The US has formally accused Russian forces of committing war crimes in Ukraine and said it would pursue accountability “using every tool available”.
The announcement came as Joe Biden left for a trip to Europe to bolster western unity in the face of an increasingly brutal invasion. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that the US had come to its conclusion using both public and intelligence sources.
“Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the US government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” Blinken said.
“As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases,” he added, saying the US would continue its efforts to gather evidence and share it with international institutions.
“We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions,” Blinken said.
The announcement follows a week after Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff remark that he considered Vladimir Putin a war criminal, triggering an official protest from the Kremlin, which warned that the comment could cause a breach in bilateral relations.
Asked if the state department designation applied specifically to Putin, Beth Van Schaack, the newly confirmed ambassador at large for global criminal justice, said it would be up to the courts to decide that. But she added: “There are doctrines under international law and domestic law that are able to reach all the way up the chain of command.”
The state department did not give details of specific attacks and incidents it considered to amount to war crimes. In his statement, Blinken said: “We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities. Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.
“Many of the sites Russia’s forces have hit have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians,” he said, and pointed to the example of the shelling of Mariupol’s maternity hospital.
Van Schaack said the Mariupol hospital shelling “appears to have been a direct attack upon a civilian object”.
She said she would support making US evidence public, whenever possible.
“I think it’s important to do that,” she said. “Obviously, we have to do a full assessment of the information that’s available to us and make sure that it doesn’t compromise any means and methods of collection. But I think keeping the world apprised of what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine is extremely important.”
The Ukrainian government and some public figures, including the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, have called for the creation of a special tribunal on Ukraine specifically to try the Kremlin leadership for launching a war of aggression. Van Schaack was noncommittal on the issue but said “there are some options for accountability even absent a dedicated tribunal”.
“We’re considering all the various options,” she said, pointing to the possibility that cases could be heard by Ukrainian courts, courts in neighbouring countries and the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague.
The US is not a party to the ICC and has opposed its investigations into crimes committed in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian occupied territories, but it has said it would help the court collect evidence on Ukraine.
The ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, has launched an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, and there are a range of other initiatives aimed at gathering evidence by interviewing refugees after they cross the border and through the forensic examination of the huge volume of video footage uploaded on social media.
War crimes experts have said that as the invasion has stalled, and the Russian military has resorted to increasingly desperate means and more unguided munitions, it has become more straightforward to provide evidence for war crimes cases.
It is often hard to pursue accountability from the perpetrators on the ground up through the chain of command to political leadership, but in this case, experts say, the public statements by Putin and his senior officials and the Russian president’s tight control over the campaign would help future prosecutors.
The UN’s international court of justice (ICJ) has already given a provisional ruling, ordering the invasion to halt, as it had seen no evidence to support Moscow’s claim, used to justify the attack, that Ukrainian government forces had been committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the east of the country.