Even in War There are Limits

ICC Issues New Warrants for Russian Strikes on Ukraine’s Electrical Infrastructure

A year after charging Russian President Vladimir Putin and an aide with unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Tuesday issued two more warrants for war crimes in Ukraine. The new charges are against two senior Russian military officers – Lt. Gen. Sergei Kobylash and Adm. Viktor Sokolov – for their alleged roles in Russia’s campaign of airstrikes that damaged Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure between October 2022 and March 2023.

Ukrainian civil society organizations, journalists, and other groups have documented these war crimes, brutal attempts to break Ukraine’s will to resist Russian aggression.  Human Rights First has been reporting on this issue from the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Even in war there are limits, and it is important to hold accountable individuals who disregard those limits.  The ICC’s judges found reasonable grounds to believe that some of “the alleged strikes were directed against civilian objects,” and that “the expected incidental civilian harm and damage” of other strikes on military objectives “would have been clearly excessive to the anticipated military advantage.”

The judges also found that the campaign of airstrikes met the criteria for crimes against humanity, because they were  “inhumane acts” committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

Like their fellow defendant Putin, Kobylash and Sokolov may not  see the inside of a courtroom in The Hague for some time.  But the ICC chose to publicize the charges against them rather than keep them under seal, because, they wrote, “public awareness of the warrants may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes.”   Governments should take steps to publicly support the ICC’s actions and try to hasten their day in court.

When the ICC charges senior government officials with war crimes, their whereabouts are usually well known.  Sokolov, though, has variously been reported as killed in a Ukrainian strike, then later as alive but replaced as head of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. He might be appropriate for the U.S. government’s War Crimes Reward Program to help elicit information on his location.  Human Rights First’s tracker of ICC cases and defendants will be updated as information becomes available.

Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation had listed both Kobylash and Sokolov as Russian military leaders recommended for targeted sanctions.  There is no way to know if the two were included among the “2,596 members of the Russian Federation military” whom the State Department confidentially visa-banned in 2022.  But neither appears to have been publicly sanctioned in any of the major sanctioning jurisdictions, including the European Union and the United States.

Those governments should quickly remedy that gap – not just on the chance that Kobylash or Sokolov have funds abroad, or plan to visit Paris or New York, but because it is important that governments show their support for accountability.

While the United States had generally opposed the ICC’s ability to investigate people from non-ICC member states (like Russians) for what they do on the territory of countries that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction (like Ukraine), the United States now allows itself to support ICC cases like these. It changed a long-standing policy in response to bipartisan pressure from Congress and calls from Ukrainian and U.S. civil society, including advocacy by Human Rights First.

It may not be clear for some time whether evidence shared by the U.S. government contributed to these arrest warrants.  As the 2024 election approaches, though, it is worrisome that the U.S. government has yet to formally amend key statements of policy – including the Defense Department’s law of war manual – that continue to repeat the old U.S. position.  The Biden administration should formalize this policy change to reduce the risk that a future administration hostile to the ICC would cynically use the old U.S. posture to justify attacking the court for conducting investigations like the one in Ukraine.



  • Adam Keith

Published on March 8, 2024


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