Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks Announcing Four Russia-Affiliated Military Personnel Charged with War Crimes in Connection with Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Remarks as Delivered
I am joined today by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Chris Wray, Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Jessica Aber, and ICE Acting Deputy Director Staci Barrera.
Also here are Eli Rosenbaum, the head of the Department’s War Crimes Accountability Team, Christian Levesque, Lead Prosecutor for the War Crimes Accountability Team, and David Sundberg, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office.
On February 24, 2022, Russia commenced its full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
In the nearly two years since, we have all seen invading Russian forces commit atrocities on the largest scale in any European armed conflict since the Second World War.
We have all heard the accounts of Ukrainian civilians targeted and executed, Ukrainian children forcibly deported, and Ukrainian women and girls sexually assaulted.
And as the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice.
That is why the Justice Department has filed the first ever charges under the U.S. war crimes statute against four Russia-affiliated military personnel for heinous crimes against an American citizen. Congress passed the U.S. war crimes statute nearly 30 years ago to give us jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed against American citizens abroad.
In an indictment returned yesterday in the Eastern District of Virginia, we have charged four Russia-affiliated military personnel with war crimes against an American citizen living in Ukraine. The charges include conspiracy to commit war crimes, including war crimes outlawed by the international community after World War II — unlawful confinement, torture, and inhuman treatment.
Like all defendants in the U.S. criminal justice system, the defendants in this case are entitled to due process of law and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
We allege that in April of 2022, two commanding officers of Russia-affiliated forces, Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, as well as two lower-ranking soldiers, whose first names are Valerii and Nazar, committed war crimes against an American citizen who had been living in Ukraine since 2021.
That victim was living in Mylove, a small village in Southern Ukraine, and was not participating in the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. As such, the victim was what is known as a “protected person,” under international law.
After Russian forces invaded Mylove, the victim was abducted from his home by three of the defendants — Mkrtchyan, who was one of the commanding officers, and Valerii and Nazar, the lower-ranking soldiers — and their co-conspirators.
During the abduction, we allege that those defendants threw the victim to the ground while he was naked, tied his hands behind his back, pointed a gun at his head, and beat him with their feet, their fists, and the stocks of their guns.
We allege that they forced him into a building that Russia-affiliated forces were using as a jail, and into a closet that they were using as a jail cell.
We allege that, as they interrogated him, they tortured him. They beat him, again, with a gun. They punched him in his chest and stomach. They threatened to shoot him. They stripped off his clothes and took pictures. One of their conspirators threatened to sexually assault him.
And during the interrogation, when the victim’s answers did not satisfy the defendants, we allege that Budnik, who was also a commanding officer, threatened the victim with death and asked for his last words.
We allege that Nazar and other co-conspirators then took the victim outside. There, they forced him to the ground and put a gun to the back of his head. The victim believed he was about to be killed.
They moved the gun just before pulling the trigger, and the bullet went past his head. After the mock execution, the victim was beaten and interrogated again. At one point, he was told through an interpreter that he was “going to sleep,” and he was told by Mkrtchya: “goodnight” — leading the victim to believe, again, that he was about to be killed.
During his 10 days detained by Russia-affiliated forces, the victim in this case was tortured, threatened with sexual assault and execution, forced to perform manual labor, and beaten in the head, chest, and stomach with the soldiers’ feet, their fists, and their guns. Again and again, he believed he was going to die.
These charges against four Russia-affiliated military personnel are the Justice Department’s first criminal charges under the U.S. war crimes statute. They are also an important step toward accountability for the Russian regime’s illegal war in Ukraine. Our work is far from done.
I want to recognize the Criminal Division, including the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and the War Crimes Accountability Team, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, including Homeland Security Investigations. Their diligent and skillful work is what made these historic charges possible.
I also want to recognize the incredible courage of our partners in Ukraine, specifically our counterparts in the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office. In the midst of war, Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators have risked their lives to pursue justice for the Ukrainian people. We are honored to stand alongside them.
Finally, I want to recognize our partners in the international community.
We will continue to work closely alongside them to gather evidence and build cases so that when the time comes, the United States and our partners will be ready to ensure accountability for Russia’s war of aggression.
This is an historic day for the Justice Department that builds on a long history.
The War Crimes Accountability Team prosecuting this case is modeled in part on the Justice Department’s decades-long effort to identify, denaturalize, and deport Nazi war criminals in the United States.
During that effort, the Department’s Office of Special Investigations brought more than 130 cases against perpetrators of Nazi crimes.
In the vast majority of those cases, the perpetrators were not identified until decades after they committed their horrific crimes.
This history should make clear that the Justice Department — and the American people — have a long memory. We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine. And we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice.
Throughout our work, we will continue to put our trust in the rule of law.
The rule of law is the best answer we have to crimes that cannot truly be answered.
The rule of law is how we pursue true accountability for the individuals responsible for those crimes, and how we deter future aggression.
And the rule of law is how we pursue justice in a way that protects people, and protects our shared humanity.
I am now honored to turn the podium over to Secretary Mayorkas.
Updated December 6, 2023