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Don’t Look Away from the War Crimes in Ukraine

Mounting atrocities in Russia’s invasion.
August 2, 2022
Don’t Look Away from the War Crimes in Ukraine
ODESSA, UKRAINE - 2022/07/31: A little girl standing next to a woven camouflage net in front of Ukraine flags during the event. "My Country Ukraine" a charity event was held on a holiday at the Summer Theatre of the City Garden. The goal was to collect funds for the needs of the military forces of Ukraine. (Photo by Viacheslav Onyshchenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The reports of Russian atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine, which had been mounting steadily since the February 23 invasion, escalated dramatically last week. On Friday morning, more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed, and 75 others wounded, by an explosion in a detention center near Olenivka, a town on Russian-held territory in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). While the Russians have blamed the Ukrainian military for the attack, there are many indications the Russian side is responsible. Two days later, top Ukrainian businessman Oleksiy Vadatursky, the head of the grain export company Nibulon, and his wife Raisa died in the shelling of Mykolaiv, a town near Odessa; Ukrainian authorities said that the Vadaturskys’ bedroom was directly struck, suggesting the use of a guided missile—which, if true, would make it a targeted hit. And, most shockingly, a grisly video circulated by Russian accounts on the Telegram social media network showed a Russian soldier severing the genitals of a Ukrainian POW with a box-cutter knife before shooting the victim in the head.

For now, none of the official Ukrainian claims are fully confirmed, though the evidence for the authenticity of the POW mutilation and murder video is strong and getting stronger. The difficulty of establishing facts and assigning responsibility in the fog of war is well known. But, after the confirmed and horrific reports of Russian atrocities in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs before the Russian armed forces’ withdrawal from the area, the Russian side hasn’t earned much benefit of the doubt.

The facts of the Olenivka attack remain murky. Russia says that that the detention facility, officially known as the Volnovakha Correctional Colony No. 120, was struck by one of the U.S.-made HIMARS precision-guided missiles that have recently shifted the war’s momentum in favor of Ukraine. Yet even this scenario would not get Russian forces off the hook: According to the Geneva Convention (Article 19), prisoners of war must be held in “camps situated in an area far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger.” Olenivka is a town on the front line.

That aside, the Russian version of the attack seems increasingly less credible. For instance, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti has shown footage of HIMARS debris allegedly found at the site of the explosion—but there is nothing in the video to indicate the current location of the debris, let alone the location where it was collected. The Twitter account @RedIntelPanda, a part of the open-source intelligence community, has also flagged RIA Novosti’s previous use of the same footage in a report on a Ukrainian strike on a railroad. All this points to a crude Russian fabrication—one that would be unnecessary if the Russian version were accurate.

Frederick Kagan and colleagues at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) note that video of the actual attack site shown by RIA Novosti shows “fire damage but not the sort of damage that a HIMARS strike would likely have caused.”

Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told the New York Times that all the evidence points to a Russian false flag operation. His argument, as summarized by the Times, is that “expert analysis of photos and videos released by Russia indicate[s] that the center of the explosion was inside the building, with the building’s exterior practically undamaged” and that, suspiciously, there were no Russian soldiers or staffers among the casualties—at least according to a spokeswoman for the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” (The Russian Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, has said that “eight employees of the isolation ward received injuries of varying severity.”)

A Russian “false flag” attack would have an obvious purpose: to pin a war crime on the Ukrainians. But statements by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and by Ukrainian military intelligence allege an even darker purpose: to literally bury the evidence of torture and executions of POWs carried out at the holding facility—and also, perhaps, to cover up the embezzlement of funds allocated for the care of those POWs.

