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Q&A: Ukraine's Prosecutor General Discusses Accountability for Putin’s War Crimes

Ukraine's General Prosecutor Andrii Kostin is pictured in a screen grab from video during his interview with VOA's Ukrainian Service.
Ukraine's General Prosecutor Andrii Kostin is pictured in a screen grab from video during his interview with VOA's Ukrainian Service.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Ukrainian prosecutors have documented more than 80,000 war crimes committed by Russia forces, as well some 17,000 crimes against the foundations of the national security of Ukraine.

In addition, prosecutors in Ukraine have investigated 647 senior Russian military and political officials on suspicion of the "crime of aggression," issuing in absentia indictments against 207 of them.

Appearing before a Congressional committee on April 19, Ukraine's Prosecutor General Ukraine Andrii Kostin accused Russia's invading forces of deliberately using rape, torture, and kidnapping in an attempt to sow terror among civilians in Ukraine.

Russia has denied targeting civilians.

In an interview with VOA’s Ukrainian Service, Kostin discusses his team’s efforts to bring alleged Russian war criminals to justice, as well as the prospects for creation of an international tribunal to prosecute Russia the crime of aggression.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

VOA: Your office has documented more than 80,000 war crimes, committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Could you update us on the investigations?

Kostin: Unfortunately, this number is increasing every day. And this is due to the fact that the number of crimes that began to take place en masse on Ukrainian soil against Ukrainians since the beginning of the full-scale invasion continues to grow. In addition to the investigation of the war crimes, we have two separate teams working on major cases - on the crime of aggression and the other one - on the genocide. We are talking about the creation of a web of accountability. Our task with our partners is to make sure that none of the war criminals can penetrate this web.

VOA: The International Criminal Court recently issued an arrest warrant Russian President Vladimir Putin. What would you say to the countries that are reluctant to arrest Vladimir Putin if he travels to those countries?

Kostin: For countries that have any doubts, it is a matter of checking what is important for them – if they are committed to the rule of law, there could be no doubt. They just need to execute the arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court. It's not up to them to somehow analyze the grounds of the arrest warrant or the case.

If the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant and identified Putin as a suspect in war crimes, then it's up to the International Criminal Court to deal with this case. And countries that are members of the Rome Statute have an obligation to execute the arrest warrant if Putin appears on their soil – [they will have to] arrest him and send him to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. This arrest warrant is a very important signal that no one is and should be or should be above the law.

If politicians view Putin and friendship with Putin as more important to them than the rule of law - it could send a very strong negative signal internationally and internally about these leaders. These leaders could treat their population in the same manner, putting private interests above the interests of the rule of law. It would be a big mistake for any politician to intentionally disobey the arrest warrant of International Criminal Court. And the consequences of this mistake for any of such politicians would be very dramatic.

FILE - A war crimes prosecutor looks on as experts work at a forest grave site during an exhumation, as Russia's attacks on Ukraine continue, in the town of Izium, Kharkiv region, after it was liberated by Ukraine's Armed Forces, Sept. 18, 2022.
FILE - A war crimes prosecutor looks on as experts work at a forest grave site during an exhumation, as Russia's attacks on Ukraine continue, in the town of Izium, Kharkiv region, after it was liberated by Ukraine's Armed Forces, Sept. 18, 2022.

VOA: The United States recently declared support for the creation of a tribunal to investigate Russia for its crime of aggression against Ukraine. Specifically, the US supported an internationalized version of this tribunal, which basically is a hybrid tribunal, deeply rooted in the Ukrainian legal system. Is this the kind of tribunal that Ukraine needs?

Kostin: First of all, Ukraine needs a tribunal, which would be international, because this is a global war. I hardly know any country that doesn't feel the consequences of this war of aggression on them. The response to the crime of aggression should also be global and should be international. [This is] not only for the Ukrainians and not only as a matter of justice for Ukrainians and for Ukraine, but also to deter any future aggressor from an aggression similar to Russia’s full scale invasion against Ukraine.

Secondly, the international tribunal should have jurisdiction over the highest political and military leadership of Russia. If any type of tribunal uses Ukrainian law, it will automatically mean that the so-called troika - namely president, prime Minister and Minister of foreign Affairs of Russian Federation - will have immunity from criminal liability for the crime of aggression.

Thirdly, whatever model it adopts this tribunal should not require any postponement due to any legal obstacles. It should be created during the war – all legal instruments should be put in place during the war, so that once the war is over, this tribunal could immediately start.

We are doing everything possible to make it happen, but we all need the proper tribunal. Either it is based on an international multilateral agreement. That was our initial idea. Or it is based on a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly and an agreement between U.N. General Secretary and Ukraine. Both of these versions will ensure that this will be an international tribunal.

VOA: The U.S. launched a mechanism, allowing to direct funds forfeited from sanctioned Russian oligarchs to the State Department for the purpose of providing aid to Ukraine. How would you assess your partners’ work on the issue of the future reparations?

Kostin: The first successful case with the forfeiture [of the private Russian assets] is in the US. Our partners in the U.S. Department of Justice are working on other cases as well, the work is ongoing. There is a case in Canada. Canadian partners adopted the legislation [on forfeiture of sanctioned Russian oligarchs’ assets] before everyone else did. The European Union has enacted legislation as well. But all of it applies mostly to the private funds.

Ultimately, the goal should be to confiscate Russia’s sovereign assets, and this is a matter of political courage. There is no legal issue with that. Moreover, one of the consequences of the [ICC issuing] an arrest warrant for Putin is that the head of the state is officially a suspect in war crimes. From a political point of view, the arrest warrant might make it easier for many countries to confiscate sovereign assets of the aggressor state, suspected in committing the war crimes.

We are using the term “proper tribunal” for the issue of confiscation of the Russian sovereign assets as well. When we hear from our partners careful statements [comparing confiscation of the Russian sovereign assets to] “opening a Pandora's box,” we respond that this box is opened by Putin in a way that none of us can close. We need to do more, not to hide our courage behind immunity, not to hide sovereign assets behind the political risks.

VOA: There is currently no mechanism for international control and access to Ukrainian children forcibly deported to Russia. Do you see enough international effort to create such a mechanism?

Now I am hearing what I wanted to hear 5-6 months ago, when I was saying every day that the world leaders should speak out for the protection of Ukrainian children. Every international organization has this opportunity.

There are certain countries that are more complimentary to Russia than we wish to see, considering the fact that Russia is the aggressor. These countries, their politicians and citizens have to hear every day why exactly Putin has become a suspect at the level of the International Criminal Court. Putin organized and ordered the abduction of Ukrainian children, ordered the destruction of their national identity through forced adoption. Many of these children may not know who they were at birth, who their parents were, where they were born, what country they were citizens of. It is important to show this to the societies of these countries. If everyone, with whom Putin communicates will tell him: "Putin, bring back the children," it would be very difficult for him not to return them.

We need to tell the following to the various countries who are still communication with Putin: “Colleagues, if you think that you have simply forgotten about what is happening to Ukrainian children - here is a warrant for the arrest of Putin, just so that you remember who you continued to communicate with. With a person who steals children and changes their citizenship, their identity, adopts them into other families.”

The first sentence of every communication with Putin from anyone should start with “Putin, bring back the Ukrainian children.”

This interview originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service.