July 8, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

US ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack appears before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing in January. (Shutterstock)

The US ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice said “there’s no way” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “and his leadership and the military side can argue that they were unaware” of the crimes being committed in Ukraine. Ambassador Beth Van Schaack told CNN that because there has been so much attention on those crimes, the Russian president and his inner circle could face international prosecution.

“There are legal doctrines that enable prosecutors to work all the way up the chain of command, including to the commander-in-chief, and individuals in leadership positions can be held responsible for ordering abuses if there’s evidence of an order to do so. They can be held responsible for failing to properly train and supervise their troops, and they can be held responsible for failing to adjudicate violations when they become aware of them,” Van Schaack said.

She also noted that based upon “the patterns of abuses that we’re seeing, it’s hard to conclude that these are the acts of rogue individuals or rogue units.”

Van Schaack said there are “plenty of courts with jurisdiction” to prosecute Putin for war crimes, but “the question is getting custody over him, and so as long as he remains within Russia, he may be out of reach.”

“There’s no question that this is a long game and it has to be a long game. There’s no way this can be accomplished in six months or a year,” she added.

Van Schaack said they still have not made a formal determination of genocide in Ukraine, noting that “genocide is difficult to prove — the special element is this intent to destroy the group in whole or in part — but we’re obviously tracking these events very carefully.”

US President Joe Biden accused Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine in April. 

Van Schaack told CNN that Russia’s crimes against civilians Ukraine have clear roots in its past atrocities, including those committed in Syria, and said Moscow “probably does perceive that they have had a green light here when it came to using certain tactics.”

However, she said she hoped Russia learns from the international community’s response to Ukraine. 

She discussed the US work — along with the EU and the UK — on the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, comprised of two main components: veteran advisors who are embedded with the Prosecutor General in Ukraine and the deployment of “multidisciplinary, multinational mobile justice teams that are being deployed out into the field to work side by side with” Ukrainian investigators who are working at the sites of attacks.

Van Schaack also noted the Department of Justice’s efforts, though she explained the US war crimes statute requires there to be a nexus to the United States for people to be prosecuted in the US.