One salient detail is that the Olenivka POW detention center housed many fighters from the controversial Azov regiment who surrendered in Mariupol in May after a monthlong siege inside the Azovstal steel plant. The regiment has a complicated history of far-right connections that it may or may not have left behind, and Azovtsy (Azov men) figure prominently in the Russian propaganda narrative of “Ukrainian Nazis.” After the Mariupol surrender, Kremlin peddlers of war hysteria such as TV host Vladimir Solovyov angrily inveighed against the idea of freeing the captured “Nazis” in POW exchanges, asserting that they should be tried by a tribunal of Donetsk separatists. DPR head Denis Pushilin asserted earlier this month that “over a hundred” Azov fighters were headed for trial by either court or tribunal. (The Donetsk “courts” are so notoriously lawless that it makes little difference.)

The Kremlin has claimed that Ukraine wanted to eliminate the Azovtsy because, as it were, they knew too much. According to Russian Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, “This was done with one goal in mind: to prevent a new Nurnberg trial where captured Azov Nazis would testify. Washington and Kyiv are removing witnesses of their crimes against humanity.” Another claim, circulated by the pro-Kremlin site, is that Kyiv wanted to avoid the public relations disaster of Azov fighters turning against the Zelensky government. But these allegations fall apart under the most perfunctory scrutiny. If the captured Azov fighters were so valuable to the Russian side, why hold them in a war zone and not in a more secure location? In fact, a civilian from Mariupol who was held at the same facility until early July told the New York Times that after the arrival of the Azov prisoners, Russian soldiers started firing rockets toward Ukrainian positions from locations near the near the barracks—in the words of Times reporters, “seemingly trying to provoke Ukrainian forces into firing at the prison camp.”

The Russian side has plenty of motives for wanting to kill a few dozen Azovtsy—even besides wanting to pin their murders on Kyiv. For one thing, they pose an inconvenient dilemma: Treating them as prisoners of war runs counter to the “Azov Nazis” narrative, while treating them as criminals without evidence of crimes could be too awkward a pretense to maintain—even for Russia and its puppet statelets in Donbas. Unfortunately, it is also highly likely that the Azov prisoners would have been singled out for torture, practically a national sport for the gangsters that preside over the DPR. Indeed, accounts by civilian prisoners released from the “correctional colony” confirm the beatings and torture of prisoners, especially the Azovstal defenders. That lends a grim credibility to claims that the POWs may have been killed to cover the torturers’ tracks.

If the bombing was carried out by the Russians, that doesn’t entirely resolve the question of the perpetrators’ identity. The Ukrainian intelligence agency, for instance, points the finger at the Wagner Group, a private mercenary company extensively involved in the fighting in Ukraine alongside regular Russian troops and linked to atrocities in Ukraine, Africa and Syria. A statement from Ukraine’s defense ministry also asserts that “the organization and execution of the terrorist attack were not coordinated with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation” and that the operation was directly overseen by Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin crony who also had a hand in U.S. election meddling. And in a darkly ironic twist—considering all the talk of “Azov Nazis”—the Wagner Group has been credibly reported to have fascist and neo-Nazi connections.

So far, most of these theories amount to little more than speculation, and almost none of the details of the attack (including the exact numbers of the dead and wounded) have been independently confirmed. The ISW has said that “available visual evidence appears to support Ukrainian claims more than those of the Russians”; however, the ISW has also stressed that it is “unable to assess the nature of the event or the party responsible with any confidence at this time.” Both Moscow and Kyiv have asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. But while the Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that it was inviting experts from both bodies to investigate, Red Cross officials said on Sunday they had yet to receive permission to visit the site.

It’s difficult to imagine a grimmer story than that of the POW detention center attack, but the graphic video of sexual mutilation and murder takes this war’s atrocities to a horrifying new level. In the video, first posted on pro-Russian Telegram accounts—apparently as a threatening message to Ukrainian mothers not to send their sons to war—Russian soldiers can be seen abusing a man in a Ukrainian camouflage uniform who has been bound and gagged. The prisoner is beaten and kicked; then, his pants are ripped apart, and his genitals are sliced off, held up for the camera, and thrown away. (While some clips from the video have been made available on various news sites, I came across only one—to which I will not link—that shows the actual mutilation.) The victim is then shot dead, and his body is dragged through the street on a rope.

