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Bodies near Makiivka

What is known about the execution of Russian servicemen who surrendered to Ukraine and why Kyiv’s intention to launch a probe should be welcomed

Yulia Latynina, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe

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Ukraine has vowed to investigate the events pictured in a video shot near the village of Makiivka and get to the bottom of the deaths of 12 Russian soldiers who were shot when 10 of them dropped to the ground to surrender, while one other opened fire at Ukrainian soldiers.

Let’s start with what we know today.

Two videos are currently publicly available. The first one was published by a Twitter user Necro Mancer (who has been tracking the Russian aggression in Donbas since 2014) 7 days ago. It was titled “it seems like something happened here. And the chickens don’t care”. The video was shot from a drone.

In the video, you can see a private backyard with a noticeable red toy car. Eleven corpses are lying in the yard, chickens are walking all around them. Eight bodies are lying in a row. Two more are a bit further away, sort of at the back (let’s remember that). One more dead body (also let’s take note of that) is several metres in front of all of them.

The bodies in a row were raising suspicions, even more so that blood trails make it possible for us to suggest that everyone lying in a line was shot in the head. It didn’t really seem like the result of a shelling attack.

The second video came out later. It was published by Rybar, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel. I counted at least five Ukrainian soldiers recorded in the same yard with a red toy car. One is using his phone to make a video, three are standing with assault rifles, one is lying on the ground with a PK machine gun. The machine gun is pointed at the Russian soldiers, who are surrendering and seem to outnumber the Ukrainians.

Let’s note that recording a video on a phone is quite reckless in a situation like this. Apart from it, the Ukrainian troops are strictly following the optimal procedure. If you take captives who are in larger numbers, it is most effective to do the following: set up a machine gun, lay everyone face down on the ground, and then get each of them stand up one by one, search them to check for hidden weapons, handcuff them and one after the other lead them behind the machine gun operator. In case of any provocation, the machine gun goes off.

It’s also clear that nobody is going to shoot the people whose surrender is being recorded.

The Russian soldiers are stepping out of the house and lie down on the ground in front of the machine gun. “Is everyone out? Who’s the officer among you?” one of the Ukrainians asks. This is where another Russian soldier comes out with an assault rifle. He opens fire. The Ukrainian soldier who was recording drops the phone and grabs his rifle. (It seems that it was him who was wounded).

Users of Reddit, where this video was published as well, are quite unanimous in their assessments. “Tried to be a hero and got them all killed, good job dumbass…” “This is why you don’t fake surrenders. The other side will stop accepting them.” “It is likely the second somebody somebody started shooting everybody opened up. Some of them are in different positions from the video where they were surrendering, possibly tried to run or react from the gunfire.” “Fuckin' Rambo.”

The main focal point of the discussion is whether the Ukrainians shot everyone at the same time in the heat of fighting or if there was at least one person who was still lying without moving and was shot later.

Ruslan Leviev from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) believes that the video features two war crimes. The first one is committed by the soldier who starts shooting while surrendering. This is perfidy, which constitutes a war crime banned in 1977 by an additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention.

By definition, perfidy endangers everyone who surrenders. The second war crime is committed by the Ukrainian soldiers who shoot everyone, not just the serviceman who opened fire, dead.

Leviev points to a different video which shows two Russians surrendering, while another one reaches for a grenade. He is killed, but an officer gives out a special order: do not touch the other two.

Roman Svitan, Ukrainian military pilot and expert, disagrees with Leviev. “They had no time to think,” he says. “Reflexes determine everything in a war. If you start thinking, you die. If shooting starts, you shoot as well.” Oleksii Arestovych says the same. The man who opened fire in the middle of a surrender when tensions are running high and the Ukrainians are outnumbered got himself and his fellow soldiers killed. Arestovych also says that Ukraine is investigating this case.

We don’t exactly know what happened between the two videos. We don’t know if there were five Ukrainian soldiers or more. The main issue is whether the Russians were killed in one round or were finished off later.

Nevertheless, I carefully studied both videos and can point out the main detail: 8 out of the 11 killed men are lying almost in the exact same position recorded in the first video. The people on the left did not even have time to move. The two furthest on the right managed to rise a little and tried to scatter when the machine gun fire reached them. And the “Rambo” who was running towards the machine gun managed to take a few steps forward and is lying right in front of his fellow soldiers.

In other words, we can suggest (but only suggest, I would like to underline) that the events happened almost in an instant. The “Rambo” started shooting and ran forward, the machine gun operator immediately killed him and those behind him, left to right. This is why the men on the left didn’t turn, while the ones on the right tried to flee. But can we rule out the possibility that some of them were left lying and were shot later? Only an investigation and court can determine this.

Moscow and Kyiv naturally view the video differently. Russia sees it as an “execution of captives”. For Ukrainian patriots, it is “an orc treacherously tried to shoot Ukrainian soldiers dead”. At the same time, people on both sides insist that the videos show everything very clearly and there’s nothing to discuss. Such a categorical ban on debate normally indicates that there is actually something to talk about here.

Similar stories sometimes happen in civilised armies, and society is normally split in assessing them.

