war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Who needs witnesses of Russian war crimes in Donbas eliminated?

Halya Coynash
The violent killing of Mikhail Tolstykh or ‘Givi’, one of the most identifiable militants involved in the Kremlin-backed fighting in Donbas was predictably, but not very credibly, attributed by the militant leadership to Ukrainian military saboteurs.

The violent killing of Mikhail Tolstykh or ‘Givi’, one of the most identifiable militants involved in the Kremlin-backed fighting in Donbas was predictably attributed by the militant leadership to Ukrainian military saboteurs.  Denial by the Ukrainian military was perhaps also to be expected, but considerably more credible.  The problem is not just in the logistics around killing a heavily guarded militant warlord in the centre of occupied Donetsk (seemingly from a Shmel grenade gun) and the ever-growing number of still young militants who have met their deaths in Moscow. The main issue is surely the question of who stands to gain by eliminating war criminals who could provide crucial information about Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine and this is certainly not Ukraine. 

36-year-old Givi, commander of the ‘Somali Battalion’ was most notorious, together with Russian mercenary Arseny Pavlov (‘Motorola’), for his part in the battle for Donetsk Airport and for his torturing of Ukrainian prisoners of war.  His brutal treatment of captured Cyborgs [the defenders of the airport] can be seen here:

Among the many war crimes which Ukraine would have wanted Givi and Motorola to answer for was the torture of captured Cyborgs and cold-blooded murder of one of them – Ihor Branovytsky. 

According to Yury Sova, one of the Ukrainian soldiers who survived, he and Ihor Branovytsky were among 12 men who had remained at the remains of the airport to care for four injured comrades.  They had no ammunition left, and surrendered on Jan 21, asking the militants to take the injured to hospital. 

The militants chose to boast of their human ‘trophies’ by posting a video which shows the men alive and without any signs of beating.  Branovytsky could be easily identified as he was wearing a blue jacket, while the other prisoners are all in camouflage.

It seems that Givi took part, together with two Chechens and a woman, in torturing Branovytsky and the other prisoners.

All the men were then taken to the basement where Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ spoke to them and handed them over to Motorola.  Branovytsky had received the worst treatment from Givi and the other torturers and was lying on the floor.  Motorola simply shot him dead.

There are numerous other cases where witnesses could have testified to clear war crimes committed by both Givi and Motorola.

This alone meant that Ukraine had every reason to want to capture the men so that they could stand trial.  It would have also hoped to gain vital information from them. 

Political commentator Petro Oleshchyk calls Motorola and Givi ‘technical figures created and given maximum hype for propaganda purposes.”  Both men were supposed to epitomize simple representatives of the so-called ‘Russian world’ who were “by the call of the heart”, as Russian President Vladimir Putin once claimed, fighting ‘Ukrainian fascists’.  In fact, Motorola was a mercenary, however Russian politicians and government-controlled media have treated him since his death as a hero.  Givi was more convenient in being Ukrainian and himself from Donbas. 

The problem, as mentioned, is not simply that Ukraine’s security service had every reason to seize them, not kill them.  Motorola was extremely security conscious and yet was killed by a bomb in his own apartment entrance.  The grenade gun with which Givi was killed on Wednesday morning in the Battalion’s offices cannot have been easily obtained, let alone fired without being noticed. For the same reason, it is difficult to imagine that a local partisan group could have been involved.

It also seems unlikely that the men were killed as part of an internal power struggle, and not only because the leaders of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DNR, LNR] are essentially Kremlin proxies.  There have also been other deaths including the violent killing in Moscow of a former leading militant Yevgeny Zhilin and recent death of the first official leader of LNR, Valery Bolotov.  His wife believes he was poisoned after drinking coffee during a meeting with two unidentified men. 

Yury Aseyev, a former Luhansk journalist now working for the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, is convinced that the bomb used to kill one of the first militant leaders Alexei Mostovoi and Aseyev’s ex-wife (who was Mostovoi’s assistant) was organized by the Russian FSB. 

Judging by the highly controversial interview given by German Ambassador Ernst Reichel, a ‘roadmap’ is being prepared which would seemingly focus on pushing through an amnesty law and local elections.  The amnesty law is an extremely contentious issue in Ukraine.  In fact, no amnesty would absolve a person of guilt for war crimes, however it is the people who can be identified and named who tend to be associated with such crimes.  This largely deceptive impression is also in Russia’s interests.

According to a major study carried out by the Justice for Peace in Donbas Coalition of human rights groups, entitled Surviving Hell,  over 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and 50% of civilians taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian militants in Donbas were subjected to torture or ill-treatment.  In over 40% of the so-called ‘interrogations’ and control over them, key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.    In many cases, even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing the torture of others.  33% of the soldiers, and 16% of civilians had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture (more details here)

One of the authors Oleh Martynenko says that the over 40% ratio of Russian military personnel and mercenaries implicated in the torture of prisoners is itself grounds for charging Russia with involvement in war and other crimes. Moscow has a great deal it will wish to conceal.  

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