By ERIKA KINETZ – Associated Press
ZDVYZHIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — The carnage left by Russian soldiers on the road to Kyiv was not random. It was strategic brutality, perpetrated in areas under tight Russian control where military officers – including one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top generals accused of war crimes in Syria – were present, an investigation by the ‘Associated Press and PBS series ‘Frontline’ found.
Troops descending from Belarus to Kyiv had been ordered to block and destroy “nationalist resistance”, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank that has reviewed copies of Russia’s battle plans. Soldiers used lists compiled by Russian intelligence and conducted “zachistki” – mopping up operations – sweeping neighborhoods to identify and neutralize anyone who might pose a threat.
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The man responsible for this war front was Colonel General Alexander Chaiko, who gained a worldwide reputation for brutality as the leader of Russian forces in Syria.
“These orders were written at the level of Chaiko. So he would have seen them and signed for them,” said RUSI senior researcher Jack Watling, who shared the battle plans with the AP.
This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and the documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” on PBS.
While there was nothing necessarily illegal about this order, it was often implemented with blatant disregard for the laws of war as Russian troops seized territory across Ukraine.
Witnesses and survivors in Bucha, as well as Ozera, Babyntsi and Zdvyzhivka – all under Chaiko’s command – told the AP and “Frontline” that Russian soldiers were torturing and killing people on the slightest suspicion that they could help the Ukrainian army. Sweeps intensified after Russian positions were struck with precision, interviews and video shows, and soldiers, in intercepted phone calls obtained by the AP, told relatives they had received the order to adopt a ruthless approach to suspected informants.
Ukraine has indicted Chaiko for the grand crime of aggression, that is, waging an illegal war on its territory. But it will take more specific evidence to bring him before an international tribunal. Prosecutors would have to prove that he played a key role in implementing the illegal policies of the Russian Federation or that he should have known what his troops were doing and was able to stop or punish their behavior.
For now, Chaiko – a man implicated in some of the worst atrocities in Syria and Ukraine – is still leading troops, once again as commander of Russian forces in Syria.
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MOM, I KILL CIVILIANS
Russian soldiers openly discussed the atrocities against civilians in phone calls with their mothers, wives and friends that the Ukrainian government intercepted near Kyiv.
On March 21, a soldier named Vadim told his mother: “We have orders to take the phones of everyone and those who resist – anyway – to hell with the f——.”
“We have order: it doesn’t matter whether it’s civilians or not. Kill everyone.”
The slightest movement of a curtain in a window – a possible sign of a lookout or gunman – justified slamming a building with lethal artillery. Ukrainians who confessed to passing on the coordinates of Russian troops were summarily executed, including teenagers, soldiers said.
“We have orders not to take prisoners of war but to shoot them all directly,” a soldier surnamed Lyonya said in a March 14 phone call.
“There was an 18-year-old boy taken prisoner. First they shot him in the leg with a machine gun, then he had his ears cut off. He confessed to everything and was shot,” Lyonya told his mother. “We don’t take prisoners. This means that we are not leaving anyone alive.
The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, verified the identities of the soldiers who made the calls.
RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CARNAGE IN BUCHA
Ukrainian prosecutors say a unit under Chaiko’s command – the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division – took part in a deadly clearing operation on March 4 along Yablunska Street, the deadliest road in occupied Bucha and the site of an important Russian command center.
In June, the US State Department sanctioned the division and its 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, along with the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, for atrocities committed at Bucha.
These units were all under Chaiko’s ultimate command during the first weeks of the invasion, Ukrainian authorities told AP.
NOT THE JOB OF ROGUE SOLDIERS
The Russians turned the village of Zdvyzhivka, an hour north of Kyiv, into a major forward operating base for their assault on the capital. From March 20 to March 31, Chaiko commanded the assault on Kyiv from this village. He was spotted about a kilometer (less than a mile) down a tightly controlled road around the same time five men were tortured and killed in the garden of a house frequented by Russian officers. The transport of bound civilians to this house happened more than once, in broad daylight, within the security structures put in place by the occupying forces, eyewitnesses said.
There is no indication that Chaiko disapproved of what his troops were doing. The Russian Defense Ministry released a video of the general pinning medals on soldiers in Ukraine. “All units, all divisions are acting as they have been taught,” he said in the March 24 video. “They do everything right. I’m proud of them.”
Nor is there any sign that Moscow has sanctioned Chaiko for the very public atrocities committed under his watch. Instead, Putin praised Chaiko for his actions in Syria, awarding him the title “Hero of Russia” in 2020 and promoting him to Colonel General in June 2021.
“Frontline” producers Tom Jennings and Annie Wong, co-producer Taras Lazer and AP reporters James LaPorta, Oleksandr Stashevskyi, Richard Lardner, Janine Graham and Solomiia Hera contributed to this report.
To contact the AP Investigative Team, email [email protected]
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