The discovery of wide-scale atrocities in Bucha, documented by satellite imagery, incoming Ukrainian forces, and videos obtained by independent Russian media based in Europe (Meduza, April 7), prompted an international outcry to identify and punish those responsible. The war crimes, apparently committed by occupying Russian soldiers, reportedly included illegal detentions, summary executions, and the torture and rape of women and children (Ukrainska Pravda, April 8). This moral and legal focus spurred extensive record keeping (War.ukraine.ua, accessed on April 12). But those carefully chronicled examples of war crimes do not in and of themselves shed light on the tactical, operational or strategic rationale for why the Russian military has engaged in such brutality.
In searching for those responsible, Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (DIU) promptly pointed to service members of the Russian 64th Motor Rifle Brigade, which, under pursuit by Ukrainian defense forces, withdrew to Belarus on March 30 (Gur.gov.ua, April 4). The DIU warned that those same individuals would be deployed back to the fight, presumably in Donbas, after regrouping (YouTube, April 5).
Oleksii Arestovych, an advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine, has published a list of 13 Russian units that allegedly committed similar atrocities against the Ukrainian population (Focus.ua, April 4). Among those, eight to nine formations may be classified as elite special forces (spetsnaz), Airborne Troops or Naval Infantry. Among the most shocking revelations was that of a soldier of the elite Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade who allegedly sexually assaulted a four-year-old boy in Ukraine (Belsat, April 9).
Nonetheless, the 64th Brigade still tops Arestovych’s list because of its blatant lack of uniform ethical and professional standards. This unit from Khabarovsk formed in 2009. During the current war, it was commanded by Colonel Atazbek Omurbekov and made up of service members of multiple ethnicities. Ukrainian military personnel interviewed by this author on April 7 expressed a belief that the brigade was formed on the lessons Moscow’s political-military leadership learned from the 2008 Russian-Georgian war: specifically, it was designed for offensive operations although not yet combat-tested before February 24. In 2021, the brigade received a battalion of several dozen modernized T-80BVM main battle tanks, whose operators were trained on high-tech simulators. And yet, the unit’s soldiers and officers permitted themselves to engage in widespread crime and systemic violence (Belsat, April 4). According to one representative of the Ukrainian military, this Russian brigade’s soldiers took pictures of their atrocities in the occupied territories and even held contests on torture and bloodshed, which their commanders did not attempt to stop; some officers even took part. Phone intercepts reveal the Russian troops’ discussions with relatives about looted “trophies” from Ukrainian homes (Author’s interview, April 7).
Media accounts from local survivors who witnessed temporary occupation (Lb.ua, April 2) along with published reports by the German Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst—BND) (Spiegel, April 7) confirm that a propensity to engage in brutalities and war crimes varied among the Russian units involved. Some “young soldiers,” including from the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), behaved in a more disciplined way, while “the military” and especially “kadyrovtsy” (Chechen special forces fighters loyal to the republic’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov) committed the most violence. Moreover, the “employees of Russian mercenary troops, such as the ‘Wagner Group,’ played a key role in the atrocities.” These reports show some operational and strategic patterns behind the violence. To deliver on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “demilitarization” and “denazification” objectives, the Russian forces carry out extensive sweeps in numerous locations, searching for current and veteran Ukrainian soldiers and activists, at times in targeted raids.
It appears that the Russian military encountered unexpectedly firm and wide-scale resistance in Bucha. According to the town’s mayor, Anatolii Fedoruk, the adversary viewed Bucha as a passable point of transit en route to attack Kyiv, but the Russian column was stopped by Ukrainian artillery shelling (Ukrainska Pravda, April 10). Stressed by the Ukrainian counter-attacks throughout the month of March, the 64th Brigade’s associated battalion tactical group (BTG) reportedly lost 60 percent of its personnel (Facebook.com/RomanTsymbaliuk, April 4). In response, the Russian soldiers likely adopted zero-tolerance tactics, shooting at virtually everyone approaching them and torturing and executing all military-age men. And some other Russian formations in the area evidently behaved in the same way. In one witness account, Chechen kadyrovtsy forces “could shoot to kill without asking questions, without checking documents… There were checkpoints that killed only men, ages 18–65. They checked their documents and killed them… There were [checkpoints] that shot some people and let others through, with no explanation” (The Kyiv Independent, April 7). Possibly, by firing indiscriminately at civilians trying to flee occupied settlements or opting to destroy residents’ cell phones, the Russian soldiers were trying to prevent the locals from reaching Ukrainian military units nearby and sharing tips or other evidence with the defenders.
Some violent behavior clearly points to the invading forces’ apprehension and desperation about their disrupted supply chains, including food. Witnesses tell of “Russian soldiers bursting into their homes and seizing food, such as grains or canned goods” (The Kyiv Independent, April 7). Many of these settlements, however, were also short of provisions, normally delivered from Kyiv.
Another Ukrainian media outlet summarizes the testimonies of multiple interviewed survivors in several settlements: “The impressions of the occupation are very different, depending on which units stood in the villages. However, there are common details: confiscated phones, puncturing wheels in cars, extorting money, assurances that in a week ‘Kyiv will be taken’ and a quick escape, after which the bodies of shot neighbors were found in forest sites and in yards” (Ukrainska Pravda, April 9).
The atrocities committed in the occupied areas near Kyiv may also point to a deeper, often understated nature of this conflict—that it is a war for survival for Ukraine on the one hand, and a “final solution” for Russia on the other hand. Notwithstanding Moscow’s official denials and false accusations that the Ukrainian special services fabricated the Bucha massacre, shortly thereafter the Russian media published a wave of commentaries essentially justifying the violent war. In one telling example, Putin’s deputy Dmitry Medvedev declares, “One should not be surprised that, mentally transformed into the Third Reich, […] Ukraine will suffer its own fate” (T.me/medvedev_telegram, Realnoe Vremya, April 5). And during a visit to the Russian Far East, President Putin declared Russia’s war aims in Ukraine to be “noble” (The Guardian, April 12). With such unambiguous signaling from the very top about the purported righteousness of the army’s punitive campaign, Russian war crimes in Ukraine will continue.