Whose War Crimes in Ukraine?

No-one disputes that many war crimes have been committed since Russian forces moved into Ukraine. But the question is by whom and under what circumstances were such crimes committed. How can we assess claims and denials from both parties without prejudice and supposition?

There has been a lot of fuss in the Western media sphere about war crimes in Ukraine, allegedly committed by Russian forces since February 24th when Russia’s intervention began. The stage was already set for such claims to be made before the Kremlin’s “special military operation” was launched, with its labelling as an “invasion” and “unprovoked aggression” by NATO countries and their media. On this basis Russia’s whole operation was framed as the “supreme war crime” of launching a war of aggression, as defined at Nuremberg. 

This framing of Russia’s intervention in Donbas as unprovoked aggression has become a mantra, repeated in all Western news commentary; anyone denying this will be abused and dismissed as a Kremlin shill or Putin puppet. But unless we can reconsider this initial – and false – claim, there is little point in even discussing the details of the allegations now being made against the Kremlin. Such a discussion however – an honest appraisal of “both sides” viewpoint – may turn things on their head, revealing that Russia is not the aggressor, but rather the defender of Russian-speaking Ukrainians against Kiev’s aggression. 

  The difficulty of having such a discussion has just been starkly demonstrated by an exchange between the SMH/Age journalist Anthony Galloway and the Russian Embassy in Canberra, over the publication of a series of articles about war crimes in Ukraine. Galloway has spent some time over the last few months, accompanied by photojournalist Kate Gallagher, collecting details and interviewing victims who allege crimes committed against them by Russian soldiers. The pair’s research was however restricted to areas under Kiev’s control, and mostly involved individual cases in March or April which might now be considered “cold cases”. 

  While some of the claims – of torture and unlawful killing – are serious, none is outstanding or with substantial supporting evidence. The difficulty of verifying such claims even soon after the event is significant, as the example of Bucha demonstrates. Those who hold up what happened there as the “signature” war crime of this conflict have not considered the almost complete lack of evidence on who was responsible for their deaths. Some bodies lying in the street demonstrated nothing without something to implicate the alleged murderers – a fact amply demonstrated by the serious circumstantial evidence most were actually victims of a Ukrainian round up of Russian sympathisers immediately following the Russian troop withdrawal. The fabrication of satellite images to “prove” the remarkably fresh-looking corpses had lain there for three weeks also quite discredits the story, and all those who have used it as a pretext for action against Russia. 

 Without allowing that this be some excuse for Anthony Galloway’s remarkably impudent demands to the Russian Embassy in Canberra, the universal acceptance of the Bucha killings story in Western media goes some way to explain his contemptuous attitude to the Embassy’s press officer – as expressed in this extract from his pre-publication email: 

  “Hi there, I recently returned from Ukraine and am writing a series of articles on allegations of war crimes towards both sides. I have a number of questions for the Russian government. My deadline is 5pm Monday.” 

- Bucha resident Natalia Kulakivska has had three family members go missing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine - her husband Yevhen, 42, brother-in-law Serhiy, 37 and nephew Vladyslav Bondarenko, 20. Why were these men taken by Russian soldiers?
- Is it correct that Vladyslav was shot dead on while trying to escape a truck going to Belarus?
- Is it correct that both Serhiy and Yevhen are still in prisons in Russia?
- Is it correct that Serhiy is in Bryansk Jail No. 3?
- Which prison is Yevhen in?

These questions could make little sense without having read the article in which the stories of these people are told, but Galloway must also have known the Russian Embassy couldn’t provide answers, by 5pm Monday. His “questions” are rather verbal punches, to be reported as evidence of guilt because they aren’t answered. Galloway continues: 

“- On the night of March 27 in Kherson, Russian soldiers arrested Vitaliy Lapchuk, Denys Myronov and Anton Hladkiy. Is it correct that Vitaliy was beaten to death on that night?
- If not, when did Vitaliy die?
- If he wasn't killed, how did he die?
- How did Denys die?”

These questions relate to Galloway’s third part in the four-part series of articles, published in print and online between the 16th and 19th of July, and apparently timed to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the shooting down of MH17 - over the current war zone. 

 This third part was about the Ukrainian “resistance” to the Russian “occupation”, and specifically in Kherson, one of the first cities to be “liberated” from the government of Kiev. Like other cities in this part of Ukraine, the mostly Russian speaking population of Kherson was opposed to the pro-US government installed following the coup in 2014, but unlike Donetsk and Lugansk was subdued and governed by Kiev for eight years. When forces from the Donetsk People’s Republic moved into Kherson in early March they were mostly welcomed, and the city has been something of a model for a peaceful and “democratic” transition to autonomy or union with Russia. 

