The Anatomy of a Russian Massacre

Late on Saturday afternoon (2 April 2022), news of a Russian massacre of Ukrainian civilians started to come from the town of Bucha in the north west of the Kyiv Oblast. According to initial reports, Ukrainian forces, following the Russian withdrawal from the town, retook Bucha and discovered a series of massacre sites, a mass grave, and the bodies of murdered civilians littering the streets. Pictures of the crimes were published widely in the western media, illustrating the brazen and public nature of what was labelled the ‘Bucha massacre’ by the Wikipedia article published within hours of the first report of the incident (04:53, 3 April 2022). Louise Callaghan, writing in The Times in an article published at 10 pm on 2 April, said Anatoly Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, had reported a mass grave in the town containing almost 300 bodies and that he had seen at least 22 bodies lying on the streets. This version of the massacre would become the official narrative of the western media, giving President Biden another opportunity to call Vladimir Putin a ‘war criminal.’

In response to this, however, the Russian Defence Ministry strenuously denied the accusations of the Ukrainian and western governments, stating:

Evidence of crimes in Bucha appeared only on the fourth day after the Security Service of Ukraine and representatives of Ukrainian media arrived in the town. All Russian units completely withdrew from Bucha on March 30, and ‘not a single local resident was injured’ during the time when Bucha was under the control of Russian troops.

Russia’s assertion that its forces left Bucha, in accordance with a set of concessions it had granted the Ukrainian government at recent talks, was corroborated by a number of Ukrainian state, local government, military, and media sources. It is understood that the first Ukrainian forces entered the town in the evening of 30 March and that the town was in Ukrainian possession by the morning of Thursday 31 March. This is confirmed by the presence of Daniel Berehulak, a photojournalist for The New York Times, who accompanied a detachment of the Azov battalion on a tour of Iprin and Bucha (31 March – 2 April). None of the many pictures shared by Berehulak on social media or printed in The New York Times contain evidence of a mass killing of Ukrainian civilians. At 16:31 on 1 April Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor, broadcast a video message from the town hall in Bucha, decrying the Russians as ‘orcs’ and announcing the ‘liberation’ of the town. His tone was gleeful and triumphant, and he made no mention of a massacre.

On the same day, local authority representative Ekaterina Ukraintsiva announced on the Bucha Live Telegram page that there would be a ‘cleansing of the city’ on 2 April. This, she explained, would be a sweep of the town and surrounding area by the National Police special forces SAFARI unit and the Azov battalion, and that residents were to remain in their shelters and stay off the streets. This sweep of the city was reported on the pro-EU website (2 April 2022), describing the purpose of the operation as a sweep to clear the town of Russian ‘saboteurs’ and ‘accomplices.’ Given that the Russian military had vacated the town, these saboteurs and accomplices must have been Ukrainian citizens identified as collaborators and sympathisers. It may be safely assumed that this operation was about reprisals. It is not known whether this sweep discovered such persons, and, if so, where they are now — and it was not until the completion of this clearing operation that a massacre was reported by the Ukrainian and international media on the evening of 2 April.

Standpoint Zero and Consortium News were among the first media sites to ask questions about the apparent inconsistencies in the story of this massacre. About seventy-two hours had passed between the departure of Russian forces and the alarm being raised about a mass killing of civilians. Despite the mayor and Ekaterina Ukraintsiva communicating with the residents of the town online, not one person inside the town during the Russian occupation took to their social media to highlight an atrocity. There are no pictures, videos, text messages, or social updates about a mass killing of civilians. What is evident, however, is something to the contrary. Nastia Savchyshyn, a young woman from Bucha, posted an image of herself to her Facebook page (4 April 2022) beside an image of a woman killed by shelling in the town, with the message:

Hello World. My name is Nastia. I’m a Ukrainian. My photo is on the left. The photo on the right could have been me. Could have been any of us. Raped and killed by Russians just for being Ukrainian.

Poignant, but — and she was updating her page throughout the Russian occupation — nowhere on her feed does she describe witnessing Russian soldiers murdering civilians or raping anyone. No doubt this has been a traumatic experience for her, but her image in the post is of a well-dressed and healthy looking young woman with her makeup done. So, not exactly the image of a German Fräulein in the aftermath of the Red Army’s capture of Berlin in 1945.

