International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) presents a new report, “When ‘russkiy mir’ comes: War crimes and IHL violations committed by Russian armed forces in Hrakove and Zaliznychne”.
It sets out evidence of war crimes and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations committed by Russian armed forces in Hrakove and Zaliznychne – two neighboring villages in Kharkiv Oblast that were under Russian occupation from February to September 2022.
Hrakove is a small village located 60 km south of Kharkiv. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, it had an estimated population of 1,000 residents. After the Ukrainian army liberated the village on 9 September 2022, only about 30 residents remained.
Zaliznychne is an even smaller village located about 5 km northeast of Hrakove. The M03 road runs between the two villages and then heads northeast towards Chuhuiv and eventually to Kharkiv, making the two villages a strategically important point for the failed Russian advance towards Kharkiv.
Russian forces entered both villages between 25 and 26 February 2022 and retained control over them over the subsequent 28 weeks (until 7 September 2022). In January 2023, IPHR conducted two factfinding missions to Hrakove and Zaliznychne and interviewed local residents about their experiences during the Russian occupation.
The research is based on interviews with 14 witnesses and survivors. The information from the interviews is further corroborated by open-source data, including reports by other NGOs and media outlets. This report corroborates the findings of other organisations and provides further analysis of alleged crimes and IHL violations committed in Hrakove and Zaliznychne.
After occupying Hrakove and Zaliznychne, Russian forces searched and looted civilian houses, threatened civilians with execution and prohibited them from leaving the occupied territory. Detaining the civilian population in an area particularly exposed to the dangers of war unless the security of the populations or imperative military reasons demand such detention is a violation of IHL. In any event, any civilians who are not Russian nationals had the right to leave the occupied territory, and preventing them from doing so is in violation of IHL rules.
With limited or no access to food, gas, and electricity during most of the occupation, the local population faced severe hardship. The failure to provide adequate food and medical supplies to a population under occupation is a violation of IHL.
The worst treatment was reserved for those villagers whom Russian forces suspected of aiding the Ukrainian military – including evidence of kidnapping, arbitrary detention, torture, and executions. During its factfinding missions, IPHR documented six cases of killings and three cases of disappearances of local male civilians. At least one victim was killed whilst in Russian custody. There is credible evidence that five other civilians not taking part in hostilities were killed by Russian forces. The killing of civilians not taking part in hostilities constitutes the war crime of wilful killing. IPHR has also documented three cases of enforced disappearances of local men, the factual circumstances of which suggest the involvement of Russian forces. Additional investigations are necessary to determine whether this episode meets the elements of the crime against humanity of enforced disappearances.
IPHR also interviewed six men who survived Russian detention and ill-treatment. They described horrendous detention conditions and ill-treatment by Russian soldiers at four detention sites – a police station in the nearby town of Balakliya, the cellar of a private home in Hrakove, a sawmill in Zaliznychne, and a feed mill in the nearby town of Chkalovske. Arbitrary detention of civilians and other protected persons may amount to the war crime of unlawful confinement. At least five of the six detainees were held in woefully inadequate conditions, amounting to torture or, at the very least, inhumane treatment. All six interviewed detainees were subjected to physical and/or mental violence meeting the threshold of torture.
Russian occupying authorities further routinely seized civilians’ belongings, looted local food stores and extorted cash from civilians seeking to leave to Ukrainian-controlled territory, which constitutes a serious violation of IHL and may amount to the war crime of pillage.
Russian occupying authorities unleashed a campaign of terror against the entire civilian population of both villages as – in parallel to killings, arrests, and torture of civilian men – the authorities routinely conducted searches of all civilians and their homes at gunpoint, threatened them with death, and pillaged their homes. This conduct is in violation of fundamental IHL obligations.
IPHR investigators identified eight Russian and Russian-controlled military units present in the areas of Hrakove, Zaliznychne, and Balakliya between February and July 2022 that may have perpetrated the crimes described in this report. There are reasonable grounds to believe that Lieutenant General Andrey Ruzinskiy, at the time commander of the 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet and of the Group of Forces ‘Balakleya’, bears command responsibility for the alleged war crimes perpetrated against civilians from Hrakove and Zaliznychne between March and June 2022.