Russian missile attack, Kremenchuk
Firefighters work to put out the fire in a mall hit with a Russian missile strike in Kremenchuk in the Poltava region of Ukraine on June 27, 2022. Photo credit: © Ukrainian State Emergency Service/ZUMA Press Wire
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As first responders continued to dig through rubble of the shopping mall destroyed by a Russian missile strike on Monday in Kremenchuk, an industrial city in central Ukraine far from the front line, Ukrainian authorities and the beleaguered country’s Western allies condemned the attack on a civilian target as a war crime — just the latest in a string of Russian atrocities committed in the four-month-and-counting-long war.

But with Russia itself on the jury in a potential war-crimes trial, will it matter?

At least 18 are confirmed dead and 36 are missing in the wreckage of the mall, where as many as 1,000 people were shopping before air-raid sirens blared shortly before the attack, authorities said Tuesday

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the audacious strike “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.” World leaders, speaking at a Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Germany — held while Russian missiles struck the mall and other missiles fell on Kyiv — condemned the “abominable attack,” and pledged to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” 

Meanwhile, Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, arrived on scene in Kremenchuk with a team of investigators to begin collecting evidence to be used in Ukrainian courts and, hopefully, the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Russia (an effort the United States has said it supports, even as the US itself declines to participate in the court).

“I am sure the Russians know very well that they are killing civilians,” Venediktova said. “For them it is not news, but they do it again and again.” 

World leaders accept this narrative. At the G-7 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron called the missile strike “a new war crime,” adding that “Russia cannot and should not win” the ongoing conflict.  

A G-7 statement released following the attack reiterated the need to hold Russia accountable. But how and by whom, and what would accountability look like? 

Russia, for its part, continues to deny any wrongdoing, even as its own account of its actions continues to evolve.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, blamed Ukraine for the attack, dismissing the mall carnage as a “Ukrainian provocation” on Twitter

The next day, Russia’s Ministry of Defense admitted it had indeed struck the mall with high-precision missiles, but that the shopping center was actually storing munitions supplied by European countries and the United States.  

Later, Russia’s embassy to the United Kingdom offered another excuse: The missile hit a munitions plant, which in turn started a fire at a mall — but that mall was empty.

The mall attack was one of several airstrikes that hit Ukraine over the weekend. Missiles hit a nine-story building in Kyiv on Sunday, and over 40 missiles were reportedly fired at northern and western regions of Ukraine Saturday morning. 

There have also been numerous instances of attacks on civilians over the last few months, most notably in Mariupol, where airstrikes are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians. 

It’s no longer in dispute among serious observers that Russia’s conduct during the war is rife with violations of international law as well as accepted “norms.” 

A New York Times analysis of the weapons used by Russia throughout the war found more than 210 instances of Russia using weapons that have been banned under international treaties. A Human Rights Watch report earlier this month found that Russia was sowing Ukraine with mines that have also been banned. 

Both sets of violations could potentially be used as evidence of war crimes. 

Following an emergency meeting on Tuesday, members of the United Nations Security Council (of which Russia is a permanent member) condemned the missile strikes and added that “indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime” and that “Putin and those responsible will be held to account.”  

“There is ample public evidence available to show that the Russian Federation alone is responsible, and their attacks constitute war crimes,” said Richard M. Mills, the US’s deputy ambassador to the UN. Meanwhile, Polyanskiy, his Russian counterpart, continued his denials. “We have not carried out any strikes against civilian peaceful targets, nor have we ever done so,” he said, according to a UN handout. 

International alliances and legal task forces have been formed, but it remains to be seen whether or not Russia will be held accountable. 

Months into the war, there is no lack of photographic and video evidence, but experts are still reluctant to believe that Vladimir Putin will face any consequences. 

Although Ukraine has given the ICC permission to investigate crimes on its territory since 2013, Ukraine is not an official member of the ICC. The UN Security Council can refer investigations to the ICC, but such a referral requires a unanimous vote by the council, according to experts such as Molly Quell, something unlikely to happen with Russia having permanent membership. 

Removing Russia from the influential Security Council would also require Russia to vote itself out, another unlikely scenario. 

Ukraine successfully convicted a Russian soldier of war crimes in May. Applying that procedure against high-ranking officials such as a field commander, let alone Putin, is uncharted territory. 

Along with the ICC, the other standing mechanism to prosecute war crimes is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which rules on disputes between states. Ukraine has opened a case against Russia at the ICJ. However, sanctions must be approved at the UN Security Council, which means Russia, as one of the council’s five permanent members, could veto any penalties.

To date, the ICC has only prosecuted warlords and deposed leaders, never the in-power head of a UN Security Council member. How an investigation would proceed, and whether proceedings would be more than a show, is unclear.

What is clear, however, is Russia’s increasingly low standing in the court of public opinion — and how little that seems to matter.