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Ukraine: Russian Forces Executed Surrendering Ukraine Soldiers

Ukraine: Russian Forces Executed Surrendering Ukraine Soldiers

(Kyiv, May 2, 2024) – Russian forces appear to have executed at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers as they attempted to surrender, and possibly six more who were surrendering or who had surrendered, since early December 2023, Human Rights Watch said today.

These incidents should be investigated as war crimes. “Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its forces have committed many heinous war crimes,” said Belkis Wille, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The summary execution – or murder – of surrendering and injured Ukrainian soldiers, gunned down in cold blood, expressly forbidden under international humanitarian law, is also included in that shameful legacy.” Human Rights Watch investigated three instances of the apparent summary execution of at least 12 Ukrainian soldiers by verifying and analyzing drone footage posted on social media on December 2 and December 27, and on February 25, 2024. In these cases, the soldiers demonstrated a clear intent to surrender and, since they were no longer taking part in hostilities, were considered hors de combat and not targetable under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. Human Rights Watch verified the location of two of the three incidents based on the footage, but due to the lack of geographic details in the videos, was unable to determine the exact location of the third. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify which party operated the drone that captured the footage in these cases. Human Rights Watch investigated a fourth instance by analyzing another video clip posted on social media on February 19 showing two Russian soldiers executing three surrendering and unarmed Ukrainian soldiers. Although the account that posted the clip stated the location of the incident, Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the location independently. For the fifth incident, the investigation relied on an interview with a Ukrainian soldier, a video posted to a Telegram channel on February 16, and in-depth media coverage including interviews with family members of one of the victims.

The information suggests that six soldiers were executed in the incident, though the circumstances were less clear. In one of the five incidents, on February 25, verified drone footage shared widely online including on X (formerly known as Twitter) shows at least seven Ukrainian soldiers exiting a dugout among some trees between two fields, removing their body armor, at least one soldier removing their helmet, and all lying face down as five Russian soldiers aim their guns at them.

The Russian soldiers are identifiable by distinctive red tape markings around the arms and legs. Three Russian soldiers then shoot toward the clearly surrendered Ukrainian soldiers from behind and both sides. Six of the Ukrainian soldiers remain face down, visibly reacting to the impact of the shots, while one attempts to reenter the dugout but is shot before he is able to.

The incident took place near Ivanivske village in the Donetska region.

The location was first verified by EjShahid, a volunteer for GeoConfirmed, and subsequently confirmed by Human Rights Watch researchers.

The apparent executions do not appear to be isolated instances. Human Rights Watch also identified Russian drone footage posted on February 5, 2024, capturing a separate battlefield moment. In that incident, Human Rights Watch could not determine whether the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered, but a male voice heard in the clip, which appears to be credible, apparently provides commands to Russian soldiers on the battlefield in the Donetska region.

The voice says in Russian, “take no prisoners, shoot everyone.” Audiovisual analysis of the footage supports the conclusion that the drone is Russian. A report published in March 2023 by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented Russian armed forces and Wagner Group executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) during the first year of the full-scale invasion. In its February to July 2023 periodic report, the UN documented the summary execution of six Ukrainian POWs. A follow-up report published in March 2024, covering the three previous months, identified 12 reported episodes of executions of at least 32 captured POWs or people hors de combat.

The UN independently verified three of the latter incidents, involving seven Ukrainian soldiers. On April 9, the Ukraine Prosecutor General’s Office said it was conducting 27 criminal investigations into the execution of 54 Ukrainian POWs.

The Prosecutor General’s Office told Human Rights Watch it was unable to share more information about these cases but referenced three notices of suspicion it had issued against Russian soldiers for extrajudicial executions, one of which resulted in a court ruling in absentia, and a recent statement references a fourth.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented instances in which Ukrainian armed forces have abused Russian POWs during the full-scale invasion. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on April 22, asking for details into the incidents described above, as well as any orders to Russian forces to kill instead of capture surrendering Ukrainian soldiers. It has received no response. International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires parties to an international armed conflict to treat armed forces who are hors de combat and those in custody, who become prisoners of war, humanely in all circumstances. It is a war crime to willfully kill, mistreat, or torture these forces. An order to kill prisoners of war or to execute surrendering soldiers rather than capture them, known as no quarter to be given, is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law. Such orders violate Russia’s international humanitarian law, or laws of war, obligations as well as its own military statutes, and both issuing such an order and carrying it out are war crimes. In addition to being bound by international humanitarian law, Russia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which strictly forbids extrajudicial killings. Russia also has an obligation under international humanitarian law to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by its forces or those committed on the territory it controls. However, extensive Human Right Watch documentation of international humanitarian law violations in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine over more than three decades clearly demonstrates that Russia has been unwilling to prosecute war crimes and other violations of international law committed by its forces. “While each of these cases is horrifying, perhaps what is most damning is the evidence indicating in at least one case that Russian forces explicitly gave orders to kill soldiers instead of letting them surrender, thereby endorsing war crimes,” Wille said. For more information on the four additional incidents documented, and an apparent Russian instruction to take no quarter, please see below. Below are details of four of the five incidents, with the fifth detailed above. Researchers closely analyzed the videos, observing the use of each side’s identification tape – blue for Ukraine and white or red for Russia – and the distinct hues of the soldiers’ military fatigues to differentiate between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.

They uploaded screenshots from each video to reverse search image engines and found no records of them before early December 2023. Drone Footage Posted on December 2, 2023, from the Donetska region On December 2, drone footage was uploaded to Telegram on a channel called DeepState UA, an open-source organization that has been monitoring and mapping military actions in Ukraine since February 2022.

The footage appears to show Russian soldiers executing two surrendering Ukrainian soldiers in a tree line between two fields. One of the surrendering soldiers, wearing a Ukrainian uniform, has visible blue tape around their arm, regularly worn by Ukrainian soldiers.

The first surrendering Ukrainian soldier exits the entrance of a dugout with their hands above their head and lies face down on the ground a few meters away. Six Russian soldiers, identifiable by their relatively darker camouflage, have their guns trained at the Ukrainian soldier and the entrance to the dugout. A second Ukrainian soldier exits the dugout, hunched over with one arm partially raised and the second hanging limp, and then suddenly stumbles. In the footage neither soldier appears to be carrying any weapons in their hands. At least two Russian soldiers proceed to fire at and execute the second Ukrainian and then a few seconds later, execute the first Ukrainian soldier, who gets up to move toward the dugout after shots are fired in his direction. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the location, but the poster of the clip provides a map to the video’s location and identifies it as 700 meters southeast of Stepove village in the Donetska region of eastern Ukraine. On December 2, 2023, on social media, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) asserted the authenticity of the video. Drone Footage Posted on December 27, 2023, from the Zaporizka region A screen-recording of drone footage uploaded to Telegram on December 27 by a user called 4sman4lav_osman, who says they are a volunteer with Ukraine’s 24th Separate Assault Battalion “Aidar,” apparently shows three Ukrainian soldiers kneeling with their hands on their heads in a field between Verbove and Robotyne villages in the Zaporizka region.

The group is surrounded by four Russian soldiers standing about 15 meters away. As one Russian soldier moves toward the captives, smoke discharges from his weapon in the direction of the Ukrainian soldiers, and all three immediately collapse. Subsequently, the same Russian soldier appears to shoot two of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers at close range.

The location was initially verified by a member of the open-source research community EjShahid, a volunteer for GeoConfirmed, and later confirmed by Human Rights Watch researchers. On December 28, on social media the Ukrainian Air Force confirmed the incident occurred, stating that the soldiers had been members of the 82nd Air Assault Brigade and were hors de combat when killed. Media Coverage and Video Posted on February 16, 2024, from the Donetska region A video posted to a Telegram channel called RVvoenkor on February 16, during the capture of the city of Avdiivka, in the Donetska region, shows the bodies of six Ukrainian soldiers who, evidence suggests, surrendered to Russian troops who had captured their position.

The video is a series of clips stitched together that show six bodies. At least four of them, dressed in military fatigues consistent with the pattern worn by the Ukrainian armed forces, lie in and around a muddy pool of water that appears to be colored red by blood. None of the people in the video appear to have any weapons on or near them, nor do they appear to be wearing combat protective equipment. One of the deceased is clutching a water bottle, while a second one has a Ukrainian flag partially curled up across their legs. A third has blue tape around their arm, consistent with tape worn by Ukrainian soldiers.

The video features a watermark of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DPR) 1st Sloviansk Brigade’s logo in the top right corner, alongside the name of a popular Russian Telegram channel, RVvoenkory. Viktor Biliak, a soldier from Ukraine’s 110th brigade, was stationed in Avdiivka for 620 days until he and others withdrew from a position on the city’s outskirts as Russian forces took full control of the city. He told Human Rights Watch they withdrew over the course of two nights between February 13 and 15, after the city had already been encircled. As they withdrew, five soldiers who had been stationed with Biliak were unable to leave because they had serious injuries. One of Biliak’s colleagues stayed with them. All six soldiers believed they would be evacuated. On the morning of February 15, after a radio conversation between the commander and the six men, two of them sent a series of messages to the brigade’s Signal group. Human Rights Watch received screenshots of these messages from a source who cannot be identified for security reasons. Two of the men left behind, Georgiy Pavlov and Andriy Dubnytskyi, wrote messages saying they and four other injured men had been left behind and curse the commanders for leaving them behind, saying God would judge them for it.

