As the new Ukrainian counter-offensive launched to retake occupied areas of their country moves forward, Edward Westermann says speed is of the essence to ensure the ability to document war crimes committed by Russian forces. Westermann, a military historian at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and noted scholar of genocide during wartime is an excellent source on how acts of wartime genocide are investigated and eventually prosecuted.

“The international community that monitors and investigates war crimes against civilians is watching closely to see how much ground is taken in this counter-offensive and how successful it will be in those areas and communities where atrocities have been committed,” he says.

Westermann points out that a slower offensive may give Russian forces more time to remove evidence and cover up war crimes, including genocide. “More speed and momentum means decreasing the time they would have to relocate civilians in those areas, including victims and witnesses and removing or destroying evidence that could potentially be uncovered later,” he explains.

“The genocide in Ukraine obviously is going to continue as long as Putin is still in power,” says Westermann, Regents Professor of History at Texas A&M-San Antonio, who served as a J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 2018-2019, as Commissioner of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission from 2019-2021 and who was named a 2023 Piper Professor by the Minnie Piper Stevens Foundation for his teaching and research. 

“The more ground and the more of these areas that Ukraine gets back means that there's going to be more and more information and reports available about what actually took place there,” he says. “So I think you're going to see that the number of investigations at the local level are going to increase once they get these areas back under [Ukrainian] control,” notes Westermann.

“How quickly that happens, to reduce the ability for the destruction of evidence and the population transfers that are taking place out of these areas, whether they're forced or whether they're voluntary, is going to continue to be of interest, especially with respect to the idea of genocide and of further war crimes,” says Westermann.

According to Westermann, the attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians warrant both labels of war crimes and genocide. “The brutal assault on Ukraine moved from the definition of war crimes to that of genocide when Russian and their mercenary allies engaged in widespread acts of atrocity many months ago against the Ukrainian civilian populations,” Westermann says, “including acts of sexual violence, forced deportation, summary executions, indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, and the aerial obliteration of major urban centers.”