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Ukraine Live Updates: War Crimes Investigations Face Formidable Challenges

Ukraine Live Updates: War Crimes Investigations Face Formidable Challenges


Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

A Russian missile strike on a city in central Ukraine on Thursday killed at least 23 people, including three children. Two weeks earlier, missiles crashed into buildings near Odesa, killing 21. And for weeks in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, civilians bore the brunt of Russia’s assault — killed on their bicycles or while walking down the street, or executed with their hands bound.

Indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilian areas have become a hallmark of its invasion, and this week, an international conference in The Hague sought to coordinate an approach to the overwhelming allegations of war crimes in Ukraine.

But investigators face a formidable challenge, with as many as 20,000 war crimes investigations, multiple countries and international agencies at work, and a high burden of proof to reach a conviction. Complicating matters further, investigations are working while the war is still raging. The Kremlin has denied allegations against its forces, and Russia’s Defense Ministry has called graphic evidence of atrocities “fake.”

Prosecutors are keen to prevent a situation in which national and international prosecutors trip over one another in their search for evidence and witnesses. On Thursday, Karim Khan, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, stressed the need to coordinate investigations and avoid a “stampede” of many parties “running to the crime scenes.”

At The Hague this week, representatives from 45 nations, including the United States and European Union countries, heard testimony about atrocities and pledged about $20 million to assist the I.C.C., Ukraine’s prosecutor general and efforts by the United Nations.

Experts say the International Criminal Court, established in 1998 to handle cases of mass atrocities, could be an important avenue for accountability for Russia, though there are many obstacles to that goal. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is among the court’s 123 member nations, but Ukraine has granted the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.

The Dutch foreign minister, Wopke Hoekstra, said at a news conference on Thursday that the Netherlands was considering setting up an ad hoc international Ukraine war crimes tribunal.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed the conference by video even as rescuers were digging through rubble from Thursday’s missile strike on Vinnytsia, a city far from the fighting on the eastern front. “This is the act of Russian terror,” he said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, said Russian authorities have“deported” between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes into Russian territory, often to isolated regions in the far east. The unlawful transfer of protected persons, he said, was a breach of a Geneva Convention and a war crime.

Russia has acknowledged that 1.5 million Ukrainians are now in Russia, but has asserted that they were evacuated for their own safety.

The history of war crimes cases suggests it would be hard for prosecutors to bring cases over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Three of the most prominent prosecutions — against Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor and Saddam Hussein — were brought against leaders who were out of power; no sitting president has ever been handed over to an international court.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has significant support at home and has developed strong ties with the leaders of other large nations, including those of China, Turkey and Iran.

Proving war crimes, and especially proving who ordered a given action, is also very difficult. In the case of Mr. Putin, prosecutors would have to demonstrate that he issued specific orders that led to specific atrocities, that he knew about the crimes or that he did nothing to prevent them.

Prosecutors would also have to show that Russian commanders had intentionally targeted civilian structures, or struck them during attacks that failed to discriminate between civilian and military targets. Acquiring such evidence or testimony may be impossible in the near future, at least as long as the fighting is raging.

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.


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Rescuers searched for survivors after an attack by three Russian rockets that hit the center of Vinnytsia, Ukraine.CreditCredit…Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — A volley of Russian cruise missiles hit a shopping center, a dance studio and a wedding hall in central Ukraine on Thursday, killing at least 23 people and setting off a frantic search for dozens more lost in the rubble, in a latest strike to hit a civilian area far from the front lines.

Three children were among the dead, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said. The attack involved three Kalibr cruise missiles that struck the city at about 10:30 a.m. and were launched from a submarine in the Black Sea, his office said.

More than 70 people, including three children, were hospitalized after the missiles hit the center of Vinnytsia, a typically sleepy provincial capital some 200 miles from the coast, and left behind a harrowing scene of smoking ruins.

Grooms once carried their brides from the wedding hall, a well-known local landmark, and a building next door was the site of a photography studio where a continual stream of children had their pictures taken for school albums. Even hours after the strike, as firefighters doused water on the smoldering husks of overturned cars, bystanders stood by in shock.

