Thu. Oct 6th, 2022
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

The news from the newly liberated areas of Ukraine is not good. Please read with caution.

Massacres

Global outrage spread on Monday at civilian killings in north Ukraine where a mass grave and tied bodies shot at close range were found in a town taken back from Russian troops, as Moscow shifted the focus of the fighting elsewhere. The deaths in Bucha, outside Kyiv, looked set to galvanise the United States and Europe into additional sanctions against Moscow, possibly including some restrictions on the billions of dollars in energy that Europe still imports from Russia. Even before Bucha, Ukraine and its Western allies accused Russian forces of targeting civilians indiscriminately, citing the bombing in the southern port of Mariupol of a maternity hospital and a theatre marked as sheltering children.

The discoveries overshadowed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, due to restart on Monday against a backdrop of artillery bombardments in Ukraine’s south and east, where Russia says it is now concentrating its operations.

“These are war crimes and will be recognised by the world as genocide,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on a visit to Bucha, adding it had become harder for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia since the scale of alleged atrocities emerged.

Taras Shapravskyi, deputy mayor of the town some 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Kyiv city, said around 50 victims of extra-judicial killings by Russian troops had been found there after Kremlin forces withdrew late last week. read more

Reuters saw one man sprawled by the roadside there, his hands tied behind his back and a bullet wound to his head. Hands and feet poked through red clay at a mass grave by a church where satellite images showed a 45-foot-long trench. Ukrainian authorities said they had found 421 civilian casualties near Kyiv by Sunday and were investigating possible war crimes in Bucha, a description also used by French President Emmanuel Macron and, in reference to Russia’s broader offensive, by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Reuters saw more makeshift burials elsewhere but could not independently verify the number of dead or who was responsible. In the village or Motyzhyn west of Kyiv, its reporters saw three bodies in a forest grave. An adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry said the victims were the village’s leader and her family.

Zelenskiy has used the term genocide at different times during the war, decrying what he calls an intent to eliminate the nation by Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who has questioned Ukraine’s legitimate, independent history from Russia.

The Kremlin categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians, including in the town, where it said the graves and corpses had been staged by Ukraine to tarnish Russia. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov urged international leaders not to rush to judgment, telling reporters on Monday that the facts did not support Ukraine’s version of events in Bucha, and that Ukrainian allegations on the matter should be treated with doubt.

“This information must be seriously questioned,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “From what we have seen, our experts have identified signs of video falsification and other fakes.”

Peskov urged international leaders not to rush to judgment, saying, “We categorically deny any accusations. The situation is undoubtedly serious and we would ask that many international leaders not rush with their statements, not rush with their baseless accusations, request information from different sources, and at least listen to our explanations.”

Peskov said that Russia’s diplomats would press on with their efforts to convene a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss what Moscow has called “Ukrainian provocations” in Bucha despite their first effort to arrange such a meeting being blocked.

“The initiative itself of raising this topic to the platform of the U.N. Security Council suggests that Russia wants and demands that this topic be raised at the international level,” Peskov said. He declined to comment on whether the furore over Bucha would affect peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv, which had been set to resume via video conference on Monday.

Meanwhile, Russia’s chief investigator on Monday ordered an official examination of what he called a Ukrainian “provocation” after Kyiv accused the Russian military of massacring civilians in the town of Bucha.

Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Russian Investigative Committee, ordered that a probe be opened on the basis that Ukraine had spread “deliberately false information” about Russian armed forces in Bucha, the committee said in a statement.

Mariupol

On the other side of the country in Mariupol, a southern port that has been under siege for weeks, Reuters images showed three bodies in civilian clothes lying in the street, one against a wall sprayed with blood. Outside a damaged apartment building, residents buried other dead in a shell crater.

“It is easier to dig here,” one resident said, saying four bodies were in the improvised grave. Nearby, the skeletal remains of residential tower blocks and other buildings surrounded by dust and debris dominated the skyline, Reuters images showed.

Ukraine says it has evacuated thousands of civilians in recent days from the city, which is surrounded by areas in the hands of Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. Several attempts by International Committee of the Red Cross teams to reach the besieged city in recent days have been unsuccessful, and a spokesman for the organisation said it was again unable to enter on Monday to evacuate civilians, a spokesperson said, citing security conditions.

Reuters could not independently confirm the claims. Reuters correspondents saw convoys of armoured vehicles belonging to pro-Russia forces near Mariupol.

Sanctions on energy

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters would “feel the consequences” of events in Bucha. Western allies would agree on further sanctions against Moscow in coming days, he said, though the timing and reach of the new package was not clear.

Germany’s Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said the European Union must discuss banning Russian gas, though other officials urged caution around measures that could cause a European energy crisis. More than half of Germany’s as came from Russia last year.

