Russian war crimes

A Russian soldier walking over the mass grave of Chechens in Komsomolskoye, 2000

Russian war crimes are the violations of the law of war, including the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions, consisting out of war crimes and crimes against humanity, of which the official armed and paramilitary forces of the Russian Federation are accused of committing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This also extends to include aiding and abetting crimes of proto-states or client states armed and financed by Russia, including Luhansk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic. These have included the summary execution of captured enemy combatants, the mistreatment of prisoners during interrogation (torture), and the use of violence against civilian non-combatants, including rape. Russia is the only country still involved in all post-Soviet wars in the 21st century Europe.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recorded Russian war crimes in Chechnya,[1][2][3] Georgia,[4][5] Ukraine[6][7] and Syria.[8][9][10][11] Médecins Sans Frontières also recorded serious human rights violations in Chechnya.[12] Moreover, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in its 2017 report confirmed that Russia used cluster and incendiary weapons in Syria, constituting the war crime of indiscriminate attacks in a civilian populated area.[13] By 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued 115 verdicts (including in Baysayeva v. Russia case) finding the Russian government guilty of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and for failing to properly investigate these crimes in Chechnya.[14] As a consequence of its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, wide-scale international sanctions have been imposed against Russian officials in 2014 by numerous countries.[15] When the International Criminal Court (ICC) started to investigate Russia's annexation of Crimea for possible violations of international law, Russia abruptly withdrew its membership in 2016.[16][17]


A mass grave in Chechnya

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya declared independence from the Russian Federation. The Russian officials refused their independence declaration, sparking tensions. This ultimately escalated into a full war when 25,000 Russian soldiers crossed into Chechnya on 11 December 1994.[18] The war ended with Chechen de facto independence and Russian troop withdrawal in 1996. The second conflict escalated again in 1999, and its counterinsurgency waged until 2009. It concluded by Russia taking full control of Chechnya and instaling a pro-Russian government. Numerous war crimes were recorded, mostly by the Russian armed forces.[19][20]

During the two wars, the Chechens were dehumanized and depicted by Russian propaganda as "blacks", "bandits", "terrorists", "cockroaches" and "bedbugs". The Russian armed forces perpetrated numerous war crimes.[21]

These included the following: the use of prohibited cluster bombs in the 1995 Shali cluster bomb attack, which targeted a market, a gas station and a hospital.[22][23][24] The April 1995 Samashki massacre, where over a 100 Chechen civilians were killed by OMON forces.[20][25] During the First Battle of Grozny, Russian air raids and artillery bombardments were described as the heaviest bombing campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden.[26] In its report released on 26 March 1996, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) accused the Russian troops of firing on and killing civilians at checkpoints and summarily executing captured Chechen men, both civilians and fighters.[20] Two cases involved Russian soldiers murdering humanitarian aid workers who tried to save a civilian from execution on a street in Grozny. Russian Ministry of Interior forces officers fired into a group of soldiers who refused to kill the civilian population. The war caused displacement of 450,000 people, 45 percent of Chechnya's population, while 2,000 children died.[20]

A building damaged during the war in Grozny

The Second Chechen War led to another round of war crimes and attacks against civilians. The 1999 Elistanzhi cluster bomb attack against civilians.[27][28] The Grozny ballistic missile attack targeted a crowded market, leaving over a hundred civilians dead.[29] The Russian Air Force perpetrated rocket attacks on a convoy of refugees trying to enter Ingushetia.[30] This was repeated in December 1999 when Russian soldiers shot at refugees fleeing Grozny.[31] The Alkhan-Yurt massacre and Novye Aldi massacre involved murder, looting and rape of Chechens by Russian soldiers.[3][32][33] Staropromyslovsky massacre occurred in January 2000.[34][35] The bombing of Katyr-Yurt occurred on 4–6 February 2000. The 1999–2000 siege and bombardments of Grozny caused thousands of civilians to perish.[36][37]

