Ambassador of Ukraine to Spain
At the beginning of April last year, after the Armed Forces of Ukraine succeeded in driving Russian troops out of the suburbs of the capital Kyiv, the whole civilised world witnessed the worst images of massacres committed in Europe since the Second World War. The graphic evidence showing corpses of civilians tied behind their backs, murdered at point-blank range, the testimonies of systematic mass rape of women and children, the mass graves in Bucha shocked and horrified international public opinion, which could not imagine that such scenes of war crimes and crimes against humanity could be repeated in Europe in the 21st century. The Russian aggressor was quick to accuse Ukraine of staging the events.
After the Bucha massacre, at the request of the Ukrainian government, the International Criminal Court opened a case and began investigating war crimes committed during the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bucha, as recent events show, is not an isolated case.
On 29 July last, in the detention centre in Olenivka – a village on the territory of the Donetsk region temporarily occupied by Russian troops, where the defenders of the Azovstal steel plant who, in accordance with the previous agreement, surrendered between 16 and 20 May, were imprisoned – an explosive charge went off, killing 48 servicemen and injuring 73 others.
Not surprisingly, the Russian aggressor, as on other occasions, rushed to blame the Ukrainian army for shelling the Olenivka facility.
Ukraine immediately denied this official imposture outright and demanded a thorough international investigation with the participation of the United Nations and the Red Cross, which were guarantors of the life and health of this group of Ukrainian POWs.
First of all, it was generally known that the Azovstal POWs had been transferred and were being held in Olenivka and that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had no reason to attack the detention centre in Olenivka.
The claims of the Russian occupation administration that the shelling of the barracks in Olenivka was allegedly carried out by the Ukrainian army with the M142 HIMARS high-mobility artillery rocket systems and the display of missile fragments allegedly found at the scene of the murder are nothing but deliberate lies and fabrication of evidence.
The intention to conceal the facts becomes obvious when one considers that every shot fired by M142 HIMARS and the impact data of their projectiles are scrupulously documented. The accuracy with which the HIMARS hit the targets can be assessed by the destruction of the Russian rear military installations.
Graphic images made public and telephone conversations between Russian troops, intercepted by the Ukrainian intelligence service, lead to the conclusion that the detention centre facilities were blown up by an explosion originating from within.
Several reasons point to the fact that the killing of POWs in Olenivka was premeditated and deliberate.
By staging the murder of the Azovstal defenders as a work of the Ukrainian army, the Kremlin could pursue a number of objectives at once.
First, if successful, the plan would discredit Ukraine’s political leadership with false accusations of giving a “criminal order” or demonstrate the error of the political decision for the Azovstal garrison to surrender.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian military would be discredited by false accusations of executing “criminal orders” or of being professionally incompetent in determining and hitting targets.
With the public demonstration of the M142 HIMARS missile fragments allegedly found in Olenivka, the Russians intended to discredit the West for supplying these weapons systems to Ukraine.
It is also obvious that the Russian political and military leadership, reluctant to fulfil its obligations undertaken as part of the pre-surrender agreements with the defenders of the Azovstal steelworks, was tempted to covertly execute the members of the “Azov” regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, demonised by the Russian media.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that this plan was seen as a way to annihilate witnesses and victims of the torture to which the Ukrainian POWs had been subjected.
Given that the crime in Olenivka was committed simultaneously with the release of a video of the sadistic execution of a Ukrainian prisoner, its perpetrators hoped that the shocking news of the mass murder of Ukrainian POWs by, allegedly, their brothers in arms would inflict deep demoralisation on Ukrainian civil society, as well as undermine the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and their will to resist.
By subjecting the “Azovstal” POWs to ill-treatment, Russia is not only in breach of pre-surrender agreements, but also violates a number of rules of international humanitarian law, first and foremost the Geneva Conventions on the protection of war victims.
It should be recalled that these Conventions directly prohibit the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war (photos and videos of prisoners testify to a significant deterioration of their physical and psychological condition) and the criminalisation of combatants’ participation in hostilities (Russia publicly demonises prisoners and prepares trials with their participation). In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Russia was also obliged to place the POWs at a safe distance outside the combat zone, while the distance between the village of Olenivka and the front line does not exceed 10 km.
This episode of mass murder of POWs by Russian troops in Olenivka is very similar to the cold-blooded crime of Katyn in 1940, when the Stalinist regime deliberately and premeditatedly executed captured servicemen of the Polish army.
There is bound to be a chapter on the murder of the Ukrainian servicemen in Olenivka in the International Criminal Court’s file. And we hope that, sooner rather than later, both the material perpetrators and masterminds of this war crime will be brought to account in a fair trial.
But this process does not promise quick results. Sero molunt deorum molae (The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind fine).
The question is how at this stage should the civilised democratic world react to yet another crime committed by the Russian army on Ukrainian soil?
By maintaining the supply of modern weapons to Ukraine, necessary for its legitimate self-defence and the expulsion of the Russian aggressor from its sovereign territory. Providing humanitarian support to the people of Ukraine and taking in people who have been forcibly displaced to Europe and other parts of the world. Imposing new and stronger sanctions against the Russian aggressor and cutting all commercial ties with Russian companies, depriving it of revenues that will end up going to its war machine.
Last but not least, before justice can be done, democracies must officially recognise Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. For its crimes in Bucha, Gostomel, Irpin, Kremenchuk and now Olenivka. Russia has earned this title.
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