Interview: ‘Moscow Has Shifted to a Tactic of Mass Destruction,’ Says Ex-UN Chief War Crimes Prosecutor Features
Interview: ‘Moscow Has Shifted to a Tactic of Mass Destruction,’ Says Ex-UN Chief War Crimes Prosecutor

“The [Ukraine] conflict is long. The conflict is brutal. The conflict is intense,” said David M. Crane, formerly a chief war crimes prosecutor with the UN. Global Accountability Network [GAN], an organization Crane founded to monitor atrocities around the globe, has been following the war since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. GAN has meticulously documented alleged war crimes, working to shore up cases brought against President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials over their conduct in the fighting. GAN has released their findings via periodic white papers, the latest of which was recently released. To learn more about the group’s latest findings, JURIST caught up with Crane for a discussion of how the conflict has evolved, what the death of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin will mean for the conflict, and how Kim Jong Un may be aiding and abetting alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

You will find a video of the interview below, followed by a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

JURIST: Please tell us more about the Global Accountability Network and its role in the public discourse over Russia’s culpability for its invasion of Ukraine.

David Crane: Well, good, how are you and to all of you best wishes? Yes. I’m David M. Crane, the founder and chief prosecutor of the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone and I am the founder of the global accountability network.

The Global Accountability Network (GAN) is a student-driven, student focused, real world non-governmental organization that investigates war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria. Venezuela, Yemen, the Pacific Rim, and Ukraine. GAN is a consortium of over 12 universities with over 400 law and graduate students working alongside practitioners and professors to investigate these types of crimes. We create crime base matrices, and conflict maps of the most responsible parties. Also we’re world famous for our white papers, which take cutting edge issues and, and focus on those highlighting for the world the challenging circumstances that are you’re confronted with when confronting atrocities around the world

JURIST: Along with this interview, we’re releasing the third edition of your white paper on crimes GAN believes Russia has committed in Ukraine since it invaded in February 2022. In this white paper, you frame the conflict, and you take a fairly long view of the history of it, starting well before the Soviet era and going into Soviet era crimes such as Holodomor and disasters like the Chernobyl meltdown. What inspired you to take such a long view in framing this history?

Crane: Our white papers are comprehensive in some cases, like with Russian war crimes, white papers really become the cornerstone document for governments and organizations around the world to use as a basis by which they can read through and get up to speed as to the tragedy that’s taking place in Ukraine. We wanted to make sure that people understood that the history of Russia and the history of Ukraine have been intertwined for over 1,000 years. We wanted to make sure that readers understood that the love hate relationship between these two countries has been going on for quite some time. We [want] readers can understand the context by which a particular atrocity is taking place. You have to understand the history to fully appreciate what is going on currently in an atrocity zone.

JURIST: What are some major trends or some worrying shifts that you’ve seen over the course of the three editions of this paper?

Crane: This white paper is a working document; it is book length. It is meant to be useful to any and all individuals who are investigating or considering policy related to Ukraine. As you investigate atrocities … you see trends as you’re analyzing what is going on with atrocities — atrocity zones shift; they’re not static events and so you see this very much from our first edition of our Russian war crimes [white paper], which we published five weeks after the invasion, and it got immediate notoriety because it was the first professional look at [the immediate aftermath of the invasion].

The conflict is long. The conflict is brutal. The conflict is intense. And as the conflict shifts, as Russia realizes that it cannot win the war that it caused through this aggression, they have begun to shift their tactics to — frankly, mass destruction. [We’ve seen an increase in this] through the first, second, and third editions. Of course, one of the key aspects of this white paper is the appendices.

[Between the appendices and the responsible parties,] this white paper is set up so that a local, regional, or international prosecutor can use it [to build a case]. We’re focusing on the most responsible parties in some detail or granularity related to their involvement, and [the balance] shifts back and forth. Among the most responsible parties, some are dead, some of them have been relieved of their command. That doesn’t [diminish] the responsibility; it’s just that there are shifts. So this too has changed between first, second, and third editions. the most responsible parties has shifted we’ve added as we look at the various organizational charts Russia has done some shifting in this organization related to the military spectrum, those kinds of things.

We’re looking closely at what I consider potentially to be crimes against humanity and other inhumane acts; in particular, a provision called “failure to protect by mass destruction.” In other words, as Russia has realized it cannot win politically, militarily, legally, or practically in Ukraine, what Putin has done as a matter of national policy is just run Ukraine into the ground, and that is mass destruction. The various international crimes and provisions that are out there don’t capture the gravamen of this really intense horrific idea, this almost medieval salt-the-earth kind of approach to to dealing with Ukraine. I’ve been advocating the [charging Russia with the] failure to protect by mass destruction. We’re looking at that and we’ll be working with the International Criminal Court on that.

So the third edition of the Russian war crimes white paper is a living breathing document, it’ll change in the fourth edition, but it’s meant to capture the shifts and adjustments of this conflict.

JURIST: Obviously one of these critical shifts has been the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, former leader of that mercenary Wagner Group. That would have happened right around the time the third edition of the white paper was released, and you did discuss him and his culpability in this edition of the white paper. What impact do you expect his demise will have on the conflict and how might it shift the international justice implications?

Crane: Well, obviously, you can’t try a dead person. [When it comes to him, the historical importance of our white paper is that it] solidifies what Prigozhin has contributed to this tragedy. He really was truly a bad guy, a bad man, not just in Ukraine, but in Syria and Africa and the Global South more generally. He and his mercenary group have just been wreaking havoc for profits. And so I don’t think anybody’s going to mourn his passing.

I think it will have an impact on the military aspect of this situation. Russia is being pushed back as we speak. The Wagner Group was the most efficient fighting force for the Russians; the Russian army itself is demoralized, badly led, and poorly supported. So again, they are not fighting for an important cause; they’re fighting for their lives. [On the other hand,] the Ukrainians of course, are defending their homeland. I think initiative is so important in military campaigns, and [all the initiative is] with the Ukrainians.

JURIST: My final question for you involves reports that Kim Jong Un is planning an official state visit to Moscow, reportedly to discuss the provision of weapons that Moscow could use in the conflict. How do you think that the support of allied nations for Russia’s actions in Ukraine will impact your analysis of the war crimes going forward?

Crane: Well, the situation now in 2023, is very similar to that of 1938 when we had a moment to face down aggression by use of force and strength versus trying to take a diplomatic approach of peace in our time, so to speak. Of course that led to the World War II, a devastating conflict. And so right now world’s democracies are facing down not only Vladimir Putin, but also four other strong men, four other tyrants — the leaders of Iran, Belarus, China, and North Korea.

China is beginning to pull back a little bit, and they realize that they are certainly on the wrong side of the fence. Really the heart and soul of Chinese economy and trade and if they start going too far down this road with Russia, that will hurt their trade, so really the the main perpetrators supporting Putin right now are North Korea, Iran with drones, and of course, Belarus, which is providing space and encouragement for Russian forces. This is a classic case of aiding and abetting; they are providing the means and capability of an individual who they know is or will commit a crime. That is a classic example of aiding and abetting.

Over the past year, as you know, [we have been working toward] putting together a special tribunal for Ukraine, on the crime of aggression. The mandate we are suggesting to the international community, the United Nations, would look at those individuals, hence the various member states directly aiding and abetting Putin’s illgal conflict in Ukraine. So at the end of the day, the bottom line is, is that Kim Jong Un is continuing and perpetrating aiding and abetting related to supporting Putin and his invasion. So he’s just furthering his potential liability related to aiding and abetting international crimes.