The Russian armed forces also used imprecise Fuel-Air Explosive bombs, also known as "vacuum bombs", which destroy shelters, buildings and bunkers, making it impossible to protect the civilians from their destructive nature in the populated areas. Their pressure wave kills through a subsequent rarefaction, a vacuum, which ruptures the lungs[38] or causes people to suffocate. They were used in the southern mountains of Chechnya.[39]

A Chechen woman with a wounded child

On 17 December 1996, six delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were killed in an attack by masked gunmen at the ICRC hospital in Novye Atagi, near Grozny.[40] In 2010, Russian special forces officer, Major Aleksi Potyomkin, claimed that the murders were perpetrated by FSB agents.[41] A 2004 report identified Russian soldiers using rape as means of torture against the Chechens.[42] Out of 428 villages in Chechnya, 380 were bombed in the conflicts, leaving a 70% destruction of households behind.[43]

Amnesty International estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians have been killed in the First Chechen War alone, mostly by indiscriminate attacks by Russian forces on densely populated areas.[44] It also estimated a further 25,000 killed civilians in the Second Chechen War, as well as 52 recorded mass graves in Chechnya.[45] Combined with the military forces, historians estimate that up to a tenth of the entire Chechen population died in the conflicts,[46] a 100,000 people out of a million.[47]

Some scholars estimated that the brutality of the Russian attacks on such a small ethnic group amounted to a crime of genocide.[48][49] The German-based NGO Society for Threatened Peoples accused the Russian authorities of genocide in its 2005 report on Chechnya.[50]

Human Rights Watch additionally recorded between 3,000 and 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya between 1999 and 2005, and classified it as a crime against humanity.[2]


Nearly-intact Russian missile booster in the bedroom of a Gori house

Following a 7 August 2008 escalation between the break-away region of South Ossetia and Georgia, the Russian forces crossed the international border on 8 August and attacked Georgian soldiers in support of South Ossetia.[51] The war ended on 12 August with a ceasefire brokered by international diplomats. The Russian government recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, though some scholars described that the two regions actually became Russian protectorates.[52]

HRW reported that no proof of intentional attacks on non-combatants by Georgian troops had been discovered.[53]

Russia deliberately attacked fleeing civilians in South Ossetia and the Gori district of Georgia.[4] Russian warplanes bombed civilian population centres in Georgia proper and villages of ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia.[4] Armed militias engaged in plundering, burning and kidnappings. Attacks by militias compelled Georgian civilians to run away.[4]

The use of cluster bombs by the Russians caused fatalities among civilians.[54] Amnesty International accused Russia of deliberately bombarding and attacking civilian areas and infrastructure, which is a war crime.[5] Russia denied using cluster bombs.[55] 228 Georgian civilians perished in the conflict.[51]


Following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted and fled to Russia, while the new Ukrainian government adopted a pro-European perspective. Russia responded with the annexation of Crimea, which was declared illegal by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 68/262,[56] while pro-Russian separatists declared the unrecognized proto-state Novorossiya, intending a secession from Ukraine, and an insurgency which eventually led to war in Donbass, the eastern parts of Ukraine. While Russia denied involvement in the war in Donbass, numerous evidence pointed at its support of the pro-Russian separatists. Amnesty International accused Russia of "fuelling separatist crimes" and called upon on "all parties, including Russia, to stop violations of the laws of war".[7]

Damaged building in Kurakhove, 26 November 2014

Human Rights Watch stated that pro-Russian insurgents "failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid deploying in civilian areas" and in one case "actually moved closer to populated areas as a response to government shelling".[57] HRW called on all sides to stop using the "notoriously imprecise" Grad rockets.[57]

Another report by Human Rights Watch said that the insurgents had been "running amok...taking, beating and torturing hostages, as well as wantonly threatening and beating people who are pro-Kiev".[58] It also said that the insurgents had destroyed medical equipment, threatened medical staff, and occupied hospitals. A member of Human Rights Watch witnessed the exhumation of a "mass grave" in Sloviansk that was uncovered after insurgents retreated from the city.[58]

