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.

Admission of guilt: Russia blocks international investigation of Olenivka mass killing of Ukrainian POWs

Halya Coynash
Why are the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN doing next to nothing to effectively investigate the 29 July killing of around 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war, held captive in Russian-occupied Donbas

Honouring the victims on the fortieth day after the Olenivka attack Photo Vlada Prizova, Suspilne

Honouring the victims on the fortieth day after the Olenivka attack Photo Vlada Prizova, Suspilne

Forty days after the unexplained explosion at the Olenivka prison in Russian-occupied Donbas on 29 July that killed over 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, the families of the defenders of Mariupol and of the Azovstal Steelworks imprisoned by the Russians, have still not been told how many men were killed, and whether their loved ones were among them.  Russia is continuing to violate international law by preventing the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] from visiting the site and speaking with surviving POWs. While more movement on a UN fact-finding mission has been announced, there is nothing to suggest that this equates to actual progress.  On 3 August, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced plans for a fact-finding mission, saying that an independent investigation had been requested by both Ukraine and Russia.  On 22 August, we even learned the make-up of such a mission and the members’ credentials, however it was also reported that the UN believed the situation around the prison was too dangerous for such a trip to be undertaken.

It is difficult to see how reporting such illusory progress can help anyone but those responsible for the attack, and during their press conference on 6 September, the relatives of Azovstal defenders imprisoned at Olenivka expressed frustration at the impotence of international bodies.  Such lack of any progress makes it clear that all the POWs are in grave danger, and they demanded that more effective methods be applied to secure their release before it is too late.

The press conference was addressed first by Natalia Zarytska, the wife of an Avostal defender and head of a group of wives and mothers of Ukrainian defenders.  She explained that, over a month after the fatal explosion on 29 July, she does not know whether her husband is alive. It remains unclear who was killed in the explosion and who injured.

Anna Kalinchuk, a lawyer representing families of Azovstal defenders, was scathing about the lack of any progress by ICRC and the UN.  She noted that it is known only that ICRC has not been given access to Olenivka, not how many times they have asked for such access, nor how they did so.  As the Red Cross themselves pointed out on 3 August, they have the right to such access, yet there is nothing further on their site to indicate what, if anything, they have done to highlight the fact that Russia is blocking their visits to Olenivka.  Russia is a party to the Geneva Conventions, and there are mechanisms that both the UN and ICRC have for holding it to account.  In fact, nothing is being done, with Russia continuing to take part in all ‘discussions’ together with civilized countries, and not even facing any hard-hitting questions. As Kalinchuk rightly pointed out, Russia has already been given forty days to falsify the evidence of what she is in no doubt was a terrorist attack, aimed at deliberating killing Ukrainian POWs.  As reported, it has used this time for propaganda stunts, such as the visit by former US actor, turned Kremlin apologist Steven Seagal and Kremlin-loyal journalists.  No independent journalists, nor investigators have been allowed near the site, nor the prisoners of war.

All the above suits only Russia.  There have been several independent journalist investigations, which looked, for example, at satellite images of the scene before and after the tragedy, and also spoke with the few POWs or civilian hostages who had earlier been released from Olenivka.  These investigations all seem to confirm the suspicion that Russia was behind a deliberate attempt to murder Ukrainian POWs, but do not have the authority of ICRC or a UN mission. Without the latter, international bodies and media will continue to report that “Moscow and Kyiv blame each other for the attack”. 

Although Russia immediately claimed that Ukraine had bombed its own prisoners of war, using a HIMARS rocket launcher, t did not make any real attempt to allay suspicions.  Within hours of the explosion, Russia’s UK Embassy had tweeted that the Azov Battalion defenders of Mariupol deserved a “humiliating death” by execution. 

News of the deaths of at least 53 Ukrainian POWs also coincided with a horrific video posted on the Internet showing a Ukrainian prisoner of war being castrated by a Russian ‘soldier’ 

Ukraine’s Military Intelligence [HUR] suggested initially that the killing of the Ukrainian POWs was a deliberate act organized by the notorious Wagner ‘private military company’ mercenaries on the instruction of Yevgeny Prigozhin, that had not been agreed with Russia’s defence ministry.  On 3 August, HUR reported further details, stating that the so-called ‘interrogations’ of the POWs had been carried out by the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic security ministry’ together with Wagner unit mercenaries and members of Russia’s FSB [security service].  The primary aim of such measures was to torment, degrade and demoralize the POWs, not to obtain information.  The FSB wanted to produce propaganda videos, with the prisoners of war shown ‘confessing to crimes, atrocities against the civilian population; retracting their views and condemning Ukraine’s leadership’. The FSB have been using torture for such videos in both occupied Crimea and Donbas since 2014.

HUR asserts that Russia never planned to exchange the POWs and deliberately killed them in order to conceal the appalling conditions they were held in and the methods of ‘interrogation’ used, with these able to be used as evidence in international courts.

Media investigations, by, for example, the Guardian and Washington Post pointed to the discrepancies in Russia’s claims.  WP, for example, consulted six military experts who said that the available satellite images of the destroyed building at Olenivka “appear inconsistent with a HIMARS-launched attack”.   The WP study also addresses, and appears to provide evidence for, the allegations that the Azov defenders had been deliberately moved to the building shortly before the explosion.  WP cites a US intelligence report as suggesting that “Russia will fabricate evidence to pin the blame for the killings on Ukraine, including by planting ammunition from a HIMARS.”

Judging by previous activities by the Russian FSB and military, it is quite likely that they will come up with ‘witnesses’ who will have been tortured or threatened into producing ‘testimony’ on video, confirming the Russian version.

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