Residents of Bucha reported the indiscriminately killing of civilians during the Russian occupation. (Image: RNZ/AFP)
Residents of Bucha reported the indiscriminately killing of civilians during the Russian occupation. (Image: RNZ/AFP)

The BulletinApril 5, 2022

Russian war crimes in Ukraine

Residents of Bucha reported the indiscriminately killing of civilians during the Russian occupation. (Image: RNZ/AFP)
Residents of Bucha reported the indiscriminately killing of civilians during the Russian occupation. (Image: RNZ/AFP)

Global horror as mass graves, hundreds of civilians left dead by retreating Russian troops, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

Horrifying images and testimony emerge from Ukraine as Russian forces withdraw.

The massacre of over 400 civilians in the city of Bucha, just outside Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, has unleashed a torrent of global outrage. This is not a pleasant story, but we have an obligation to bear witness. RNZ published reporting from the city, with disturbing details about what Ukrainian troops found after a five week Russian occupation. Ukraine’s president has labelled Russian forces as “butchers” after bodies were found with their hands still bound together. Bound by white armbands, which Russian forces had required all civilians to wear. The Guardian also reported on widespread sexual violence used as a weapon by Russian forces in occupied areas. The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that “not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions”.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the international community was witnessing war crimes. “The reports of Ukrainian civilians who have been killed, raped and severely wounded by Russian troops is beyond reprehensible. Russia must answer to the world for what they have done. It goes without saying that these atrocities are against international law,” she said yesterday. “Russia will be held to account.”

How the world will respond.

Almost six weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s unclear if the world’s sanctions and moral outrage will be enough. Following the Bucha killings, Germany said the west would adopt stricter sanctions, Reuters reports. There’s now talk of ending European gas imports from Russia, which would be a costly and difficult move by Europe. But how do you trade with a nation that has committed such awful crimes? The images coming out of Ukraine show indescribable brutality by Russian conscripts. The war in Ukraine is not over. The International Criminal Court is now investigating and New Zealand is providing the court with all the evidence it can muster.

New Zealand’s support will go further.

I was struck by Ardern’s answer yesterday, when asked if she’d consider sending weapons to the Ukrainians. In effect, she said that distinction is now arbitrary. New Zealand might not be sending guns or bombs, but it’s helping Ukraine in a lethal way. New Zealand soldiers now stationed in Europe are passing on real-time intelligence to Ukraine, helping guide its artillery strikes. New Zealand-donated radios are helping Ukrainian forces coordinate their attacks, while New Zealand-donated body amour is keeping them safe. But New Zealand could always do more. Overnight, 36 more wealthy Russians were added to New Zealand’s sanctions register, according to RNZ. While outgoing Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich is now on the list, Alexander Abramov, owner of the luxury Helena Bay lodge in Northland, isn’t.

The next steps will be difficult for the world.

The Russians have a history of winning wars that start disastrously for them, by throwing in loads of men and material to overwhelm defenders. The NZ Herald reports that Russian president Vladimir Putin now faces a tough decision after his military was depleted by its disastrous campaign. He could drop the pretence that Russia is conducting a “special military operation”, declare war and call up reserves for an all-out assault on Ukraine. Otherwise, he doesn’t have the manpower left to fight a war of attrition.

BBC Newsnight has looked at a single elite unit of Russian paratroopers, mauled on the first day of the invasion. The 331st Guards Parachute Regiment was trying to seize Kyiv’s Hostomel airport when it suffered serious casualties. The unit then fought street battles in Bucha. The BBC looks at the wave of death notifications received in the unit’s hometown of Kostroma, a Russian city north east of Moscow. The reports back to Russians seem to showcase the disintegration of the country’s war goals in Ukraine.

The battle for Donbas.

After ending its attack on Kyiv, Russia is now focusing on Ukraine’s east. The coming weeks will likely focus on the battle for Donbas. The region makes up about 10% of Ukraine’s landmass and its people have been culturally bisected by connections to their Ukrainian west and Russian east for generations. Moscow-backed separatists began a civil war in the region after Russia seized nearby Crimea in 2014. Mariupol, a major port city, has been under brutal siege for weeks. It’s in southern Donbas, standing between Russia’s Crimean forces and its allies in the region. It’s unclear if the west is willing to let Russia win. Writing in the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues the democracies need to start defending themselves, or the world’s autocrats will destroy them.

Keep going!