In 2016, the whole of Israel was following the trial of Elor Azaria, a soldier who shot dead Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian who stabbed an Israeli serviceman. Al-Sharif was shot, wounded and was lying on the ground when Elor Azaria killed him. An activist of Israel’s B’Tselem pro-Palestinian organisation recorded the incident. A trial followed. Azaria claimed that he thought al-Sharif had an explosive device under his jacket and was reaching for the knife.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot, and Prime Minister at the time Benjamin Netanyahu said that Azaria had violated the ethical code of the army. Other politicians and ministers, Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman, defended Azaria. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was released after serving 9.

In 2012, US army lieutenant Clint Lorance was in charge of a patrol unit in Afghanistan. A motorcycle with three Afghans on it was catching up on them. Lorance thought they were suicide bombers and ordered to open fire at them. The Afghans were killed on the spot. They later turned out to be civilians. In 2013, a court-martial sentenced Lorance to 20 years in prison. President Trump later pardoned him.

Another US army lieutenant, Michael Behenna, served in Iraq in 2008. Soldiers from his platoon were hit by an IED. A local sheikh told Behenna that the bomb had been planted by an Al-Qaeda emissary called Ali Mansur Mohamed. Behenna detained and transferred him to a military counterintelligence unit. However, Ali Mansur was later released due to the lack of sufficient evidence. Behenna was instructed to bring Ali Mansur home. The lieutenant instead took him under the nearest bridge and killed him. Behenna was sentenced to 25 years in prison, served 5 of them and was pardoned by Trump in 2019.

In all these cases, it is very difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong. However, it’s up to the courts to determine this in civilised nations, while the situation itself seems to split societies. This is the difference between civilised and uncivilised countries: military personnel still commit crimes but courts investigate these cases and hold perpetrators responsible.

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Of course, there are situations that go to absolute extremes. The most well-known case is the Al-Sweady inquiry of the Battle of Danny Boy. Danny Boy is the name of a checkpoint in Iraq. In 2004, a British military unit was ambushed near the checkpoint by Mahdi Army insurgents. The battle went on for three hours and was so fierce that it even came down to bayonets (!). In the end, 20 militants were killed and 9 more were captured. And the British were not particularly compassionate with them.

However, after the battle, relatives of the insurgents decided to avail themselves of the opportunities granted by the UK judiciary and get to those who their sons failed to kill in the ambush. Al-Sweady’s relatives sued the soldiers, claiming that their boy was a civilian who was tortured to death by the British. Phil Shiner, human rights lawyer, played a particular role in the inquiry. He was ringing up relatives of the militants who were killed as a result of their attack and offering his services.

The inquiry in total took 10 years to be completed, soldiers were pushed to the brink, and it cost £25 million in taxpayers’ money. In the end, the court ruled that facts were ruthlessly manipulated by the relatives and their lawyers. The soldiers were cleared of all charges. Phil Shiner lost his licence.

The Al-Sweady inquiry is too extreme, of course. But, once again, it shows how seriously the West treats potential war crimes. When investigated, they split the public opinion and put the army and society at risk. You either demotivate soldiers and put them in danger (as next time they won’t shoot suicide bombers who are quickly approaching them on a motorcycle) or you run the risk of turning soldiers into criminals who kill civilians or captives with impunity.

So, the balance is struck in each and every case individually and it is hard (sometimes even through an unfair verdict). But it allows society to stay civilised.

It is clear that all these cases are different from the Ukrainian one for one simple reason. Ukraine is engaged in a large-scale war for survival. The UK in Afghanistan — with all due respect — was not.

Nevertheless, we know that there are precedents in Ukraine. For instance, the trial over the Tornado battalion who was engaged in terror, pillaging and extortions. This is what separated Ukraine from Russia in 2014. Russia awarded those who were marauding in Donbas, while in Ukraine they were prosecuted.

Despite what ardent apologists on both sides say, the execution near Makiivka is not a clear-cut case which should not be discussed.

This is a very complicated case, and the verdict depends on minute details.

Primarily, how many Ukrainian soldiers were there in the yard and did the machine gun operator actually kill the people who were lying down in one round? And even then we won’t know what the shooter was thinking at the time. “Is it an ambush?” “Are they going to strike now?” “This is for Bucha!” “Well, now I don’t have to take you captive?” Or he just did not have any time to think at all and it was a reflex?

This is exactly why Kyiv’s intention to launch an inquiry can only be lauded. It is clear that the country that is engaged in a life or death war will not go beyond that. But it’s important if it takes place at all. In this sense, do-gooders who shout: “There’s nothing to discuss here! Everything is clear!” are doing a disservice to Ukraine, irrespective of how this case is used by the Russian propaganda.

It is also worth mentioning that Russia still has no intention of investigating the sledgehammer execution of Yevgeny Nuzhin or the story of a sadist who first cut off the genitals of a Ukrainian prisoner and then shot him even though Bellingcat and Insider identified him as Ochur-Suge Mongush, an Akhmat battalion fighter.

Even though, everything is very much clear in both of these cases, unlike the one near Makiivka.

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