France’s Macron suggested sanctions on oil and coal, adding there were very “clear clues pointing to war crimes” by Russian forces.

UN Security Council

Meanwhile, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to discuss Ukraine on Tuesday, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told its Human Rights Council that strikes and heavy shelling during Russia’s invasion had killed civilians in acts that might amount to war crimes. The United States will ask the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Russia from the Rights Council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. Ukraine’s foreign minister called on the International Criminal Court to collect evidence of war crimes. France and Britain would support any such probe, their foreign ministers said.

However, legal experts say a prosecution of Putin or other Russian leaders would face high hurdles and could take years.

Russia calls up reservists

Ukraine was preparing for what its general staff said were about 60,000 Russian reservists called in to reinforce the offensive in the Donbas region, while British military intelligence also said Russian troops, including contractors from the Wagner private military company, were moving to the east.

Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of eastern Luhansk region, said Russia was building up forces to break through Ukrainian defences. “I am urging residents to evacuate. The enemy will not stop, it will destroy everything in its path,” he said in comments carried on Ukrainian television.

Russian conscripts, separatist draftees: archaic weapons, no training, no water

Military conscripts in the Russian-backed Donbas region have been sent into front-line combat against Ukrainian troops with no training, little food and water, and inadequate weapons, six people in the separatist province told Reuters.

The new accounts of untrained and ill-equipped conscripts being deployed are a fresh indication of how stretched the military resources at the Kremlin’s disposal are, over a month into a war that has seen Moscow’s forces hobbled by logistical problems and held up by fierce Ukrainian resistance.

One of the people, a student conscripted in late February, said a fellow fighter told him to prepare to repel a close-quarter attack by Ukrainian forces in southwest Donbas but “I don’t even know how to fire an automatic weapon.” The student and his unit fired back and evaded capture, but he was injured in a later battle. He did not say when the fighting took place.

While some information indicating poor conditions and morale among Donbas conscripts has emerged in social media and some local media outlets, Reuters was able to assemble one of the most comprehensive pictures to date.

Besides the student draftee, Reuters spoke to three wives of conscripts who have mobile phone contact with their partners, one acquaintance of a draftee, and one source close to the pro-Russian separatist leadership who is helping to organize supplies for the Donbas armed forces.

Reuters verified the identity of the student, as well as the other sources and the draftees they are associated with. The news agency was unable to confirm independently the accounts of what happened to the men once they were drafted.

The six sources all asked that their full names not be published, saying that they feared reprisals for speaking to foreign media.

The Donbas armed forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers but are not part of the Russian armed forces, which have different rules about which troops they send into combat.

Several Donbas draftees have been issued with a rifle called a Mosin, which was developed in the late 19th century and went out of production decades ago, according to three people who saw conscripts from the separatist region using the weapon. Images shared on social media, that Reuters has not been able to verify independently, also showed Donbas fighters with Mosin rifles.

The student said he was forced to drink water from a fetid pond because of lack of supplies. Two other sources in contact with draftees also told Reuters the men had to drink untreated water.

Some Donbas conscripts were given the highly dangerous mission of drawing enemy fire onto themselves so other units could identify the Ukrainian positions and bomb them, according to one of the sources and video testimony from a prisoner of war published by Ukrainian forces.

Asked to comment about the treatment and low morale of the Donbass draftees, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a question for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), the self-proclaimed separatist entity in Donbas. The Russian defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the DNR administration, after viewing Reuters questions, said there would be no response on Friday. She did not say when the administration would reply. Messages left with a spokesman for the separatist military went unanswered.

After being pushed to the front line near the port of Mariupol — scene of the heaviest fighting in the war — a group of about 135 Donbas conscripts laid down their arms and refused to fight on, according to Veronika, the partner of a conscript, who said her husband was among them. Marina, partner of another conscript, said she had been in contact with a friend who was part of the same group.

“We’re refusing (to fight),” the friend wrote in a text message to Marina, seen by Reuters.

The men were kept in a basement by military commanders as punishment, Veronika and Marina said. Commanders verbally threatened them with reprisals but subsequently allowed the group out of the basement, pulled them back from the front line and billeted them in abandoned homes, Veronika said.

Neither the Kremlin nor separatist authorities answered Reuters questions about the incident.

All sides in the Ukraine war have systems of conscription, where young men are required by law to do military service. Ukraine’s government has declared a general mobilisation, meaning that conscripts and reservists have been deployed to fight.

Russia says it is not deploying conscripts in Ukraine, though it has acknowledged a small number were mistakenly sent to fight. The Donetsk separatist authorities announced in late February they were drafting all fighting age men for immediate deployment.

Military recruitment officers appeared at workplaces around the Donetsk region and told employees to report for duty, while police ordered people in the streets to report to their local draft office, according to a Reuters reporter who was there in late February. Anyone not complying risks prosecution.

