A series of videos that surfaced on social media last week has ignited a debate over whether Ukrainian forces committed war crimes or acted in self-defense as they tried to capture a group of Russian soldiers who were then killed.
The videos show the grisly before-and-after scenes of the encounter earlier this month, in which at least 11 Russians, most of whom are seen lying on the ground and appear to have been shot dead at close range after one of their fellow fighters suddenly opened fire on Ukrainian soldiers standing nearby.
The videos, detailed below and whose authenticity has been verified by The New York Times, offer a rare look into one gruesome moment among many in the war, but do not show how or why the Russian soldiers were killed. Ultimately, they leave a mystery that has been used by both sides in the online battle for hearts and minds.
The videos were first circulated by Ukrainian news and social media channels that used them to laud the military prowess of their armed forces and publicize their heroic retaking of territory lost to Russia early in the war. In Russia, however, the videos prompted a fierce response among hawkish pro-war commentators, who urged the government to seek an international investigation.
Now, Moscow and Kyiv has each accused the other of committing war crimes in the same episode — the Russians accusing Ukraine’s forces of “mercilessly shooting unarmed Russian P.O.W.s,” and Ukraine’s commissioner for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, saying Russian soldiers had opened fire during the act of surrendering.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have both been accused of war crimes since Moscow ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, though the number and scale of reported Russian crimes far exceed those Ukraine is accused of.
The United Nations has said the episode should be investigated.
“We are aware of the videos, and we are looking into them,” Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Human Rights Office, told Reuters on Friday. “Allegations of summary executions of people hors de combat should be promptly, fully and effectively investigated, and any perpetrators held to account.” Under international law, the French term “hors de combat” refers to people who are “outside of combat” because of their surrender, being unarmed, unconscious or otherwise unable to defend themselves.
The killings occurred as the Ukrainian Army recaptured the village of Makiivka, in the Luhansk region, in mid-November, when Russian forces suffered heavy losses. By comparing the videos to satellite imagery, The Times confirmed that the videos had been filmed at a farmhouse in the village. Some of the videos are part of a series of four drone videos circulated on Nov. 12 by a pro-Ukrainian Telegram channel reporting the recapture of Makiivka. The Times verified that the other aerial videos had also recently been filmed in the village.
The encounter was filmed by two sources: an unnamed Ukrainian soldier who was taking cellphone video diaries of the fight for Makiivka and drone videos most likely filmed by Ukrainian forces surveilling the offensive. By verifying that these videos were filmed at the same location and analyzing what they show, The Times is able to show the sequence of events.
The first video is set to music — a feature commonly used in social media video diaries — and shows a group of armed Ukrainian soldiers lying in a field as they fire on a target in the distance. The soldiers sound Ukrainian, and speak both Ukrainian and Russian.
Gunshots are heard, and the cameraman shows his face. The Times has blurred part of the video to protect his identity.
The second video gives an aerial perspective of the same group of Ukrainian soldiers inside the courtyard of a farmhouse. The house and surrounding buildings are badly damaged by fighting, as many other buildings in the area were.
It shows a Ukrainian soldier lying on the ground in a prone position, aiming a belt-fed machine gun at one of the sheds in the complex. A second Ukrainian soldier is standing behind him. A third Ukrainian soldier is pacing around the courtyard holding a rifle, and a fourth is on the ground checking the body of what appears to be a dead Russian soldier. A second body, also apparently Russian, lies motionless nearby.
The State of the War
- Explosion in Poland: A Ukrainian air-defense missile — not a Russian weapon — most likely caused a deadly explosion in a Polish village, a top NATO official and Poland’s president said, easing fears that the military alliance would become more deeply embroiled in the war.
- Retaking Kherson: On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers swept into the southern city of Kherson, seizing a major prize from the retreating Russian army and dealing a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin. Days after the liberation, evidence and accounts of torture are emerging.
- Infrastructure Attacks: In a relentless and intensifying barrage of missiles, Moscow is destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, depriving millions of heat, light and clean water. For Ukraine, keeping the lights on as winter looms has become one of its biggest battles.
- Beta Testing New Weapons: Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that Western officials predict could shape warfare for generations to come.
More Russian soldiers are sheltering inside one of the sheds, but we don’t see them yet.
The next scene is a cellphone video filmed in the courtyard by the same Ukrainian soldier. There are gaps in the video, though it’s unclear why. It shows the four Ukrainian soldiers, at least three of whom are armed.
One soldier, with his rifle drawn, tentatively approaches the structure where the Russian soldiers are sheltering. The soldier with the machine gun provides cover. Several gunshots are heard — though it’s not clear from where — and the soldier slowly backs away from an outhouse, drawing out the Russian soldiers at gunpoint.
The video cuts off, and when it restarts, six Russian soldiers are lying facedown on the ground beside one another. At least two of them are alive and can be seen moving in the video; the others are motionless. The video shows four other soldiers slowly exiting the outhouse, one after the other, some with their arms raised. They join the other soldiers on the ground.
The Russians are wearing flak jackets and helmets, and their uniforms bear distinctive markings — red straps on their lower legs, one with a square blue object on his back.