The soldiers’ brigade later acknowledged on social media that they were unable to evacuate the injured due to intense fighting and their command negotiated for the Russian side to evacuate them and exchange them later. According to a BBC interview with Inna Pavlova, Pavlov’s mother, on the morning of February 15, she received a message from Pavlov saying, “The Russians know that we are here alone.” She hadn’t heard from him since. Dmitriy, the brother-in-law of Ivan Zhytnyk, another one of the men left behind, said Zhytnyk video-called him. He played a recording of the call to the BBC. In the middle of the conversation, a Russian soldier enters the building, and a voice says, “Put the gun away.” “Are they there?” Dmitriy asks Ivan, who answers “Yes.” At this point, Dmitriy stopped recording video, the article says, but the call continued for a couple of minutes longer. “I saw a bearded man,” Dmitriy told the BBC. “I asked Ivan to give him the phone. I wanted to ask them not to kill them. But I heard the voice say: ‘Switch off the phone.’” Biliak confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the location seen in the Telegram video was the location the forces had held on the outskirts of Avdiivka where he had separated from Pavlov, Dubnytskyi, Zhytnyk, and the three other men. He also confirmed that the body of Dubnytskyi is among those shown in the video, saying he recognized a tattoo on his right hand. Video Posted on February 19, 2024, from the Zaporizka region Another incident, captured in a video uploaded to a Telegram channel called Аморальна UKRAINE (Immoral UKRAINE) on February 19, shows what appears to be two Russian soldiers, identified by white tape around their armbands and their relatively darker camouflage, executing three unarmed Ukrainian soldiers, identified by their lighter military camouflage. Two of the Ukrainian soldiers – one of whom appears injured and walks unsteadily – are exiting a trench watched by two Russian soldiers, while a third Ukrainian lies on a mound of dirt directly next to one of the Russian soldiers. A third Russian soldier approaches the trench and proceeds to open fire on the standing Ukrainian soldiers.

The two Ukrainian soldiers quickly fall to the ground.

The same Russian soldier then aims at and executes the Ukrainian soldier lying on the dirt mound, who covers his head with his hands just before the soldier opens fire.

The Russian solider then reloads and fires additional rounds into all three Ukrainian soldiers as another soldier fires shots into one of the two Ukrainian soldiers who appears to be still alive. Although the account that posted the clip stated the incident occurred near Robotyne, Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the location independently. No Quarter Calls in Drone Footage Posted on February 5, 2024, from the Donetska region One video clip taken by a Russian drone and uploaded on February 5 to a Telegram channel called ATO Donetsk, which promotes content about the DPR and the Russian military, shows four Russian soldiers attacking a dugout in a forested area where at least two Ukrainian soldiers are hidden. A male voice behind the screen gives commands to the Russian soldiers on the ground, multiple times repeating orders in Russian to “take no prisoners, shoot everyone.” Human Rights Watch cannot determine from the video whether the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered. One of the Russian soldiers nears the entrance of a dugout where two Ukrainian soldiers, identified by their light camouflage, are positioned.

The first Ukrainian soldier begins to emerge cautiously with a second soldier close behind while the Russian soldier observes. About seven seconds later, the Russian soldier starts shooting, causing both Ukrainian soldiers to collapse to the ground.

The first Ukrainian soldier lies motionless on the ground while the second Ukrainian crawls back into the dugout.

The voice says “good, one was killed, well done.” After that the speaker says “Guys, kill everyone, the second [Ukrainian soldier] is wounded, shoot him from atop, shoot him, take no prisoners.” A second Russian soldier approaches the entrance and throws a grenade into the dugout that the Ukrainian soldier had crawled back into.

The voice then says: “Grenade, well done, here you go. And the second one was finished too, well done, guys.” Human Rights Watch was able to confirm the location of the clip, which is a small forest 1.3 kilometers east of Klishchiivka, Donetska region.

The location was first verified by a Telegram channel that posts geolocations of similar videos. Human Rights Watch analyzed the audio for any signs of manipulation and found no obvious hallmarks of manipulation.

The audiovisual analysis demonstrates that the gunshots and grenades seen in the video match the muffled sounds transmitted through the radio to the voice behind the screen with a roughly 2.5 seconds delay to the visuals throughout the clip. This strongly suggests that the individual behind the screen is actively directing the soldiers on the ground in real-time by issuing commands.

The video was shared by a pro-Russian Telegram channel and covered by pro-Russian media, lending credibility to the authenticity of the audio.

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