Also on 4 April, the Twitter user ‘Mi-28 NM night hunter’ shared a video diary produced by a young man from Bucha who had been blogging about events in the town during the conflict. This guy is Ukrainian and describes himself as ‘pro-Ukrainian,’ but he is adamant that no one was tortured or killed by the Russians during the occupation. When other social media users from outside Ukraine argued with him, he simply replied: ‘Would it be easier for you if they killed me? Would you like to hear this story?’

Rather quickly, then, the narrative of Russian savagery; mass killings and a massacre, began to break down, and in the days after the first reports of the massacre, a growing number of commentators have stepped forward to cast doubt on the official narrative. What is clear, however, is that there were bodies on the streets on 31 March, there were bodies which had their hands bound and which appeared to have been executed visible on 2 April, and indeed there was a mass grave. Notwithstanding all this, still, the overall picture of Russian brutality, the mass killing of civilians, and a massacre simply does not make sense. Over the remainder of this article, then, an attempt will be made to piece together the events of this apparent massacre into a timeline in an effort to account for the bodies on the streets, the mass grave, and the massacre.

The town of Bucha, a satellite town of Kyiv with a population of about 37,000, was from 26-27 February until 30 March occupied by the invading Russian army. To a greater or lesser extent over the course of these thirty-one days the town of Bucha and the surrounding area was on the frontline of a war between two of the most modernised and technologically advanced armies in the world. Sadly, civilians in contexts of urban warfare are killed — by both sides; they are killed by shelling, by being caught in the crossfire, and by accident by soldiers. Nothing of this is good or right — and most certainly there should be justice for civilians killed in these circumstances, but these civilian deaths — ‘collateral damage’ — constitute neither a massacre nor a genocide.

It is known from Ukrainian army drone (UAV) footage, uploaded to the News Ukraine (Irpin | Bucha | Gostomel) Telegram page that during the Russian withdrawal on 30 March, that Ukrainian forces were shelling the town heavily through the day. The video shows a series of explosions in residential areas, and it is unlikely this bombardment would not have killed a significant number of civilians. Moreover, similar Ukrainian UAV footage from the day shows how easily civilians are killed by accident. As Russian tanks and armour units move in a column north over the main thoroughfare, we see light armoured vehicles stationed at the intersections to this main road. These vehicles are in place to protect the main column from enemy flanking manœuvres. Guns mounted on these trucks and the guns of the accompanying squads of infantrymen will be trained down the approaching streets, keeping lookout for possible dangers. In this video, we see someone — a civilian on a bicycle — moving up a street parallel to the armour division column. When this poor man reaches the intersection, he becomes visible to the soldiers at the far end of the sideroad and is shot. Again, this should not have happened. But this was not deliberate targeting. It was not part of a massacre or a genocide.

Frustratingly, western governments and media — with the exception of the Pentagon, which has distanced itself from this narrative somewhat — have stuck rigidly to a version of events that describe the bodies on the street as part of a massacre. This is simply not the case. Civilians were killed during the heavy fighting on the day. They were killed by Russian machine gun fire and they were killed by Ukrainian shells. This is supported too by the image of the dead woman posted to social media by Ms Savchyshyn. This woman lies face up next to a badly damaged tree. Russian soldiers were not attacking trees. Unfortunately, this is a scene one would expect to see in an urban environment after artillery shelling. In this case, a shell has impacted nearby killing the woman and destroying the tree. There is no question of the woman having been bound, tortured, or raped — she is fully clothed. Most likely she has come out from her shelter for whatever reason — demonstrating she was not overly afraid of the Russian soldiers — and was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Doubling-down on the massacre narrative, The New York Times released satellite images from the US military contractor Maxar showing a number of bodies lying about the streets of Bucha. Perhaps to the uninformed this proves the corporate media case that Russian soldiers were indiscriminately killing defenceless civilians during the occupation, but to anyone familiar with modern urban warfare this scene proves the opposite. Civilians cannot always stay in their shelters. These are the very definition of imperfect situations. Buildings catch fire and are destroyed, and the same is true of temporary or makeshift shelters. When this happens — or for some other urgent reason — civilians, for their safety, are forced to break shelter and run; exposing them to other dangers.

