Throughout modern history, conflicts have taken place that has often involved brutal massacres and even genocides. After World War One, the world started to convey what was and what was not considered to be war crimes. This, unfortunately, would not be truly ratified until the Nuremberg Trials and Geneva Conventions after the nightmarish Holocaust.
Internationally indicted war criminals rarely turn themselves in voluntarily and must be forcibly brought before the international court of Law. Some others fled and attempted to create new aliases in their new host nations. With this came intelligence operations to assassinate known war criminals.
History of Capturing War Criminals: Operation Nemesis
Revenge assassinations against perpetrators of heinous acts are not new, and several jaw-dropping operations have taken place. Armenia would start the hallmark of retribution with Operation Nemesis.
Operation Nemesis was the covert action of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to liquidate Ottoman officials responsible for the genocide against them. The Young Turks, who were the perpetrators, fled throughout the world after WWI after the Ottoman Court sentenced them for war crimes in absentia. The architect of the genocide, Talaat Pasha, fled to Germany.
Tasking strong-willed and educated Armenians to conduct reconnaissance on the whereabouts of the Young Turks, the ARF shocked the world when Soghomon Tehlirian shot and killed Talaat Pasha at direct range in broad daylight in Berlin. He was then immediately arrested and given a fair trial in Germany.
In his trial, Tehlirian stated, “I killed a man, but I am not a murderer.” The German court found him not guilty as the trauma he and his people faced was too much to bear, along with the guilt that members of the Young Turks had been given amnesty in the country. In the next few years, all the prominent Ottoman officials involved with the genocide would be hunted down and killed.
History of Capturing War Criminals: Operation Finale
In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the foundations of the nation of Israel, intelligence agencies of Tel Aviv sought Nazi war criminals who escaped the Nuremberg Trials. Numerous war criminals were either given haven by the US or Soviet Union for their own scientific programs or fled to South America thanks to collaboration by elements of the Catholic Church—one of the most notorious Nazi criminals on the run was Adolf Eichmann.
Adolf Eichmann was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust and oversaw the logistics of Jews, Roma, Poles, and others to death camps. After escaping his US internment camp, he was smuggled by a sympathetic bishop to Argentina.
Israel, which had a vast amount of Holocaust survivors, took it upon itself to capture or kill highly valued officials of the Third Reich. In Operation Finale, Mossad and the Shin Bet captured Eichmann in Argentina and extradited him to Israel, where he would be found guilty and hanged. The shock of the operation sent other well-known war criminals to constantly change their locations and hide their identities the best they could.
History of Capturing War Criminals: Operation Wrath of God
During the 1972 Summer Olympics in then-West Germany, the Black September Palestinian militant group was responsible for the Munich Massacre. The massacre saw eleven Israeli athletes killed after a botched ambush by the West German police and executions by the militants who gunned them down on their escape helicopters.
With growing rallying calls to bring justice into its own hands as the international community had failed to, Mossad was once again tasked with the operation of liquidating Black September members. These covert assassinations would be known as Operation Wrath of God.
Operation Wrath of God took place in several different nations as the Black September group scattered in hopes Interpol would not trace their tracks. Mossad assassinations occurred in Italy, France, Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Belgium, and Norway.
Known War Crimes in Ukraine
Ukraine has seen an abundance of war crimes committed against them since Russia’s full-fledged invasion. Filtration camps and mass graves have been geolocated in Mariupol. Summary executions of civilians have been geolocated in Bucha, Irpin, and Izium with survivors telling haunting tales. One of the most appalling war crimes has been the kidnapping of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children, which Vladimir Putin himself was indicted by the International Criminal Court for ordering.
Kyiv has called for an international war tribunal for Moscow’s central leadership and military officials. This will be increasingly hard to commence with Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council and partners such as China protecting them. Already conducting targeting operations against Russian military leadership and collaborators, Ukrainian intelligence could very much conduct their own Justice outside of the court of law.
Why Western Nations have been reluctant to Prosecute
The Pentagon, which has amassed a vast amount of signal and human intelligence of war crimes in Ukraine, has blocked the Biden Administration from sending The Hague or Kyiv critical evidence which can be used to prosecute Moscow’s elite. This is due to fears of a precedent being sent to where US military war crimes could also be investigated. Washington currently has a policy against the Rome statute that would make it legal to invade The Hague.
The politicization of war crimes could untimely be a blowback Washington cannot afford as allies who face potential conflicts in the future will be hesitant to look for the US in intel gathering. Throughout the War in Ukraine, Kyiv has grown increasingly frustrated over the hesitance of Washington’s policy on whether they genuinely want Ukraine to defeat Russia.
SBU and Partisan Operations
Ukrainian intelligence (SBU) and partisans in the occupied territories have already conducted operations against high-value targets. Since the war began, dozens of assassinations of collaborators have taken place in Kherson, Melitopol, and Mariupol.
On August 20th, 2022, prominent far-right Russian ethno-nationalist Darya Dugina was killed in a cat bombing. That October, US intelligence agencies stated their belief that Ukraine had ordered the operation.
Prominent Russian oligarchs and their family members have fled around the world to circumvent sanctions and evade arrest. As millions of Ukrainians speak Russian, including SBU agents, this allows for more clandestine operations to take place globally in the future if Kyiv decides to take retribution into its own hands.
Operations Nemesis, Finale, and Wrath of God showed the capabilities of organizations and intelligence agencies to conduct their own retributions against known war criminals. With Kyiv’s increasingly sophisticated intelligence apparatus and military capabilities, it is very much possible they could resort to their own clandestine operations if the international community were to fail them again.