BUCHA, Ukraine—Ihor Yuschenko, 61, a former colonel in the Ukrainian Armed Forces who once served as the deputy chief of staff of ground forces in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, watched in horror as a war crime took place right outside his window in broad daylight.
According to Yuschenko, a column of Russian troops advancing through the town stopped and opened fire on his street in central Bucha on Feb. 27, killing two pedestrians. This column had included Chechen fighters known as Kadyrovtsy, members of various military groupings who are loyal to Chechnya’s local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, known as “Putin’s soldier.” Yuschenko said he was able to identify them by their black garb, their use of Islamic slogans, and Kadyrov’s name on their body armor.
About an hour later, their column was decimated by the Ukrainian army in a different part of town—but the Kadyrovtsy returned.“Many Chechen soldiers penetrated this street to kill Ukrainian civilian people,” Yuschenko told The Daily Beast.
He described how Chechen fighters, also dressed in black, shot up a car that had been driving down the street with at least “thirty bullets,” according to Yuschenko, killing its occupants and causing it to come to a stop on the side of the road next to the apartment building he was staying in. The Kadyrovtsy then allegedly dragged the two dead people whom they had shot out of the car, left them by the side of the road, and drove off in the car themselves.
Yuschenko’s mother, Zina Yehorovna, his friend Pavel Kondratyev, and his neighbor Bogdan each confirmed these events to The Daily Beast. According to Bogdan however, the Chechens then hit a civilian who had been trying to flee the scene with the car, leaving him hanging off the hood of the car before he slid off onto the street.
“They just shot them.”
“It’s simply a war crime what they have done here,” Yuschenko said, standing next to the bench that the car had crashed into after the Kadyrovtsy allegedly attacked it. “This is not war.”
Artem Hurin, a member of the city council of the neighboring town of Irpin who also serves as a deputy commander in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, was one of the first people to visit Bucha after the Russians retreated. There, he heard numerous accounts from residents about life in areas like Yablonska Street, where a group of Kadyrovtsy who were supposed to advance onto Kyiv were stationed.
According to Hurin, Ukrainian civilians were not the only people the Kadyrovtsy allegedly brutalized in the town. Hurin said that residents he spoke to in Borodyanka, which lies northwest of Bucha, recounted what the Kadyrovtsy did with injured Russian soldiers they brought there from Bucha. “They would bring heavily wounded Russian soldiers to a big hospital they had there, and those who were very heavily wounded, they would just shoot them,” he told The Daily Beast. “And no one other than the Kadyrovtsy did this.”
Locals mourn as a mass grave is exhumed. Local authorities attempted to identify the bodies of civilians who had died during the Russian occupation in Bucha, Ukraine.
Photo by Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Eyewitnesses have alleged that Kadyrovtsy had executed people as early as March 5, and the Mayor of Bucha Anatoliy Fedoruk stated Chechen units had tied white bands around prisoners’ arms that were similar to the ones found on the bodies of executed civilians. Hurin said he saw evidence of executions and torture on bodies he found in the street, and spoke to a woman who endured four days of torture at the hands of one Kadyrovtsy fighter and one Belarusian soldier before they shot her husband in the head.
“They didn’t allow them to do anything. There they just killed people through binoculars for example,” Hurin said, describing what happened to people who tried to leave their homes to get food and water. “They just shot them.”
He also confirmed previous reports about a local base at a glass factory on Yablonska Street, which Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Human Rights Lyudmila Denisova said served as a torture chamber operated by Russians and Chechens.
According to the Kyiv Oblast Police, the bodies of around 1,150 civilians have been found throughout the Kyiv region since Russian forces retreated in late March and early April. In Bucha alone, over 400 people have been found dead so far, most of whom were killed by the town’s Russian occupiers over the course of several weeks in March prior to their withdrawal from the town on April 1.
But accounts like Yuschenko’s provide evidence that indiscriminate violence toward civilians was part of the Russian army’s playbook in Bucha from almost the very beginning of the war itself, with Chechen Kadyrovtsy playing a key role in the brutality even early on—against local residents and their own fellow soldiers alike. A lot remains unknown about Chechen activity in Bucha, but new details and testimony from residents and local authorities are making it possible to form a clearer picture of Chechen forces’ brutal presence in the town and their participation in the weeks-long war crimes against Bucha’s residents.