What the satellite images do show with merit to the case being made for a massacre is a long trench in the grounds of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, which was subsequently discovered to be a mass grave in which a good number of civilians were interred. In the days after the Russian withdrawal these were exhumed before crowds of international journalists and effectively sold to the world as further evidence of Russian soldiers having massacred civilians. Yet, on the ground, this is not what the mass grave proves at all. A video posted on 12 March to Facebook by a Ukrainian medic, Andriy Levkivskyi, explains this mass grave. Indeed this was a mass grave, but it was, as Gleb Bazov later explains (6 April 2022), a mass grave for ‘civilian defenders.’

It will be remembered that at the outbreak of hostilities the Kyiv government instituted a levée en masse by issuing civilians with firearms and asking them to fight for Ukraine, thus depriving them of their protections as civilians under international humanitarian law. In the early days of the invasion both the Ukrainian army and these combatant civilians — qua combatants — would have suffered losses. Armed civilians would have fought on both sides; as there are many ethnic Russian Ukrainians and ethnic Ukrainians who are in favour of the Russian invasion. The far-right coup of 2014 divided the whole of Ukraine, and not just the Donbas. After the retreat of the Ukrainian army from the north west of the Kyiv Oblast the civilian insurgency continued, resulting in more combatant civilian deaths. Remember, these armed civilians are, according to the established rules of war, combatants. It is not a war crime when they are killed in action.

When Andriy Levkivskyi and his fellow medics buried these civilians — pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian civilians, marked out by their blue and white armbands respectively — they were buried with at least some dignity in body bags. Levkivskyi even laments in his Facebook post that there were no crosses. He clearly wanted to give them more respect. Yet, Levkivskyi does not call this a massacre. He does not blame the Russians, and he does not do this precisely because these were at least in part Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. He correctly identified this as a mass grave. It is a mass grave. Wars create mass graves — sadly. And this mass grave was visible on the Maxar satellite images, of course it was. But it does not support the accusation that the Russians were indiscriminately murdering civilians and dumping them in a hastily dug trench. No, this was an ordered burial in daylight for those killed in the first days of the insurgency, and it was deliberately sited at St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints church because — it’s a church. This burial was not ideal, but, given the circumstances, every effort was made to bury the dead with dignity and on holy ground.

Then, from the night of 2 April, there is evidence of a real massacre. This war crime was not evident to The New York Times photojournalist Daniel Berehulak and neither was it known to the mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk. It is an outrage that only appeared three days after the Russian withdrawal and an hour or so after the National Police special forces and the Azov battalion had completed their sweep of the city for saboteurs and accomplices of the Russians. The former UN weapons inspector and US intelligence operative Scott Ritter was suspended from Twitter for reaching the conclusion:

The Ukrainian National Police committed numerous crimes against humanity in Bucha. Biden, in seeking to shift blame for the Bucha murders onto Russia, is guilty of aiding and abetting these crimes. Congratulations America… we’ve created yet another Presidential war criminal!

On suspending his account, Twitter cited its rules against abuse and harassment. Yet, his conclusion appears to be grounded in the known facts of the case. Someone certainly did kill these people, and we can safely rule out the Russians. Russian forces had left Bucha three days before this very public massacre was discovered, strongly suggesting the murders were committed sometime in the afternoon of 2 April — when the National Police and the Azov battalion were conducting their sweep for saboteurs and accomplices. One does not have to be Hercule Poirot to see that these units have both motive and opportunity. They were in the town conducting a sweep for traitors in what looks to be a reprisal mission at a time when the civilian population had been informed by the national news media and the city council to stay off the streets. This leaves us with one suspect.

Supporting this hypothesis — as this article is not a court of law — are the numerous pictures of the massacre (not the bodies on the street or in the mass grave) in which we see dead bodies wearing white armbands. One is of a man on the street beside a black car and another is of a line of men who were kneeling against a wall and executed by a single shot to the back of the head. These are the bodies which do constitute a massacre of civilians. It would certainly look to be the case that the Police and the Azov battalion were working off of a list of names, but this much at this point is a mere conjecture. Yet, it is the massacre — not the bodies on the streets killed during the fighting or the remains of those in the mass grave killed during the insurgency.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.


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