Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Devolving Into ‘Strategic Catastrophe’ for Putin: U.S. Envoy

International organizations will start compiling evidence of Russia’s “barbaric,” “horrific,” “heinous” conduct for possible war crimes trials, America’s ambassador to the OSCE says.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
An observer of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors a tank in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Nov. 9, 2019.
An observer of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors a tank in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Nov. 9, 2019.
An observer of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors a tank in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Nov. 9, 2019. AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has launched a new campaign to document potential apparent war crimes committed by Russian forces who invaded Ukraine. On March 3, 45 out of the 57 member states in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) defied Russia and its ally Belarus by approving plans to dispatch a team of OSCE experts to document potential war crimes.

Since the Russian onslaught began late last month, there have been numerous documented instances of Russians targeting residential areas inside Ukraine, including schools and hospitals, with missiles, bombs, and artillery. Russian forces have also been accused of using cluster munitions and thermobaric rockets, both prohibited under international arms treaty regimes.

Foreign Policy spoke to the U.S. envoy to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter, about the organization’s upcoming mission, the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, and whether he saw any path to defusing the crisis.

The Biden administration has launched a new campaign to document potential apparent war crimes committed by Russian forces who invaded Ukraine. On March 3, 45 out of the 57 member states in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) defied Russia and its ally Belarus by approving plans to dispatch a team of OSCE experts to document potential war crimes.

Since the Russian onslaught began late last month, there have been numerous documented instances of Russians targeting residential areas inside Ukraine, including schools and hospitals, with missiles, bombs, and artillery. Russian forces have also been accused of using cluster munitions and thermobaric rockets, both prohibited under international arms treaty regimes.

Foreign Policy spoke to the U.S. envoy to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter, about the organization’s upcoming mission, the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, and whether he saw any path to defusing the crisis.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What will this new OSCE fact-finding mission to investigate possible war crimes look like, and how soon would it deploy to Ukraine?

Michael Carpenter: Well, the mission will likely start in a matter of days, possibly a week. We’re looking at a panel led by a special rapporteur with a team of experts reporting to that rapporteur. We don’t expect, at least not initially, that this team will have access to Ukraine, because obviously there’s a war going on. But what they will do is they will talk to people inside Ukraine. They will talk to people who are fleeing Ukraine, and they will meticulously compile evidence of not just war crimes, but gross violations of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law. And they will then provide that information in close to real time to other international bodies to include the [International Criminal Court] and the [International Court of Justice] so that cases can be brought against specific individuals.

And I just have to say, while I’m on the topic, that it really is unprecedented that we have 45 states calling for this mechanism to be created. The last time we had a large number of states was after the horrific human rights abuses in Belarus in August of 2020. And then it was 17 states [who supported the mechanism]. So, to go from 17 to 45, it just shows you how much Russia and Belarus are isolated on the international stage.

FP: Is it your assessment now that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine? If so, who should be held responsible—the military commanders on the ground, or its leadership in Moscow, or Russian President [Vladimir] Putin himself?

MC: I cannot say that war crimes have been committed. What I can say is that we’ve seen many, many civilians killed. We have seen a lot of civilian infrastructure hit by Russian missiles, to include children’s hospitals, orphanages, kindergartens, supermarkets, pharmacies, ambulances, and obviously that is horrifying and of deep concern. We need to investigate it. I’m not in a position sitting here in Vienna to pronounce anything yet, but that’s why we’ve created this mechanism, to document and to look at the evidence, and to compile those cases and bring them if there’s enough evidence. And to the second part of your question, all individuals responsible should be held to account, all.

FP: What does “held to account” mean here?

MC: We’re going to follow the evidence. If the evidence leads the prosecutor at the [ICC] to bring a case against a particular individual in the leadership, in the military chain of command, or whether it’s someone on the ground, that’s where they’ll take the case. But we want to start now. We don’t want to wait, because what we’re seeing on the ground is horrific. And we want to telegraph that there will be accountability in one way, shape, or form. Even if we can’t get our monitors onto the ground inside Ukraine itself, they’re going to still begin doing their work. Maybe at some point in the future, they will have access, but it’s very important, not just for the historical record, but for reasons of accountability.

FP: There’s been a global push to cut Russia off from the international community, politically, diplomatically, in finance, and even in international sports. Do you believe Russia should be removed from the OSCE?

MC: No, I don’t. I think Russia is certainly a pariah state at this point. It is, together with Belarus, completely isolated here at the OSCE. We’ve had a number of special permanent council meetings since the war began. And it really is just Russia and Belarus, everybody else is aligned in condemnation of this barbaric act that they have undertaken.

