ZDVYZHIVKA, Ukraine, Oct 27: Even by the standards of the important military officers who came and went in this tiny village, the man walking behind the Kamaz truck stood out.
Soldiers providing security peered from behind fences, their guns bristling in every direction. Two Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters circled overhead, providing additional cover for Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko as he escorted an aid convoy in March from the schoolhouse on Tsentralna Street that Russian officers commandeered as a headquarters.
Fifteen minutes away, in the village of Ozera, the lives of three men were about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. While Chaiko was directing Russia’s attack on Kyiv from Zdvyzhivka, the men were interrogated and tortured by Russian troops and then shot in the garden of a large house less than a mile from where the general now stood.
The deaths of these men were part of a pattern of violence that left hundreds of civilians beaten, tortured and executed in territory under Chaiko’s command.
This wasn’t the work of rogue soldiers, an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series Frontline shows. It was strategic and organized brutality, perpetrated in areas that were under tight Russian control where military officers – including Chaiko himself – were present.
This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and the documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” on PBS.
‘WE DO NOT TAKE PRISONERS’
The map seized by Ukrainian forces is almost as tall as a man. It’s frayed, creased and deeply outdated — describing towns as they no longer exist. A single red line snakes down from Belarus, along the Western flank of the Dnieper River, through Chernobyl and towards Zhuliany airport, in Kyiv.
Scrawled on the back are a date — Feb. 22, 2022 — and the stamp of a Russian military unit – number 07264, Russia’s 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division.
At 7 a.m. the morning of Feb. 24, the commander of that division, Major General Sergei Chubarykin, ordered his troops to cross into Ukraine from Belarus and fight their way to Kyiv, Ukrainian prosecutors say. Chubarykin reported to Chaiko during the initial phase of the war, two Ukrainian officials told the AP and Frontline.
Boy soldiers — some not much bigger than their guns — perched on top of their tanks, shouting: “Now we will take Kyiv! Kyiv is ours!” witnesses said.
The troops moving toward the capitol had been ordered to block and destroy “nationalist resistance,” according to the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank that has reviewed copies of Russia’s battle plans. Soldiers used lists compiled by Russian intelligence and conducted “zachistka” — cleansing operations — sweeping neighborhoods to identify and neutralize anyone who might pose a threat.
“Those orders were written at Chaiko’s level. So he would have seen them and signed up for them,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at RUSI who shared the battle plans with The AP.
While there is nothing necessarily illegal about that order, it was often implemented with flagrant disregard for the laws of war as Russian troops seized territories across Ukraine.
Witnesses and survivors in Bucha, as well as Ozera, Babyntsi and Zdvyzhivka — all areas under Chaiko’s command — told AP and Frontline that Russian soldiers tortured and killed people on the slightest suspicion they might be helping the Ukrainian military. Sweeps intensified after Russian positions were hit with precision, interviews and video show, and soldiers, in intercepted phone calls obtained by The AP, told their loved ones that they’d been ordered to take a no-mercy approach to suspected informants.
Soldiers told their mothers, wives and friends back in Russia that they had killed people simply for being out on the street when “real” civilians would have been in the basement, calls the Ukrainian government intercepted near Kyiv show.
On Mar. 21, a soldier named Vadim called his mother: “We have the order to take phones from everyone and those who resist — in short — to hell with the f------.”
“We have the order: It does not matter whether they’re civilians or not. Kill everyone.”
The slightest movement of a curtain in a window – a possible sign of a spotter or a gunman – justified slamming an apartment block with lethal artillery. Ukrainians who confessed to passing along Russian troop coordinates were summarily executed, including teenagers, soldiers said.
“We have the order not to take prisoners of war but to shoot them all dead directly,” a soldier nicknamed Lyonya said in a Mar. 14 phone call.
“There was a boy, 18 years old, taken prisoner. First, they shot through his leg with a machine gun, then he got his ears cut off. He admitted to everything and was shot dead,” Lyonya told his mom. “We do not take prisoners. Meaning, we don’t leave anyone alive.”
The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, verified the identity of the soldiers who made those calls by cross-referencing Russian phone numbers, linked social media accounts, public reporting and information in leaked Russian databases.
‘THAT’S WHERE PEOPLE WERE KILLED’
Fierce Ukrainian resistance and poor planning pushed Russian troops off their planned line of attack. Some of them ended up in Bucha, where Ukrainian prosecutors say the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division participated in a lethal cleansing operation on Mar. 4 along Yablunska Street, the deadliest road in occupied Bucha and the site of an important Russian command center.
Others settled with thousands of other troops in Zdvyzhivka, a tiny village half an hour north of Bucha that became a major forward operating base for the assault on the capitol, according to Ukrainian military intelligence and audio intercepts obtained by AP.