Several reliable sources, including a reporter from the Bellingcat investigative group, have said that the video is most likely genuine and not manipulated in any way. The main perpetrator can also be seen in a Russian TV clip, filmed in June, showing pro-Russian separatists and Chechen units working together. (He has since been identified as Vitaly Aroshanov.) Notably, Russia has yet to issue any official comment on this horrific video. And there are other records. According to the Kyiv Post, “Further [Russian Telegram] posts include photos of the body of a Ukrainian soldier with severed hands and his head planted on a fence.”

It is worth noting that back in March, the Russian propaganda machine went into overdrive when the head of a Ukrainian volunteer frontline mobile hospital, Gennadiy Druzenko, said on Ukrainian television that he had directed his staff to “castrate captured Russian soldiers,” whom he described as “cockroaches, not people.” Russian media erupted in self-righteous outrage: “An apotheosis of hatred,” declared the website Bloknot in a typical flourish. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation announced that it was going to open a criminal case against Druzenko, who was also “set to be put on Russia’s international wanted list.” This, despite the fact that the medic quickly apologized, blamed his words on “emotions,” and categorically stated that the hospital “does not castrate anyone and is not going to.”

Apparently, in the Russian moral calculus, an admittedly ugly comment about sexually mutilating prisoners of war—even when no such mutilations occur—is a war crime; an actual sexual mutilation captured on video is just a tough message to the “Ukro-Nazis.”

There is a postscript to last week’s apparent orgy of atrocities. On Friday, the Russian embassy in London shared a “news” video with text so inflammatory that it is now appended with a notice saying it violates Twitter’s “hateful conduct” rules. (It was still allowed to stay up for reasons of “public interest.”)

The Russian embassy has a cover: The tweet is ostensibly not stating the embassy’s own position but quoting an elderly Mariupol resident with pro-Russian sympathies who is shown claiming his house was shelled from the Azovstal side. (Under what circumstances the video was filmed after Mariupol fell to the Russians is anybody’s guess, but it’s a fact that some local residents are pro-Russian.) But this cover is no more than a fig leaf. That a Russian embassy in a major European country would tweet out such a statement is a shocking demonstration of the extent to which incitement to war crimes has been normalized in Russian discourse.

Writing on the Russian-language website, which is currently banned in Russia, Russian historian Boris Sokolov—who taught at the Russian State Social University until he was forced into retirement in 2008 over an article criticizing Russia’s war in Georgia—notes that mistreatment of POWs has a long and dishonorable history in Russian (and Soviet) warfare. It was, Sokolov notes, extremely common on the Russian front during World War II: Captured or surrendering German soldiers were routinely shot, bayoneted or beaten to death, and sometimes tortured or mutilated. (Sokolov cites an account of wounded German men “lying in plaster” in a coastal hospital in Crimea being reportedly removed from their rooms by Russian soldiers, doused in water, and left to freeze on the icy shores of the Black Sea.) According to Sokolov, Soviet command not only condoned but encouraged such behavior, partly to keep Soviet soldiers from surrendering by sending the message that they could expect the same treatment. But rage at invaders who were themselves often implicated in atrocities toward civilians played a part as well: Sokolov quotes comments from Soviet soldiers who saw brutality toward German prisoners, including summary executions, as a form of rough justice.

By contrast, writes Sokolov (in my translation),

In the current Russian-Ukrainian war, the country that has been attacked is trying to comply with the norms of international humanitarian law as much as possible, while the aggressor country constantly violates these norms.

Comparisons between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany may be over the top. But the latest reports from the front highlight the revolting hypocrisy of Russia’s talk of “denazifying” Ukraine. Never mind the Nazis—some Russian troops now seem to be taking a page from the ISIS playbook.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.