Reuters could not determine how many people have been called up, nor what proportion of Donbas forces is comprised of draftees.

None of the five draftees had prior military experience or training, and four of the five were given no training before they were sent into combat, according to the injured draftee, the three wives of conscripted men, and the acquaintance.

“He never served in the army,” said one of the partners, who gave her name as Olga and lives in the town of Makeevka. “He doesn’t even really know how to hold an automatic weapon.”

Two of the wives said their partners were deployed to the front line, where they saw heavy fighting.

“I’m in the war,” read a text message, seen by Reuters, that Marina, also from Makeevka, said came from her drafted husband. Marina said she learned from messages from her husband that his unit, fighting in the Donbas region, was ordered to draw enemy fire on to themselves.

Ukrainian forces on March 12 published a video showing a prisoner of war. He said his name was Ruslan Khalilov, that he was a civil servant from Donbas and that he was sent with zero training to Mariupol where his role was to draw enemy fire to facilitate the bombing of Ukrainian targets.

A person in Donbas who knows Khalilov confirmed to Reuters his identity, that he was drafted and has no military training. Reuters established that the person knows Khalilov.

The student draftee who spoke to Reuters said that a day after reporting for duty he was put in a mortar unit then sent towards the fighting. “We were taught nothing,” he wrote to Reuters via messenger app. “Up to that point I had only seen mortars in movies. Obviously, I didn’t know how to do anything with them.” He said that before he left, his unit had been under repeated attack by Ukrainian troops. “There were lots of casualties,” he wrote. “I hate the war. I don’t want it, curse it. Why are they sending me into a slaughterhouse?”

All the accounts gathered by Reuters mentioned an acute shortage of supplies. The sources described little or no safe drinking water, field rations for one man being shared among several, and units having to scavenge food.

“We drank water with dead frogs in it,” said the student conscript.

“Supplies for the soldiers right now are a disaster,” said the source close to the Donetsk separatist leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Neither the Kremlin nor the separatist authorities replied to Reuters’ questions about supplies and equipment for the draftees from Donbas.

The same source said some conscripts were issued with the Mosin rifle from reserve stocks that date back to the Second World War. The student conscript said he has seen fellow fighters using the rifle: “It’s like we’re fighting with World War Two muskets.” A soldier in the Russian armed forces who is fighting near Mariupol told Reuters he had seen soldiers from the Donetsk separatist military carrying Mosin rifles. A video posted on social media on Tuesday by Russian military journalist Semyon Pegov showed a man who said he was a Donbas draftee brandishing a Mosin rifle.

Soon after the men were drafted in late February, many of their wives, mothers, and sisters started writing petitions to the separatist leadership, to Donbas draft offices, and to the Kremlin, describing their treatment and seeking help.

“Bring us back our men,” said one petition addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen by Reuters.

The three wives of draftees who spoke to Reuters said they received no definitive answers. On March 11, about 100 women gathered outside the separatist administration’s offices in Donetsk to demand answers, in a rare public show of dissent.

Two women who took part in the gathering said Alexander Malkovsky, the head of the DNR draft office, came out and told them that men aged 18 to 27 would be exempted from the draft. Reuters couldn’t determine if this has been implemented, and was unable to reach Malkovsky.

Two of the conscripts’ wives said that since the gathering they learned from their partners that conditions had improved: some units were pulled back from the front line and allowed to sleep in abandoned homes, instead of in trenches.

Latest on sanctions

Western outrage has intensified over claims of civilian killings by Russian troops in Ukraine, with EU leaders denouncing “massacres”, “atrocities” and “possible genocide” as the Kremlin flatly rejected all responsibility. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc was urgently working on a new round of sanctions against Moscow, adding: “Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they had effective control of the area.”

Amid an international outcry following the weekend discovery of a mass grave and corpses with their hands bound in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, Borrell said the EU stood in solidarity with Ukraine during “sombre hours for the whole world”.

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called for an international investigation into what he termed a “genocide” carried out by Russian troops, saying it was essential to “find out the truth on the extent of Russian fascist crimes”. Urging tougher western sanctions and an end to “negotiations with criminals”, Morawiecki said the “bloody massacres committed by Russian soldiers deserve to be called what they are. This is genocide, and it must be judged.”

The Polish leader criticised efforts over the past several weeks by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to keep lines of communication open with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, saying: “Nobody negotiated with Hitler.”

He told the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that Berlin, which fears the economic consequences of suddenly halting imports of Russian gas, should not be listening to “German business leaders and German billionaires”, but “the voices of innocent women and children”.

The Russian army has been noted for its savagery for decades. When Hitler’s Reich fell, the Russian soldiers supposedly liberating areas from occupation were more feared than the Nazis. That there have been war crimes against civilians is not unexpected, and neither is the scale of them. The difficulty will be whether any of the perpetrators can ever be brought to book.

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