Is Russia’s “Meat Grinder” Multiplying War Crimes?

Vladimir Putin may be the greatest proof of John Steinbeck’s claim that “war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” For most of us, there seems no plausible endgame for Putin in his invasion of Ukraine other than death and destruction for both countries. Putin seems to be thinking in a different century but using this century’s weapons.

For criminals, there is often a calculus of risk that is done in looking at the costs and penalties of a crimes. The same is true for most war criminals and Putin is clearly now in that class of criminals. There is mounting evidence of war crimes, particularly in attacks on civilian areas.

Putting aside the legal avenues for action in the short term, there is no question about the violation of international law in Russia’s invasion. The invasion was done without provocation or necessity. The response was far beyond any claim of just cause or threat. Moreover, Russia appears to be moving dangerously with in shift military tactics that will greatly increase civilian losses.

What was most notable today was the reported use of rockets and other munitions against the second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv.

Article 51(2) of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, states:

The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited.

Article 48 of Protocol I further states:

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives, and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

The use of artillery and Katyusha rockets on urban centers raise serious questions of war crimes. Notably, just the day before, Putin’s ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko mocked the Ukrainians and described the fighting thus far as a “bed of roses.” He threatened that the Ukrainian people would face a “meat grinder” in the coming days.

Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture” when perpetrated against persons “taking no active part in the hostilities.”

Russia, and Putin in particular, could be accused of such war crimes. The concern is that not just the obvious human suffering that he is causing, but that Putin is digging himself in deeper and deeper in terms of legal, political, and economic costs.

There is great concern that Putin appears unstable and even fatalistic. If he fears prosecution, he may actually become more dangerous. That may increase further with protests in Russia.

Nevertheless, Putin is well beyond any cognizable claim of justified war. The scenes from Kharkiv suggest that he is crossing the redline on tactics. Equally concerning is the image of miles of artillery heading toward major cities as well as the positioning of thermobaric weapons. (Russia reportedly used such air-fuel bombs in Chechnya). Some sources are also reporting the use of cluster bombs. These are blunt tools that would clearly constitute war crimes if used on civilian areas. Russia has previously been accused of such war crimes in places like Syria.

The International Criminal Court is reportedly monitoring the Ukrainian situation. However, the definition of a war of aggression remains mired in debate. More importantly, while the ICC was created under the Rome Statute in 2002, Russia is not a party to that treaty. Nor is Ukraine.

It is possible for the United Nations Security Council to bring in the ICC but that is hardly likely with China and Russia exercising veto authority in the United Nations.

The World Court does claim jurisdiction in some disputes under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Since Russia is accused of targeting the Ukrainian people, there could be a claim of genocide but Russia can challenge that characterization given its strategic objectives. As for the general “war of aggression” claim, it is also not as clear under existing rules.  Again, the United Nations could ask the World Court for an opinion on such claims.

There is also the European Court of Human Rights. Both Russia and Ukraine are members of the European Court of Human Rights and the Strasbourg-based court can rule on conflicts between its 47 member states. Yet, this is a slow process without real teeth for Putin.

Nevertheless, as shown at Nuremburg, the world can claim the right to form tribunals to judge war crimes committed by rogue nations like Russia. Indeed, Russia was part of those proceedings after World War II.

Vladimir Putin remains a relic of an earlier age, but he is also a relic with one of the most powerful armies in the world. Not much has changed since World War II on meaningful legal avenues for the deterrent of such aggression. However, much has changed economically. The world has become far more interdependent on financial and market levels.

It is difficult to see how Putin thinks that his fragile economy can long survive in isolation, even with the support of countries like China. That is why this is such an important moment for testing international resolve. Indeed, even if sanctions do not force a Russian withdrawal, they could deter China in moving against Taiwan. However, they must be so complete and severe to concentrate the mind of Xi Jinping. That is still not happening with Germany and other countries actively protecting the Russian energy sector and the United States still purchasing Russian energy.

Nevertheless, the heavy sanctions against Russia will be the test of economics as an effective deterrent to military aggression. Obviously, these economic moves are done in concert with legal measures to isolate and expose Russian firms and figures. However, in the short term, the international economic system will be more important in stopping this aggression than our international legal system.

212 thoughts on “Is Russia’s “Meat Grinder” Multiplying War Crimes?”

  1. Bill, the answer is no. Russia has advertised itself to be an evil country. Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence like Nazi Germany was entitled to a sphere of influence.
    You only get a sphere of influence if you are doing good, all in all, such as building democracies by liberating countries so the people can have free and fair elections, not destroying democracies, such as what Russia is currently doing. If this is how it uses its influence, it shouldn’t have ANY influence.

  2. OT.

    Underlying every war between parties I will call A & B are 2 irreconcilable views of reality and a level of mutual contempt that has each side assuming that everything said by the spokesmen for the other consists of propaganda lies and insincerity.

