was when the US government declared that Russia committed war crimes last March, it remains to be seen whether there will be any accountability for those accused of carrying out the alleged crimes and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself will be forced to bear any responsibility.
Harris, in her speech Saturday, pledged that the US would “strongly support” Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” touting the Ukrainian people’s resolve and resilience.
Blinken said Saturday that the US government has a “profound stake” in a “just and durable” peace in Ukraine.
“Any peace has to be consistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter. It is fundamentally against the interests of every other country around the world to wind up with a result that somehow indicates the seizure by force of territory, that validates that,” Blinken said during a discussion panel in Munich with Annalena Baerbock and Dmytro Kuleba, his respective German and Ukrainian counterparts.
Rising concern about the China-Russia relationship
Meanwhile, Harris expressed concern over China’s continued support of Russia since the war in Ukraine began.
“We have also seen nations like North Korea and Iran send weapons in support of Russia’s brutal war. We are also troubled that Beijing has deepened its relationship with Moscow since the war began,” Harris said.
“Looking ahead, any steps by China to provide lethal support to Russia would only reward aggression, continue the killing and further undermine a rules-based order,” she said.
The US recently began seeing “disturbing” trendlines in China’s support for Russia’s military, US officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN, and there are signs that Beijing wants to “creep up to the line” of providing lethal military aid to Russia without getting caught.
Officials said the US is seeing China publicly trying to maintain relationships with Europe and present itself as a proponent of peace, while at the same time continuing to partner with the Russian military during large-scale exercises and boosting its trade and fuel purchases from Moscow.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said Saturday in Munich that Beijing was ready to present its peace proposition for Ukraine, a rare remark that referred to the Ukraine conflict as a war.
“This warfare cannot continue to rage on,” he said. “We need to think about what efforts we can make to bring this warfare to an end.”
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, cast the crimes against humanity accusation as an attempt to “demonize” Russia, according to state news agency TASS.
“We consider such insinuations as an attempt, unprecedented in terms of its cynicism, to demonize Russia,” Antonov said this weekend.