Reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine are just the beginning

A+ A-

Hellish scenes from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha spark fears of what awaits in Mariupol.

Just over a month ago, the small city of Bucha was a leafy suburb like any other. Affluent and dotted with parks, it was the kind of place that drew in young families from nearby Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, looking for some space to stretch their legs and the promise of a yard. On Saturday, as the Ukrainian military retook control of the town, they found bodies and limbs strewn along the sides of the road, some with their hands bound behind their backs in a telltale sign of summary execution. Some 270 people have been buried in two mass graves, the town’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, told the Washington Post. In images, black body bags and ghostly white limbs can be seen protruding from the dirt. 

Situated to the northwest of Kyiv, Bucha saw fierce fighting in the early days of the war, as Russian forces encountered fierce resistance as they tried and ultimately failed to advance on the capital. The city’s main thoroughfare, Vokzalnaya, is littered with burned out Russian tanks struck by a Ukrainian ambush in the early days of the war.

“It looks like movies about the Second World War,” said Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian member of parliament who was in Bucha on Sunday and Monday. In front of the wreckage of one home, its garden fence still standing, Rudik said she saw a homemade sign with the words, “We are peaceful people,” written carefully in black marker in an apparent bid to keep the Russian troops at bay. “It didn’t help them,” she said.

As Russian forces withdraw from the Kyiv area to focus on their efforts in eastern Ukraine, the gruesome trail of destruction left in their wake has laid bare the realities of Russian occupation. Rights advocates fear that the horrors revealed in Bucha may only be the beginning, as reports of atrocities committed by Russian forces in other parts of the country start to come to light and calls grow for Ukraine’s international allies to take stronger action to halt Russia’s war in Ukraine. During a press conference with his British counterpart, Liz Truss, on Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the atrocities uncovered in Bucha were likely only the “tip of the iceberg” of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday reiterated his conclusion that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is a war criminal who should face trial for his crimes. The Ukrainian defense ministry has released the names and personal details of Russian troops who were in Bucha when some of the worst crimes were committed. Foreign Policy was unable to independently verify the names on the list. 

In a report released on Sunday by Human Rights Watch, the group documented a number of apparent war crimes committed by Russian forces in occupied areas of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, including rape, summary execution, and threats to civilians. In one instance in Malaya Rohan, a village in the Kharkiv region that was then under Russian control, a 31-year-old woman told researchers she was repeatedly raped by a Russian solider in a school building, where around 40 civilians were sheltering in the basement. 

“He told me to give him [oral sex],” she said. “The whole time he held the gun near my temple or put it into my face. Twice he shot at the ceiling and said it was to give me more ‘motivation.’” Human Rights Watch withheld her name.

In Bucha, a woman described how Russian forces rounded her up with her neighbors and took them to a small square near an office building where soldiers checked their phones and documents and asked if they were members of Ukraine’s territorial defense units. The woman—whose name was also withheld in the report—described how Russian soldiers brought five young men to the square and ordered them to kneel before covering their heads with their t-shirts and shooting one of them dead. “Don’t worry. You are all normal, and this is dirt. We are here to cleanse you from the dirt,” the Russian commander told the people gathered in the square, according to the witness. 

Unable to gain access to Russian-held territory, human rights researchers have had to piece together accounts of atrocities using witness testimony and photographic evidence. The cases documented so far are likely only the beginning of the horror. “I definitely think that we are only going to understand the full scale of it in the days, weeks, or even months to come,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who worked on the organization’s latest report. 

On Sunday, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said in a Facebook post that 410 bodies had been recovered from parts of the wider Kyiv region, which was occupied by Russian forces, and 140 had already been examined by prosecutors and other specialists. 

The scale of death and destruction seen in Bucha, a city of roughly 36,000 people, may only be a fraction of what awaits investigators in Mariupol, which was home to almost half a million people before the war and has been under siege by Russian forces for weeks. “It’s terrifying to think what we’re going to see when and if Ukrainian forces retake Mariupol,” Gorbunova said. 

Ukraine has accused Russia of forcibly relocating 40,000 civilians from Mariupol to areas in eastern Ukraine held by Russian proxies and into Russia itself. Foreign Policy has been unable to independently verify these estimates. But satellite imagery released last week by U.S-based Maxar Technologies and verified by the Washington Post indicated that Russian proxies in Novoazovsk, to the east of Mariupol, have constructed a camp to host civilians fleeing Mariupol.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) was unable to verify the exact number of people alleged to have been transferred from Mariupol to temporary shelters established by Russian-backed armed groups. But based on reports from late March that over 4,000 food packages were distributed daily, “we assume that the number of displaced persons from Mariupol is considerable,” the spokesperson said in an email. 

In some instances, people interviewed by HRMMU staff indicated that they were told they could only be evacuated from Mariupol, where food and water have been scarce for weeks, to Russian-controlled territory despite expressing a clear preference to go to areas still under Ukrainian control. 

Gorbunova said Human Rights Watch has also interviewed a number of people who were only given the option to evacuate to areas under Russian control. “In some cases, it’s not even that they were forcibly put on a bus and taken to Russia. They were told, ‘You either go to Russian-held territories, or you go to Russia, or you die, effectively,” said Gorbunova, who noted that the human rights group was still investigating claims of forced relocation and weren’t yet ready to comment on the scale of the issue. 

In February, Foreign Policy reported that the United States had obtained intelligence that indicated that Moscow was preparing lists of prominent Ukrainian political figures and members of civil society to be targeted for arrest or assassination in the wake of a Russian invasion. 

Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Ukrainian human rights group ZMINA has documented more than 90 cases of journalists, human rights activists, local officials, and religious leaders going missing, with many alleged to have been eliminated by Russian forces. Although some have been released, more than 40 remain unaccounted for, said Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of ZMINA’s board. The group relied on eyewitness accounts, family testimonies, and reports from local authorities to document the missing persons cases. 

Olga Sukhenko, the head of Motyzhyn, a village near Kyiv, was found killed on April 2, following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the region. Sukhenko and her family, who were found dead with her, had been on ZMINA’s list of abducted persons since March 23, said Anastasia Moskvychova, a researcher with the group, intensifying fears that some of those reported as missing could already be dead. 

The alleged abductions have been largely concentrated in newly occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, such as Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mariupol, Moskvychova said, where Russian forces have faced fierce resistance from the local population. Pechonchyk said she feared Russia is targeting prominent individuals from these communities, such as journalists and local mayors, in a bid to “terrify locals” into submission. Although ZMINA has focused its efforts on documenting cases of missing members of civil society, she said the number of missing civilians likely numbers in the hundreds. 

Held by Russian forces, the abductees are sometimes made to film videos, which are used for Russian propaganda or as leverage against family members who are officials or members of the media, Moskyvchova said. “Some people are held for hours. Some people are missing for weeks,” she said. Last month in Melitopol, Russian forces took hostage the 75-year-old father of the editor in chief of the local news site RIA-Melitopol, Svitlana Zalizetska, demanding that she turn herself in. Zalizetska’s father was released when she agreed to turn over control of her news outlet. 

The Ukrainian government, its Western allies, and international institutions are readying efforts to investigate allegations of war crimes and collect and preserve evidence for potential future tribunals. Biden doubled down on his speech last week in Warsaw. “This guy is brutal. And what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it,” he told reporters. The United Kingdom has appointed war crimes lawyer Howard Morrison to serve as an independent advisor to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova while the Lithuanian and Polish prosecutors general also announced plans last week to work together with Venediktova’s office on collecting evidence of possible war crimes. 

The gruesome images to emerge from Bucha drew swift international condemnation over the weekend and were described by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as the kind of “brutality against civilians we haven’t seen in Europe for decades.” The revelations fueled discussion of ways to further isolate Russia diplomatically and economically. On Sunday, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the European Union should discuss banning imports of Russian natural gas, which accounts for some 40 percent of the continent’s gas needs. Officials in Berlin have previously balked at calls to limit energy imports, underscoring its potential impact on European economies. On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that further U.S. sanctions on Russia would be announced later this week. 

“I know the United Nations will probably gather and write another very angry email to Putin or something,” said Rudik, the Ukrainian parliamentary deputy, who said the U.N. and NATO were established to prevent these kinds of atrocities from taking place. “Let me tell you this: They failed. They failed in their missions.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Source: Foreign Policy Magazine