Standing in a war-ravaged suburb outside Kyiv last April, a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court proclaimed: “Ukraine is a crime scene.”
In the months since, more than three dozen investigators on the ground and a team of lawyers in The Hague have been working to uncover evidence of possible war crimes committed as part of Russia’s brutal invasion of its neighbour.
Meanwhile, in a pale yellow conference room in central Moscow around that same time, a very different inquiry was beginning: the International Public Tribunal on Ukraine.
It is the project of Maxim Grigoriev, a member of the quasi-governmental Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. Its stated goal is to “collect data and prove the commission of war crimes by the Kyiv regime, discrimination against its own citizens, and persecution on linguistic, national and ideological grounds.”
The tribunal has held a series of hearings and news conferences since April, with Grigoriev producing and releasing videos of his tours throughout occupied Ukraine.
Opening the tribunal, Grigoriev blasted the Ukrainian government as responsible for “murders and repression,” a “huge wave of neo-Nazism,” and the “persecution of the Orthodox Church.” But, he said, the ICC “simply refuse[d] to accept” all this supposed evidence — which propelled him to hold his own hearings.
Seated alongside Grigoriev at the chamber’s horseshoe-shaped conference table was Russia’s secret weapon in their effort to bill themselves as the victim: Westerners.
Grigoriev had invited Americans, Canadians and Europeans living in Russia to present their own evidence of Ukraine’s alleged crimes, boasting that more than 20 countries were represented at the tribunal.
Since April, the tribunal has pumped out video in English and Russian to domestic social media sites, like VK and Rutube, and to YouTube — collectively racking up millions of views.
But experts say the tribunal is Moscow’s way of combating and discrediting legitimate efforts to hold soldiers, generals and politicians to account for very real atrocities taking place in Ukraine.
And given that many of Grigoriev’s so-called star witnesses have a history of spreading disinformation, there is concern that, as the war drags on, the tribunal could be a powerful propaganda tool for Russia.
“It is pretty crucial to understand that the Russian domestic audience does really matter here,” said Tim Squirrell, head of editorial and communications at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank that studies Russian disinformation.
“One of the reasons that you’ll bring in foreign influencers to testify — in front of what is, effectively, a sham tribunal — is to try to show the Russian people, the domestic audience, that other people are also on their side.”
Boycott of international proceedings
Since the start of Russia’s invasion, investigators — both professional and amateur — have documented evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
There have been allegations that Russian forces have employed rape, torture, summary executions and kidnappings, as well as carried out targeted attacks on civilians, chemical facilities and nuclear plants.
In many cases, the allegations have been backed up by multiple eyewitness testimonies, social media posts by the perpetrators, intercepted radio and phone conversations, video and photographic evidence, and satellite imagery.
Some of that evidence has implicated Ukrainian fighters of abuses, too, though those incidents appear to be largely isolated. Video emerged in April, for example, appearing to show Ukrainian fighters executing an injured Russian soldier.
It’s this body of evidence that’s serving as the starting point for the International Criminal Court’s investigation. Other international bodies, including the International Court of Justice and the Court of Justice of the European Union, have opened cases as well, and Ukraine has launched its own domestic legal proceedings. In late May, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty and was convicted in the shooting of an unarmed civilian.
Russia has declined to participate in any of the processes. It boycotted proceedings at the International Court of Justice earlier this year — and the court later ordered Moscow to halt its invasion, although it cannot enforce such a ruling.
The International Criminal Court, which is on the ground in Ukraine collecting evidence, has the power to issue arrest warrants for those who, it believes, are responsible for the crimes directly or who issued the illegal orders.
Squirrell says Grigoriev’s hearings are a direct response to those legitimate war crimes investigations.
“A tribunal specifically is a mechanism which tries to convey authority, which tries to convey expertise and tries to convey gravitas to the proceedings,” he said. “So the idea is that you effectively adopt the costume of law and justice, and that allows you to lend credence to the findings of the tribunal.”
Ties to conspiracy theories
The Russian tribunal on Ukraine is not entirely novel: Grigoriev has launched similar inquiries before, accusing the U.S. of crimes against humanity in Syria; Ukraine of war crimes in the Donbas region; and the Syrian opposition of chemical weapons attacks against civilians in that country’s bloody civil war — despite international consensus that dictator and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad is responsible.
He has done all this as an appointed member of the Civic Chamber, which is notionally independent of the Russian executive — but, like most apparatuses of the Russian state, is considered to be unwaveringly loyal to President Vladimir Putin.
The witness list for Grigoriev’s tribunal includes two Americans, a Canadian, a German, three French citizens, an Israeli and a host of others from across Europe; most are billed on the tribunal’s official website as “journalist.”
But several of those witnesses have a long record of spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.
