Vladimir Putin is a war criminal for his actions in Ukraine. Or, such is the claim made repeatedly by a multitude of media outlets over the past year. It is doubtful that Putin and his supporters will be brought to justice, but this month, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the bipartisan Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act (S. 4240), which expands the scope of individuals subject to prosecution for war crimes.
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The Statute will update war crimes legislation to enable the prosecution of war criminals in the United States regardless of the location or targets of their atrocities.
The law comes as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the growing body of evidence of war crimes perpetrated by the Russian Army and other groups working at the behest of Moscow.
It would even allow for Putin’s war crimes to be prosecuted in the United States, as it changes the previous War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 2441), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Aug. 21, 1996. That law allowed only allowed for the prosecution of people who committed war crimes in the United States, or abroad if the victim or perpetrator was a U.S. national or service member. It meant that perpetrators who targeted non-Americans were not subject to the law, even if they entered the United States.
Though it is unlikely Putin will actually be brought to justice, there is a chance that others could face retribution for their crimes.
Ukraine: A Key Witness to War Crimes?
There are now likely countless victims of Russia’s brutality in Ukraine, but potential cases would rely on the testimony of witnesses. In many cases, victims fear coming forward.
However, a former commander with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group has defected to the West and could offer evidence to support any claims that atrocities were committed. Andrey Medvedev, 26, escaped to Norway this month. He sought asylum as he feared for his life, and he shared details of his experiences from the front lines with The Guardian.
The former Wagner Group commander had spoken to The Guardian several times before he left Russia. He shared details of his time engaged in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, before going into hiding after he deserted his unit in July. He described the unit as being made of former convicts, who were little more than “cannon fodder” for the Russian Army. Those who disobeyed were executed, he claims.
It was after witnessing a host of human rights abuses and war crimes while serving in Ukraine that he decided to desert. Medvedev has said he will share this information and any evidence he has with the groups investigating such incidents.
Past War Crimes
Members of the Wagner Group have been accused of murdering civilians near Kyiv last year. This would not be the first time that the Wagner Group has been accused of committing such atrocities. Members of the mercenary unit were implicated in crimes against the local population in Mali, and that included murder as well as the frequent rapes of teenage girls. Its members have also been accused of war crimes in Syria.
Last year, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the alleged owner of the Wagner Group, applauded the beating death of a former member of the group who attempted to defect to the Ukrainian military. Video of the murder of Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was beaten with a sledgehammer, was shared on the Grey Zone Telegram channel in early November. The social media channel regularly showcases the exploits of the mercenary unit.
Prigozhin had reportedly described the video showing Nuzhin’s murder as “The dog receives the dog’s death.”
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.