Social media evidence, testimony from residents, and materials seized by Kyiv Oblast police suggest that the Kadyrovtsy regiments in Bucha most likely belonged to the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) and (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) OMON, and that these units, along with other Russian troops, were likely responsible for a significant portion of the massacre that took place there.
According to independent security analyst Harold Chambers, who specializes in the north Caucasus, this sort of personal violence by Kadyrovtsy in Bucha comes as no surprise.
“What they do have experience in, in terms of military operations, is really these zachistki, these clean sweep operations,” Chambers said, speaking about a brutal style of house-to-house searches and killings that Russian forces perfected during the Chechen Wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. “It plays into their specialty of targeting civilian populations, and from the stories we’ve already heard out of Bucha, that’s very much what was going on.”
Despite their presence in Bucha in late February, Russian forces were not able to gain full control of the town until several days later on or after March 2. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has identified the 64th separate motorized infantry brigade as one of the Russian military groups responsible for the massacre that ensued in Bucha throughout March, but evidence suggests they were not the only ones involved.
According to Andriy Halavin, the priest at the Church of the Holy Apostle St. Andrew the First-Called in Bucha, where a mass grave for around 280 people was dug during the Russian occupation, regiments that included SOBR and OMON units began to replace the original occupying forces later in March.
“At the beginning, even though they were, shall we say, strict, they were fair. At the very beginning they would just search my car and tell me to just continue with my work, and so on,” Halavin said. “But after that the others came.”
Andriy Nebytov, the head of the Kyiv Oblast Police which is responsible for Bucha, confirmed that SOBR and OMON units were present in the Kyiv region, citing documents seized by his police department that show lists of members of the regiments who had arrived in the area. Because the information will be used in future criminal cases against Russia, his office was unable to provide the list to The Daily Beast, but the documents are seen in a video Nebytov recently published.
On Feb. 27, Ukrainian forces destroyed a large column of vehicles that included Kadyrovtsy on Vokzal’na Street near Bucha’s train station, which lines up with Yuschenko’s account from that same day. The column had arrived in the town from Hostomel, which lies just to the northeast of Bucha, where Hussein Mezhidov, the Chechen commander of the “Yug” battalion of the 141st Special Motorized Regiment that forms the backbone of the Kadyrovtsy, was seen in a video on Feb. 26.
“This situation was the biggest terror of my life.”
According to Chambers, the most likely Chechen unit present in Bucha on Feb. 27 was the SOBR “Akhmat” group. Nevertheless, Chambers noted that the pattern of organization of Kadyrovtsy units around Kyiv makes identifying specific fighting groups who had fought on that front particularly difficult.
“The Kadyrovtsky do not seem to be fighting as much in delineated units, they seem to be working more in combined groups,” Chambers said. “You have a lot of commanders overlapping together, so it seems less clear how the units were actually being separated.”
Militarily and strategically, Kadyrovtsy deployed to Kyiv Oblast served several purposes—some groups were designed to be strike teams meant to assassinate Ukrainian President Zelensky and his family if they were able to make it into Kyiv, but according to Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, these units’ primary purpose was a broader one.
“The Chechens have a real purpose. The Russian military needs manpower,” Kofman said. He added that the Kadyrovtsy were meant to be deployed into the cities, especially into Kyiv, in order to support soldiers from the Eastern Military District, who were supposed to hold the blockade of the capital, and to fight alongside airborne units within the city limits.
“These Chechen units and these auxiliaries were therefore really important for the urban fight, because a lot of the other units they’d send were pretty low on manpower availability,” he said.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks on as workers exhume bodies from a mass grave in Bucha, north-west of Kyiv. Ukraine says it has discovered 1,222 bodies in Bucha and other towns.
AFP via Getty Images
Ultimately, none of that happened, and the Kadyrovtsy, together with other Russian units, were left to their own devices and given carte blanche to allegedly abuse and massacre the population of Bucha for weeks, as people like Yuschenko saw firsthand. Yuschenko said all his years of military service paled in comparison to his experiences in the town.
“There, you know where the frontline is, you know where threats may come from,” Yuschenko said about his time fighting in eastern Ukraine. “This was much more frightening than the Donbas. From lieutenant, to platoon commander, to deputy chief of staff, this situation was the biggest terror of my life.”