At least 1,189 civilians are dead and 1,900 injured since the outset of the invasion of Ukraine. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, relayed these numbers in Geneva on Wednesday, citing the destruction of homes, hospitals, and schools in what she described as a “living nightmare” throughout the country. “Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Bachelet said, “and may amount to war crimes.” The United States has reached similar conclusions: President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” in an exchange with reporters last month, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken later said that the U.S. formally “assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.” How much of this conflict is literally criminal?

Chimène Keitner is a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a former counselor on international law at the U.S. State Department. To Keitner, Russian military forces “appear to have embraced war crimes as the means of prosecuting the war as a whole”—a development she sees as a key indicator of Putin’s state of mind as he presses ahead. Though generally sensitive to his personal image, he seems uninhibited by international perceptions that his and the Russian military’s actions are criminal—or the idea that he and his leadership could face legal consequences for them. The strategic mindset this implies has chilling implications, in Keitner’s view—not just for what will happen in the aftermath of the war but for how it will progress from here.


Graham Vyse: What happened at the Donetsk Regional Theater of Drama in Mariupol?

Chimène Keitner: Based on public information, it appears that, on March 16, more than 1,000 residents of Mariupol were sheltering in the basement. They’d written the word children—in Russian letters, to be clearly visible from the air—in front of and behind the building. Nevertheless, Russian air forces bombed the theater, causing it partially to collapse and trap people inside. There was a rescue operation, but the city was still under fire as it took place. The death toll is reportedly in the hundreds, though it could be considerably higher. Russian authorities offered no explanation as to how this could conceivably have been a military target. It’s one of numerous civilian targets that Russian forces have hit—but for many people, emblematic of the use of civilian targeting in the conflict overall.

Vyse: This horrible thing—why was it specifically a war crime, in legal terms?

Keitner: International laws of war are well established, and they generally fall into two broad categories: laws governing when a country can resort to armed force and laws governing the use of that force.

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