Who is Responsible for Russia’s War Crimes?

By Cara Scott 

In choosing not to hold Russia’s soldiers responsible for the felonies they commit, Putin is unwittingly taking the responsibility for these felonies upon himself.

Contrasting crimes

Not only is Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine unjust, but there is also abundant evidence that the Russian military has committed heinous war crimes in the Ukrainian cities it has occupied. A United Nations commission that investigated violations of human rights in Ukraine determined that Russian soldiers have perpetrated rape and forced nudity against the Ukrainian people, among multitudes of other war crimes. Captives as young as 4 and as old as 83 were victims of rape in Russian-occupied cities. Such odious crimes against humanity ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. 

In contrast, there have indeed been accusations against Ukraine of war crimes the Ukrainian army has committed, but the nature of these crimes differs greatly. The central accusation being leveled against Ukrainian troops is that of firing upon Russian troops who had surrendered, an event that was recorded and circulated in a video – although even this crime has been questioned, as there is an ongoing investigation as to whether the Russian troops in the video had themselves been guilty of the war crime of perfidy (pretending to surrender). All war crimes are grave, and the Ukrainian soldiers may very well be guilty of committing such a crime in this instance; nonetheless, there is a clear difference between the crime Ukrainian soldiers may have committed against their Russian counterparts and the innumerable sexual crimes committed against civilians by Putin’s army. The accusations leveled against Ukraine pale in comparison to the atrocity of those that Russia is known to have committed. 

Contrasting responses

The specific crimes in question aside, the Ukrainian government’s handling of the war crimes committed by its army draws a vast contrast with how the Kremlin has tried the crimes of its own soldiers. Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, spoke on the two countries’ differing responses to accusations of war crimes: “Russia inevitably responds with propaganda, denial, myths and disinformation – whereas Ukrainian authorities have generally acknowledged abuses and have denounced, and have pledged to investigate them.” This demonstrates a broad difference between the Russian and Ukrainian governments’ handling of war crimes in general. Whereas Russia is totally refusing to acknowledge crimes committed by its soldiers and thus indirectly approving of its soldiers’ crimes, Ukraine is denouncing those crimes and punishing guilty parties. 

Situations such as these raise the question of executive responsibility for war crimes committed by soldiers. Does any of the responsibility for these crimes fall on the government for whom a war criminal fights? A nation that truly prosecutes and condemns crimes committed by its army rather than brushing aside accusations of misdemeanor is effectively absolving itself of all responsibility for these actions, as well as deterring its soldiers from continuing to commit these crimes. Ukraine falls squarely into this camp of nations that take all measures necessary to restrain their soldiers from committing war crimes by making it clear that all perpetrators will be punished. Thus, it is clear that Zelensky should not be held liable for his soldiers’ crimes. But what of a nation that chooses to disregard the crimes its soldiers commit? In choosing not to hold its soldiers responsible for the felonies they commit, such a government is unwittingly taking the responsibility for these felonies upon itself. Some party must be held responsible; these crimes have ravaged people’s lives, and someone must account to those whose well-being has been decimated by the misconduct of an army with no decorum. Through his refusal to account for and punish crimes committed by his soldiers, Putin himself holds the ultimate responsibility for the continuation of the crimes his army is committing. 

Cara Scott is a junior marketing fellow at Grove City College studying philosophy and French. On campus, she serves in Student Government as the executive vice president of social affairs. She previously worked as a teaching assistant in the Communication Arts department and served as a style editor for the Law Journal.

During the summer of 2022, Cara studied French literature and philosophy in an immersion program in Arles, France. She is interested in religious philosophy and intercultural ministry and hopes to pursue a career in editing and writing.