Ukrainian Nobel Peace Prize winner calls for war crimes tribunal for Putin and Russian military leaders

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WASHINGTON — A Ukrainian human rights activist set to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo next week says in a new interview that world leaders must create a special international tribunal to place Russian President Vladimir Putin and large numbers of his military on trial for war crimes.

“We cannot wait. We must establish an international tribunal now,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, the chief of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, which will be honored with the peace prize for its work documenting 27,000 war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russian troops since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk.
Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk. (Roselle Chen/Reuters)

Speaking to Yahoo News during a brief trip to Washington, Matviichuk said the current system of trying world leaders through the International Criminal Court in the Hague is simply inadequate to deal with the magnitude of Russian offenses. She called instead for a specially created tribunal akin to the Nuremberg trials for Nazi leaders after World War II.

“I’ve asked myself, ‘For whom did we document all these crimes? Who will provide justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims?’ Because we speak not only about Putin and the rest of senior political leadership and high military command, we speak about all the Russians who committed these crimes by their own hands. … We don't need revenge. We need justice.”

As for the Russian leader himself, “Yes, it's a question of how to physically arrest Vladimir Putin,” she said. “But look to history. There are a lot of successful and very convincing examples, when people who see themselves as untouchable suddenly appeared in court and when the whole regime — which thinks that they will [last] for ages — collapsed.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and damaged power lines in Ukraine. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and damaged power lines in Ukraine. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Matviichuk came to Washington this week to receive a “trailblazer” award — along with several other Ukrainian women, including the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska — from Hillary Clinton at Georgetown University. At the same time, the war in Ukraine is once again heating up, with Ukrainian drones hitting a Russian airfield 300 miles inside that country’s borders and the Russians responding with a new series of devastating cruise missile strikes.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview with Matviichuk.

Michael Isikoff: You live in Kyiv. You've posted some dramatic photos on your Twitter handle, showing young children hovering by candlelight at night, trying to do schoolwork. Give us a sense of what it's like to be living in Kyiv right now under these Russian missile attacks.

Oleksandra Matviichuk: It's rather cold. I have no heat. Ukrainians now are not able to plan even for several hours because you never know when the light will disappear, and the internet connection as well. When you have no light, you can't plan when you go to shop, or when you go to the postal office, or when you will meet with your partners to discuss some work, because you have no idea when the air alarm will start.

The Russians are attacking the electric grid to cut off power for citizens. How worried are you about just getting through what could be a harsh winter?

It will be a difficult winter. But I'm thinking how the civilized world will have to respond to this. Because now we're reaching a point at which the Russians publicly discussed on Russian TV how to better liquidate the whole civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and freeze millions of Ukrainians during the winter. I will remind you that each hit on a civilian object is a war crime. And now Russia discussed publicly how they will do these war crimes better. So they really think they can do whatever they want. And this is dangerous, not only for Ukrainians. Such behavior, it's dangerous for the whole world.

What message do you have for the West right now?

For decades, Russia systematically violated their own human rights obligations. But the civilized world continued to do business as usual with Russia. They closed their eyes while Russia liquidated their own civil society. They closed their eyes while Russia, for decades, committed war crimes in Chechnya, in Moldova, in Georgia, in Mali, in Syria, in other countries of the world. And all this hell, which we now face in Ukraine, is a result of total impunity, which Russia enjoyed for decades.

I assume this is the message you are going to convey when you accept the Nobel Prize next week?

I will mention the importance of human rights for peace in the world for sure. But there is also the second part, because there is an illusion to think that Putin will stop if he obtains something. Putin will stop only when he will be stopped. And this means that we have to oppose and to resist Putin jointly. Because if we will not be able to stop Putin in Ukraine, he will go further.

One message you have is that Ukraine needs more weapons from the West. And you have said that consistently: "We really need weapons. We need fighter planes. We need air defense systems in order to protect Ukrainian skies." Do you have a specific checklist of the weapons that you want the United States and other NATO countries to provide to Ukraine that they are not providing right now?

I'm not a military expert, and this is not my field of expertise. But I know that Ukraine still is not getting the weapons which we need. I have one example that I mentioned during the award ceremony at Georgetown University. I have a friend in Andriana Susak. She's a courageous woman. She had stopped her commercial career in 2014 and joined Ukrainian armed forces when the war started. When the large-scale invasion started, she left her 6-year-old son and continued to fight for his peaceful future. And she was among those Ukrainian defenders who liberated people, who took part in the battle for her son. She informed me about Russian atrocities and the needs of the Ukrainian army in order to stop them. She asked for armored vehicles, because she witnessed a lot of accidents when the Ukrainian military used civilian cars, because they have no armored vehicles. And they were exploded on mines.

Several days ago her car was exploded. And now doctors are fighting for the life of my friend Andriana Susak. So this is not a theoretical discussion. It's a real discussion. We need military support in order to save the lives of Ukrainians, of defenders.

You are going to receive the Nobel Peace Prize next week. Some might say it's a bit odd for a Nobel Peace Prize winner to be talking about trying to obtain more weapons of war. That does seem a contradiction on its face.

I can understand this. It's a really weird situation. And I'm angry that I'm in a situation where I have no legal instrument to stop Russian atrocities. Like when the whole U.N. system can do nothing with it. It's not OK that a human rights lawyer says that only weapons can save the life of people in the occupied territories. It's a very dangerous world to live in. But for the current moment, it's true. We need not only to investigate crimes and to bring perpetrators to justice. We need to prevent new crimes to emerge.

Is there no hope for diplomacy?

Putin sees civilized dialogue as a sign of weakness. This is a very important point. But the problem is that this war is supported by the majority of Russians, because Putin governs Russia not only with repression and censorship, but with a special social contract between the Kremlin elite and Russian people. And this social contract is based on so-called Russian glory. And unfortunately, a majority of Russian people see their glory in restoring the Russian Empire. This means that Russian people will tolerate war criminals in power. But they will not tolerate loser criminals.