 Naturally this development was resisted by those locals who supported Kiev or were with the Ukrainian army, and in the case of Vitaliy and Denys, their undercover armed resistance group met with the fate of so many such groups around the world in history. Reading the article also makes it quite clear that the group’s activities – driving a van marked “bread” to pass through checkpoints to collect weapons and intelligence on Russian positions, while organising armed actions at secret meetings - class them as “genuine enemy combatants” under international law. Had the Russian Embassy been aware of this context they may have answered the question differently, but this answer to a similar question is equally applicable:

“With no substantiation, lack of identifying data or at least indication of sources, most of your questions hardly deserve consideration. Some leave one utterly perplexed. "Was a man from Trostyanets named Mykola beaten to death?" Do you sincerely believe any government could take this kind of question from a journalist seriously?”

But Galloway doesn’t take the Embassy’s answer seriously, quoting just the first sentence in his article while leaving out their criticism of his journalism and the reasoned arguments, and doubtless ignoring their advice. The Embassy’s press officer continued a little ironically that: 

“We fully understand your task is not easy. You have the editorial policy to follow. In addition, during your trip to Ukraine, you obviously were exposed to the Ukrainian propaganda aimed primarily to dehumanise the Russians. We wonder whether you have heeded and reflected on the warning issued by Reporters Without Borders: "The Ukrainian authorities see foreign journalists as influence relays rather than information vehicles." 

 Whether following the SMH/Age “editorial policy” or simply following his prejudices however, Anthony Galloway must take responsibility for spreading false stories and lies which ultimately will cost lives; without such a war of disinformation and abuse to support NATO’s campaign against Russia, and its apparent determination to “fight to the last Ukrainian”, some kind of settlement and resolution would surely have been achieved by now. 

  The picture is however worse than this, not from what is said and claimed by Ukraine about alleged Russian war crimes, but from what is not said about the true crimes being committed by Ukrainian forces, specifically targeting civilian populations in Donetsk and Lugansk - and with the Howitzers and rocket launchers supplied them by the West. The closest that Galloway comes to admitting to such crimes is in part 4, looking at destruction and damage to civilian facilities like schools and hospitals. 

 Claims that Russian and DPR forces have targeted these facilities intentionally and maliciously have been made from the start of the conflict and continue to be made despite Russia’s denials, - and despite any rationale for such attacks with no apparent military justification. The very same claims have been made for years against Russia in Syria, and for a simple reason; such facilities are cynically used by armed militants and irregular brigades both as a protected store for weapons and as command posts. 

  Notorious examples exist, for instance in Aleppo in Syria, where following the city’s liberation from terrorist groups it was found that the main hospital had housed both Al Qaeda groups and their White Helmet assistants. But so controlled and blinkered is Western media that rather than raising doubts over similar claims in Ukraine, these organisations repeat the lies told about Russia’s actions in Syria as further evidence that these claims are true.

 No better example of these fabrications exists than the stories told about two events in Mariupol, when the local Donetsk militia was fighting Azov battalion forces for control of the city, and before they were driven into their last redoubt in the Azovstal steelworks bunkers. Around the 12th of March a story was spread claiming a Russian airstrike on a city maternity hospital, with emotive video of a wounded pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher. It soon was revealed that the Azov brigade had cleared the patients out of the hospital days earlier to use as a protected base, so the story was quite untrue. This hasn’t prevented it from going down in history as a “Russian war crime”. 
 But when there was a real attack on a maternity hospital in Donetsk with Grad missiles fired by Ukrainian militias, only one report could be found in the whole of the Western media. It was only by good fortune that no-one was killed or injured, but less fortunate for other victims of Ukrainian missiles on that day. The Western media’s chronic failure to report these attacks, which kill and injure innocent civilians in towns and cities in Donbas every day, is absolutely shameful. They may claim ignorance, as the local and independent media reporting these crimes are censored in the West, but such ignorance is clearly unacceptable in genuine journalism. The Russian Embassy went into some detail in describing this reality, noting that: 

“In this vein, we take heart from your declared intention to deal with "allegations of war crimes towards both sides". Unlike Ukrainian fakes, the atrocities committed by their forces are well documented.”     
- and simply citing a Russian MoD report on the crimes committed in one day near the contact line. 

As noted above, Galloway does acknowledge obliquely that such crimes are being carried out by the Ukrainian military, and notes what the head of the UN’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner has to say:

 “Destroying schools is also a war crime. But this has been complicated by the fact Ukraine and Russia have been using schools to house their soldiers, which turn them into a genuine military target under international law. All schools are shut in Ukraine, which make them an attractive barracks for Ukrainian soldiers.”

Galloway then admits that “throughout the Donbas, we uncovered evidence of schools being used by the Ukrainian military”, and that Bogner says unfortunately Ukraine has been using some of its schools to house soldiers, despite being a signatory to the Safe Schools Declaration which prohibits this. And in a classic piece of non-judgemental prose Bogner says her agency is also documenting cases where -

 “Ukrainian forces don’t appear to be taking enough care in their attacks on the Moscow-backed separatist controlled areas of the country, where schools and hospitals have also been hit.” 

