At a critical phase in Russia’s war on Ukraine, U.N. human rights reports and news accounts illuminate a deepening contrast between the two nations’ adherence to humanitarian conduct amid war, notably in their treatment of prisoners. As Russian forces publicize and celebrate their brutalization of prisoners, Ukraine is striving to apply global norms rooted in a wartime order, 160 years ago this week, by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Sustaining support for Ukraine’s adherence to international humanitarian law can help determine which patterns of conduct, brutal or humane, will shape the world in which our children will live.

Russian prisoners of war walk in formation at a camp in western Ukraine. Ukraine has given U.N. monitors access to POWs it holds, as required by the Geneva Conventions. Russia has refused all access. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)
Russian prisoners of war walk in formation at a camp in western Ukraine. Ukraine has given U.N. monitors access to POWs it holds, as required by the Geneva Conventions. Russia has refused all access. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

The international humanitarian laws that seek to reduce suffering amid warfare are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions — and built partly on an order, 160 years ago this week, by Abraham Lincoln. His General Orders No. 100 were framed by German-American legal scholar and war veteran Francis Lieber to promote humane conduct by U.S. forces in the Civil War. “A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy,” the Lincoln-Lieber code declared, “nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity.”

The humanitarian efforts of Ukraine’s beleaguered, young democracy are encumbered not simply by war, which historically has led even established democracies such as the United States and Canada to weaken their human rights protections. Ukrainians must respond to a Russia “that is not adhering to international humanitarian law, is mistreating Ukrainian POWs and is openly targeting civilians with atrocity crimes,” notes Lauren Baillie, a USIP specialist on atrocity prevention. “The Ukrainians are fighting an existential war and still seeking to adhere to the laws of war, which is fairly remarkable,” said Baillie, who visited Ukraine this month with a USIP team. The Institute’s team discussed with Ukrainians how reforms on issues of security and justice could promote stability in a postwar Ukraine.

Russia’s Brutal Method of War

Putin’s war machine is not simply permitting brutality against Ukrainians (and Russian dissidents) who oppose his claim to rule Ukrainian territory and people. Rather, it wholly dismisses humanitarian law to instead wield savagery as a psychological weapon. This includes abuse of Ukrainian prisoners and executions (referred to by Russian troops as “cleansing”) of unarmed civilians in towns such as Bucha and Irpin. As documented by Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab and others, it includes Russia’s massive program of forced “filtration” — including beatings, deportations or disappearances — of Ukrainian civilians in regions it occupies. In short, Russia’s way of war is redolent of the crimes of ISIS or the “ethnic cleansing” campaign of extremist Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars. Examples include:

  • The videotaped execution-by-sledgehammer of Yevgeniy Nuzhin, a Russian who joined, and then deserted, the Wagner Group forces fighting in Ukraine. The group’s owner and Putin client, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, justified the grisly killing, declaring, “a dog receives a dog’s death.”
  • Periodic videos, circulated since August on Russian social media, showing executions, mutilations or apparent beheadings of Ukrainian soldiers by Russian fighters — acts that a Wagner account on the Telegram social media platform justified as a norm in the war.
  • Russia’s blunt violation of international law in refusing access by international monitors to Ukrainians it holds prisoner. “Ukraine provided us with unimpeded confidential access to official places of internment of Russian prisoners of war,” U.N. official Matilda Bogner reported last month. “The Russian Federation did not give us access.”

That denial of access is at the center of Russia’s violations of the Geneva Conventions, said Alona Verbytska, an advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview with USIP. Russia’s atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine mark Russia’s widest application yet of its brutal patterns in wars from Chechnya to Syria to Georgia, Baillie noted. Numerous international and national courts are investigating or charging Russia over war crimes, notably the International Criminal Court, which last month issued an arrest warrant for Putin over Russia’s abductions and deportations of Ukrainian children.

Ukraine’s Need, and Efforts, to Improve

The United Nations has documented abuses, including executions, of prisoners of war by both sides, saying the worst abuses by Ukrainians occurred “during the initial stages of apprehension and interrogation,” often “immediately upon capture on the battlefield.”

Verbytska acknowledged incidents of abuse by Ukrainian troops, saying “they have acted out of emotion and trauma” — and that Ukraine is working to prevent such actions “by including an understanding of human rights laws in our troops’ basic training.” She said the Ukrainian government’s prosecutor general “is investigating” the cases described last month by the United Nations. No charges have been announced in any of those cases.

U.N. investigators welcomed two steps by Ukraine to better implement international human rights standards. One is the passage in December of a law to align Ukraine’s laws with the main international convention against torture. Also, the report said, “we welcome progress through the establishment of a POW camp in Lviv region” where Ukraine has permitted inspection visits by U.N. monitors. Western and Russian journalists also have visited, reporting on the camp’s humane conditions. These include Ukraine’s provision of free regular phone calls by prisoners to their families in Russia.

Campaigns by Soldiers’ Mothers

Ukrainians’ efforts to secure Russian prisoners’ rights extend beyond government into civil society. A network of Ukrainian soldiers’ mothers reached out to Russian soldiers’ mothers via phone calls and Zoom meetings on ways to assure families’ communication with, and health care for, prisoners on both sides — an initiative reported by Vera Mironova, a Harvard University scholar on armed conflict. Verbytska, the Ukrainian presidential advisor, has joined and supported the mothers’ meetings.

In contrast, the Kremlin in recent years has firmly suppressed Russia’s influential Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which has promoted military reforms since the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. After Putin launched his full invasion of Ukraine last year, a new Council of Soldiers’ Mothers and Wives emerged, but was quickly suppressed. The Russian social media platform VKontakte blocked the council’s account and police twice detained the council’s leader, Olga Tsukanova, when she tried to travel to Moscow to address government officials, independent Russian news media reported.

Putin, conscious of the social influence of soldiers’ mothers, staged a televised November 25 meeting with handpicked women from government or political bodies loyal to him, promising support for mothers’ concerns. That meeting “is yet another attempt to create a counterbalance” to the real civil society movement by mothers, the Committee of Soldiers Mothers’ leader, Valentina Melnikova, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Ukraine’s effort to apply international standards of treatment with its prisoners “is upholding our global values around armed conflict,” said Baillie. “The Russian war of aggression is an open challenge to our global norms and the conduct of the war is yet another indication of Russian disdain for them. To uphold these norms, we need Ukraine to keep respecting them.” Given Ukraine’s staggering burdens from this war, that means a sustained international provision “of the moral and military support for it to do so.”

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