Congress is tracking and codifying evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, a move meant to set the stage for future legal proceedings against Moscow's army and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"We are putting Russian troops on notice that the deliberate rape, torture, and slaughter of civilians in Ukraine will not go unanswered," Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), the incoming head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon following the passage this week of legislation he helped craft. The bill, included in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a yearly spending bill, is among the first official efforts by U.S. lawmakers to document crimes being committed on the battlefield in Ukraine.
McCaul says the legislation will help America prosecute Russian soldiers in a future war crimes tribunal. Ten months into the unprovoked war that has galvanized Western nations against Russia, more than 6,490 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, another 9,972 have been injured, and 6.6 million displaced, according to official estimates. Human rights organizations allege somewhere around 50,000 war crimes committed by Russian forces, including the bombings of hospitals and schools, as well as gang rapes and other forms of sexual assault.
"Blood is on Vladimir Putin's hands, and the world is watching," McCaul said. "These thugs have kidnapped hundreds of thousands of innocent Ukrainian children and must be held accountable."
The Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act requires the president to report to Congress on all "atrocities committed" since February 2022, when Russia launched its unprovoked invasion. The White House will have 90 days to produce and furnish this report to Congress.
It will include information on U.S. efforts to "collect, analyze, and preserve evidence related to war crimes and other atrocities committed during the invasion," according to the legislation. The White House must also detail how it can use this information for a domestic, foreign, or international court tribunal related to these crimes.
The legislation focuses on some of the worst alleged Russian war crimes. It refers to Russia's war as a "premeditated, unprovoked, unjustified, and unlawful full-scale invasion of Ukraine." Congress wants to document Moscow's deliberate targeting of civilians, including attacks on hospitals, schools, and shelters, such as one bombing of a Mariupol-based theater that was serving as a shelter and was explicitly labeled as containing children.
Other crimes of interest to Congress include "unlawful civilian deportations," "the taking of hostages," and the "rape, or sexual assault or abuse" of citizens, according to the bill.
The lead prosecutor in a team of experts looking into war crimes in Ukraine told Reuters that recent Russian attacks have "focused on eliminating infrastructure crucial to the means of civilian survival such as heat, water, power, and medical facilities."
And multiple experts said the attacks' "primary purpose" is "to spread terror among the civilian population," which is forbidden under international law.
The legislation is well-timed, as world leaders are expected to gather in February to collectively push for a series of war crimes trials, according to a new report. The issue is "high on the agenda" when world leaders from across North America and Europe get together for the annual Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering that brings together high-ranking officials from across the globe.
"This theme of accountability, in the country of the Nuremberg trial, is the right place to do that," German diplomat Christoph Heusgen, who leads the conference, told Defense One. "So I want to put the subject 'how to prevent impunity' high on the agenda."
In addition to Russian war crimes, this year's version of the NDAA also includes provisions that will bolster Taiwan's defense against a potential invasion by China, another issue of great concern for U.S. foreign policy leaders such as McCaul. These provisions will include "increasing the United States' strategic clarity towards a CCP invasion" and "establishing a comprehensive set of tools to increase Taiwan's military capabilities to deter and defeat a CCP attack," according to information published by the lawmaker's office.