Executions on Both Sides of Ukrainian Conflict, Report Says

Throughout the war in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces have accused one another of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other grave human-rights abuses. A new report is bringing a measure of clarity and fact-finding to these explosive claims and indicates that both sides are responsible for atrocities. Amnesty International documented execution-style killings perpetrated ...

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout the war in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces have accused one another of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other grave human-rights abuses. A new report is bringing a measure of clarity and fact-finding to these explosive claims and indicates that both sides are responsible for atrocities.

Amnesty International documented execution-style killings perpetrated by both pro-Russian fighters and pro-Kiev forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- though not on the scale described by Ukrainian and Russian authorities.

"There is no doubt that summary killings and atrocities are being committed by both pro-Russian separatists and pro-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine, but is difficult to get an accurate sense of the scale of these abuses," said John Dalhuisen, the Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International. The report's findings are based on two research missions to eastern Ukraine in late August and late September, but the investigation is limited to only a handful of cases where Amnesty International was able to report with confidence and without obstruction.

Throughout the war in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces have accused one another of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other grave human-rights abuses. A new report is bringing a measure of clarity and fact-finding to these explosive claims and indicates that both sides are responsible for atrocities.

Amnesty International documented execution-style killings perpetrated by both pro-Russian fighters and pro-Kiev forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — though not on the scale described by Ukrainian and Russian authorities.

"There is no doubt that summary killings and atrocities are being committed by both pro-Russian separatists and pro-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine, but is difficult to get an accurate sense of the scale of these abuses," said John Dalhuisen, the Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International. The report’s findings are based on two research missions to eastern Ukraine in late August and late September, but the investigation is limited to only a handful of cases where Amnesty International was able to report with confidence and without obstruction.

Following the ouster of former  Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia in March, pro-Russian insurgents occupied government buildings throughout the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where they demanded increased autonomy and closer ties with Moscow.

The Amnesty investigation shows that extrajudicial killings committed by each side tended to follow a distinct pattern. Pro-Russian forces from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] and Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] targeted suspected sympathizers or collaborators with pro-Kiev forces, as well as ordinary criminals. One high-profile example was the execution, under the authority of DNR’s self-appointed minister of defense, Igor Strelkov, of two rebel commanders for looting.

Amnesty International also found evidence that during a period from May to July LNR fighters executed a number of suspected criminals. "The LNR’s rule was characterized on the one hand by an epidemic of crime, including armed robbery, carjacking, and kidnappings, much of which was perpetrated by LNR fighters," Amnesty’s report says. "And on the other by the institution of harsh summary punishments for acts deemed damaging to the fabric of society, such as drug dealing and drunk-driving."

Pro-Russian forces have suffered a series of defeats in July and the Ukrainian military and militias loyal to Kiev steadily advanced on rebel positions. And as they have gained territory, the Russian media has claimed that pro-Kiev forces have abducted pro-Russian sympathizers from their homes and even executed them.

On Sept. 23, the Russian media reported the discovery of mass graves in the villages of Komunar and Nyzhnya Krynka in the Donetsk region. According to reports, two days before the graves were discovered, the pro-Kiev Aidar battalion, a volunteer force, and parts of the 25th Paratrooper Brigade had occupied the area. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov claimed that 400 bodies had been found there and blamed pro-Kiev forces for the alleged killings.

However, an Amnesty delegation visited the site shortly after the graves were discovered. Interviewing local residents, a local official, DNR fighters operating in the region, as well as journalists who witnessed some of the exhumations, the delegation found evidence implicating pro-Kiev forces in at least four extrajudicial executions. But the investigators did not uncover evidence for the more widespread killings described in Russian media reports.

"The reality behind Russian claims of ‘mass graves’ in Nyzhnya Krynka is grizzly enough. It points to the extrajudicial killing of four local residents by either regular Ukrainian armed forces or volunteer battalions operating in the area," said Dalhuisen. "But it also shows the extent to which accusations of abuses are being inflated, particularly by the Russian authorities, in the parallel propaganda war."

The Ukrainian forces were pushed back from the area in late August, when pro-Russian forces with Russian military support launched a successful counterattack. A cease-fire between the two sides has technically been in place since Sept. 5, but lower-intensity fighting has continued, particularly at the Donetsk airport.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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