The Ukrainian State Emergency Service said more than two dozen people remained unaccounted for as of late Thursday. It said a search effort was underway in the rubble in a part of town where people typically ran errands at the shopping center to buy household goods or attended celebrations at the wedding hall.

In his nightly address, Mr. Zelensky called on Ukraine’s allies to punish Russia for the attack. “This day once again proved that Russia must be officially recognized as a terrorist state,” he said.

If there had been a missile attack “in Dallas or Dresden, God forbid,” Mr. Zelensky said, “what would it be called? Wouldn’t it be called terrorism?”


Credit…Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

More than 50 buildings were damaged in the attack, Viktor Vitovetsky, an emergency service official, said at a news conference on Thursday. Dozens of emergency crew workers were helping to clear the rubble and search for survivors, he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry has not commented on the strike.

Vinnytsia, which had a prewar population of more than 370,000, lies west of the Dnipro River, hundreds of miles from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the focus of Moscow’s military campaign in recent weeks. The area has not experienced significant attacks since early March, days after Russia’s invasion, when Russian cruise missiles struck an airport in the city.

Thursday’s attack on Vinnytsia — along with missile strikes on the town of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine that the City Council said damaged two school buildings — were the latest examples of Russia’s willingness to launch attacks on populated civilian areas.

In June, a missile struck a mall complex in Kremenchuk, a town south of Kyiv on the Dnipro River, killing 18 people. A nearby factory was a potential military target. In April, a Tochka-U ballistic missile hit a railroad station in Kramatorsk, killing 59 people including seven children. About 100 other people were wounded.

Some military analysts have said such strikes suggest Russia is running low on precision weaponry and is resorting to firing haphazardly at targets, callous to collateral deaths. Others see an intentional campaign of brutality intended to break Ukraine’s will to resist.

“The way war is fought in that part of the world has always been brutal,” Evelyn Farkas, director of the McCain Institute and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said of the Russian tactics. “Violation of the human rights of civilians has always been part of war.”

Maria Varenikova and Andrew E. Kramer


Credit…Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

A Russian missile strike on a city in central Ukraine on Thursday that killed at least 23 people, including three children, added urgency to an international conference at The Hague aimed at coordinating the prosecution of possible war crimes committed during the conflict.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed the conference by video even as rescuers were digging through rubble in the wake of the strike, on a civilian area of the provincial capital of Vinnytsia, which is far from a front line in the conflict. More than 60 were hospitalized and dozens were missing.

“In the morning Russian missiles hit our city of Vinnytsia, an ordinary peaceful city,” Mr. Zelensky said. He said the strike destroyed homes and a medical facility, calling the attack an “act of Russian terror.”

There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the attack. President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has denied that it targets civilians.

At the conference in The Hague, home to the headquarters of the International Criminal Court, 45 nations, including the United States and members of the European Union, heard testimony about atrocities and agreed to coordinate their investigations. They also pledged around $20 million to assist the court as well as the prosecutor general’s office in Ukraine.

Barbarity is part of every conflict, but the process of documenting the episodes that emerged since Russia invaded Ukraine in February are unusual, in part because of the number of investigators working to do so and in part because investigations, and even prosecutions, have begun while the war is still unfolding.

On top of Ukraine’s own justice system, an alphabet soup of organizations is investigating possible war crimes, including the International Criminal Court and the United Nations. One aim of the conference is to avoid having those entities trip over one another in their search for evidence and witnesses.

The Dutch foreign minister, Wopke Hoekstra, told reporters that the conference represented “a huge step in coordination.” Because neither Ukraine nor Russia is part of the International Criminal Court, the Netherlands would also consider setting up an ad hoc war crimes tribunal, he said.

Four trials have already taken place in Ukraine, according to the country’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, and thousands more investigations had been opened. “Impunity is not an option,” she said.

