The Ukrainian prisoners of war killed last week in an explosion at their barracks were the victims of a special Kremlin operation planned in advance and approved at the highest level, senior government officials in Kyiv have said.
Citing intelligence information, satellite data and wiretaps, the officials said the inmates were killed in a cruel and premeditated war crime. They suggested that it was carried out by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, in close collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s FSB espionage agency.
The Ukrainians killed were members of the Azov battalion, which defended the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol until its capture in May. They were being held in a prison in Olenivka, close to the front line and about 10 miles south of occupied Donetsk.
An adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said several clues pointed to Moscow’s guilt. They said graves were dug next to the barracks shortly before the attack and a Russian information campaign was launched depicting the fighters as terrorists.
The prisoners were moved into the building the day before the explosion on Friday. The Russians relocated their artillery near the prison complex in an unsuccessful attempt to return Ukrainian fire. “This was a provocation and mass murder by Russia. It was organized by the Putin regime,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
Putin may have personally authorized the attack, they speculated, adding: “Russia is not a democratic state. The dictator is personally responsible for everything, be it the shooting down of MH17, Bucha or Olenivka. We haven’t seen Mr. Putin for a long time. When is he going to acknowledge the atrocities he has committed?
The Russian Defense Ministry says the Ukrainians destroyed the building using a long-range Himars missile made and supplied by the United States. Images broadcast on Russian television on Friday showed charred bodies, dismembered limbs and tangled metal from bunk beds, as well as a hole in the prison’s roof.
The Biden administration says there is no indication Ukraine attacked the site. Satellite photos released by Maxar Technologies reveal that surrounding buildings were not damaged. The Russian guards escaped unharmed.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said evidence strongly suggests Russia caused the blast, using a “precision strike or an internally placed incendiary or explosive.” He said there were no shell craters in the vicinity.
The Kyiv official called Himars’ Russian claim “stupid” and nonsensical, noting that Ukrainians considered the Azov fighters national heroes. “This was a terrorist act approved at the highest level. It was not a tactical decision,” they said.
Zelenskiy has called for an independent investigation into what happened. Until now, the Kremlin has refused to give access to the site to the Red Cross and the UN, which helped negotiate the surrender of the Azovstal defenders and secured assurances from Moscow that they would be treated properly.
Ukraine has not been able to confirm the number of victims, which the Russian Defense Ministry puts at 53 dead and 75 wounded. The names remain confidential. Officials in Kyiv could not say Wednesday where the apparent survivors are now.
On other developments in the Ukraine war:
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said Russia has no reason to delay the return of a gas turbine for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. “The turbine works,” he said. He has been stranded in Germany after serving in Canada, in a standoff that has seen gas flows to Europe fall to 20% of capacity.
The first shipment of more than 26,000 tons of Ukrainian food has been cleared to proceed to its final destination in Lebanon, the UN said. The Razoni left Odessa on Monday under a Black Sea deal agreed by Kyiv and Moscow and brokered by the UN. So far, the deal appears to hold.
More than 10 million border crossings have been made into and out of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on February 24. Nearly 6.2 million refugees now live across Europe, the UNHCR said, with the largest number, 1.25 million, based in neighboring Poland.