WASHINGTON — Minutes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional appeal for help to the U.S. Congress, showing a graphic video of obliterated buildings and dead civilians, members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee heard from experts who said the civilian casualties in Russia’s invasion constitute war crimes.

Experts at Wednesday’s hearing presented lawmakers with videos they say demonstrate human rights abuses, arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation are responsible for hundreds of acts of war crimes that include targeting maternity and children’s hospitals and residential buildings, and the indiscriminate use of cluster bombs and other inhumane munitions on civilians.

“We must understand these things in concrete terms,” said Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber. “These people in these places are real husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers being ripped from life early by a marauding army and leader.”

In the nearly three weeks since Russia launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 726 civilians have been killed and more than 1,100 have been injured, according to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

“Investigating these potential war crimes will take years,” said Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator at Bellingcat, an independent watchdog group documenting Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “However, an early awareness of the normality of the civilian casualties is the only way to engage the international community to pressure Russia’s authorities into stopping this cruel war.”

Documenting the evidence of Russia’s actions in Ukraine will be instrumental if Putin or other Russian leaders are tried for their potential war crimes in the future, experts said.

“That is one of the single most critical things that the United States government can do,” said Marc Garlasco, a military adviser at PAX for Peace. “Any support that [Congress] and the intelligence community can provide to those investigations would be absolutely critical.”

The best mechanisms for enforcing war crimes, according to experts, are international tribunals like those held in Nuremberg to prosecute Nazi war criminals after World War II.

But the likelihood an ad hoc international tribunal successfully prosecutes a Russian leader is largely dependent on the outcome of the war and whether it results in a regime change in Russia, said Anthony Clark Arend, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

“Unless at some point Russia consented to the jurisdiction of that ad hoc tribunal, its legitimacy would be called into question, and it would be unlikely that individuals would be brought before that tribunal,” Clark said. “However, there is hope that in a post-Putin world — meaning Putin is no longer in power — it is possible that for Russia to regain legitimacy, [it] may actually consent to such a tribunal.”

While holding Putin and Russia accountable is far from a certainty, lawmakers said Wednesday that officially entering evidence of Russia’s alleged human rights abuses into the congressional record is necessary to honor the memory of those killed and to future prosecution efforts.

“Even in war, certain rules must be followed,” Keating said. “We will not let such crimes go unpunished…The images are real, their locations are real and the perpetrators and their victims are real.”

In his virtual appeal to Congress, Zelensky stressed the need for the United States to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine. President Joe Biden has not supported that idea, but after Zelensky’s appearance, he announced instead $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine.

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