Holding Russian soldiers to account for war crimes is a vital deterrent

We are proud of the painstaking reporting by Bel Trew, our international correspondent, of the evidence of potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Not just because we believe in truth, openness and unflinchingly honest reporting for its own sake, but because holding Russian soldiers and politicians to account for war crimes is an important deterrent.

No doubt there are terrible things done on both sides, as is inevitable in war, but the more we report what is actually happening in Ukraine, the clearer it is for the world to see that one side is more in the wrong than the other. Vladimir Putin is engaged in a war of aggression, for conquest and territory, in defiance of international law, and contrary to the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination.

The evidence, collected by free media and international institutions, suggests that war crimes have been committed and that they are more likely to have been committed by Russian forces. We know that, even though Russia is increasingly a closed society, its citizens still have access to the outside world’s media, and many of its soldiers, concerned for their own survival, make it their business to know what non-Russian observers are saying about their situation and their conduct of the war.

So we hope that our reporting of conditions in Olenivka, a prison in the Russian-occupied region of Donetsk, will act as a constraint on the behaviour of the Russian military and that of the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine. A month-long investigation by The Independent has revealed evidence of possible violations of international law and potential war crimes, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and forced labour.

Our assessment of the missile attack that killed 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war at the camp three weeks ago is that the Russian attempt to blame Ukrainian forces is unconvincing. The Russian authorities claim that the site was attacked by Ukrainian missiles in order to cover up crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers before they were captured. On the contrary, there is some evidence that the attack may have been a deliberate and illegal act by Russian forces.

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Our interviews with former detainees suggest that the Russian puppet authorities in the Donetsk People’s Republic are evading their responsibility to allow access to prisoners of war. The detainees tell us that representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were allowed to visit only those parts of the camp that the prisoners had rebuilt and cleaned up, and that those were the only times when the prisoners were properly fed. The ICRC said last week that it has still been denied access to the prison since the missile attack.

Unfortunately, it seems as if this war is going to go on for some time. In which case it is all the more important to document evidence of war crimes in the hope of deterring the worst excesses of Putin’s forces, who lack the high morale of their Ukrainian adversaries and who therefore might be more likely to commit atrocities. Free media, free institutions such as the ICRC, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and international bodies such as the United Nations must continue to let Russian soldiers and their political commanders know that they will be held to account.


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