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Could Putin Really Be Prosecuted for War Crimes?

Vladimir Putin on March 15.

Vladimir Putin on March 15.

Photographer: Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Usually, it’s only after fighting ends that prosecutions begin for breaking the rules of war. Ukraine isn’t waiting. It began putting captured Russian soldiers on trial within months of the war’s start. But what about the political and military leaders higher up the chain of command? Widespread attacks on Ukrainian civilians and non-military targets have led to calls in the US, UK and Europe to hold not just Russian troops but President Vladimir Putin and his subordinates accountable for war crimes in Ukraine. An international tribunal investigating such offenses and other potential atrocities issued arrest warrants for Putin and an aide March 17. However, it’s far from certain that senior Russian leaders will be brought to justice under international law.

They are violations of the rules of warfare as set out in various treaties, notably the Geneva Conventions, a series of agreements concluded between 1864 and 1949. War crimes include willful killing, torture, rape, using starvation as a weapon, shooting combatants who have surrendered, deploying banned weapons such as chemical and biological arms, and deliberately attacking civilian targets. The Kremlin has rejected allegations that its troops have committed such transgressions in Ukraine.