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Russia’s Annexed Land Is a Crime Scene

Ukraine needs help documenting Russian atrocities.

By , the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and , the European culture correspondent at Tablet.
The city of Mariupol, Ukraine
The city of Mariupol, Ukraine
The city of Mariupol, Ukraine, is seen on Sept. 15. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

In a fresh violation of international law, Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced the annexation of Ukrainian territory on Friday, complete with a celebration in Moscow and a rambling speech. Putin is seeking to bludgeon Ukraine and the West into submission not only because he is desperate to vindicate his grandiose plan for conquering Ukraine but also to avoid any accounting for the war crimes that he and his henchmen have already committed.

But Ukrainians have managed to outwit Putin, and they serve as witnesses to his heinous crimes. Take the dramatic flight of Orthodox Ukrainian priest Pavel Kostel. A clever village elder and a country backroad unknown to the Russian invaders spared his life in March. He was one of tens of thousands of civilians who were saved from the total and deliberate destruction of Mariupol, Ukraine—but at the cost of a still unknown number of dead.

After Russian warplanes began to indiscriminately shell Mariupol in early March, Kostel and his assistant looked for any possible way out of the maelstrom. The city was surrounded by the Russian army, and no civilians were allowed to leave. The Kremlin had decided to destroy Mariupol to serve as an example for other Ukrainian cities. According to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko in a recent interview with FP, Putin targeted the city because its majority Russian-speaking residents had repudiated Putin’s advances in 2014—a repudiation that Moscow never forgot or forgave. In the interim, Mariupol had turned into a bustling city with European-style amenities and a thriving information technology sector.

In a fresh violation of international law, Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced the annexation of Ukrainian territory on Friday, complete with a celebration in Moscow and a rambling speech. Putin is seeking to bludgeon Ukraine and the West into submission not only because he is desperate to vindicate his grandiose plan for conquering Ukraine but also to avoid any accounting for the war crimes that he and his henchmen have already committed.

But Ukrainians have managed to outwit Putin, and they serve as witnesses to his heinous crimes. Take the dramatic flight of Orthodox Ukrainian priest Pavel Kostel. A clever village elder and a country backroad unknown to the Russian invaders spared his life in March. He was one of tens of thousands of civilians who were saved from the total and deliberate destruction of Mariupol, Ukraine—but at the cost of a still unknown number of dead.

After Russian warplanes began to indiscriminately shell Mariupol in early March, Kostel and his assistant looked for any possible way out of the maelstrom. The city was surrounded by the Russian army, and no civilians were allowed to leave. The Kremlin had decided to destroy Mariupol to serve as an example for other Ukrainian cities. According to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko in a recent interview with FP, Putin targeted the city because its majority Russian-speaking residents had repudiated Putin’s advances in 2014—a repudiation that Moscow never forgot or forgave. In the interim, Mariupol had turned into a bustling city with European-style amenities and a thriving information technology sector.

“It was an act of revenge because we had not gotten on our knees to surrender because we had dared to resist,” Boychenko explained. “They were promised that we would meet them with flowers. Instead of flowers, we met them with bullets.”

By March 2, Russian forces had heavily damaged the city’s infrastructure and also interrupted its water supply. There was no potable drinking water. Miraculously, it began to snow, and the residents boiled the snow that they gathered in pots and pans.

“When it started snowing, it was like a gift from God,” Boychenko said. “The snow that fell in early March saved numerous people’s lives.”

Kostel was part of the first convoy of approximately 100 vehicles that left the city of Mariupol without permission on March 5 as the Russian army besieged the city.

“It’s a miracle that we got through at all,” Kostel said. “Everything could have turned out differently. You just go into the unknown full of adrenaline, and thank God that everything worked out.”

The humanitarian situation in Mariupol was dire, and the Russians had successfully created a near-total information blackout. Residents were not allowed out. Kostel had heard on the radio that there was an opportunity to slip out of the city, so he got into his car and drove to the line to leave the city. Yet he quickly became stuck between the third and fourth Russian checkpoints on the way out. The function of the checkpoints was to find current or former members of the Ukrainian military as well as to harass the population. At the fourth checkpoint, Russian soldiers were removing all men of conscription age, thus creating a logjam.

