Two weeks into their onslaught of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Russian forces allegedly dropped a bomb on a theatre where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter. Hours after the attack on 16 March, which Ukraine’s foreign minister has called a war crime, authorities were still trying to work out how many people had been killed.
Satellite imagery from two days before the bombing showed that the Russian word for “children” had been written in large letters on the ground on either side of the red-roofed theatre in an attempt to ward off an attack.
Within hours of the bombing of the theatre, Ukrainian local authorities had also accused Russian forces of targeting a swimming pool, a bread queue and a convoy of fleeing civilian cars. The number of ordinary Ukrainians killed in the war grows each day. Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Centre for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights group, spoke to the New Statesman from Kyiv hours after a Russian shell landed near her friend’s house in the city. “The alarms are going off non-stop,” Matviychuk said. “People are living and working in corridors. I want to stay here, but I know that if Russia occupies Kyiv, soon they will start kidnapping activists.”
Russia has been accused of orchestrating the kidnap of Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, who was abducted on 11 March, days after telling the BBC he would not co-operate with the troops occupying his city, in south-east Ukraine. He was released after five days. The mayor of the nearby town Dniprorudne, Yevheniy Matvieyev, was also kidnapped on 13 March.
Footage circulating online shows tower blocks destroyed by artillery, civilian cars riddled with bullets and schools reduced to rubble. The UN has documented 691 civilian deaths but says the true figure is probably far higher. Most of these deaths were caused not by bullets but by high-impact explosives.
“What we’re seeing is the use of heavy weapons in a way consistent with Russian military doctrine,” said Bill Wiley, founder and director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a non-profit that works with prosecutorial bodies to investigate suspected war crimes. “Their modus operandi is that where there’s resistance they stop and level the area. They want their infantry to be advancing over dead people.”
In recent weeks the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the German federal prosecutor’s office have announced investigations into possible war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Russia denies the allegations, and has accused Ukraine of using actors as fake casualties of the bombardment of a maternity hospital in Mariupol on 9 March. One of those accused of faking her injuries has since died, along with her baby.
Among those investigating the hospital bombing is Nestorka*, an analyst at the Ukrainian group Truth Hounds, which has been documenting war crimes since 2014. She spoke to The New Statesman shortly after aiding the evacuation of citizens from a town near Kyiv. “Most of these places are just burned to the ground,” Nestorka said. “Civilian cars and civilians get shot at a few times per day in the Kyiv suburbs. Lots of cities which are under the most violent attacks have no phone or internet connection. But we do what we can.”
Truth Hounds is recording possible war crimes for the ICC, a process that involves meticulous documentation, including photographs of leftover munitions alongside a copy of the day’s newspaper. Using evidence gathered at the Mariupol maternity hospital Nestorka was able to show that the attack was committed with a type of artillery used by Russian forces. After the analysis is finalised, it will be sent to the ICC.
Much of the investigative work, however, is being performed from afar. Thousands of anonymous volunteers from the open-source intelligence community have been working to verify footage and identify the weapons used. These verified reports are being collated and archived, with future criminal proceedings in mind, by the investigative journalism group Bellingcat and the Centre for Information Resilience, based in London, which has produced a live map of the conflict.
The map includes 22 attacks on nurseries, schools or universities, 11 on malls and markets, ten on medical facilities, including hospitals, and eight on religious institutions. The map shows airstrikes near a monastery sheltering refugees, the massacre of civilians queuing outside a supermarket, and a cluster bomb fired on a nursery.
Russia’s use of cluster munitions has become one focus of Bellingcat’s investigations. The bombs, which are banned in 123 countries, are intentionally imprecise and can leave unexploded ordnance — bombs that can detonate at any time — littering a country for decades.
“We’re connected to a whole network of organisations who are working on different elements of the complete accountability process,” said Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder. “Our focus is preserving video evidence, but there’s others collecting signals intercepts or tracking specific military units. We’re then going to tie it all together.”
Some war crime investigators are sceptical of the importance of this kind of material. “The images of death and destruction form a part of criminal prosecutions, but it’s actually a very small part,” said Wiley. “Ninety per cent of the work is focused on linking the crime to the perpetrating structure and then identifying the commander of that structure.”
Open-source intelligence investigators have a history of successfully attributing attacks to particular states, whether through an analysis of the weapons used or of the probable origin point for missiles and artillery shells. Criminal prosecutions, however, are directed not against states but individuals. That requires a different approach. “Ultimately, you’re looking for materials generated by the perpetrating structures themselves,” said Wiley. “It’s stuff you’ll find on Russian prisoners, on dead bodies, in the vehicles that are being knocked out: paperwork, orders, reports and maps.”
Also crucial are signals intercepts, which have in the past been the preserve of intelligence agencies. The Ukrainians, Wiley speculates, are almost certainly intercepting Russian communications for their own operational purposes. Those recordings could later be used to prove the involvement of specific individuals in a war crime. In 2019, for instance, cockpit recordings leaked to the New York Times allowed the newspaper to demonstrate Russian pilots’ culpability for an airstrike on a Syrian refugee camp.
In Ukraine, however, leaks may be unnecessary. Poorly equipped Russian forces have been communicating using unencrypted radios, leaving them open to eavesdropping by anyone with an internet connection.
Open-source intelligence analysts are reading hours worth of transcripts from these conversations. “We plan to take a closer look at the shelling of Kharkiv over the last four days of February,” said Benjamin Strick, investigations director at the Centre for Information Resilience. “We’ve got satellite imagery of missiles being fired from within Russia into Kharkiv on those exact days, as well as intercepts of those Russians talking about firing into Kharkiv. We’re getting a full picture.”
Many investigators realise the challenges courts face. International courts have accepted the culpability of individual Russians for the passenger flight MH17 being shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, and for the Salisbury poisonings, but to little effect. “Many of us are a little bit concerned,” said Strick. “Yeah, sure, we can judicially prove something, but so what? Maybe it leads to more sanctions, but that just leads to more suffering for the Russian public. The evidence so far suggests Putin doesn’t really care. But I do think it helps Ukrainians to see the international community doing something, even if it might not have an impact.”
The Ukrainian activists risking their lives to document Russian atrocities are also sceptical as to whether their findings will ever lead to real accountability. “I’m not a lawyer,” Nestorka told The New Statesman. “I’m actually a historian, and from that perspective it seems unlikely that Russia will be held accountable — the USSR never was.”
Matviychuk, from the Centre for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, said that her organisation had also been documenting human rights violations in eastern Ukraine for eight years, with little to show for it. “Frankly it was very frustrating work,” said Matviychuk. “We spoke with people who were beaten, who were raped, whose fingers were cut off, all while knowing that today, tomorrow and the next day this will continue and you can do nothing to stop it.”
Yet she added that, while justice and accountability are important, more urgent is the need to prevent further atrocities. “They are deliberately shelling Ukrainian cities,” she said. “It’s why we’ve been asking for fighter planes and air defence systems. Western politicians make it sound like they’re providing Ukraine with everything we need, but it’s not true. The West didn’t believe Ukraine could resist for so long when faced with the second most powerful army in the world. They didn’t understand that people are much more powerful than any army.”
*Not her real name