war crimes in Ukraine

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Russia erects memorial to Donbas mercenaries Ukraine wanted to see tried for war crimes

Halya Coynash

Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin took part on October 16 in the ceremonial opening in Rostov (Russia) of a memorial to Russian or pro-Russian fighters who died in Donbas.  The event was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of Russian mercenary Arseny Pavlov [‘Motorola’’], whom Ukraine had hoped to see on trial for war crimes, but whom Russia treats as a hero.

The memorial in Ostrovsky Park is entitled ‘To the Heroes of Donbas’, and it can be safely assumed is not to people like Ukrainian Donetsk Airport defender Ihor Branovytsky whom Motorola murdered.  The event was certainly given official status, with Igor Guskov, First Deputy Governor of the Rostov oblast and Rostov Mayor Vitaly Kushnaryov in attendance.  Others present included Alexander Borodai, one of the Russians who first headed the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR], and Alexander Zakharchenko who now holds that post.

“On behalf of the Rostov administration and people of Rostov”, the Mayor said, "a big thank you for what you have done to preserve the Russian world… ".  The monument, he claimed, would stand as proof that “you are fighting for your Motherland to the end”.

The formal initiator of this memorial was the Rostov branch of the so-called Union of Donbas Volunteers’, headed now by Borodai.

Kommersant reports that a number of civic activists protested against the unlawful establishment of a monument to mercenaries.  They all received identical answers which asserted that the Council of Veterans had asked the city to erect the monument, and said that they could challenge the decision in court.

Russia has consistently denied the involvement of its soldiers in the war in Donbas, although one contract soldier Viktor Ageyev, caught in the Luhansk oblast, is shortly to go on trial, and western experts have assessed the number of Russian military personnel as having reached ““10 thousand at the peak of direct Russian involvement in the middle of December 2014.”.

There were, from the outset, a very large number of mercenaries from the Russian Federation, with these including Pavlov, or ‘Motorola’.  As well as many who were sent effectively as modern cannon fodder, there have also been significant contingents of better trained mercenaries, fighting in Donbas or Syria for the so-called ‘Wagner Private Military Company’.  The money probably comes from to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the billionaire, known as Putin’s chef who is also believed to be behind the funding for Russia’s huge Internet troll factory.  ‘Private’ is a term that should be understood very loosely.  The fighters are known to train at a base adjacent to one run by the Defence Ministry, to use weapons which are only available to the military, and several have received Russian military awards.

Arseny Pavlov had no special training, but he did take part in Russian-sponsored disturbances in Kharkiv and then military conflict in Donbas from the outset.   

He led the so-called Sparta Battalion during the battle at Ilovaisk, when Russian forces were brought in to help the militants defeat Ukrainian forces.  He was later involved in the struggle for control of Donetsk Airport, and it is from that period that most of the evidence of war crimes comes.

Pavlov was on the EU’s sanction list, but Ukraine was hoping that the militant would one day stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. 

One of the crimes he was suspected of was the killing in cold blood of Ihor Branovytsky, one of the ‘Cyborgs’ defending Donetsk Airport, after he and his men had been taken prisoner by the militants.

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.

This was doubtless a ‘coup’ for the militants and they even posted 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 is likely that Branovytsky was tortured by militant commander Mikhail Tolstykh [known as Givi], two Chechens known as Tanchik and Stalin, and a woman called Vika.  At least two of the ‘Cyborgs’ who were finally released – Oleksandr Mashonkin and Yury Shkabura say that the prisoners’ tormenters included a man wearing the clothes of an Orthodox priest, who used his cross as a means of torture. 

Sova says that after the treatment from Givi and his people, the captured soldiers were taken to the basement where Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ spoke to them and then handed them over to Motorola.

They were taken for interrogation, Sova recounts, and says that for six or seven hours they were first beaten, then ‘interrogated’.  

He says that their questions made it clear that there were Russians among them, and that Branovytsky got the worst treatment as he had admitted to being a machine gunner.  “

“They broke a lot of bones.  A paramedic came up, bandaged him and called an ambulance. Then Motorola came in. He looked at us all, we were already sitting by the wall. And Ihor was lying 2-3 metres from me. Motorola walked up and asked “what’s this body?” He was told that an ambulance had been called.  Then he looked again, said “so that he doesn’t suffer because he won’t live to get to the hospital”, took out a pistol and shot him twice in the head”.

The BBC journalist asked if he had seen this with his own eyes, and if Branovytsky had definitely been alive.  The answer was affirmative to both.  Sova goes on to say that the militants had claimed that Motorola was in that way showing ‘mercy’.  The nature of such ‘mercy’ can be seen in his comment to the others: “Don’t be surprised that I’m so nice, I can shoot any of you dead” 

A Kyiv Post journalist had spoken earlier with Motorola on the phone.  The Russian refused to comment on Branovytsky’s murder saying: “I don’t give a shit about any accusations, believe it or not ” Motorola said. “I’ve shot 15 prisoners. I don’t give a shit. No comment. I kill whoever I want.”

Pavlov was killed on Oct 16, 2016 after a bomb exploded in the entrance of his extremely well-guarded apartment block. 

36-year-old Givi was killed on Nov 8, 2016 reportedly when a Shmel grenade gun was directed at his office in the centre of Donetsk.

These are just two of the so-called ‘heroes of Donbas’ whom Russia has seen fit to honour with a memorial in Rostov.




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