A village elder standing at a fork in the road noticed the women and families with children stuck between the roadblocks and convinced the convoy to take the fork and stay overnight in the remote village of Temryuk. That advice likely spared their lives.

Russia was expected to release the first humanitarian convoy from Mariupol on March 6 but refused to do so. Kostel and approximately 300 fellow travelers were stuck. Another cunning villager came to the rescue, suggesting that the convoy could bypass the fourth Russian checkpoint by taking a rural road through the fields. A group of cars went ahead to scout out the route, with the rest of the large column following along later.

Kostel and his convoy made their way to safety in Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia. “We hoped that our sheer numbers would keep the Russians from shooting us,” Kostel said. “One car is easy to shoot up, but a convoy has too many witnesses. I think that this is what prevented us from being robbed.”

Yet thousands of others stranded in Mariupol would perish. The first Red Cross evaluation didn’t take place until days later on March 11. Boychenko was part of that first Red Cross evacuation, which stopped overnight in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk (another port on the Sea of Azov).

Some of the evacuees stayed in jails, whereas some slept in churches the night of March 11. “It was very cold,” Boychenko recalled.

As a result of the ensuing international pressure, Russia agreed to open a green corridor out of the city on March 13. No filtration camps—the camps set up in early April to interrogate and hold Ukrainian citizens indefinitely in squalid sanitary conditions—had been set up yet, but the Russians bombed the green corridor. Tensions ran high.

Russia let Mariupol residents out of the city until May 1. In total, an estimated 107,000 people were evacuated out of a prewar population of slightly less than half a million people, according to Boychenko. “Every number lives in my heart,” he said.

At this point, no one knows how many people died in Mariupol. The city administration estimates that 22,000 people were killed, but that is just a guess. Boychenko told FP that Russia’s own internal estimate is 27,000 people dead, but that figure is also likely an incomplete estimate.

Mariupol fell to the Russian army on May 20 with international investigators being denied access to the wreckage, independent journalists cut off, and the remaining residents of the city still too scared to speak out. Satellite imagery suggests that at least 9,000 of the people killed were buried in mass graves outside of the city. The world does not know how many innocent people were slaughtered, and at this moment, there’s no immediate way to bring justice to Mariupol while Russia continues to hold the demolished city.

The dead of Mariupol join those who were brutally tortured, raped, and killed in Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka—or in Izyum, where more than 400 bodies were recently uncovered in a mass grave.

The Ukrainian government has thought through myriad legal possibilities to bring justice and restitution to its citizens, but none will bring immediate relief or restitution. While encouraging the Ukrainian government to establish an international tribunal and seize Russian assets, the international community should focus on sending prosecutors and investigators to scrupulously document all evidence of war crimes so that when the proper international justice systems are in place, Russia and its soldiers will be held accountable swiftly.

Kyiv says it has documented approximately 34,000 Russian war crimes since the war began, but its law enforcement agencies need more help and expertise to prosecute and investigate war crimes. Specifically, the West should help build national capacity to prosecute and investigate war crimes within the government of Ukraine by loaning prosecutors and investigators to the country to train their Ukrainian equivalents as well as by sending technical equipment—from laptops to drones—to support actual investigations and prosecutions. Fourteen European Union member nations plus the International Criminal Court (ICC) have launched their own investigations, but Russia isn’t part of the EU or the ICC, so these are merely ceremonial exercises.

But one thing is certain. Putin and his criminal army must be brought to justice.

“[Putin] was systematically killing the people of our city until May 13. He knew what he was doing,” Boychenko told FP with tears in his eyes.

With the latest mobilization of Russian citizens, Putin shows no signs of abandoning his ambitions to conquer and subjugate Ukraine. The world should expect more unspeakable violence and war crimes to emerge before the war ends. It is incumbent on the West to ensure that Kyiv has all the resources and expertise that it needs to eventually prosecute the aggressor to the full extent of the law and provide justice for all Ukrainians.

Marta Smyrnova contributed reporting.

Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Vladislav Davidzon is the European culture correspondent at Tablet, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and the author of From Odessa With Love.

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