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State Department unable to confirm that Putin will be held accountable after declaring ‘war crimes’ by Russia

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The U.S. government on Wednesday officially declared that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine but could not confirm whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would be held accountable. 

“We’ve been shocked by images of Russian forces and strikes hitting civilian sites in Mariupol, including the maternity hospital, a museum and an art school. The United Nations and other critical observers have confirmed hundreds of civilian deaths, and we believe that the exact civilian death toll will be in the thousands,” U.S. ambassador at large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack told reporters. 

Children have sheltered underground in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.
(Oleksandra Ustinova MP)


The ambassador’s comments came just moments after Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the department had formally assessed that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

The ambassador would not comment on whether this means Putin, as commander in chief of Russian forces, would be held accountable and said it will be up to the courts to decide. 

“There are doctrines under international law and domestic law that are able to reach all the way up the chain of command,” Schaack said, adding that Putin’s designation as a war criminal “would depend on a court that has jurisdiction.”

Last week, Blinken echoed sentiments expressed by President Biden calling Putin a war criminal. Despite the assessment made Wednesday, the State Department has yet to officially designate any individual involved with the invasion in Ukraine as a war criminal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Valdai Discussion Club’s plenary meeting on Oct. 21, 2021 in Sochi, Russia. 
( Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)


Schaack would not detail which incidents the State Department is reviewing in coordination with its European allies, but said it would look to Russia’s actions broadly during its illegal campaign into Ukraine. The ambassador said the atrocities committed in Mariupol would be among those investigated.  

“Look at what President Putin and his forces are doing to Mariupol, to a Russian-speaking population,” press secretary for the State Department Ned Price told reporters. “It is a city that has been devastated. The scenes of carnage, the scenes of violence and brutality – they are heart-wrenching, and this is the very people that President Putin purported to want to protect.”

Putin has repeatedly attempted to justify his invasion of Ukraine by alleging his forces are part of a “special military operation” to assist ethnic Russians who were supposedly oppressed by the Ukrainian government.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. The baby was born dead. Half an hour later, the mother died too. 
(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)


The State Department was pressed by reporters as to how the U.S. and the international community will hold Putin and other Russian officials accountable given Moscow’s status as a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council – which gives it veto rights.

Schaack said domestic courts in Ukraine, third-party nations and the International Criminal Court will all seek to hold Russia accountable for its deadly invasion.  

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