Pinpointing responsibility for Russian atrocities in Bucha

In November I wrote a blog post asking the question, “What organization and what commanders have directed the campaign of atrocity, murder, rape, mutilation, torture, and abduction in Ukraine? Is there good investigative reporting on where orders for these unspeakable atrocities and crimes against humanity are coming from?” Now, thanks to some stupendous reporting by the New York Times, we know part of the answer. In Bucha, the Times has established “a mountain of evidence” based on painstaking analysis of digital and phone evidence that major atrocities and murder were committed by one elite Russian regiment, the 234th Regiment (link).

The Times identified the 234th Regiment, a paratrooper unit based in the city of Pskov in western Russia, as the main culprit in the Yablunska Street killings. Airborne units like this are considered among the best trained and equipped in the Russian military. Evidence of the 234th’s involvement includes military equipment, uniform badges, radio chatter and packing slips on munitions crates. (New York Times, December 28, A6)

The reporting is remarkably detailed, providing names and photos of members of the 234th who used cell phones to call home to Russia that had been taken from murdered residents of Bucha. “We found the soldiers. One of them is Vladimir Vasilyev, posing here in a paratrooper uniform. He used the phones of two victims: Vitalii Karpenko; and Ivan Skyba, who survived.”

Here are four incidents the Times was able to document.

March 4, 2022 When Russian forces arrived in Bucha on Yablunska Street, a group of Ukrainian men who had been guarding a checkpoint decided to hide inside a nearby home. But Russian soldiers carrying out a house-to-house clearing operation found them. Neighbors Tetiana and Serhii Chmut watched as Russian soldiers marched the guards, and the resident who housed them, to a Russian base and forced them onto their knees with their hands behind their heads. Russian soldiers executed seven of them. Another man was already lying there dead. Drone footage filmed the same day of the killings captures the men’s bodies lying in the courtyard of the base.

March 5 When Iryna Filkina, a 52-year-old mother, rounded the corner onto Yablunska Street with her bike, the gunner in a Russian armored vehicle aimed his cannon at her and fired, killing her. A commanding officer was overseeing the operation just 75 yards away. Sheltering in an adjacent home were Iryna Abramova (above left), her father and her husband, Oleh. When Russian soldiers barded into their home, searching for men of military age, Iryna pleaded with them, explaining that Oleh was not in the military. They dragged him into the street and executed him. Oleh was among at least eight people killed by Russian soldiers in around three hours on March 5.

March 5 Russian soldiers moved farther down Yablunska Street, toward an intersection that was a pathway to Kyiv. Armored vehicles and machine gunners took up positions to protect the rest of the convoy. Anyone who crossed their path became a target. Drone footage of the scene shows Russian soldiers, and the bodies of their victims piling up on Yablunska Street. Meanwhile, Viktor Shatylo was documenting the killings from his nearby home. His videos and photographs reveal some of the victims killed by those Russian soldiers: 68-year-old Volodymyr Brovchenko and, in a van, Zhanna Kameneva, who was trying to escape Bucha with her neighbors Maria, Tamila, and 14-year-old Anna.

March 18 As they moved into homes along Yablunska Street, soldiers from the same Russian military unit continued to kill residents and neighbors weeks into the occupation of Bucha. Volodymyr Lisovskyi was living next door to Russian soldiers and filmed them as they executed at least three men on March 18. In his video, two of the men, Dmytro Shkirenkov and Oleksandr Chumak, can be seen on their knees, surrounded by Russian soldiers. The third victim, Maksym Kireev, is already lying dead on the ground. Drone footage captured three hours after Volodymyr filmed the scene shows the three men lying motionless on the ground in the same location.

This is a truly amazing effort of forensic journalism, and a huge contribution to the question of how to hold Russia responsible for its war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine.

The Times has produced a series of documentary videos based on this research that are available on Youtube (link). The video includes this horrific and honest assessment at 3:10:

These killings were not random acts of violence, but part of a methodical, planned, and lethal operation that may amount to crimes against humanity.

It is inescapable from the evidence provided in this investigation that these atrocities were indeed planned and ordered by commanding officers. The world needs to know: whose orders led to the methodical killings and other atrocities in Bucha? These are crimes of war, and the commanders must be called to account. That much is obvious. What the Times investigative report demonstrates is that there is a very broad range of evidence on the basis of which war crimes investigators can assess responsibility.

It is interesting to learn that the 234th Regiment is already subject to sanctions by the United States Department of State, based on this list of crimes.

The Department of State 28.06.2022 is designating three Russian Federation military units, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its subordinate 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, as well as the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, pursuant to E.O. 14024 Section 1(a)(i) because these entities operate or have operated in the defense and related materiel sector of the Russian Federation economy. Multiple, credible reports have documented summary executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, beatings of detained persons, and destruction of civilian property by Russia’s forces in Bucha, Ukraine this year. In March 2022, Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment encamped on Bucha, Ukraine’s Yablunska Street, which became an epicenter of violence against civilians and other human rights abuses in Bucha. According to credible reports, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division has been directly implicated in violence against unarmed civilians in Bucha, as well as beating detained persons. Credible reports also indicate that next to a wall of the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment’s base on Yablunska Street in Bucha, Russia’s forces executed numerous detained Ukrainian citizens. According to credible reports, the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment has also been directly implicated in the destruction of civilian property such as homes in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade also operated in the vicinity of Yablunska Street and other locations in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade has been described as the “butchers of Bucha.” According to credible reports, while operating in Bucha, this unit killed numerous civilians, detained civilians, beat detained civilians, seized and damaged civilian homes and property. (link)

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