Ukraine proves killing of POWs was a Russian war crime

ODESSA, Ukraine — Five days after the bombing of a Russian POW camp killed at least 50 Ukrainian POWs, there is still little evidence of what happened, but Ukrainian officials said Wednesday they were steadily gathering evidence that a massive the massacre was a war crime. committed by Russian troops.

At a preliminary press briefing in Kyiv, senior Ukrainian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, laid out evidence that Russian forces were preparing for mass casualties days before the July 29 explosion.

Satellite images taken prior to the explosion show what appear to be freshly dug graves within the prison complex, they said. A New York Times analysis of images by Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs confirms that some time after July 18 and before July 21, 15 to 20 ground disturbances appeared on the south side of the complex, approximately 6 to 7 feet wide and 10 to 16 feet. long legs first; some later seemed to have been lengthened and merged with each other. Whether these were graves is not known.

In addition, the day before the explosion, Russian forces stationed near the camp opened fire on the Ukrainian military in an apparent attempt to provoke return fire, Ukrainian officials said.

“Realizing that we would not fire back, they carried out the attack themselves,” said one of the speakers. “How they did it needs to be scrutinized.”

Ukrainian officials, along with independent analysts, have warned that estimates so far have been based solely on publicly available information, including a video released by the Kremlin’s own news services, of the site of the explosion near the town of Olenivka in Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s Donbas. region. The lack of verifiable evidence makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions, and the Russian government has so far denied independent investigators access to the site.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, authorized by the Geneva Conventions to check the conditions of prisoners of war, asked the Russian government for permission to visit the site of the explosion on the day of the explosion.

“So far, we have not been granted access to the POWs affected by the attack, and we do not have security guarantees for this visit,” the Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday. In addition, the organization said offers to donate items such as medicine and protective gear went unanswered.

The Russian Defense Ministry has said, without providing any verifiable evidence, that Ukraine’s own armed forces have used a sophisticated U.S. precision-guided missile system known as HIMARS to kill Ukrainian troops.

A U.S. official said late Wednesday that the United States expected that Russian officials were planning to fabricate evidence to blame the Ukrainian military for the attack before journalists or investigators visited the site and, in particular, might have tried to give the impression that Ukrainian HIMARS are to blame. .

Military analysts call this unlikely, but with the information available, it cannot be ruled out.

The Russian video and satellite imagery show evidence of a smaller explosion than those typically triggered by HIMARS missiles shipped to Ukraine. Missiles usually leave a crater, but it is not visible in the pictures. The walls of the barracks and most of the interior are blackened but still intact, and the neighboring building has no visible damage. Interior images show beds still standing and lined up, inconsistent with the strong shockwave seen in other HIMARS strikes.

“There are some clues that point not to HIMARS. But that doesn’t mean I know, or you can tell from the evidence presented, what it was,” said Brian Kastner, Amnesty International’s weapons expert. He added that “it is necessary to leave open the possibility that weapons on either side have misfired.”

Moscow initially said Ukraine struck to dissuade others from turning themselves in and providing information to Russian investigators. On Wednesday, he offered a new explanation as Colonel-General Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Fomin said in a speech that Ukrainian officials ordered the strike after Russia began releasing videos of interrogations of captured militants confessing to attacks on civilians.

“The Kyiv authorities are striving to eliminate witnesses and those responsible for their crimes against their own people,” General Fomin said.

Ukrainian and American officials have denied the Kremlin’s claims, and Ukrainian investigators have hypothesized that an explosive device went off inside the barracks. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s military intelligence released a statement alleging that soldiers held in the prison were being tortured. Previously, some officials suggested that the Russian military killed the prisoners to cover up evidence of abuse.

The killing of soldiers captured in combat will add to Russia’s apparent war crimes since President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on February 2. 24. In the first months, Russian troops killed civilians in residential areas outside Kyiv. In Mariupol, they bombed a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians were hiding on their way to the land of this coastal Ukrainian city. Russian missiles hit apartment buildings, shopping malls, train stations, busy squares and fleeing civilians.

In each case, Russian officials denied the facts on the ground and spun baseless—and often contradictory—conspiracy theories in an attempt to divert blame. In a number of cases, such as the explosion at a busy train station in Kramatorsk in April that killed 50 people, Russia has blamed Ukraine for its attacks, claiming without evidence that Ukraine is conducting so-called false flag operations to expose Russia in a bad light. .

No Russian guards were killed or injured in the explosion at the Olenovka prison, leaving no damage to other buildings nearby.

Some of the prisoners killed were seriously wounded soldiers who were to be exchanged in a prisoner exchange expected to take place in the coming weeks, said Andriy Yusov, spokesman for the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Service. These soldiers “should have been in the hospital, not in the barracks,” the statement said.

Nearly all of those killed were soldiers who fought in the defense of Mariupol and surrendered in May after an 80-day siege of the vast Azovstal steel plant.

In Ukraine, these soldiers became heroes of the war, their portraits can be seen on billboards throughout the country. The idea that the Ukrainian military would try to kill them is unthinkable, the major said. Nikita Nadtochy, commander of the Azov Regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine, whose fighters made up the majority of those killed in Olenevka.

“We understand what it means to be a prisoner,” Major Nadtochy said in an interview. “We understand that they recycle them, and not in the best way.”

After the explosion, Major Nadtochy said, he struggled to gather information about the state of his troops, but remained largely in the dark. The few soldiers he managed to contact in Olenovka, who were elsewhere on the night of the explosion, said they heard only two blows. He confirmed that the lists of those killed and wounded provided by the Russian government consisted mainly of Azov troops, although he suspected that the Russian authorities were covering up the true extent of the massacre.

“To be honest, nothing surprises me in this war, but somewhere in the depths of my soul there was a hope that after all they are people and can adhere to the agreements and rules of warfare,” he said. “But I made sure that these are not people, these are animals.”

The Azov Regiment has become a centerpiece of the Kremlin’s military narrative. Although it is now incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces, its origins as a strongly nationalist volunteer paramilitary group with ties to right-wing fringes have been used by the Kremlin to falsely portray all of Ukraine as fascist and claim that Russia is engaged in “denazification.” “.

Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday declared the Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, sparking fears in Ukraine that Russian prosecutors could end up charging captured Azov soldiers with serious crimes and blocking their return to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange.

In response to the appointment, the National Guard of Ukraine issued a statement confirming the place of the Azov Regiment in the chain of command of the Ukrainian armed forces.

“After the horrific execution of prisoners of war in Olenovka,” the statement said, “Russia is looking for new excuses and justifications for its war crimes.”

Michael Schwirtz as well as Stanislav Kozlyuk from a message from Odessa, Ukraine, Christian Tribert from New York and Kamila Grabchuk from Kyiv, Ukraine.