Bogner is hardly independent, as an Australian operating out of Kiev. Had she visited Donetsk or Gorlovka over the last two months, she would have heard from the long-suffering residents how the daily bombardment with 155mm shells, Grad rockets and cluster munitions is indiscriminate, hitting streets and marketplaces at busy times or during the night, killing school children, emergency workers, old ladies going shopping and people sleeping in their beds. Every single one of these missile attacks is a war crime – indiscriminate except in targeting civilian areas rather than military assets or troops. The extreme nationalists and neo-Nazi militias dug into the front line near Donetsk have a hatred of the ethnic Russians who resist Kiev’s rule, forcing many to flee to Russia while holding those who stay in a constant state of fear. And while we are repeatedly told about the millions of refugees who left Ukraine for Europe, we never heard of the two and a half million who have taken refuge in Russia from the Ukrainian assault on their homes. 
 Herein also lies the background to Putin’s decision to intervene in Ukraine, following the two republics’ request for recognition from Moscow. The persecution of the local population by Ukrainian forces has been going on for eight years, enabled and encouraged by Ukraine’s failure to cooperate on the Minsk accords on regional autonomy for the provinces. Kiev never abandoned its desire to retake the Donbas, and it was the planning and readiness to launch a new military operation to do so that forced the Kremlin’s hand – which was in fact the provocation. Russian intelligence was well aware of the build-up in “Nationalist” forces for this operation, and advanced weaponry and support they were receiving from UK and US intelligence agencies and special forces. This planning was also evident in the constant alarm being raised in the West about a Russian forces build up on the borders of Ukraine, such that Russia’s intervention could be labelled an aggressive invasion when the provocations finally succeeded. 

  We might then see this “campaign” by the SMH/Age to push forward war crimes claims and prosecutions against Russia as a significant and even critical component of the propaganda war being waged by NATO states and their media. The object is to maintain the idea of a just war against a ruthless, brutal and aggressive military, so that public support will not waiver in the face of the self-inflicted purgatory from anti-Russia sanctions. Before this local Australian push on war crimes, Amnesty International issued a report on another notorious event that took place in Mariupol just after the maternity hospital story – the bombing of the Drama theatre. Despite Amnesty’s report finding that few people died, original claims 600 people were killed were repeated in Australian media, and then endorsed by the NATO-friendly pressure group Avaaz a few days later. Amnesty’s claim the theatre was bombed from above by Russian planes was never questioned, despite being untrue and actually disproven by evidence on the ground. The main theme was that Russia intentionally bombed the theatre despite knowing it was full of sheltering civilians including children – as “Children” – “DETI”, was written in large letters on the forecourt.  Like the sign saying “bread” on the van used by Kherson’s resistance fighters, this was just trickery, and tricky propaganda. 

 In the Russian Embassy’s honest but futile attempt to tell Anthony Galloway where to look for the truth, they recommended the Telegram channel of Maxim Grigoriev – “War Crimes in Ukraine”.
 Grigoriev prepared a long and detailed document for the UN on war crimes committed in Mariupol and Donbas over the last eight years, and is now documenting recent cases by interviewing residents of this city and others where Ukrainian forces have held citizens hostage and used them as human shields, as well as investigating offices from where intelligence officers and other agencies worked. He has also uncovered multiple occasions where the OSCE has been operating from buildings housing the Azov battalion and other neo-Nazi groups, demonstrating how the OSCE has been compromised in its oversight role, in fact since 2014. Significantly its teams left Mariupol as soon as Russia’s special military operation was declared, while leaving behind incriminating documents now in the DNR’s possession.

Also documenting Ukrainian war crimes is Vasily Prozorov, whose channel UKR_LEAKS eng posts reports daily of his interviews with people around Donbas, as well as productions such as the video cited above about the Mariupol theatre bombing. 

 Unlike the crimes reported by Galloway and the rest of the Western mainstream media, many being categorised in one of his reports as “verified allegations”, the interviews conducted by these two men and many other independent journalists risking their necks in Donbas have the ring of truth about them; ordinary people describing dreadful things that have happened to them or their relatives without media gloss and without hysterics. And these people all tell the same story, now they are able to speak without fear of consequences; this includes surrendered and captured Ukrainian soldiers telling the truth about how they behaved and were treated fighting on the front line against hopeless odds. 

  It is long past time that Western media organisations paid attention to what genuine reporters on the ground in the towns and cities under attack from Ukrainian forces are saying, and then considering the claims they are making against Russia in this light. As it stands, they and their “journalists” are party to the crimes that they fail to expose, and liable for what now happens as a result of these false stories being allowed to prevail over the truth.

       David Macilwain,     24th July.