Insurgents with bayonet-equipped automatic rifles in the city of Donetsk paraded captured Ukrainian soldiers through the streets on 24 August, the Independence Day of Ukraine.[59][60] During the parade, Russian nationalistic songs were played from loudspeakers, and members of the crowd jeered at the prisoners with epithets like "fascist". Street cleaning machines followed the protesters, "cleansing" the ground they were paraded on.[59] Human Rights Watch said that this was in clear violation of the common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The article forbids "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment". They further said that the parade "may be considered a war crime".[59]

A mural of Ukrainian soldiers and police officers who died "defending Ukrainian unity" in Kiev

A map of human rights violations committed by the separatists, called the "Map of Death", was published by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in October 2014.[61][62][63] The reported violations included detention camps and mass graves. Subsequently, on 15 October, the SBU opened a case on "crimes against humanity" perpetrated by insurgent forces.[64]

A mid-October report by Amnesty International documented cases of summary executions by pro-Russian forces.[65] A report by Human Rights Watch documented use of cluster munitions by anti-government forces.[66]

In October 2014, Aleksey Mozgovoy organised a "people's court" in Alchevsk that issued a death sentence by a show of hands to a man accused of rape.[67]

At a press conference in Kiev on 15 December 2015, UN Assistant Secretary-General for human rights Ivan Šimonović stated that the majority of human rights violations committed during the conflict were carried out by the separatists.[68]

Amnesty International reported that it had found "new evidence" of summary killings of Ukrainian soldiers on 9 April 2015. Having reviewed video footage, it determined that at least four Ukrainian soldiers had been shot dead "execution style". AI deputy director for Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev said that "the new evidence of these summary killings confirms what we have suspected for a long time".[69] AI also said that a recording released by Kyiv Post of a man, allegedly separatist leader Arseny Pavlov, claiming to have killed fifteen Ukrainian prisoners of war was a "chilling confession", and that it highlighted "the urgent need for an independent investigation into this and all other allegations of abuses".[69][70] Russia's actions in Ukraine have been described as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shoot down).[71]

The United Nations recorded that the war claimed the lives of over 3,000 civilians.[72]


Russian aircraft drop firebombs in northern Aleppo in June 2016.

On 30 September 2015, Russian military intervened directly in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Bashar al-Assad. According to Amnesty International, in late February 2016 Russian warplanes deliberately targeted civilians and rescue workers during their bombing campaign.[73] The human rights group has documented attacks on schools, hospitals and civilian homes. Amnesty International also said that "Russia is guilty of some the most egregious war crimes" it had seen "in decades". The director of Amnesty's crisis response program, Tirana Hassan, said that after bombing civilian targets, the Russian warplanes "loop around" for a second attack to target the humanitarian workers and civilians who are trying to help those have been injured in the first sortie.[73]

In February 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported extensive use of cluster munitions by Syria and Russia, in violation of United Nations resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded that all parties end "indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas". HRW said that "Russian or Syrian forces were responsible for the attacks" and that the munitions were "manufactured in the former Soviet Union or Russia" and that some were of a type that had "not been documented as used in Syria" prior to Russia's involvement in the war, which they claimed, suggested that "either Russian aircraft dropped them or Russian authorities recently provided the Syrian government with more cluster munitions, or both".[9] HRW also noted that while neither Russia nor Syria are parties to the Cluster Munitions Convention, the use of such munitions contradicts statements issued by the Syrian government that they would refrain from using them.[9] Russian indiscriminate bombings against civilians, using banned cluster bombs or firebombing, were often deemed as a violation of international law, mostly during the battle of Aleppo[11][10] and siege of Eastern Ghouta.[74] Several parallels were drawn between the 2016 destructions in Aleppo with those from Grozny in 2000,[36] described by some as indicating a joint policy of "take no prisoners".[37] On 16 August 2019, Russian jets perpetrated an airstrike on Hass refugee camp, killing 20 civilians.[75][76]

