For anyone who has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of warfare, it’s a depressingly familiar pattern. The Russian military has a culture of brutality and disregard for the laws of armed conflict that has been widely documented in the past.
“The Russian military repeatedly flouted the laws of war by failing to protect civilians and even attacking them directly. Russian forces launched indiscriminate attacks, used prohibited weapons, and at times apparently deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects, a crime of war”.
But the scenes that take place in places like Bucha suggest an intimate kind of violence, something reminiscent of Russia’s war in Chechnya.
Locals unearthed mass graves in Chechnya; international officials made fact-finding trips to the region and made statements of concern about reports of abuses and extrajudicial killings. Those statements did not stop the Russian army from going ahead with its ruthless campaign of pacification.
Similar evidence of summary executions abounds in towns like Bucha. A CNN team visited the basement of a building and saw the bodies of five men before a Ukrainian team removed them. An adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko told CNN that the five men had been tortured and executed by Russian soldiers.
CNN cannot independently verify Gerashchenko’s claims. But equally troubling is the alleged treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian forces. The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman Liudmyla Denisova said on Monday that Russia’s treatment of prisoners of war violates the Geneva Conventions, laying out a theoretical case for potential war crimes trials.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Denisova said the freed Ukrainian soldiers “spoke about the inhumane treatment they were given by the Russian side: they were kept in a field, in a pit, in a garage. Periodically, one was taken out: beaten with the rifle butts, shots to the ear, intimidated”.
CNN cannot independently verify Denisova’s claims.
Igor Zhdanov, a correspondent for the Russian state propaganda outlet RT, posted videos on March 22 showing Ukrainian prisoners of war being processed for “leakage” – Zhdanov’s chosen word – after they were captured. The videos show masked Russians searching their captives for tattoos or insignia, which would allegedly show affiliation with nationalist or “neo-Nazi” groups that the Russians have portrayed as their main enemy in Ukraine.
Zhdanov said in his post that Ukrainian prisoners of war were being treated humanely. But his choice of words was ominous. During the war in Chechnya, Russian forces notoriously used so-called “filtration camps” to separate civilians from rebel fighters. Legendary Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya collected testimonies from Chechen civilians detained in filtration centers, where detainees said they were kept in pits and subjected to electric shocks, beatings and ruthless interrogations.
Russian forces have also targeted local Ukrainian mayors for arrest, and in at least one case, Ukrainian authorities say, extrajudicial execution.
“At the moment, 11 local mayors from the kyiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Donetsk regions are in Russian captivity,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a message posted on social media on Sunday. She said the Ukrainian government learned on Saturday that Olga Sukhenko, the mayor of Motyzhyn, a town in the kyiv region, was killed in the custody of Russian forces.
Ivan Fedorov, mayor of the southern city of Melitopol, who was detained by Russian forces but later released as part of a prisoner swap, said Russian forces occupying his city were taking over local businesses and said the ” The situation is difficult, because the Russian soldiers have declared themselves authorities, but of course, they do not care about people and their problems, they only care about taking money from businessmen, [and seizing] their business.”
Long before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military had a reputation for a culture of cruelty. Russia has a hybrid labor system of contract soldiers and conscripts. Although the Russian government claims to have made progress in professionalizing its forces, the country’s armed forces still have a brutal hazing system known as dedovshchina, a notorious tradition that encourages veteran recruits to beat, brutalize, or even rape recruits. younger.
Putin recently announced a decree on spring recruitment, setting a target for 134,500 people to be called up to the Russian armed forces. The Russian president originally stated that Russian conscripts would not participate in what Russia has euphemistically called the “special military operation” in Ukraine. But the Russian Defense Ministry later acknowledged that the conscripts were fighting in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces claim to have taken a sizeable number of Russian conscripts prisoner.
Ukrainian investigators are already launching criminal investigations into alleged crimes committed by Russian forces as more areas are released from Russian control, particularly around kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.
It will be days, or perhaps weeks, before we have a fuller picture of what happened at Bucha. But if the past is any guide, there is little hope that the Russian perpetrators will be brought to justice.
CNN’s Alex Hardie contributed to this report. CNN’s Vasco Cotovio contributed reporting from Bucha, Ukraine.