Ukraine at D+78: River crossings and war crimes.
N2K logoMay 13, 2022

Russian attempts to envelop Ukrainian forces in the Donbas fail as a river crossing ends in disaster. Ukraine is holding its first war crimes trial. A US group wants the ICC to prosecute GRU operators as war criminals for their 2015 and 2016 cyberattacks against sections of the Ukrainian power grid.

Ukraine at D+78: River crossings and war crimes.

The morning situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence concentrates on Russian attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces, and on a failed river crossing that was part of the effort. "Russia is investing significant effort in the vicinity of Izium and Severodonetsk in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The primary objective on this axis is to envelop Ukrainian forces in the Joint Forces Operation area, isolating them from support or reinforcement by units in the west of the country.) Ukrainian forces successfully prevented an attempted Russian river crossing in the Donbas. Images indicate that during the crossing of the Siverskyi Donets river west of Severodonetsk, Russia lost significant armoured manoeuvre elements of at least one Battalion Tactical Group as well as the deployed pontoon bridging equipment. Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a highly risky manoeuvre and speaks to the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have failed to make any significant advances despite concentrating forces in this area after withdrawing and redeploying units from the Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts."

Ukraine holds its first war crimes trial.

A captured Russian soldier has been placed on trial by Ukrainian authorities for the shooting of a civilian in the early days of the war. He's described variously in the press as a "commander," even "a tank division commander," but he's a twenty-one-year-old sergeant, a tank commander, which makes him a vehicle operator, barely a leader at all. And note that a sergeant in the Russian army does not have the authority or discretion that sergeants, even young ones, are commonly entrusted with in Western armies.

Deutsche Welle identifies the defendant as Vadim Shishimarin. His unit was fleeing Ukrainian forces east of Kyiv. His tank disabled, Shishimarin is said to have fired at, stopped, and stolen a civilian car. As they were driving away seeking safety, Shishimarin is said to have shot and killed a sixty-two-year-old man to prevent him from revealing their position. Shishimarin is said to have acknowledged the killing, but has yet to enter a plea. “I was ordered to shoot,” the AP quotes Shyshimarin as saying. “I shot one (round) at him. He falls. And we kept on going.” It's not known who ordered him to shoot, or how the order was received.

Are there war crimes in cyberspace?

The casual murder of civilians is obviously a war crime, and waging aggressive war is a recognized crime against peace. What about cyberattacks? Under what conditions might a cyber operation constitute a war crime?

Wired reports that the the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley's School of Law has formally requested that the Office of the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague consider prosecuting the GRU's Sandworm group for war crimes. Those crimes weren't committed during the present war, however. The alleged crimes were the December 2015 targeting of electric utilities in Western Ukraine and the 2016 takedown of portions of the grid around Kyiv. affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The Human Rights Center is interested in bringing cyberspace under the scope of international law, and in securing recognition of cyberspace as a fifth domain of warfare. The GRU's two cyberattacks are attractive cases for such purposes because they're well-attested and unambiguously attributed. They also had a clear kinetic effect: they disrupted power distribution in portions of Ukraine. And, finally, and this is most important for the laws of armed conflict, the attacks were indiscriminate, not directed against a military target, but instead directed against an essentially civilian population.

The extension of international law to cyberspace, and the deterrent effect this might have on other state actors, are the goals of the Human Rights Center's request. Given that the Sandworm hackers have already been indicted under domestic law (including US law) and have a price on their heads, as far as the individual operators are concerned an ICC action would amount to making the legal rubble bounce, but the Human Rights Center is seeking to establish a principle.