    This is obvious in the West’s siding with Ukraine and dismissing everything that Putin has been saying for 15 years. Putin has been objecting to the steady Eastward movement of NATO for fifteen years and has made clear that for him Ukraine joining NATO is a red line. Statesmen of the West have been incapable of hearing him and now Ukraine has asked to join NATO.

    Of course Russia and Russia’s leaders fear NATO. NATO was created to oppose the Soviet Union and since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has been aimed at Russia. If it is not aimed at Russia it has no reason for existing.

    Westerners and their leaders are incapable of believing that Putin and many Russians do in fact believe this and interpret it as insincere post facto justifications for belligerence against Ukraine and assert that a bordering democracy is Russia’s real fear. Likewise Putin and the Russians really believe that everything statesmen of the West say is humbug and that the “International Rules Based Order” is a fiction that allows the US to extract resources from weaker countries (such as those in Latin America) with no benefit to the citizens of those countries. NATO is an instrument of the American Empire aimed at conquering Russia and exploiting its resources in the same way. (Russia is a 3rd World country with nukes though the West will blame Putin and his cronies for its 3rd World status).

    I am an Australian and in its relations with US resource companies Australia is a 3rd world nation. Subsidiaries of US companies are exploiting Australian natural gas reserves in Western Australia but it has been calculated that after the reserves have been emptied Australia will not have received ANY benefits AT ALL. Their are two reasons, Australia allowed the companies massive front end tax breaks in return for their exploration of the reserves and they will not start paying any tax for many years and when they do become liable for tax they won’t pay any since they entirely financed by money borrowed from outside Australia. Since all profits of the Australian subsidiary companies are reduced by the interest to overseas lenders the taxes on interest do not benefit Australia.

    (Of course another factor is that Australian Federal governments are appallingly stupid negotiators who are far too eager for development now rather than in a future when scarcity makes resources worth more. Once the resources are gone Australia will be akin to the Democratic Republic of The Congo or Ecuador.)

  3. “Nevertheless, Putin is well beyond any cognizable claim of justified war.”

    Absolutely. Same held true for the Bush administration, yet no American war criminals were held to account for Iraq. In a perfect world, perpetrators in both administrations would hang. Until then, I’m with Chomsky on this one. The West lacks any moral authority to point the finger and shout “war criminal!” at foreign leaders while we shield our own war criminals. This can’t be a one way street.

    1. “I’m with Chomsky on this one. The West lacks any moral authority to point the finger and shout “war criminal!”

      Jeff trusts Chomsky, who was busy asuuring America nothing was happening in Cambodia when half the population was being slaughtered. I wonder if Jeff likes mass murder?

      1. Facile. I share Chomky’s opinion this time. I never said I always see eye to eye with Chomsky. I regularly do not.

        1. You chose the person to link up with. Was it a lapse in memory that Chomsky told the world everything was fine in Cambodia while the people were being slaughtered? Maybe you have an affinity for mass murder. Perhaps the subject matter is too complicated for you.

          1. Fallacious and irrelevant. Chomsky’s past statements on Cambodia don’t give or take away the US’ moral authority to point the finger. Only the US’ actions do that. You lack basic rational thinking.

            1. You chose the person to align your thinking with. That has nothing to do with US policy or moral authority, only your poor choices of association. If you thought rationally you wouldn’t have engaged in such weak-minded argument. Unfortunately, that is what you are.

    2. That’s ridiculous. Bush relied on his intelligence agencies and disclosed the information to the entire country in a national TV address. Because the weapons could not be found doesn’t make him a criminal. There is absolutely no proof that he or anyone in his administration knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
      Your comments are reckless and malicious as well as false.

      1. Less major war crimes also occurred during the war on terror, but starting a devastating illegal war based on manufactured evidence was of course the big one.

        In the event Bush or others in his administration were ignorant, then of course they wouldn’t be liable. The former is possible while the later is implausible. Whether the Bush administration was liable or it was just the intelligence agencies at fault *doesn’t matter*. What matters is that *no one* was held accountable for war crimes, on a similar scale to Putin’s, that we ourselves recently committed. We didn’t even try, and we certainly aren’t paying Iraq the reparations they’re owed.

    3. This is an untrue whataboutism. The US under the Bush administration was still at a state of war with Iraq, and that war was supported by multiple UN resolutions. The invasion was looked at by several who actually opposed war, but concluded, rightly that it was legal.

      In Ukraine, however, Russia clearly agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial boundaries as part of the 1992 partition agreement where Ukraine returned its nuclear weapons to Russia. There are no UN resolutions supporting this invasion, and while Putin calls it a special military operation, it clearly is a war. Its obviously an unlawful one.

  4. “The only question is how are you going to explain Putin’s “war crimes’ . . .”

    The real question is: How does Biden explain his financing of those “war crimes?”

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