28 February 2023
Risk Level: Current Crisis

Russian forces have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during their invasion in Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian forces have also committed potential crimes in the Donbas region since 2014.


Since 24 February 2022, when Russian Armed Forces invaded Ukraine, cities and towns in central, eastern and southern areas of the country have been bombarded with indiscriminate explosive weapons. The UN verified more than 8,000 civilian deaths, including over 438 children, in the first year of the conflict while emphasizing that the actual figure is considerably higher. The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, displacing over 14 million people, including more than 7.6 million who fled to neighboring countries, and leaving 18 million in need of assistance.

The Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, established by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in March 2022, has documented evidence of war crimes committed against the civilian population by Russian forces, including indiscriminate attacks, torture and sexual and gender-based violence in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has also documented the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, including heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions. Schools, medical facilities, homes, water and sanitation systems and civilian shelters have been routinely targeted. Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian historical, religious and cultural sites and reportedly pillaged cultural heritage in Kherson. Buses and convoys of fleeing civilians have also been targeted, violating agreed upon humanitarian corridors. According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian and Russian forces have also committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment.

In areas under their control, Russian forces have perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes. Mass graves and burial sites containing at least 1,500 bodies have been found in areas retaken from Russian forces in Bucha, Izium and Lyman. There have also been reports of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and forcible disappearances of local Ukrainian government officials.

Since the beginning of September, Ukrainian forces have retaken thousands of square miles of territory in the south and northeast. In response to Ukraine’s territorial gains, Russian-backed authorities held referendums from 23-27 September in areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts under their control and subsequently annexed the areas into Russia and declared martial law.

Fighting continues along frontlines in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, a region collectively known as Donbas where conflict has been ongoing since 2014 after a pro-European change of power in Kyiv prompted the Russian government to militarily support majority-ethnic Russian separatists. Despite multiple rounds of peace talks, the armed conflict between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has killed 14,000 people and displaced millions. International monitors have documented both sides committing violations that may amount to war crimes, including torture, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also previously found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Donbas.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been widely condemned by states, as well as regional and intergovernmental organizations, many of which have responded with unprecedented targeted sanctions and other economic measures. Hundreds of multinational corporations have ceased operations in Russia. Many countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines while some states have provided Ukraine’s military with weapons. Since the start of the conflict, Russian and Ukrainian delegations have met in numerous rounds of negotiations but have made limited progress.

Following Russia’s veto of a draft resolution on 25 February 2022, the UN Security Council adopted a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, allowing the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to give recommendations. On 2 March, during an emergency special session, the UNGA condemned Russia’s use of force in Ukraine and on 7 April voted to suspend Russia from its seat on the HRC. The UNGA has also passed numerous resolutions on the situation that have demanded humanitarian access to civilians, condemned Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory and demanded its immediate reversal, and called for reparations and justice for violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Ukraine.

On 26 February 2022 Ukraine filed a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), asking for the Court’s clarification under Article IX of the Genocide Convention. On 16 March the ICJ imposed provisional measures, calling on Russia to suspend military operations and for military units to cease advancing, as well as calling on all parties to refrain from actions that may prolong the conflict. On 2 March the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC also opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine.


Since late December, Donetsk and Luhansk have endured intense fighting. Ukrainian authorities reported more than 50 civilian casualties on 31 December alone, including children and journalists. Daily air and rocket strikes have left the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in Donetsk almost completely destroyed and without electricity or running water for months.

Russian forces continue to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on urban centers in Ukraine. On 14 January a Russian airstrike hit an apartment building in Dnipro, killing at least 45 civilians. On 26 January Russian forces fired missiles and self-exploding drones at nearly a dozen Ukrainian provinces, killing at least 11 people.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion, on 22 February the UNGA resumed an emergency special session and adopted a resolution the following day that called upon Russia to end the conflict and withdraw its troops from Ukraine.


Russian forces have perpetrated widespread violations of IHL and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), many of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilians in Ukraine continue to be at risk of further atrocities as Russian forces target residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure, including the energy sector. Reports of international military assistance to Ukraine, as well as the observation of holidays or commemorative historical events, have tended to coincide with an increase in attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The crisis has myriad historical, political, security and economic root causes. President Putin has repeatedly asserted his belief that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same given their shared history and cultural similarities, a notion Ukrainians largely reject.

Despite a deal reached via the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the conflict continues to have global implications resulting from economic sanctions and Russia and Ukraine’s role as major exporters of grain and cooking oils. More than half of the World Food Programme’s wheat supply is provided by Russia and Ukraine. Increasing scarcity and costs have impeded aid operations for vulnerable populations worldwide and put more pressure on situations prone to resource-related conflict.


    • Failure to adequately halt and address violations of IHL and IHRL in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
    • Russia’s pattern of violence against civilian populations, their property, livelihoods and cultural symbols across multiple conflicts, including in Ukraine, and the blatant disregard of IHL.
    • Increasing polarization, propaganda and inflammatory speech.
    • Lack of tangible progress toward securing peace.
    • Impunity for orchestrators and perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


All parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to IHL and ensure the protection of civilians in conflict areas. All violations of IHL and IHRL must be investigated and the perpetrators held accountable. Legal proceedings for those accused of crimes during the conflict must be transparent and respect international standards of due process and proportionality.

Amidst the deepening crisis, the international community must continue to increase its pressure on Russian authorities to halt their aggression in line with the ICJ’s provisional measures. The international community should also maintain its support to Ukraine in upholding its international obligations to protect its populations, including by ensuring the territorial integrity of the country.


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