It was 2 a.m. when Russian gunmen broke in and took away 21-year-old Milana Ozdoyeva. When Sara, her three-year-old daughter, tried to grab her mother’s hand they shoved her aside. Milana’s son, who was 11 months old, just stared uncomprehendingly. ‘They were wearing masks and camouflage,’ Milana’s mother told me. ‘They forced us all to the floor at gunpoint. Milana was too terrified to speak. She just looked at me and mouthed the words “mama”. It was the last time any of us saw her.’
The kidnapping and subsequent killing of Milana took place in Chechnya on 19 January 2004. Her sin was to have been married to a man who was suspected of taking up arms against the Russian military. The images that have emerged over the weekend from Bucha, a formerly well-to-do suburb on the north-western edge of Kyiv, have provoked widespread anger in the West. Human Rights Watch said they had documented several cases that were ‘apparent war crimes’.
Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, said he was shocked by ‘haunting images of atrocities’ adding that more EU sanctions against Russia were now in the works. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, called the killings ‘unbearable’ and said that Russia would ‘answer for its crimes’.
But the truth is that the chilling images from Bucha could have been from almost anywhere the Russian military has operated in recent years. What is outrageous for the West is for the Russians pretty much standard operating procedure. Western armies usually attempt, though they sometimes fail, to hold themselves to the standards set out in the Geneva Conventions, which protect civilians and prisoners in times of war. But the Russians, whose military doctrine was forged out of the existential threat the Soviet Union faced during world war two, have no such qualms.
‘I don’t think that, by their standards, there is anything unusual in what the Russians did in Bucha,’ a western politician who has long-standing ties with Ukraine and Russia told me yesterday. ‘Just look at Chechnya’. Unusual or not, the images from Bucha, documented by the international press and human rights workers, were searing.
One shows a man shot dead as he was riding a bicycle. Another picture shows a shallow grave that a mother had dug for her daughter’s body with the legs still sticking out. The mother said her daughter had been killed as she stepped out into the garden to watch as the troops first arrived. One of the main streets of the small town is littered with burned-out Russian armoured vehicles, apparently victims of Ukrainian drone attacks. But there are also crushed civilian cars, some of them with bodies still inside them.
As well as the corpses still in plain view many more had been hastily buried. Tetyana, a local woman, said that she had found her husband in the basement stairwell where the couple lived. ‘I recognised him by his sneakers, his trousers,’ she said. ‘He looked mutilated, his body was cold. He had been shot in the head, mutilated and tortured.’ Tetyana buried the body on a nearby piece of ground with the help of neighbours. They dug a hole just deep enough that the dogs wouldn’t eat him, she said.
Ukrainian officials have reported finding more than 300 bodies in the area after Russia withdrew its military late last week. At least 13 had their hands tied behind their backs, according to witnesses. One of the dead men had his arms tied with a white ribbon, an identifier that Russian forces use in combat to reduce the chances of being shot by their own side. Another had powder burns around his lips and face, a sign that he had likely been shot at point-blank range.
Away from the main street, a trench had been dug with an excavator and many more bodies had been placed inside. A local coroner, who later fled the scene, said he had personally buried 57 bodies after the mortuary stopped working. Survivors, who have emerged from their cellars and basements, say that the Russian soldiers started shooting as soon as they arrived in town. Later a unit of Chechen soldiers, wearing black uniforms, was also deployed.
While some residents said that the Russians had behaved reasonably during their month-long occupation, others told of beatings, rape and murder. One old lady said that she emerged from her house twice during the occupation and was shot at both times.
Brutality is a seam that runs through the Russian army even in peacetime. In my time as a correspondent in Russia in the 2000s, I spoke to several army recruits who said some of their cohorts were beaten so badly they were left with long-term disabilities and failing organs. According to one western report, at a time when such things were still possible, 290 Russian soldiers died of beatings administered by their superiors in just one year during the 2000s. Hundreds more committed suicides.
Such brutality dates back to the Tsarist days and will surely not have changed during the last decade. And, as became clear in Bucha this weekend, neither have the Russian army tactics. By the time the second Chechen war came to a close, several thousand civilians had been reported missing, abducted or killed by Russian security forces.
In response to the western outrage, the Kremlin said this weekend that no resident of Bucha suffered violence at the hands of the Russian troops. But scarce reports from inside Mariupol, the besieged city on the Black Sea, already suggest that the scale of the killings in Bucha, terrible as they are, may yet prove to be a footnote when the history of this war is written.
Julius Strauss runs the newsletter Back to the Front about Russia, Ukraine, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
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