The broad roster of national and international organizations taking an interest in Russian conduct in Ukraine has prompted some observers to note that less attention is being paid to conflicts in other countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Mr. Hoekstra, the Dutch foreign minister, acknowledged the issue, saying that the joint effort in Ukraine should not be a one-off.


Credit…Pool photo by Thomas Padilla/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Emmanuel Macron of France has warned that the country should brace itself for a total cutoff of Russian natural gas.

Speaking Thursday in an interview marking France’s national holiday, Bastille Day, Mr. Macron said there was a “likely risk” that the country would cut gas flows to Europe. He said the people of France should support alternative sources of energy, and prepare to have public lights switched off at night.

“It’s a very difficult scenario and we must prepare for it,” he added, although he noted that France, which draws about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, was not as dependent on Russian gas as some of its neighbors.

“Russia is using energy, like it is using food, as a weapon of war,” Mr. Macron said. “This war will continue,” he added, noting that the summer and early autumn would “be very hard.”

The televised appearance was Mr. Macron’s first since his re-election in April, and he adopted a combative tone in trying to reassure the French that he was firmly at the wheel to address challenges ranging from inflation to climate change.

But with little end in sight to Russia’s war on Ukraine, he also warned that the economic impact of the war would become more acute, and that the people of France should ready themselves for the possible gas cutoff.

“I want the country to move forward,” Mr. Macron said. “I will do everything to find intelligent compromises along that course.”

Since taking office in 2017, Mr. Macron had broken with the widely observed presidential tradition of Bastille Day televised interviews, giving only one previously, in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

His decision to return to the tradition on Thursday suggested he was eager to shore up support and to give France a sense of direction.

Mr. Macron said that to tackle the gas shortage, the government would prepare a measured conservation plan to limit energy use.

France would also continue looking to diversify its gas sources, he said.

Though France is less dependent than European neighbors like Germany on Russian gas and oil, its relative sovereignty depends in part on upgrading the country’s aging nuclear reactors.

Earlier this month, Élisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, told lawmakers that France would renationalize its state-backed electricity giant, Électricité de France, which produces most of the country’s electricity, as well as operating all of its nuclear plants.

“The energy transition requires nuclear power,” she said.

RIVNE, Ukraine — A priest doused in green dye during a Sunday liturgy. Another yanked out of his western Ukrainian church as police stood by watching. A church attacked by vandals, who filled it with foam, plastered the walls with portraits of Stalin and later set it on fire.

For centuries, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been a dominant spiritual force in the country. Now the church is increasingly an object of distrust, largely because its spiritual leadership — at least until May — was in Moscow, rather than Kyiv.

Government officials once courted church leaders. Now they speak openly about suspicions that some priests are collaborating with Moscow and worry that the broader church could be a Trojan horse for pro-Russian views and more.

When it comes to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, “we are not talking about god, faith, or spiritual development,” said Serhiy Kondrachuk, the head of the Rivne regional council in central Ukraine. “We can only talk about the biggest danger to our national security.”

That the Orthodox church is now a focus of official suspicion is another example of how profoundly the war has upended all aspects of life in Ukraine. Even before the war, the issue of relations with Russia was already a fractious one, between those who supported the church loyal to Moscow and those who supported the newer, similarly named Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was based in Kyiv.

Now the churches aligned with Kyiv are actively pressuring priests in the other church to change their allegiance. Violent altercations have broken out. The tensions are so deep that in May, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church amended its bylaws to grant itself “full independence and autonomy” from the church in Moscow, the tectonic rupture of a centuries-old relationship.

Even so, official suspicions remain. In one example, at the end of June, the western city of Lviv held a unanimous but symbolic vote to ban the church.

In Ukraine’s Parliament, Mykyta Poturaiev, a lawmaker, convened an official session on the church’s influence. In an interview, he confirmed that the authorities were investigating priests aligned with the Moscow church for providing targets for Russian artillery; informing on Ukrainian activists; and sending data on the positions of Ukrainian troops.

Valerie Hopkins, Oleksandr Chubko and Vera Mironova