Russian soldiers, beware: There has never been a conflict like the war in Ukraine.
What used to be the “fog of war” has given way to something much different. Rather than uncertainty and rumour, technology and social media have created a tsunami of detailed, accurate, real-time information about what is going on in Ukraine.
It’s not just what you see on the news. Even now, private citizens are gathering and recording Russian radio communications, and the time and place of artillery strikes and missile attacks are being meticulously documented online.
The granularity of the information available is stunning. We even have recordings of officers giving artillery batteries orders to fire on civilian targets.
Documenting Russian war crimes
Bellingcat, a nongovernmental organization that has pioneered using open-source evidence to document war crimes and human rights abuses, specializes in collecting, analyzing and preserving open-source data for use in future accountability processes. And it has already gathered detailed data on multiple attacks.
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But what is currently available is a small fraction of the record that will eventually be available to war crimes tribunals and prosecutors when the war finally ends. Millions of Ukrainians with millions of cell phones are recording incidents and interactions large and small.
Americans know from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol just how this information can be used by prosecutors and the same process has begun for the war on Ukraine. Bellingcat has created a database of geolocated photographs and videos showing incidents of civilian harm that currently includes hundreds of incidents that can be viewed by simply clicking on a map.
And just as with the Jan. 6 attack, all this information can be used to identify and prosecute real people. Bellingcat investigated a single incident of Russian forces shelling a Ukrainian city – Mariupol – in January of 2015 that killed about 30 civilians. Not only did Bellingcat document the attack, it identified, by name, 11 Russian officers and militants responsible, right down to the officers directly in charge of the artillery batteries, Alexander Valeryevich Grunchev and Sergey Sergeyevich Yurchenko.
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Bellingcat is not alone in this effort. In addition to the many NGOs working to ensure accountability, multiple governments are now committed to seeing war criminals brought to justice. The United States has formally recognized that the Russian military has committed war crimes in Ukraine. Dominic Raab, the United Kingdom’s Justice secretary, has pledged to provide the International Criminal Court with the technical support it needs to bring “those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to justice.”
Two former British prime ministers, Gordon Brown and John Major, have called for a Nuremberg-style international tribunal to hold Russian soldiers and politicians accountable for their actions in Ukraine. And, of course, the Ukrainians, like the Israelis before them, will work to bring war criminals to trial themselves.
The list of atrocities documented by Bellingcat is already far too long. The siege of Mariupol will leave the city flattened and thousands – if not tens of thousands – of civilians dead. In one particularly horrific attack on theater sheltering civilians, most of them women and children, was shelled even though it was clearly marked with the Russian word “children.”
‘None of this is acceptable’
Other Ukrainian cities also are being destroyed by Russian artillery and rockets, with apartment buildings, schools and hospitals all being targeted.
Also emerging are reports of smaller-scale attacks in occupied towns and villages, with Russian soldiers intentionally killing civilians at random. In Bucha, and other towns recently vacated by Russian forces, there is evidence that troops engaged in coordinated, wholesale brutality. Men, women and children appear to have been summarily executed and their bodies left lying in the streets.
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There are even serious mass reports that may contain hundreds of bodies.
None of this is acceptable. Intentionally killing civilians is both murder and a war crime regardless of the weapon used or the scale on which it is practised.
Russian soldiers may think the anonymity of their uniforms will protect them. It will not. Bellingcat will work to identify anyone involved in attacks on civilians.
There is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Any soldiers committing atrocities in Ukraine will be the concentration camp guards of the 21st century, hounded for their crimes to the end of their days. They will be held accountable, no matter how long it takes.
So again, Russian soldiers, beware. If you commit a war crime, the world will know. You will be identified. And you will be punished. The process has already begun.
Chris Truax is an appellate lawyer in San Diego and a member of The Guardrails of Democracy Project. Eliot Higgins is the founder and creative director of Bellingcat, which connects investigative journalism with open source intelligence.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism