Russian war crimes in Ukraine are of interest, Mr Tillerson
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reported to have asked G7 ministers why America should care about Ukraine, which the Reuters report says “has been racked by a separatist conflict for the last three years”. The question, after Russia’s invasion and annexation of another country’s territory, is frankly astounding. The response from European leaders was rather better, possibly because they have every reason to understand how little the events in eastern Ukraine resemble a ‘separatist conflict’. All of Russia’s neighbours, including the three Baltic states who are members of NATO, are acutely aware that Russia will not stop if it is not forced to.
Tillerson’s question was put on the eve of a bitter anniversary. Exactly three years ago, on April 12, 2014, former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin and a contingent of heavily armed Russian and pro-Russian militants seized control of official buildings in Sloviansk in the Donetsk oblast. Although the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] had been declared a few days earlier, it was with Girkin’s offensive that the war really begun – a war armed, manned and financed by Russia. Girkin was for a long time the so-called DPR defence minister, while another Russian – Alexander Borodai – called himself the ‘prime minister’. They were removed only after a Russian Buk missile was used to down the Malaysian airliner MH17 on July 17, 2014. With real sanctions finally on the table over this undoubted war crime, Putin clearly saw it as advisable to install local leaders.
Both the Russian leaders of these so-called republics and their Ukrainian successors answer to Moscow. Given the overwhelming evidence of grave war crimes committed, this is of major importance. It is also significant that men wanted by Ukraine for war crimes, such as Girkin, Borodai, neo-Nazi sadists Alexei Milchakov and Jan Petrovsky have faced no consequences back in Russia, unlike three men whom the Russian Investigative Committee either wants to prosecute or has already begun prosecuting for fighting for Ukraine.
Girkin is believed to have been a Russian military intelligence officer until 2013, and played a major role in the invasion of Crimea, effectively leading the armed paramilitaries who helped Russian soldiers gain control. While the soldiers retained their ‘polite people’ image, the paramilitaries were responsible for multiple abductions, killings and other forms of violence against those peacefully opposing Russian occupation.
This continued in eastern Ukraine. In January 2016, Girkin gave an interview to the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda in which he openly admitted to ordering extrajudicial killings in Donbas. The interview was widely reported, and presumably the constant mention of it providing material for the International Criminal Court at the Hague prompted those in power to get it taken off the site.
No measures have ever been taken to even question Girkin over his effective confession to war crimes, although one St. Petersburg lawyer, Arkady Chaplygin, has demanded that Russia initiate criminal proceedings against Girkin. Chaplygin’s formal demand stated that the crimes fall under the jurisdiction of Russia’s investigative bodies since they were carried out by a Russian national, and the foreign state (Ukraine) had not passed any sentences.
Girkin had been asked how they had fought looting, and answered “through executions". He claimed that they had a ‘military court’ and imposed the legislation introduced by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1941. A lot was made of this admission, although his aide Igor Druz had informed the BBC of killings back in August 2014. While Girkin admitted only to killing ‘looters’, Druz was entirely open, saying that the militants had killed a number of people “to prevent chaos”.
In the same interview, Girkin openly admitted that his men had provoked the conflict in Donbas. “The first shots, albeit in the air, were from the rebels, carried out by our unit”.
There is a huge amount of evidence against Girkin himself, including ‘death sentences’ with his signature which were found by foreign journalists after the militants fled in early July 2014.
31-year-old Oleksy Pichko was ‘sentenced to death’ and shot by firing squad for stealing two shirts and a pair of trousers from a neighbour’s home. Vitaly Solovyov was 36 when he was arrested in the home he shared with his elderly grandmother, accused of looting and sentenced to death by the same grotesque ‘tribunal’. Another such ‘trial’ and execution order was of a 25-year-old student who had arrived in Donbas to defend his country.
Girkin dismissed the likelihood of his ending up before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in part because he knows too much. Given the number of prominent militant fighters who have been killed in ‘terrorist attacks’ or died under unexplained circumstances, Girkin’s expectations may well be realistic.
One of the most disturbing parts of the Komsomolskaya Pravda program was the way Girkin was introduced to the audience as “hero of the Russian Spring” who “defended Donbas” as the audience’s ancestors had once defended Russia.
During the months that Sloviansk was under militant control, it was hard to keep up with the abductions and hostage-taking and there were a large number of cases of torture and killing as well as extrajudicial executions. Girkin had his headquarters in the Sloviansk SBU [Security Service] building. Hostages were held in the basement there, as well as in the central police building, and in both places were subjected to torture
At least one mass grave was found after the militants fled. This included the bodies of four members of the Evangelical Church of the Transfiguration in Sloviansk: the two sons - Reuben and Albert – of Paster Oleksandr Pavenko, and two deacons of the church Viktor Bradarsky and Volodymyr Velichko. They had been abducted from the Trinity Sunday festive service on June 8, and are believed to have been tortured and then killed the next day.
There were many other victims of Girkin and his men, such as Volodymyr Rybak, Deputy of the Horlivka City Council, who was abducted while at a rally in support of Ukrainian unity. There is a video of him being dragged away by militants after he tried to pull down the DNR flag hoisted over the seized Horlivka City Council. His body and that of 19-year-old student Yury Popravko were found in a stream near Sloviansk a few days later. Both men had been horrifically tortured, and their bodies mutilated.