Updated Dec 6, 2023 - World

DOJ files first war crime charges stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Merrick Garland speaks during a meeting

Merrick Garland speaks during a meeting at the Department of Justice on Dec. 4. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Department of Justice has filed war crime charges against four Russia-affiliated military personnel, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: The charges are the first ever filed under the U.S. war crimes statute and an "important step toward accountability" for Russia's war in Ukraine, Garland said.

  • The four men have been charged with allegedly torturing, mistreating and unlawfully confining an American in Ukraine, Garland said at a press briefing Wednesday.

Details: In April 2022, two commanding officers and two lower-ranking soldiers "abducted" an American citizen living in the village of Mylove in southern Ukraine and detained him for ten days, Garland said at the briefing.

  • The American had not been participating in the conflict and was a protected person, he added.
  • "We allege that as they interrogated him, they tortured him. They beat him, again, with a gun. They punched him in his chest and stomach. They threatened to shoot him. They stripped off his clothes and took pictures. One of their conspirators threatened to sexually assault him," Garland recounted, adding that he was later also subjected to a mock execution.
  • U.S. federal agents spoke to the American citizen, who was not publicly identified, in August 2022 after they had been evacuated from Ukraine, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said at the press briefing.

A nine-page indictment returned Tuesday identified the defendants Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik as commanding officers of military units of the Russian Armed Forces "and/or" military units of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR).

  • Two other defendants were identified only by the first names, Valerii and Nazar, and were lower-ranking members of the Russian Armed Forces and/or DPR military units.
  • The four Russians have been charged with four counts, per the indictment: conspiracy to commit war crimes and three war crimes — unlawful confinement of a protected person, torture, and inhuman treatment.

The big picture: The United Nations human rights commission has said that it found evidence of war crimes that Russian soldiers committed in Ukraine.

  • Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over his alleged involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian children and teenagers.
  • "This is an historic day for the Justice Department that builds on a long history," Garland said, noting the history of prosecuting Nazi criminals in the U.S.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional details from the indictment and Wednesday's media briefing.

Go deeper