John Mark Dougan — a former Florida police officer who was under investigation for computer hacking when he fled to Moscow in 2016 — appeared multiple times at the tribunal. Over the years, Dougan has advanced the conspiracy theory that an assassinated Democratic staffer, not Russia, was responsible for leaking Hilary Clinton’s emails to WikiLeaks and, more recently, that America is running clandestine bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
At his first appearance in April, Dougan testified that Ukraine was putting civilians in harm’s way on purpose, as human shields. “These are actually war crimes by any definition,” he told the panel through a Russian translator.
Russia has repeatedly made this claim during the war, but evidence has shown consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure. Russia, for example, hotly denied targeting a hospital in Mariupol, then later claimed, without evidence, that the hospital had been used as a staging ground for the Ukrainian military.
The World Health Organization estimates that Russia struck some 200 Ukrainian hospitals in just the first 100 days of the war. And the Ukrainian Health Ministry said earlier this month that over 800 health-care facilities have been damaged, with 14 health workers killed in the strikes.
Canadian blogger at tribunal
Dougan told CBC News that while he considers himself a journalist, he has accompanied Russian forces to the front lines, joined Russian fighter jets on sorties over Ukraine and trained Russian fighters on anti-tank weaponry.
“I’m going to give them a way to fight back,” he said in an interview.
Another tribunal witness is Eva Bartlett, a Canadian blogger who has lived in Russia since 2019 and is a frequent contributor to RT, the Russian state television channel.
Bartlett became a frequent guest on RT amid the civil war in Syria, repeating the Syrian government’s line that opposition forces, even medics, were carrying out the chemical weapons attacks — “false flag” attacks, she called them, designed to slander Assad. For that, she was welcomed to Syria to participate in a government-sanctioned tour of the war-ravaged country. She would later testify on behalf of Assad’s government at the UN, though her claims have been repeatedly debunked as misleading or false.
“Here, we see the same situation that we saw in Syria,” Bartlett told the tribunal in April. “The population is terrorized by Ukrainian forces.”
She insisted that “people in the West, they are just brainwashed by the media, and they are just willing to support Ukraine.”
Bartlett declined an interview request for this story, instead appearing on RT in June — which ex-employees say has its editorial line dictated by the Kremlin — to deride the CBC as Canadian “state-funded media,” saying they do “the bidding of the Canadian government.”
‘Serve as a counter-narrative’
While Grigoriev’s tribunal has none of the legitimacy of the international courts — it has no standing in international law, nor does it appear to have any legal powers under Russian law — it has nevertheless proved a helpful forum to advance Moscow’s talking points.
“The ‘international’ members of the Tribunal all have long histories of advocating for Russia’s interests,” reads an April report from the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) researcher Elise Thomas.
“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.”
The independent CIR, which has investigated Russia’s information operations during the invasion, concluded the tribunal aims to “generate propaganda and serve as a counter-narrative to emerging evidence of probable Russian war crimes, such as the events in Bucha.”
In early April, Russia asked the United Nations to investigate the mass killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. Days later, citing compelling evidence that Russian forces were responsible for the killings, the United Nations General Assembly booted Russia from its human rights council.
Tribunal witnesses’ reach on social media
Squirrell and his colleagues have studied the impact these Western influencers have had on Russia’s information operations. The think-tank found that, as of May, these Western influencers boasted “a total of 1.6 million subscribers … on YouTube, with videos on their channels viewed nearly 188 million times.”
A video of Dougan’s tribunal testimony, translated to Russian, has racked up 3.6 million views on YouTube. Another video, featuring German Thomas Röper testifying in Russian, has nearly six million views.
While Squirrell and his team can’t say what, if any, benefits tribunal witnesses may have received for their testimony, he noted that “several of these influencers have been able to reside in Moscow for a number of years now, which is unlikely to come without some form of benefit attached to it.”
Their appearances on Russian state TV are also likely to come with compensation, he said.
While some individual videos have racked up views online, particularly amongst Russian speakers, the tribunal itself has not been given much airtime on Russian television.
But Squirrell says Grigoriev’s mission isn’t just about reach: It’s about generating evidence — or the appearance of it — that they can submit to future, legitimate war crimes prosecutions.
“The idea is you can clog up the gears of that system and make it extremely difficult to actually prosecute war crimes,” he said. “And [if] that evidence is rejected, that means that you can claim that the whole thing is a ruse, is a farce, and that Russia is the victim once again.”
“So it’s a bit of a win-win for them in terms of what they’re able to do with the evidence that they collect from the so-called tribunal.”
In recent days, Grigoriev testified at the UN Security Council, presenting evidence collected by the tribunal purporting to “the spread of neo-Nazism in Ukraine,” according to Russian state news service TASS.