On 6 March 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a public report confirming that the Atarib market bombing was perpetrated by the Russian military. A Russian fixed-wing aircraft using unguided weapons, including blast weapons, were used against this location. The report concluded that using such heavy weapons on densely populated civilian areas may amount to a war crime.[77][78] On 2 February 2017, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report on the battle of Aleppo, confirming that Russia used cluster and incendiary weapons. It concluded that their use on densely populated area in eastern Aleppo "amounts to the use of an inherently indiscriminate weapon, constituting the war crime of indiscriminate attacks in a civilian populated area".[13]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that Russian air strikes and artillery shells have killed 18,000 people, including nearly 8,000 civilians, in Syria by 1 October 2018.[79]

Legal proceedingsEdit

The Russian government tried to effectively block or prevent any kind of international prosecution of its role in suspected war crimes by an international court, using even its seat at the Security Council to veto resolutions which called for an investigation and bringing accountability of the downing the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Donetsk Oblast[80] and for crimes being committed in Syria.[81] It even denied that a chemical attack had taken place in Douma on 7 April 2018, but this was nonetheless confirmed in a report by the UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.[82]

The Russian government also denied accountability in its local courts. While thousands of investigations were undertaken, only one person was convicted for crimes against the Chechens in the Chechen wars—Yuri Budanov, convicted by a Russian court of kidnapping and murder of Elza Kungaeva and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003[83]—which led Amnesty International to conclude that there is "no accountability" and that a Russian "lack of prosecution has resulted in a climate of impunity".[84] Due to such impunity, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). By 2009, the ECHR issued 115 verdicts (including in Baysayeva v. Russia case) finding the Russian government guilty of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and for failing to properly investigate these crimes in Chechnya.[14]

On 29 March 2005 Sergey Lapin was sentenced to 11 years for torture of Chechen student Zelimkhan Murdalov in police custody, who disappeared since.[85] In December 2007, Lt Yevgeny Khudyakov and Lt Sergei Arakcheyev were sentenced to 17 and 15 years for killing three Chechen construction workers near a Grozny checkpoint in January 2003.[86]

In 2019, former FSB employee Igor Strelkov was indicted by Dutch prosecutors for murder

On 24 May 2018, after extensive comparative research, the Dutch investigation concluded that the Buk that shot down the 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in Kursk.[87] In a statement by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs of 5 July 2017, it was announced that several countries will prosecute any suspects identified in the downing of flight MH17 in the Netherlands and under Dutch law.[88] A future treaty between the Netherlands and Ukraine will make it possible for the Netherlands to prosecute in the cases of all 298 victims, regardless of their nationality. This treaty was signed on 7 July 2017.[89] On 21 March 2018, the Dutch government sent legislation to the parliament, allowing the suspects involved to be prosecuted in the Netherlands under Dutch law.[90][91] On 19 June 2019, Dutch prosecutors charged four people over the deaths in the MH17 crash: three Russians—Igor Strelkov, a former FSB employee; Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov; former GRU operatives—and one Ukrainian—Leonid Kharchenko—associated with the Donetsk People's Republic.[92][93][94] The Dutch authorities sent out international arrest warrants for the suspects they aim to prosecute.[95]

On 29 August 2003, a Dutch court (Rechtbank's Gravenhage) found that the Samashki massacre of 250 Chechen civilians was a crime against humanity.[96]

International Criminal Court building in The Hague

When the International Criminal Court (ICC) started to investigate Russia's annexation of Crimea for possible violations of international law, Russia abruptly withdrew its membership on 16 November 2016.[16] Nonetheless, in its preliminary 2017 report, the ICC found that "the situation within the territory of Crimea and Sevastopol would amount to an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation" as well that it "factually amounts to an ongoing state of occupation".[97] It further found that there is credible evidence that at least 10 people have disappeared and are believed to have been killed on Crimea for opposing the change of its status.[98] In January 2016, the ICC also opened an investigation into possible war crimes perpetrated during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.[99]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit