US officials pledged to hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine. Congress wants receipts.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, right, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, center left, listen as President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House, on Monday, May 16, 2022.

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are launching a full court press to hold Russia accountable for war crimes it is accused of committing in Ukraine. 

A pair of House and Senate committees will hold hearings in mid-April to bring attention to atrocities such as the civilian massacres in Bucha and Mariupol that U.S. officials are helping the Ukrainian government investigate and prosecute.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, plans to have the Ukrainian prosecutor general and victims of war crimes appear before the panel on April 19.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco will testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the same day about the work the Department of Justice's war crimes and asset forfeiture teams are doing.

The asset-seizing task force, which Monaco oversees, has been prosecuting Russian oligarchs who violate U.S. sanctions or commit related financial crimes and liquidating their assets.

"The purpose of the hearing is to make a commitment in public that we're going to be all-in on the legal lane. That we're going to continue to work together to hold [Vladimir] Putin and his cronies accountable," Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. "And, I think, equally important, is to put a face on the victims of this war."

Attorney General Merrick Garland, right, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, center left, listen as President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House, on Monday, May 16, 2022.

Graham co-sponsored a bipartisan measure that passed in December alongside sweeping changes to U.S. war crimes statutes that allowed the executive branch to use forfeited assets to provide financial assistance to Ukraine, with congressional reporting and oversight. 

At the hearing — which committee aides previewed to USA TODAY and the Department of Justice confirmed Monaco will give testimony at — Graham said he hopes to receive a progress report on DOJ's efforts.

The Republican senator said he also wants Monaco to deliver the message that "we're not quitting" and U.S. "resolve is greater today than it was last year."

He and Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are also pressing U.S. officials to support the creation of a special international tribunal where individual Russian leaders could be held criminally responsible for the “crime of aggression,” or waging an unprovoked war against a sovereign country. 

The proposed special tribunal is one of several legal avenues that the international community is pursuing, and the Ukrainian government is pushing for, as nations grapple with how to prosecute senior Russian leaders for crimes they are accused of committing in connection to the war.

Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations that Russians are committing war crimes in Ukraine, where it maintains it is conducting a "special operation."

“Any person in the U.S. can relate to the situation. A brutal, aggressive killer just got into your house and is killing your children, and is raping people for no reason, just because they thought they can do that,” Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova told USA TODAY.

“It's in the national security interest of the United States, as the country that believes in freedom, believes in sovereignty, believes in territorial integrity, believes in the world order that was put together after the World War II to ensure that if these principles are violated by some brutal aggressor, that as the global community, we can do something."

Suspected war crimes: Ukrainian children taken to Russia brings back fear, memories of a similar Nazi effort

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L) questions Attorney General Merrick Garland as Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) (R) listens during a hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 01, 2023 in Washington, DC.

As of March 23, law enforcement agencies in Ukraine had launched investigations into 75,801 alleged crimes of aggression and war crimes. That includes the killing of 465 children, with another 940 wounded. Another count from the Ukrainian government puts total civilians killed at 9,883 with another 13,254 wounded, as of last Wednesday

U.S. and Ukrainian officials said the numbers do not include possible atrocities in occupied territories that their law enforcement officials do not have access to.

“That's just scratching the surface,” McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said. “This is probably the most documented war, but we still don't have a lot out of Mariupol, just because we haven't had access to it.” 

ICC puts Putin on notice:International Criminal Court members issue arrest warrant for Putin over war crimes

Senators set their sights on war crimes tribunal

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin this month for his alleged involvement in war crimes in Ukraine.

But under the prevailing international treaty that created the ICC in 2002, known as the Rome Statute, experts say the court lacks the authority to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression, because Moscow is not a signatory to the treaty.

As a result, no venue — domestic or international — currently exists that can put Kremlin leaders on trial for the crime of aggression, experts say. 

The United States also is not a signatory to the ICC treaty due to concerns that it could be used to target American troops overseas. 

Graham said the ICC arrest warrant is still "a game changer" and said he would be speaking to Interpol about issuing a "red notice" for Putin if he travels to a place where police can take him into custody. 

He and Durbin were part of a bipartisan group of senators who sent President Joe Biden a letter last Friday urging the administration to assist the ICC with its investigations, including through financial support and information sharing.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that "the Ukrainian people deserve justice" for war crimes and crimes against humanity that are being committed in the nation. She said the U.S. "supports a range of investigations to identify and hold accountable those who are responsible," including through Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin's office, the United Nations and the ICC.

"We are also working to expose Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine so the world can see what Russian forces are doing," she said.

The European Parliament passed a resolution earlier this year calling on member states to work with the United Nations and Ukraine to form a special tribunal that would complement the ICC’s work. The Netherlands has offered to house the tribunal.

In the interim, the European Commission has announced the establishment of an International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine that will operate out of The Hague, where the ICC is also based

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack said in a statement that the United States supports the development of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression "in the form of an internationalized court that is rooted in Ukraine’s judicial system, with international elements."

She said that over the past two years, "the United States has worked hard to improve and reset our relationship with the ICC," including through the lifting of sanctions, and is "identifying specific areas where we can support ICC investigations and prosecutions."

"We also offer rewards for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of foreign nationals accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide before the ICC," she said. "We do not discuss what specific support we provide to the ICC generally, as those issues may implicate the investigations and the safety of victims and witnesses."

Biden administration ramps up war crimes investigations

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Durbin chairs, have been actively exploring ways the U.S. can further assist Ukraine with its efforts to prosecute alleged war crimes and rebuild its damaged civilian infrastructure.

“Sadly, I think there’s going to be ample evidence of this type of outrageous conduct,” Durbin said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland is among the U.S. officials who have made trips to Ukraine this year to help bring attention to suspected war crimes.

Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee before his trip that U.S. “forensic agents are on the ground now” assisting Ukrainian investigators and that he had met multiple times with Ukraine’s prosecutor general to discuss needed support.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A war crimes prosecutor (C) and Ukrainian police forensic team examine the exhumed remains of Olena Trofimova, 51-year-old, killed on June 25, 2022 during the Russian invasion, at the cemetery of Davydiv Brid, near Kherson, southern Ukraine, on February 16, 2023.

Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., said Kyiv appreciates the Biden administration's help and backs the efforts by the ICC and European Union to investigate and prosecute war crimes.

She said that Ukraine also wants to see an international tribunal formed under the United Nations infrastructure that can prosecute Putin and the government officials close to him who ordered the invasion

“The only really missing part right now is the crime of aggression,” Markarova said. “It's very important also to prosecute the crime of aggression, which is a mother of all the crimes, and also prosecute the top leadership.”

It will be difficult to hold Putin personally accountable, because he will not travel to countries where he could be arrested, lawmakers who have studied the issue said.

“This is going to be a very long affair. The number of war crimes that have been committed in Ukraine is just staggering,” Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “And obviously, it's going to be very difficult to chase every one of those, but they're going to do their best, I’m sure, to chase the most important ones, and the higher ranking a person they can find the better off the prosecution is.”

Not all GOP lawmakers in agreement

McCaul said he intends to use the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to put Putin on trial on the world stage and make clear to the American people what the Russian leader is capable of. “I find that that's persuasive. It moves the dial,” McCaul, a former federal prosecutor, said. 

“They may be very unpleasant photos of a murder” and other atrocities allegedly committed by Russian troops, McCaul said. “But I think it's necessary to show the American people what is happening.”

Some of his Republican’s colleagues have already said the hearing will not persuade them to provide additional financial support to Ukraine when the current tranche runs out.

“I don't believe that the aid that we're giving Ukraine is making the war crimes less likely. So to showcase the war crimes as a strategy to facilitate more aid presupposes that the aid will stop the war crimes and I believe that not to be true,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fl., said in an interview.

Gaetz, a member of the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, recently introduced a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution that would halt further military and humanitarian aid.

While he said he would consider supporting U.S. participation in a special tribunal at the appropriate time, Gaetz added, “I think that discussion is a little premature right now while towns are still getting shelled with rockets.”

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @fran_chambers.

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