Two of the Ukrainians standing by appear to be relaxed and are pointing their rifles toward the ground. The capture of these soldiers is initially orderly and without incident — but suddenly everything changes.
As an 11th Russian soldier emerges from the outhouse, he opens fire, aiming at one of the Ukrainian soldiers. The Ukrainians are taken by surprise. The cellphone camera jolts away as the Ukrainian soldier filming the scene flinches. A frame-by-frame analysis of what happens next shows the Ukrainian soldier standing beside him raise his rifle and aim toward the Russian gunman.
It’s unclear what happens next. But a second aerial video of the location shows the bloody aftermath.
The Russian soldiers are lying motionless, apparently dead, most of them positioned as they were when they surrendered. Blood is pooling around them, and some appear to be bleeding from the upper body or head. The soldiers are dressed in the same uniforms with the distinctive red straps and blue marking.
The Russian soldier who fired at the Ukrainians appears to have been killed on the spot, and he is lying in the position from where he opened fire. The white brick wall beside where he had stood is freshly damaged, perhaps by Ukrainian forces’ returning fire.
“It looks like most of them were shot in the head,” Dr. Rohini Haar, medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, said in an interview. “There are pools of blood. That indicates that they were just left there dead. There appears to have been no effort to pick them up or help them.”
Dr. Haar noted that when they surrendered, the Russian soldiers had been lying down, apparently unarmed, with their arms outstretched or behind their heads. “They’re considered hors de combat, or noncombatants — effectively prisoners of war,” Dr. Haar said.
The Rome Statute, the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court, could prosecute this under several of its articles if Ukraine were a party to the treaty, Dr. Haar said, including Article 8b (vi), which says, “Killing or wounding a combatant, who, having laid down his arms or having no longer means of defense, has surrendered at discretion” is a violation of the laws of international armed conflict.
Iva Vukusic, a war crimes prosecution expert at Utrecht University, said that it was difficult to determine whether a war crime had or had not been committed based on the video evidence alone, and that the critical factor was time — when the Russians were shot.
“Was it in one or two bursts of fire at the moment of, or immediately after, the last Russian comes out and shoots at the Ukrainians?” Dr. Vukusic said. “Or was it after the immediate threat had been neutralized, as an act of revenge — then this is more clearly a war crime.”
If the Russians were shot in the heat of the moment, Dr. Vukusic said, it is not clearly a crime.
“If these P.O.W.s were not searched yet, then the Ukrainians don’t know if they’re armed, even if they are on the ground.”
The Russian gunman’s actions are critical, too, Dr. Vukusic said, and could be deemed perfidy — feigning surrender or noncombatant status as a ruse against the Ukrainians — which may be prosecutable as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
“It may very well be that, had this guy not fired, that they all would have been captured as P.O.W.s, and survived,” Dr. Vukusic added.
United Nations investigators said last month that they had documented cases of Russian forces torturing civilian and military prisoners. The investigators also found that Ukrainian troops had tortured and abused prisoners of war, but “on a lesser scale.”
The Times has reported on multiple cases of alleged Russian war crimes, including the use of banned weapons, attacks on civilian targets and the killing of noncombatants. In March, a visual investigation by The Times showed Russian troops executing a group of captive Ukrainian fighters and a civilian in Bucha, a suburb west of Kyiv. The Times also reported on the alleged execution of Russian captives by Ukrainian forces in April.
The footage caused an outrage among Russian pro-war commentators. Vladlen Tatarsky, a popular activist and blogger, said in a post on the Telegram social messaging app that every Russian “must watch this several times to understand whom we are fighting against” and that “not a single Russian can live and sleep calmly” as long as the perpetrators are alive.
In its Friday night news show, Channel One, Russia’s state television network, said that the videos were proof that the Kyiv government was committing war crimes. It featured Vladimir Kornilov, a political scientist, who said that “Ukraine is never accused of war crimes because they kill the Russians.” A report by Rossiya-1, another state network, accused the West of keeping “organized silence” over Ukrainian war crimes.
Russia’s human rights council said it would send the video to international organizations. The country’s investigative committee, Russia’s equivalent of the F.B.I., opened a criminal investigation into the encounter.
Dr. Vukusic, the war crimes expert, said that the International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor was most likely examining the episode, given the attention it has received. She said that an investigation would require a site visit to establish where everyone was and to collect bullet casings, pathological and forensic examinations of recovered bodies, and to scrutinize the Ukrainian unit’s actions after the shooting.
Dr. Vukusic said that in assessing the case, investigators might examine if the Ukrainian unit had a pattern of such behavior, which group of soldiers was outnumbered and by how much, and if other forces had been nearby, and whose forces.
The Ukrainian authorities have the ability to investigate and should share their evidence and findings transparently, Dr. Vukusic said.
“They should seize on this opportunity and send a message: ‘We do not want a dirty war. We want to fight with honor, and legally.’”
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko Cassandra Vinograd, Marc Santora and Dmitriy Khavin. Videos were produced by Taylor Turner and Chevaz Clarke-Williams.