Explainer: Russia's "International Public Tribunal on Ukraine"
On April 20th 2022, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova announced that the Russian Investigative Committee would be working with the International Public Tribunal on Ukraine to gather “information on the Kiev [sic] regime’s crimes.”
So what is the International Public Tribunal on Ukraine? Here's an explainer.
What exactly is the Tribunal, and who's on it?
The creation of a self-professed ‘International Public Tribunal on Ukraine’ was agreed on March 1st, 2022, at a conference held by the Russian Civic Chamber.
The stated goal of the Tribunal is to “collect data and prove the commission of war crimes by the Kiev regime, discrimination against its own citizens, persecution on linguistic, national and ideological grounds.”
The Tribunal intends to provide this evidence to the Russian Investigative Committee, the International Criminal Court and to the public.
In a press conference with Russian state media on March 11th, the members of the Tribunal were unveiled.
The Tribunal is chaired by Maksim Grigoryev. Grigoryev is a member of the Russian Civic Chamber and Director of the Foundation for the Study of Democracy. For many years, he has played a key role in creating and disseminating Russian propaganda in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, including orchestrating smear campaigns against the Syrian White Helmets.
Alexander Brod, a former member of the Russian Civic Chamber and currently director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, is also a member of the Tribunal, as are two representatives from the pro-Russian separatist Ukrainian regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.
The ‘international’ members of the Tribunal all have long histories of promoting Russian propaganda, and many are now also based in Russia.
This includes, in part:
Elena Branson, a duel US-Russian citizen who was charged in March 2022 with acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia while in the US. She is currently believed to be based in Moscow.
Eva Bartlett, a Canadian blogger who helped to promote conspiracy theories and smear campaigns targeting the White Helmets and now promotes pro-Russian content about the conflict in Ukraine. As of 2021 Bartlett was living in Russia.
Andrew Korybko, an American based in Moscow where he writes for a range of outlets on political topics, including for Russian and Chinese state media.
Nicolas Charas, a French citizen who appeared in a public discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 while Charas was a student. Charas declared that he wished to dedicate his life to improving Russian-French relations, which Putin described as a noble goal. Charas has since appeared multiple times in Russian state media, and been described variously as a journalist, an ‘information policy specialist’, and a political scientist when commenting approvingly on the Russian voting process.
Valeriy Dvoynikov, a former Soviet wrestler who later settled in Belgium where he founded the Peter The Great Foundation with the support of the Russian Ambassador and the city of Liège. Dvoynikov has engaged in a range of political activities which touch on Russian interests, for example hosting a roundtable in October 2021 to discuss Ukraine’s future relationship with the EU.
Dragana Trifkovic, a controversial Serbian politician and director of the Center for Geostrategic Studies. Trifkovic has a long history of supporting Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, including reporting from the ground in separatist held areas and participating as an election observer in annexed Crimea.
What is the Tribunal doing?
According to reports in Russian state media, the Tribunal (primarily via chairman Maxim Grigoryev) has so far been focused on collecting interviews and evidence of alleged Ukrainian war crimes in the separatist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. This has included Grigoryev traveling through the regions conducting interviews with Ukrainians who have either fled or potentially been abducted from Mariupol. It is unclear how actively involved other members of the Tribunal are in this work.
On April 18th Grigoryev gave his first public report on the work of the Tribunal, in which he claimed to have found copious evidence of Ukrainian war crimes, including linked to Nazi forces within the Ukrainian military. He emphasised that all of this evidence would be given to the Russian Investigative Committee and to the International Criminal Court.
On April 21st, the Tribunal’s work was also centre-stage at a conference of the Russian Civic Chamber entitled "Evidence of massive war crimes of the armed forces and national units of Ukraine in Mariupol.”
However, it is clearly not just Russian officials which Grigoryev is seeking to reach. On April 7th Grigoryev created an English-language Telegram channel which he titled ‘WAR CRIMES IN UKRAINE.’ On April 13th, Grigoryev also created an associated English language chat channel.
Both channels have been used to share interviews with Ukrainians, particularly people from Mariupol, with English subtitles. Interviewees repeat claims that the Ukrainian government and army are overrun by neo-Nazis, which has been a core theme of Russian propaganda around its invasion of Ukraine.
They also describe being attacked by the Ukrainian Army, discriminated against as Russian speakers and being abandoned to fend for themselves by the Ukrainian government amidst the chaos of war. In the Telegram posts Grigoryev exhorts users to share the posts widely.
It is already apparent that these channels will be used for sharing more than just interviews with survivors of alleged war crimes. On April 23rd, for example, Grigoryev shared a subtitled interview with Alexander Borodai. Borodai is a current member of the Russian Duma and a former Prime Minister in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014.
In the interview, Borodai repeats the false Russian propaganda narrative that the Ukrainian government is a ‘Nazi regime’ and suggests that Russia may conduct a unilateral trial for Ukraine’s alleged war criminals. Grigoryev thanks him for the information, and assures him it will be shared on international platforms.
As of April 23rd the main Telegram channel has a relatively small following of just over 4100, and the chat channel has only 46 members. However, some individual posts are clearly achieving a level of traction. One post from April 22nd, for example, has been viewed over 16,500 times in less than a day.
Grigoryev’s content appears to be making inroads into Western anti-vaccine and conspiracy groups on Telegram. The below screenshot, for example, shows Grigoryev’s post shared into an anti-vaccine and conspiracy theory Telegram channel with over 77,500 members.
Grigoryev’s traction in these channels is particularly concerning because these groups have proven to be extremely receptive to Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine, in part due to the relationship which Russian state media cultivated with them over the course of the pandemic. They have also proven to be adept at amplifying and expanding upon Russian disinformation narratives, for example the now widespread ‘US biolabs’ conspiracy theory.
What should we make of this?
The suffering of civilians in all regions of Ukraine which have been drawn into the conflict has been immense, dating back to Russia’s first covert invasion in 2014 and vastly expanded in Russia’s second invasion in February 2022. Allegations of war crimes committed by both Russian and Ukrainian forces must be treated seriously, and access should be given to experienced, professional and independent investigators to collect evidence and establish the facts. As soon as possible, efforts should be made to hold potential perpetrators from all sides to account.
However, nothing about this Tribunal suggests that it is a credible and impartial attempt at investigating war crimes.
Its leader, Maxim Grigoryev, has a long history of generating pro-Russian propaganda, including obfuscating likely Russian war crimes and waging smear campaigns against Russia’s opponents such as the White Helmets.
The ‘international’ members of the Tribunal all have long histories of advocating for Russia’s interests. Most have no experience whatsoever in war crimes investigations, raising the question of whether they were selected primarily for their foreign citizenships in order to be able to claim that the Tribunal is not purely a creation of the Russian state.
To date the primary role of the Tribunal appears to be to generate propaganda and serve as a counter-narrative to emerging evidence of probable Russian war crimes such as the events in Bucha. It also serves as a vehicle for reaffirming core Russian disinformation narratives about the invasion of Ukraine, in particular the false claims that the Ukrainian government and military are overrun by neo-Nazis.
This propaganda appears to be intended for both domestic and international audiences, and may be gaining traction with Western conspiracy theory communities who have already proven receptive to Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine.