ODESSA, Ukraine — Five days after an explosion at a Russian prison camp killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, evidence remains scant about what happened, but Ukrainian officials said Wednesday they were gathering solid evidence that the mass slaughter was a war crime committed by the Russian forces.
At a briefing for reporters in the capital, Kyiv, senior Ukrainian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity described evidence suggesting that Russian forces appeared to be preparing for mass casualties in the days before the July 29 blast.
Satellite images taken before the blast, they said, show what appear to be newly dug graves inside the prison compound. An analysis of the New York Times images by Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs confirms that sometime after July 18 and before July 21, about 15 to 20 ground disturbances appeared on the south side of the complex, about 6 to 7 feet wide and 10 to 16 feet away at first; some later appeared to elongate and fuse together. It is not clear if they were graves.
Additionally, a day before the explosion, Russian forces stationed near the camp had opened fire on Ukrainian troops in an apparent attempt to retaliate, Ukrainian officials said.
“Understanding that we would not return fire, they carried out a terrorist attack themselves,” said one of the editors. “How they did this needs to be carefully studied.”
Ukrainian officials, along with independent analysts, have cautioned that estimates so far are based solely on publicly available information, including video released by Kremlin news services, of the blast site near the town of Olenivka in Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s Donbas. region. The lack of verifiable evidence has made it difficult to draw clear conclusions, and the Russian government has so far refused to grant independent researchers access to the site.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated under the Geneva Conventions to inspect the conditions in which prisoners of war are held, requested permission from the Russian government to access the site on the day of the explosion.
“So far, we have not been granted access to the prisoners affected by the attack nor do we have security guarantees to carry out this visit,” the Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday. In addition, the agency said offers to donate supplies such as medicine and protective equipment have gone unanswered.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed, without offering verifiable evidence, that Ukraine’s military used a highly sophisticated US precision missile system known as HIMARS to kill Ukrainian troops.
A US official said late Wednesday that the United States expected that Russian officials were planning to falsify evidence to blame the Ukrainian military for the attack before reporters or investigators visited the site, and in particular they may try to make it appear that the Ukrainian HIMARS.
Military analysts consider it unlikely, but impossible to rule out with available information.
Russian video and satellite images show evidence of a smaller explosion than that typically caused by HIMARS missiles delivered to Ukraine. Rockets usually leave a crater, but none are visible in the images. The walls of the barracks and much of the interior are blackened but still intact and there is no apparent damage to an adjacent building. The interior images show beds still upright and lined up, inconsistent with the strong shock wave observed in other HIMARS impacts.
“There is some evidence that points away from a HIMARS. But that doesn’t mean I know or you can tell from the evidence presented specifically what it was,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s arms specialist. He added that “you have to leave open the possibility that a gun on either side could be dropped, fired properly.”
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Moscow initially said Ukraine carried out the strike to prevent others from turning themselves in and giving information to Russian investigators. On Wednesday, he offered a new explanation as Col. Gen. Alexander Fomin, the deputy defense minister, said in a speech that Ukrainian officials ordered the strike after Russia began releasing video interrogations of captured militants admitting to attacks on civilians.
“Kiev authorities seek to exterminate the witnesses and perpetrators of their crimes against their people,” General Fomin said.
Ukrainian and US officials have disputed the Kremlin’s claims, and Ukrainian investigators have speculated that an explosive device was detonated inside the barracks. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s military intelligence service issued a statement claiming that soldiers held in the prison had been tortured. Earlier, some officials had speculated that Russian forces had killed the prisoners to cover up evidence of abuse.
Killing the soldiers captured in combat would add to the tally of apparent Russian war crimes since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. In the first months, Russian forces massacred civilians in bedroom communities outside Kyiv. They bombed a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians were sheltering in Mariupol on their way to leveling this seaside Ukrainian city. Russian missiles hit apartment buildings, shopping malls, train stations, busy public squares and fleeing civilians.
In each case, Russian officials denied the facts on the ground and floated baseless—and often contradictory—conspiracy theories in an attempt to deflect blame. In several cases, such as the bombing of a busy train station in Kramatorsk in April that killed 50 people, Russia has blamed its own attacks on Ukraine, arguing without evidence that Ukraine is conducting so-called false flag operations to make Russia look bad .
No Russian guards were killed or injured in the explosion at the prison in Olenivka, which appeared to leave other nearby structures intact.
Some of the prisoners killed were seriously wounded soldiers who were due to be exchanged in a prisoner exchange expected to take place in the coming weeks, said Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service. Those soldiers “should have been in a hospital, not a barracks,” he said in a statement.
Almost all of those killed were soldiers who had fought to defend Mariupol and surrendered in May after an 80-day siege at the sprawling Azovstal iron and steel plant.
In Ukraine, these soldiers have become war heroes, their likenesses seen on billboards across the country. The idea that Ukraine’s military would seek to kill them is beyond comprehension, said Major Mykyta Nadtochii, the commander of the Azov Regiment, a unit in Ukraine’s national guard whose fighters made up the majority of those killed in Olenivka.
“We understand what it means to be a prisoner,” Maj. Nadtochii said in an interview. “We understand that they are processing them and not in the best way.”
Since the explosion, Major Nadtochii said, he has been trying to gather information about the condition of his troops, but has remained largely in the dark. The few soldiers he was able to contact in Olenivka, who were at another location on the night of the explosion, described hearing only two bangs. He confirmed that the lists of dead and wounded provided by the Russian government consisted mainly of Azov troops, although he suspected that the Russian authorities were concealing the true extent of the massacre.
“Honestly nothing surprises me anymore in this war, but somewhere deep in my soul there was hope that they were still human and that they could abide by the agreements and the rules of war,” he said. “But I am convinced that these are not people, they are animals.”
The Azov regiment has become central to the Kremlin’s war narrative. Although it has now been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces, its origins as a fiercely nationalist volunteer paramilitary group with links to far-right figures have been used by the Kremlin to falsely paint all of Ukraine as fascist and claim that Russia is engaging in “denazism”. . .”
On Tuesday, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, sparking fears in Ukraine that Russian prosecutors could eventually charge captured Azov soldiers with serious crimes and block their return to Ukraine in prisoner exchanges.
In response to the designation, the National Guard of Ukraine issued a statement confirming the position of the Azov Regiment in the chain of command of the Ukrainian armed forces.
“After the horrific execution of prisoners of war in Olenivka,” the statement said, “Russia is looking for new excuses and justifications for its war crimes.”
Michael Schwirtz and Stanislav Kozliuk reported from Odessa, Ukraine, Christian Tribert from New York and Camilla Hrabchuk from Kyiv, Ukraine. Eric Schmidt contributed to the report.