Ivan, 31, spends his days trawling through photos, videos and personal accounts of atrocities: rape, torture, summary executions, illegal weapons, forced disappearances.
The task is not what Ivan ever saw himself doing. Just a few months ago, he was planning to launch a video-game development studio.
Looking away, however, is no longer an option in Ukraine — not since Russia blanketed the country with troops, bombs and brutality. Ivan started volunteering for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs just days after Russian troops crossed the border, offering his expertise in media, marketing and business intelligence.
The ministry is gathering and analyzing publicly available data, a process known as open-source intelligence, to build international court cases and inform the public. Ivan’s job is to verify information flooding into the ministry and present it to an international audience — vital work for the propaganda war raging alongside the physical one.
“I’m realistic. I know there’s a limit to how much you can look at something very uncomfortable that is quite far away,” said Ivan, who is from Kyiv. “But I’d hate for people to shrug and say, ‘I’ve been hearing about war for so long, what do you want me to do about it?’”
Ivan is just one part of an unprecedented, public and almost real-time undertaking to track, document and verify Russian war crimes. Hundreds of volunteers and activists are working alongside the Ukraine government’s police, lawyers and prosecutors in a sprawling effort to collect evidence that can prove Ukraine’s case to the world and prosecute Russia for launching an unjustified invasion.
Journalists who previously investigated the government are now helping it investigate. NGOs that once criticized government offices are now assisting them. Government institutions long seen as ineffectual and even corrupt are trying to convince citizens they can now be trusted.
Ukrainian authorities are already investigating more than 11,000 potential Russian war crimes since the invasion began, according to the national police. On Wednesday, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the first war crimes trial of the war. The International Criminal Court also has launched a probe after over 40 countries made a referral.
Ukraine’s evidence-collecting mosaic is an audition for its law enforcement and judicial system. The volunteer journalists and activists want their presence to not only ensure justice and accelerate the war’s end, but bring long-desired legal reforms in Ukraine. The outcome will also test whether the international community’s bullish rhetoric will be matched by its commitment to actually prosecute war crimes as the conflict grinds on.
For Ivan, he hopes his work will help maintain international pressure to stop the war and hold Russia to account. It’s an endeavor that is inherently personal and emotionally taxing.
“There’s only so much you can take in one sitting,” he said. “People are documenting the destruction of their own cities.”
Human-rights groups assemble
It started at 5 a.m.
That’s when Ukrainians woke to full-scale war on February 24. And it’s the time Russian law enforcement has been conducting raids for years in Crimea after annexing it from Ukraine in 2014, searching and arresting activists, particularly Crimean Tatars.
So it made for a fitting name — the 5 a.m. Coalition — when human-rights groups banded together to monitor war crimes.
Tetiana Pechonchyk helped establish the group, which grew out of a core of Ukrainian human-rights organizations that have been tracking Russian crimes since the Crimean annexation.
“It’s a symbolic time,” said Pechonchyk, who heads the ZMINA human-rights center. “Because Russian forces went unpunished … and persecuted people in Crimea all this time without penalty, they decided they could start this new wave of aggression.”
Pechonchyk’s in-laws recently lost their house in Irpin to Russian shelling — her relatives managed to escape. “We’re all inside this,” she said. “And we’re all victims.”
The coalition now encompasses 27 organizations. Over 100 monitors, and specialists in areas such as attacks on health care infrastructure, crimes directed at children, genocide, or the role of propaganda in starting and escalating the conflict, are working without pay.
The coalition uses methods and resources first developed in response to the Syrian war.
One is the Berkeley Protocol, a set of standards and guidelines developed with the United Nations Human Rights Office to verify and analyze open-source information online for use in international criminal and human rights probes. Another is the Mnemonic archiving system, whose preservation and verification strategies have been used to catalog human-rights abuses in Syria, Sudan and Yemen.
The government mobilizes
The Ukrainian government has similarly sought to weave technology into its evidence harvesting.
It has developed digital platforms where citizens can contribute evidence, such as an extra function on Diia, the ubiquitous government app used for administrative services. Now, alongside paying taxes or registering a car, Ukrainians can submit evidence of pillage and destruction.
To reach those without online access or digital know-how, as well as the 12 million Ukrainians displaced by the war, the Office of the Prosecutor General has enlisted its staff who themselves had to flee.
In a secondary school now housing refugees in Drohobych, a small town in western Ukraine far from the frontlines, Kyiv district prosecutor Vasyl Pavlyuk has swapped courtrooms for a classroom where he interviews some of the other 18,000 people who have sought shelter in Drohobych.
Pavlyuk moved with his family back to his hometown in late February when Russian forces threatened to take Kyiv. Initially, he continued attending bail hearings in Kyiv via video link. Now, war-crimes documentation is his main job.
“We talk to people, and even before the official interview they tell us how someone was shot in their car, or someone’s home was destroyed,” he said.
Statements describing Russian tank sightings, looting, and attacks on people, houses and civilian infrastructure are sent weekly to the regional prosecutor, and from there to Kyiv. The final goal is a trial at the International Criminal Court and a Nuremberg-style criminal tribunal, said Pavlyuk, who believes that not only international law but Russia itself will judge and sentence Russian President Vladimir Putin in the future.