I don’t believe that they should be kicked out of the OSCE for the simple reason that even during the Cold War, during the height of the Cold War, we had the progenitor of the OSCE around as a platform for discussions when we needed it. It’s important to preserve that forum, but I want to also be clear with you that we have scrapped all business as usual. We’re not talking to the Russians about countering human trafficking or climate change. None of that. We are condemning their actions here. We are isolating them. We are calling them to account. And maybe at some point in the future, there will be a chance to have negotiations to end this horrific war, but we’re not there yet. Obviously, you see the news yourself, the missiles are flying, the artillery around are falling on cities, and so, we’re just in a different place right now.

FP: Putin hinted at wielding Russia’s nuclear weapons to prevent other countries from supporting Ukraine. Do you see any avenue for de-escalating the conflict with Russia at this point, or any possible offramps to end the crisis diplomatically?

MC: Ukrainians have engaged in a couple rounds of discussions bilaterally with the Russian side, but what is appalling is that the Russians have not paused their military campaign to have those discussions, which is normally the case, nor have they heeded the calls, including from the OSCE to have a cease fire and allow humanitarian aid to reach affected areas. So, what the Russians are doing is really outside all bounds of civilized conduct. It’s really just, as I said earlier, it’s just barbaric. It’s horrific, it’s heinous.

Putin spoke to [French President Emmanuel] Macron the other day, so there are still some contacts, but the Russians need to stop this war. They need to pull their forces back, allow for that humanitarian relief to flow. And then we can have a discussion on a diplomatic resolution. But right now, it doesn’t look like the Kremlin is interested in diplomacy.

And I have to say, we spent the bulk of the last three or four months listening to Russia’s concerns, putting diplomatic proposals on the table as far as military transparency and arms control or confidence-building measures. They rejected all of it. All of it. Root and branch, they just rejected all of it, and they proceeded with their invasion. They said they were not interested in the new diplomatic forums that we proposed to have a discussion of their concerns. And so, I think that shows us that they weren’t interested in diplomacy ever. Not from the very beginning of this. They just were using that as a charade to prepare for this invasion, which they’ve now launched.

FP: Russian diplomats up to a day before the invasion were insisting publicly that there were no plans for an invasion. Is the trust between you and your colleagues with Russian diplomats completely broken? Is there any level of a working relationship left?

MC: The Russian ambassador here continues to maintain absolutely ludicrous and unfounded and, frankly, just preposterous positions about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine when his country’s military forces are among other things bombing [near] the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial. And when we all know the president of Ukraine is a Jewish Ukrainian. It’s just the degree of mendacity, the lies, the propaganda, the disinformation, that we’re seeing, it just doesn’t allow for an honest dialogue or discussion of the facts. It’s like they’re off in a different universe.

FP: This administration has faced a lot of criticism, particularly from Republicans, for not moving quickly enough on sanctioning or deterring Russia in a way that could head off the invasion. What’s your response to that? Do you think sanctions alone will be enough to make Putin pause the invasion and bring him to the negotiating table?

MC: We have been saying all along that Putin has strategically miscalculated. In fact, this is really a strategic catastrophe for him. I don’t think he anticipated that the sanctions would in fact be as harsh and severe as we telegraphed they would be. But be that as it may, he has violated all norms of the U.N. charter and the Helsinki Final Act—really just upended all the principles of the rules-based international order. When you talk about deterrence, it’s not clear how much more clear we could have been that there would be severe, massive, unprecedented costs and repercussions to this—financially, economically, politically, diplomatically, militarily. You see NATO now reinforcing the eastern flank.

All the things that Putin complained about in terms of NATO becoming stronger and having a force posture on the eastern side of the alliance is now becoming reality as a result of this invasion. Furthermore, the Ukrainian people who he has said are indistinguishable from the Russian people are proving that they want their independence, that they will fight and die for their homeland. So again, if you talk about the strategic messaging prior to Russia’s invasion, I think it was very clear. It’s just that there was a particular individual in the Kremlin who just didn’t pay attention to any of this or that formed radically different conclusions about how this would play out.

FP: How bad could the humanitarian crisis get?

MC: It is a massive humanitarian crisis already, and it is only going to get worse. We see the encirclement of cities, essentially barbaric, medieval siege tactics being employed in places like Kharkiv, or Sumy, or Kherson. And so, it looks like this is going to be a protracted conflict. Of course, the Ukrainians are showing incredible grit and determination and patriotism, and they are defending their cities and neighborhoods and their homes, and they will continue to do so.

The humanitarian situation will only get worse, because the Russians are indiscriminately launching their artillery and missiles at urban centers, and they’re hitting pharmacies and supermarkets and water stations and TV towers. And so it’s a very bleak picture, very bleak.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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