On the one hand, it looks like Kyiv secured its first commitment from Washington, D.C., for short-range ballistic missiles; on the other, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was denied an opportunity to address a joint session of Congress by now former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and fringe isolationists in the Republican Party. Then, funding for Ukraine was removed from the latest continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown.
However, one area where the trip to the United States was a resounding success, with bipartisan support, was its focus on accountability for war crimes and atrocities. Andrey Kostin, prosecutor general of Ukraine, addressed the United Nations, spoke at West Point and met with Department of Justice officials successfully conveying that Russian impunity on war crimes cannot stand, and that accountability for these crimes helps to restore a rules-based order.
It’s an order that has provided stability and predictability for U.S. economic prosperity while preventing major power wars, benefitting America enormously in the nearly 80 years since World War II ended.
Ukraine working to document Russia’s war crimes
Kostin’s latest visit follows consistent engagement by the Ukrainians over the past 18 months. This summer, another delegation of war crimes prosecutors and investigators visited Washington to meet with the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, the State Department and the FBI. They, like Kostin, were on a mission to ensure that Russian war criminals are held accountable.
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Recognizing the enormous scope of Russia’s criminality, the Inter-institutional Working Group hopes to increase Ukraine’s domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute war crimes and other atrocities. For more than a year, the group has been working quietly in nondescript buildings in Kyiv and on the front lines at sites of Russian atrocities, including Bucha and Izyum, to compile evidence, share information and conduct analysis for war crimes prosecutions.
They come to Washington to interact with seasoned war crimes experts, build the foundation for future cooperation between U.S. and Ukrainian authorities, and chart out next steps in the long-term pursuit of justice.
The working group operates under the auspices of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group – an innovative initiative launched by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union to deploy international war crimes experts, military analysts, investigators and prosecutors to Ukraine.
These international experts work closely with their Ukrainian counterparts as they build cases and pursue accountability for the more than 90,000 suspected war crimes already identified. The work is just getting started. Efforts to bring accountability and restore a rules-based order will be a monumental task.
The Ukrainian government is rising to the challenge by passing legislation to expand the capacity for domestic prosecution, developing a new organizational strategy to prosecute war crimes with input from international experts, and actively collaborating with the International Criminal Court and other international justice mechanisms.
Chasing war criminals is a decades-long process. German authorities were still prosecuting World War II atrocities as late as last year. In the Balkans, war crimes trials are still ongoing three decades after the atrocities were committed. The same will be true for Ukraine.
To be successful in the long term, a strong foundation must be built on organization, marshaling of resources, prioritization, coordination and good investigative work. The work of the Inter-institutional Working Group will be crucial in the years and decades to come.
That is where the U.S. government and its partners must focus their efforts. Support Ukraine’s capacity for pursuing justice on war crimes, ensure that the investigations have sufficient resources and build international consensus on accountability. The recent decision to share intelligence with the International Criminal Court demonstrates a commitment to combat impunity.
Ukraine victory requires US support: Victory in Ukraine is crucial for America and the world. Biden must do more.
Accountability for the atrocities committed in Ukraine is an essential priority for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people, and an area where U.S. support is playing a crucial role. Ukrainians’ desire for accountability stems not from a wish for retribution but rather from the value they place on the lives lost or permanently altered by Russian atrocities.
It is a desire for justice that will benefit the entire international community, a desire nations committed to international justice are obliged to support.
Zelenskyy says Russia has attacked Ukraine with chemical weapons
In his speech to the United Nations, Zelenskyy highlighted the globally destabilizing activities Russia has continually engaged in. Specifically, he discussed Russian use of chemical weapons, kidnapping, torture, genocide and aggression against its neighbors and others around the world – all without facing significant consequences.
Each unchecked transgression emboldens Russia and other bad actors to continue such obscene behavior. The United States and the entire world have an interest in ensuring that such brazen, lawless aggression and criminality do not remain unchallenged.
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What happens in Ukraine will directly affect U.S. interests worldwide. Ignoring events in what seems like a far-off conflict in Ukraine disregards how interconnected the world is today. This war has already affected oil and food prices. It will undoubtedly affect geopolitics, including prospects for a war in Asia.
Action and inaction have consequences that can reverberate in ways that might not be clear now but in hindsight are obvious dominoes in a chain. It is now obvious that previous passes on Russia’s aggression have allowed it to believe that it can engage in atrocities. Had the United States and the West challenged Russia earlier, our current dilemma might have been avoided. We must learn from and not repeat our mistakes.
Yevgeny “Eugene” Vindman is a former colonel in the U.S. Army and a foreign policy and international law expert. Follow him on X ( formerly Twitter): @YVindman
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine needs continued US help in fight against Russian war crimes