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E.U. proposes special tribunal to investigate Russian crimes in Ukraine

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appears at a symposium in Lithuania. (Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press)
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BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday proposed options for setting up a specialized court to try Russia’s crimes in Ukraine, a potential step toward a broader, international effort to hold the country to account for its war of aggression, but only if the United Nations is on board.

The plan, announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is a response to Ukrainian calls for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian leaders for the invasion. “Russia must pay for its horrific crimes, including for its crime of aggression against a sovereign state,” she said in a statement.

“This is why, while continuing to support the International Criminal Court, we are proposing to set up a specialised court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression.”

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The International Criminal Court has already launched its own investigation into allegations against Russia of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it does not have jurisdiction to prosecute other crimes.

Von der Leyen said the E.U. is ready to start working with the international community to build international support for the idea, potentially a tall order given deep division over Russia’s war in Ukraine, including at the United Nations.

Senior E.U. officials conceded Wednesday that it would be difficult or impossible to get such a proposal through the U.N. Security Council, but ventured that it might one day be possible to get support in the U.N. General Assembly.

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“We believe it would be possible to have a specialized court to deal with the crime of aggression,” said a senior E.U. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief the press. “It would require U.N. backing and an international agreement. But we do believe that this is possible.”

In an “options paper” published Wednesday, the European Commission explored two potential solutions: the creation of an ad hoc tribunal for the crime of aggression or a “hybrid court” that internationalizes a domestic court.

Von der Leyen also announced Wednesday that the E.U. will be working with partners to make sure “Russia pays for the devastation it caused with the frozen funds of oligarchs and assets of its central bank,” though plans to do so appeared to be in the early stages, with details scarce.

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Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the E.U. has frozen billions of euros in Russian assets. Von der Leyen said the E.U. was exploring “a structure to manage these funds and invest them.” She said, “Once the sanctions are lifted, these funds should be used so that Russia pays full compensation for the damages caused to Ukraine.”

A technical document published Wednesday sketches out how this might actually happen, exploring, for instance, the legal steps that might be necessary for assets to actually be confiscated. Von der Leyen said the next step was working with allies to find a way forward. “Together, we can find legal ways to get to it.”