“Time will bring this, I’m more than confident,” he said.
Not everyone he approaches for testimony shares this confidence.
“Older people feel it’s their duty to give evidence, and believe there will be a result,” he said. “Younger people are more skeptical. I understand them; people who ended up here just dream of going home and restarting their lives that have been ruined. But lots of them leave their contact numbers.”
Finding common cause
Some skepticism may stem from Ukrainians’ traditionally low level of trust in their government, which cratered to just 5 percent in late 2021, according to one poll.
Since then, Russia’s brutality has created a common enemy and cause that has brought together people more used to being on opposite sides.
Investigative journalism collective Slidstvo.Info used to expose corruption and the frequent failures of Ukraine’s judiciary and law enforcement. When Russia invaded, the staff at first feared it had little to offer the war effort.
“We thought that as investigative journalists, our knowledge and tools are not useful in war,” said editor-in-chief Anna Babinets. “But then we realized that war is a huge crime, and we know how to investigate crimes.”
The team has turned its expertise to identifying the Russian soldiers in Ukraine, drawing names from public sources like social media, statements from the Ukrainian authorities, news reports and witness accounts — all cross-referenced with details sometimes drawn from their own on-the-ground investigations. They hope their findings can be used to bring individuals to account for crimes.
The switch from investigating state prosecutions — or the lack thereof — to sharing investigations with authorities, and even holding training sessions for state prosecutors on using open-source intelligence techniques, entailed some soul searching.
“We’re still journalists; we’re not part of the government or law enforcement system,” Babinets said. “As citizens, of course, we are on the same side, because we want this war to finish, but we know especially investigative journalists are usually not on the same side.”
Organizations in the 5 a.m. Coalition also carry a history of clashes with officialdom.
Now, alongside collecting evidence, they hope to improve the long-term capacity of domestic judicial and law enforcement bodies and encourage Ukraine to adopt legislation they argue will enable the country to more effectively probe and prosecute these crimes.
“It’s important to recognize that 90 percent of the crimes will be investigated by Ukrainian organs,” said Pechonchyk.
Despite eight years of conflict with Russian proxies in the country’s east, Ukraine’s legal code does not have separate criminal articles for specific war crimes, or sufficient legal instruments to prosecute them, Pechonchyk said. Nor has Kyiv ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which gives the court jurisdiction in Ukraine over war crimes (the country has twice declared that it will accept the court’s authority).
Additionally, corruption and a politically influenced judiciary — the issues Slidstvo used to investigate — remain problems.
“It’s very painful that we have come to this new wave of crimes with such a weak legal and law enforcement system that we can’t call effective or objective,” Pechonchyk said.
Eight years of taking Russia to court
Ukraine has, however, been building its links to international courts ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fueled an armed conflict in the east.
According to Oksana Zolotaryova, head of the MFA’s international law department, Ukrainian institutions have gained experience from seeking legal redress for Russia’s breach of international law in Crimea and the east.
In 2017, Ukraine filed two cases to the International Court of Justice — a civil court for disputes between countries, separate from the individual criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court. Ukraine has also been involved in another case involving the Dutch passenger flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014. While the case was handed to Dutch jurisdiction, Ukraine has been involved in collecting evidence.
After the full-scale war began in February, Ukraine filed a new case to the International Court of Justice, accusing Russia of criminal aggression and misuse of a genocide statute as a pretext to invade (Moscow baselessly claimed Kyiv was committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in east Ukraine). A provisional ruling found no evidence of genocide and ordered Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Russia ignored it and filed a counterclaim, which Ukraine has just countered in turn.
There are also increasing international calls to set up a special criminal tribunal, which would try Russia for the crime of aggression. Such a tribunal would allow the prosecution of Russia’s leaders, and its ruling could be enforced, unlike those of the International Court of Justice, which has no effective enforcement mechanism.
“We need a tribunal because [the aggression] was Putin’s direct order,” said Pechonchyk. “If Russia hadn’t started the war with an act of aggression, there wouldn’t be any war crimes.”
How — and when — the evidence of crimes being collected from so many sources in Ukraine will feed into these legal challenges is not yet clear.
“It’s a mess,” Zolotaryova admitted. “But something very good usually comes out after there is a mess.”
It took five years from the shooting down of MH17 to the indictments of four individuals. Now as the war in Ukraine continues, she hopes courts will move faster.
“We need to act more quickly, we need to bring justice to those who suffered,” she said.
In realizing that goal, Ukraine has unprecedented support. Zolotaryova says her email inbox is filled with messages from international lawyers offering pro bono services. Several countries have sent legal and forensic experts to assist Ukrainian authorities and voted for additional resources for an International Criminal Court investigation. Ten countries have used universal jurisdiction to open their own cases against Russia.
For Pechonchyk, who has battled since 2014 for recognition of Russian human-rights abuses and crimes in Ukraine, this international recognition has come late, but is welcome.
“I’ve seen too many times when justice didn’t happen, so I have no real confidence,” she said. “Russia built its war machine for eight years, and the West helped. But now we know the world understands us, and we’re not just alone and drowning inside.”