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Many questions about killed Russians in Ukrainian video, UN wants investigation

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NOS NewsMonday, 6:06 PMAmended Monday, 21:14

  • Christian Paauwe

    Foreign Editor

  • Christian Paauwe

    Foreign Editor

“Which one of you is an officer?” a Ukrainian soldier shouts on the video. Russians come out of a farmhouse with their hands up and lay down next to each other on the ground. “Is everyone outside?” the Ukrainian continues to ask. When an eleventh Russian soldier comes out, he seems to open fire. The image pans and explosions are heard, after which the video ends.

What happens next is not clear. But images that were made later show that after the incident, at least eleven Russian soldiers lie lifeless with pools of blood on the ground. It has since been established that the incident took place around a farm in Makiivka, a village in the Lugansk region that was recently recaptured from Russia after heavy fighting.

Russia speaks of executions and says the images prove Ukraine is guilty of “shocking war crimes”. Ukraine emphasizes that the Russians opened fire first and that their soldiers only returned fire, and says it is investigating the incident.

Whether war crimes have been committed cannot be said on the basis of the videos, concludes Iva Vukusic of Utrecht University. She conducts research into genocide and war crimes. “The Geneva Convention (which lays down the laws of war, ed.) states that you may not pretend to surrender,” says Vukusic.

Video’s of the incident appeared on social media last week. The first video was published with music underneath. Beware, the images can be experienced as shocking.

Were these Russians executed by Ukrainian soldiers?

According to Vukusic, when someone who surrenders starts shooting, they can shoot back. The video shows one of the Ukrainian soldiers lying on the ground with a machine gun and providing cover when the Russians come out. Vukusic: “If he opened fire on the Russian who fired, this is not a war crime.”

The question is what happened afterwards to the POWs who were already on the ground. According to defense expert George Dimitriu of the Clingendael Institute, there are two options: in the panic that arose, all prisoners – including those lying on the ground – were shot, or the men on the ground were subsequently executed out of revenge.

The Ukrainians were in a minority compared to the Russians, Dimitriu concludes from the videos. The prisoners of war had not yet been disarmed. They have had to throw their main weapon on the ground, but they have not yet been searched for knives or pistols, for example. They can therefore still pose a threat to the Ukrainian military.

“You are under high voltage. If someone opens fire, it can quickly escalate,” says Dimitriu. The researcher is also an officer in the Army and had to capture fighters several times during deployments in Afghanistan. Dimitriu: “At such a moment the tension screeches through your throat. The units in the videos have been fighting for a long time, so they will be tired and operating under stress.”

Widespread war crimes

Russia has been accused of massive war crimes since the invasion began this year – from executions, shootings on civilian targets, to torture and the use of internationally banned weapons.

United Nations investigators concluded last month that Russian soldiers torture civilians and prisoners of war. The Ukrainian armed forces are also said to have engaged in ill-treatment and torture, but “on a smaller scale”.

The incident is cited in Russia as proof that not Russia, but Ukraine is guilty of war crimes. The Russian Defense Ministry speaks of “a deliberate and methodical killing” of soldiers. A pro-war blogger concluded that the footage shows “what Russia is fighting against”.

According to Kiev, the images do not prove that Ukrainian soldiers have committed war crimes. Ukraine would have an interest in taking as many Russians as prisoners of war as possible. “We cannot exchange every Russian soldier who is executed with Russia,” a deputy minister told AP news agency. “So it doesn’t make sense to do this.”

Did they hear volleys of shots, or single shots over an extended period of several hours – which would indicate executions.

Vukusic, researcher

The UN human rights organization says it will continue to look at the videos. “Allegations of executions of people who are no longer fighting must be fully investigated,” a spokesman told Reuters news agency. “Potential perpetrators must be brought to justice.”

Due to all the attention it has received, war expert Vukusic expects the issue to be extensively investigated. This way people in the area will be able to tell what they have heard. Vukusic: “Did they hear volleys of shots, or single shots over a longer period of several hours – which would indicate executions.”

The gunshot wounds can also be used to determine at what angle and with what weapon the prisoners were shot. “Was it indeed at distance with a machine gun, or through the head with a pistol?”

Ukraine also has an interest in this being clarified, says Vukusic. The government wants to show that the country does comply with international rules and is not guilty of war crimes like Russia. “After these images, the government will want to make it clear: we are different from Russia.”

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