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The attack on a prison holding Ukraine POWs, explained

Treatment of prisoners and POWs is a growing concern in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Antiwar Protest In Cologne
Protesters hold signs protesting the bombing of a prison in Olenivka in the Donetsk that held Ukrainian POWs during an antiwar protest in Cologne, Germany 
Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a week punctuated by accusations between Moscow and Kyiv, including the bombing of a jail housing Ukrainian prisoners of war, horrifying new footage surfaced of the torture and summary execution of a Ukrainian POW.

The videos, which are not linked in this article, show a Ukrainian POW being gagged, castrated, shot dead, and dragged through a street; they emerged on Russian Telegram channels, the Kyiv Post reported. While independent verification of when or where the videos were filmed has not been possible yet, Aric Toler, the director of research and training for the investigative collective Bellingcat, told the Washington Post that the “Z” symbol, used to show support for the Russian war effort, belies some claims that the video is older than the Ukrainian war.

This is hardly the first time Russian soldiers have been documented participating in abuse of Ukrainian soldiers, as well as civilians. From the early days of the war, Ukrainian authorities and international human rights organizations have cataloged a constant stream of violence. In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported 10 witness or victim accounts of executions, mock executions, sexual violence, and looting in Russian-occupied territories. One woman told HRW that while she was sheltering in Malaya Rohan, a village in the Kharkiv region, a Russian soldier sexually assaulted and beat her. Another witness recounted Russian soldiers making five men kneel down with their shirts pulled over their heads before they shot and killed one of them.

“Rape, murder, and other violent acts against people in the Russian forces’ custody should be investigated as war crimes,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in the release.

The bombing of the jail holding POWs, some of whom were involved with the defense of Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, has sparked an even more pitched conversation about the Russian treatment of Ukrainian prisoners and POWs. The attack, in a municipality called Olenivka, resulted in at least 53 prisoners’ deaths and 75 injuries, according to Russia’s defense ministry.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has released a statement requesting access to those who are injured “to determine the health and condition of all the people present on-site at the time of the attack.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, Russia is obligated to give the ICRC free access to all POWs. While the ICRC has requested access to the prison where the Ukrainian POWs died in Olenivka and offered to help evacuate those wounded in the attack on the facility, as of Sunday it has not been given permission to do so.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for an investigation, deeming the bombing of the facility holding Ukrainian POWs a war crime.

“When the defenders of Azovstal left the plant, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross acted as guarantors of the life and health of our soldiers. The Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Security Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate and the representative of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine issued a joint statement addressing to the UN and the Red Cross as guarantors of those agreements regarding the defenders of Azovstal. I support this statement. Now the guarantors must react. They must protect the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Zelenskyy said in a statement.

The European Union has already condemned Russia for its “unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine and its people,” noting the conflict “brings further horrific atrocities day by day,” but is now also voicing support for an investigation into the bombing specifically.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of being responsible for the bombing.

Other abuses

Russia has also been implicated in other violations of international law, including forcibly removing and relocating people, including children, from occupied Ukrainian territories. Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told Reuters in June that she is currently investigating multiple inquiries into the forcible transfer of people to Russia. “From the first days of the war, we started this case about genocide,” Venediktova told Reuters. She was unable to provide a number of exactly how many people were transferred.

The United States State Department suspects between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, have been detained and transferred to Russia, often to isolated regions.

“Moscow’s actions appear pre-meditated and draw immediate historical comparisons to Russian ‘filtration’ operations in Chechnya and other areas. President Putin’s ‘filtration’ operations are separating families, confiscating Ukrainian passports, and issuing Russian passports in an apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in the statement. Reports also show Russia is deliberately separating children from their families and putting children up for adoption.

Meanwhile, dueling diplomacy in Africa and the Middle East

While Russia is losing face with and becoming more isolated from the West, the country is digging in on other strategic partnerships.

Russia’s Middle Eastern and African allies have been feeling the pinch from Western countries that expect them to distance themselves from Putin’s actions, creating an uncomfortable dance based on necessity from both sides. Access to Russia’s grain exports and other food goods remains a key pressure point for African and Middle Eastern countries. In east Africa, extreme drought and the Ukraine conflict are pushing countries to the brink, according to a report from the United Nations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov was recently in Cairo as part of his geostrategic Africa trip, addressing organizations on Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. He said the West pushed Russia to invade after ignoring concerns over NATO’s expansion.

The US is making a geopolitical move itself by sending President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to Ghana, as well as Secretary of State Blinken to multiple African nations in the coming weeks. US Agency for International Development chief Samantha Power was also recently in Somalia and Kenya.

Hoping for the best but fearing the worst

International calls to prosecute Russia for its crimes continue to mount, with the European Union urging action to be taken in The Hague.

“The perpetrators of war crimes and other serious violations, as well as the responsible government officials and military representatives, will be held accountable,” the Union said in a statement shortly after the Donetsk prison bombings. “The European Union actively supports all measures to ensure accountability for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law committed during the Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

While it’s technically possible that Putin and other members of the Russian government could be tried, the chances of it happening are remote.

The International Criminal Court is known for prosecuting crimes against humanity, but is meant as a last resort if all other systems fail. Investigators from the ICC are already working to gather evidence in Ukraine, and while that country recognizes the court’s jurisdiction, Russia does not, so the ICC can only prosecute crimes committed by Russia within Ukraine’s borders.

Since Russia is not one of the 123 countries that are members of the court, any violations of international law committed within its borders cannot be prosecuted. That means Ukrainians who were tortured or harmed in Russia cannot be helped by the court.

Putin and his officials could simply evade the problem of possible prosecution by staying in power and not leaving Russian borders or those of their allies. Because the ICC cannot try defendants who are not present at The Hague for the trial itself, and it does not have a mechanism to enforce warrants, it’s entirely reliant on member countries to arrest and bring defendants to The Hague.

Ukraine has already prosecuted Russian soldiers, with one pleading guilty to killing a civilian and receiving a sentence of 15 years after an appeal. This may be Ukraine’s best course of action toward finding some sort of justice, however onerous, requiring the monumental task of tracking down Russian soldiers, arresting them, and putting them on trial.

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