The grotesque pictures emerging from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha are some of the strongest evidence yet of apparent war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine: Dead civilians on the street, some with hands bound and shot execution-style, others apparently mowed down at random.
For anyone who has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s way of war, it’s a depressingly familiar pattern. Russia’s military has a culture of brutality and scorn for the laws of armed conflict that has been extensively documented in the past.
“The history of Russia’s military interventions – be it in Ukraine or Syria, or its military campaign at home in Chechnya – is tainted with blatant disregard for international humanitarian law,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“The Russian military repeatedly flouted the laws of war by failing to protect civilians and even attacking them directly. Russian forces have launched indiscriminate attacks, used banned weapons and sometimes apparently deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects – a war crime.”
That statement, made less than a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has proven sadly prophetic. In the opening weeks of the war, the international community reacted with horror as Ukrainian cities came under relentless Russian bombardment. Protected civilian infrastructure was hit, much as Russian aircraft once targeted Syrian schools and hospitals.
But the scenes unfolding in places like Bucha suggest an intimate kind of violence, something reminiscent of Russia’s war in Chechnya.
During the second Chechen war – which coincided with Putin’s rise to power – allegations also surfaced of widespread human-rights abuse by Russian troops. In 2000, to cite just one well-known incident, investigators with Human Rights Watch documented the summary execution of at least 60 civilians in two suburbs of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
Locals unearthed mass graves in Chechnya; international officials made fact-finding trips to the region and made concerned statements about the reports of abuse and extrajudicial killings. Those statements did not stop Russia’s military from grinding ahead with its ruthless pacification campaign.
Similar evidence of summary executions abounds in towns such as Bucha. A CNN team visited the basement of one building and saw the bodies of five men before they were removed by a Ukrainian team. An adviser to the Ukrainian 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 Monday that Russia’s treatment of prisoners of war violates the Geneva Conventions, laying out a theoretical case for potential war crimes prosecutions.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Denisova said that released Ukrainian soldiers have “told of the inhumane treatment of them by the Russian side: they were kept in a field, in a pit, in a garage. Periodically, one was taken out: beaten with rifle butts, shots fired next to their 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 depicting Ukrainian prisoners of war being processed for “filtration” – Zhdanov’s choice of word – after they were captured. The videos show masked Russians searching their captives for tattoos or insignia, which would supposedly show affiliation with nationalists or “neo-Nazi” groups that the Russians have cast as their main enemy in Ukraine.
Zhdanov said in his post that Ukrainian POWs were being treated humanely. But his choice of words was ominous. During the war in Chechnya, Russian forces notoriously used so-called “filtration camps” used to separate civilians from rebel fighters. Legendary Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya gathered testimony from Chechen civilians detained in filtration centers, where detainees said they were held in pits and subjected to electric shock, beatings and ruthless interrogation.
Russian forces have also targeted local Ukrainian mayors for detention – and in at least one case, Ukrainian officials say, an extrajudicial killing.
“At the moment, 11 local mayors from Kyiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Donetsk regions are in Russian captivity,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a message posted on social media Sunday. She said the Ukrainian government learnt Saturday that Olga Sukhenko, the mayor of Motyzhyn, a village in the Kyiv region, was killed in the custody of Russian forces.
Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol – who was detained by Russian forces but subsequently freed as part of a prisoner exchange – said Russian forces occupying his city were appropriating local businesses, saying that the “situation is difficult, because Russian soldiers have declared themselves as authorities but of course, they don’t care about people and their problems, they only care about taking the money from the businessmen, [and seizing] their businesses.”
Long before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military had a reputation for a culture of cruelty. Russia has a hybrid manpower system of contract soldiers and conscripts. Although the Russian government claims to have made strides in professionalizing its forces, the country’s military still has a brutal hazing system known as dedovshchina, a notorious tradition that encourages senior conscripts to beat, brutalize or even rape younger conscripts.
Putin recently announced a decree on spring conscription, fixing a target for 134,500 individuals to be called up into the Russian armed forces. The Russian President originally claimed that Russian conscripts would not take part in what Russia has euphemistically dubbed the “special military operation” in Ukraine. But the Russian Ministry of Defense subsequently acknowledged that draftees were fighting in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces claim to have taken a considerable number of Russian conscripts prisoner.
Ukrainian investigators are already launching criminal probes of alleged crimes by Russian forces as more areas are freed from Russian control – particularly around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.
It will be days, or perhaps weeks, before we get a fuller picture of what happened in Bucha. But if the past is any guide, there is little hope that Russian perpetrators would be brought to justice.
CNN’s Alex Hardie contributed to this report. CNN’s Vasco Cotovio contributed reporting from Bucha, Ukraine.