Ukraine invasion: US declares Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine

The US government has determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity during its war in Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris announced Saturday in Germany.

"In the case of Russia's actions in Ukraine, we have examined the evidence, we know the legal standards, and there is no doubt: These are crimes against humanity," Harris said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. She added, "To all those who have perpetrated these crimes, and to their superiors who are complicit in those crimes, you will be held to account."

The declaration marks the strongest accusation yet from the US as it seeks to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The US government declared last March that members of the Russian armed forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said it was their personal opinion that war crimes have taken place and Biden has gone as far as saying that atrocities at the hands of Moscow's troops qualify as "genocide."

US Vice President Kamala Harris.
US Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Getty Images

Blinken echoed Harris' remarks Saturday in a statement released by the State Department.

"We reserve crimes against humanity determinations for the most egregious crimes," he said. "These acts are not random or spontaneous; they are part of the Kremlin's widespread and systematic attack against Ukraine's civilian population."

While the latest crimes against humanity determination is significant, it remains largely symbolic for now. It does not immediately trigger any specific consequences, nor does it give the US the ability to prosecute the Russians involved with perpetrating crimes against humanity. However, it could provide international bodies such as the International Criminal Court, which work to hold perpetrators accountable, with evidence to effectively try to prosecute those crimes.

Laying out the evidence

Harris' announcement Saturday comes days before the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The vice president is in Germany as a part of the Biden administration's efforts to show commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and unity among Western allies who have provided billions in aid, funding and weapons to combat Russia's aggression. Biden is scheduled to visit Poland on Monday.

Harris said Saturday that as a former prosecutor who began "as young lawyer in the court room and later running California's Department of Justice," she knew "firsthand the importance of gathering facts and holding them up against the law."

In her speech, delivered inside the famed Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Harris laid bare some of what could be used as evidence of Russia's crimes against humanity. The vice president outlined specific instances that have peppered news clips and official reports.

"First, from the starting days of this unprovoked war, we have witnessed Russian forces engage in horrendous atrocities and war crimes," Harris said.

"Russian forces have pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population -- gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape, and deportation. Execution-style killings, beating and electrocution," she added. "Russian authorities have forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine to Russia, including children. They have cruelly separated children from their families."

Harris' speech cited evidence of indiscriminate Russian attacks that deliberately targeted civilians, including the bombing of a maternity hospital that killed a pregnant mother and of a theater in Mariupol, where hundreds were killed. The vice president spoke of the horrific images out of Bucha that showed men and women shot and left to rot in the streets and reports by the United Nations of a 4-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by a Russian soldier.

"Barbaric and inhumane," Harris said.

Since 2022, the US has provided $30 million to support the investigation of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine, according to a White House fact sheet. The Biden administration is seeking another nearly $30 million from Congress to bolster efforts on this issue.

As it was when the US government declared that Russia committed war crimes last March, it remains to be seen whether there will be any accountability for those accused of carrying out the alleged crimes and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself will be forced to bear any responsibility.

Still Harris vowed Saturday that the US would support the judicial process.

"In the face of these indisputable facts, to all of us here in Munich, let us renew our commitment to accountability. Let us renew our commitment to the rule of law," she said. "As for the United States, we will continue to support the judicial process in Ukraine and international investigations because justice must be served. Let us all agree, on behalf of all the victims, known and unknown: Justice must be served."

'For as long as it takes'

Harris, in her speech Saturday, pledged that the US would "strongly support" Ukraine "for as long as it takes," touting the Ukrainian people's resolve and resilience.

"There will be more dark days in Ukraine. The daily agony of war will persist," she said. "But if Putin thinks he can wait us out, he's badly mistaken. Time is not on his side."

Questions have swirled in recent months about how much more funding the US will provide to Ukraine's war effort, now that Republicans are in charge of the US House of Repsentatives and have promised no "blank checks." But Harris noted Saturday how many congressional leaders were at the conference in Munich. This included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"They are here together because they understand the stakes. The leadership of these members has been vital to America's support of Ukraine, and President Biden and I know that their support for Ukraine will continue," the vice president said.

Blinken said Saturday that the US government has a "profound stake" in a "just and durable" peace in Ukraine.

"Any peace has to be consistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter. It is fundamentally against the interests of every other country around the world to wind up with a result that somehow indicates the seizure by force of territory, that validates that," Blinken said during a discussion panel in Munich with Annalena Baerbock and Dmytro Kuleba, his respective German and Ukrainian counterparts.

"Because if we do that, we will open a Pandora's box around the world, and every would-be aggressor will conclude that if Russia got away with it, we can get away with it. And that's not in anyone's interest because it's a recipe for a world of conflict," he added.

Also in Munich, CIA Director Bill Burns said Saturday that intelligence sharing with NATO allies has proved essential to supporting Ukraine against Russia's invasion.

"It's a two-way street. We've learned a lot from our NATO partners. We learn a lot from the Ukrainians as well," Burns said in a separate panel discussion. That, he said, "has been the kind of essential cement in the coalition that the president has organized."

Meanwhile, Harris expressed concern over China's continued support of Russia since the war in Ukraine began.

"We have also seen nations like North Korea and Iran send weapons in support of Russia's brutal war. We are also troubled that Beijing has deepened its relationship with Moscow since the war began," Harris said.

"Looking ahead, any steps by China to provide lethal support to Russia would only reward aggression, continue the killing and further undermine a rules-based order," she said.

CNN has reported that China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, will visit Russia this month, according to its Foreign Ministry, in the first visit to the country from a Chinese official in that role since Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Wang said Saturday that Beijing was ready to present its peace proposition for Ukraine, a rare remark that referred to the Ukraine conflict as a war.

"This warfare cannot continue to rage on," he said. "We need to think about what efforts we can make to bring this warfare to an end."