UK and allies push for swift war crimes probe into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Thirty-eight nations teamed up to press the International Criminal Court to rapidly launch an investigation into the bombardment of cities.

02 March 2022

Britain and dozens of allies are pressing for an investigation to be launched rapidly into Vladimir Putin’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities after Boris Johnson accused the Russian president of war crimes.

The Prime Minister said Mr Putin “cannot commit these horrific acts with impunity” after 37 countries joined the UK on Wednesday in referring Moscow to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The move, allowing the ICC’s prosecutor to proceed straight to investigation without the need for judicial approval, came as Ukraine’s capital Kyiv braced for a siege and second city Kharkiv suffered a further pounding.

Mr Johnson spoke to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday morning, promising further support and weapons for the forces resisting Russia’s military.

Strikes that damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv and the central square in Kharkiv have caused revulsion, and Western allies fear it is a sign of a shift in Russian tactics further towards the indiscriminate targeting of urban areas.

For the first time the UK explicitly accused Mr Putin of war crimes, with Downing Street claiming “horrific acts” were occurring on an almost hourly basis as population centres are targeted.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “Putin has gravely miscalculated; in his abhorrent assault on a sovereign nation, he has underestimated the extraordinary fortitude of the Ukrainian people and the unity and resolve of the free world in standing up to his barbarism.”

He added: “What we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime in the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians, in my view, already fully qualifies as a war crime.”

More than 2,000 civilians have died since the invasion, Ukraine’s state emergency service said, although that figure has not been independently verified.

The United Nations’ refugee agency believes around 874,000 people have fled Ukraine but that figure is soon expected to reach a million.

ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan said on Monday he plans to open an investigation into events in Ukraine “as rapidly as possible”.

But the Foreign Office said the largest referral of its kind from the 38 allies including Ireland, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain and New Zealand, would allow him to “proceed straight to an investigation, without the need for judicial approval”.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “Putin’s military machine is targeting civilians indiscriminately and tearing through towns across Ukraine.

“An investigation by the International Criminal Court into Russia’s barbaric acts is urgently needed and it is right that those responsible are held to account.

“The UK will work closely with allies to ensure justice is done.”

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, a former lawyer who has prosecuted war crimes, said it is now critical to “preserve properly all evidence of war crimes”.

“Any Russian leader or officer carrying out orders that amount to war crimes should know they face ending up in the dock of a court and ultimately in prison,” he added.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
(PA Graphics)

Earlier at PMQS, Mr Johnson promised to publish a list of people associated with Mr Putin who could be liable for sanctions, as he said “the vice is tightening on the Putin regime” through the restrictions imposed by the West.

But he was urged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to immediately ramp up the measures against allies of the Russian leader.

Sir Keir, who called for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to face sanctions, said: “Now is the time to sanction every oligarch and crack open every shell company so we can prove Putin wrong.”

The Russian-Israeli billionaire later announced he will sell the club, with the “net proceeds” going to a charity supporting victims of the war in Ukraine.

UK officials have said more sanctions are coming, against oligarchs, Russian National Security Council members and banks, and that they believe the economic shock of the moves has been more significant than Mr Putin was expecting.

They said they wanted sanctions to go further, including the banning from the Swift payment system to apply to all Russian banks.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street with Ukraine ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko, to attend Prime Minister’s Questions (Victoria Jones/PA)

In other developments:

– Mr Johnson announced the Government would match donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine appeal, starting with £20 million.

– The European Union announced that seven Russian banks were being excluded from the Swift system which allows fast and efficient interbank transactions.

– The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand that Russia immediately stops using force against Ukraine and withdraws its military from the country, with 141 nations backing the motion and only five, including alleged co-aggressor Belarus, opposing it.

– Russia said it would be ready for further peace talks with Ukraine later on Wednesday.

– Ukrainian ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko was given a standing ovation by MPs in the Commons.

The lack of progress in meeting the aims of the invasion had led to a change in tactics, focusing on aerial and artillery bombardment of cities rather than the kind of lightning military advances originally envisaged by the Kremlin, Western analysts believe.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Russian forces will seek to “pummel” Ukraine’s cities in tactics reminiscent of medieval siege warfare.

A strike hit the regional police and intelligence headquarters in Kharkiv, killing four people and wounding several, with residential buildings also hit according to the Ukrainian authorities.

The Ukrainian Unian news agency reported that two cruise missiles hit a hospital in Chernihiv, north Ukraine.

Mr Wallace said the advance of Russian forces continued to be slowed by a combination of overstretched logistics, poor morale and brave resistance by Ukrainian fighters.

Kyiv map
(PA Graphics)

There was “low morale in the Russian forces, we’ve seen lots of surrenders”.

However, he told the BBC: “That doesn’t take away from the fact you have a very ruthless Russian armed forces leadership and a president who seems to know no limit to how much violence they will use to achieve their aims.”

The use of overwhelming firepower against cities had been used in Chechnya but Ukraine is a different proposition because of its size and population.

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