Russian troops dug into the woods around Zdvyzhivka, building virtual cities that stretched for several kilometers beneath the tall pines and poplar trees. They left gaping trenches sized for tanks, semi-permanent bunkers reinforced with logs and sandbags, rough-hewn tables and benches. There was even a field sauna, photographs and intercepts show.
The Russians set up their most sensitive infrastructure along Tsentralna Street, the main north-south artery in town. They took over the village council building, a cultural center, a school and set up headquarters in the large white kindergarten. At the main intersection, near the pond, Russians turned a Baptist church into a field hospital, took over a forestry administration building and commandeered a large ostrich farm for their vehicles and supplies. In the fields behind the church, locals watched helicopters ferry in supplies and evacuate the wounded.
Checkpoints faced in every direction. It was so difficult to cross the checkpoint going south on Tsentralna that locals tried to bypass it, wending their way along a footpath that skirted the pond instead. One woman told AP she tried three times before she was allowed to pass and get back to her own home.
Tania, who was afraid to publish her last name, lives on this southern stretch of Tsentralna Street. She stayed in Zdvyzhivka with her children during the occupation, hemmed in by Russian checkpoints on both sides.
It seemed like tanks were parked in every yard, Tania said. Troops took over dozens of abandoned homes.
There is one house on Tania’s stretch of Tsentralna Street, between the checkpoints, that stands out. It is the biggest, ritziest compound around. Beyond its high brick wall, an elegant circular driveway leads to a large pinkish house. A stone path winds through the back garden, an oasis of fenced-in green with manicured hedges, thick trees, two gazebos, a basketball court, banks of garden planters. At the far back fence, a small door opens onto the woods beyond.
The soldiers who came and went from that compound were older, professional, spoke like educated men, Tania and other neighbors said. They had cars with drivers. They told people what to do. Everyone figured they were officers.
“That’s where people were killed,” Tania said, squinting down the street and pointing to the compound.
WHAT THEY FOUND IN THE GARDEN
Life under the occupation of Chaiko’s forces was tense and terrifying, local residents told AP and Frontline.
Andrii Shkoliar lives on Tsentralna Street with his extended family, a few houses down from the luxurious compound. On Mar. 18, Shkoliar and his wife were walking nearby to a relative’s house when a dark-colored UAZ Patriot sped past, stopped abruptly and drove back to them.
A tall, blonde soldier with a beard who appeared to be of higher rank stepped out of the Russian-made SUV, demanding to know why they’d broken curfew.
“I give you one hour to go and come back or you’ll be like this one in the car,” the Russian told him.
Shkoliar peered through the back window of the SUV at a man slumped against the window, eyes bound with tape, his hands behind his back.
On their way back, Shkoliar and his wife saw the same UAZ Patriot parked in front of the officers’ compound.
The next day, Mar. 19, Ukrainians launched a precision strike, knocking out a Russian storehouse at the ostrich farm on Tsentralna, according to village head Raisa Kozyr. Russian troops sprang into action, searching door to door and checking documents.
The same blonde officer and driver of the UAZ Patriot, along with a third man, appeared at Shkoliar’s front door and pulled everyone out of the house to search for weapons. They said they’d kill everyone if they found anything.
“We were saying goodbye to our lives,” Shkoliar recalled. “What else could we do?”
The sweeps consumed the whole village.
Vitalii Chernysh was picked up that afternoon as he rode his bike through a field. Chernysh said soldiers found a photo of Russian military vehicles someone had sent him on the messaging app Viber on Feb. 25 and hauled him off with three other people, bound and blindfolded, to a nearby barn. It was below zero, and none of the prisoners was dressed for the cold.
As night deepened, they chatted with the Russian guarding them. “He said more captured people were brought over,” Chernysh recalled. “From Bucha, from Ozera, from Blystavytsia and somewhere else…In short, they gathered people.”
The next day, Chernysh was taken, blindfolded, to a field and accused of being a spotter.
“Where are the nationalists?” the soldiers demanded. They poured gasoline on him and pretended to set him on fire. They ordered him to run through what they said was a minefield. Still blindfolded, Chernysh struggled to his feet and tried to follow the soldiers’ commands: “Go right. Go straight. Go faster.” Then they beat his legs again, with what felt like a wooden plank.
Chernysh began to wish they’d just kill him.
Finally, a man Chernysh thought was of higher rank came over, examined his phone and told the soldiers to take Chernysh home.
Photos taken shortly after his ordeal show large, livid bruises on the back of his swollen legs. Days later, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a video of Chaiko pinning medals on soldiers near Zdvyzhivka.
“All units, all divisions are acting the way they were taught,” he said in the March 24 video. “They are doing everything right. I am proud of them.”
When Russian forces retreated a week later, the bodies began to surface.
Bucha, a pleasant town outside Kyiv, quickly became a global symbol of Russia’s wartime atrocities and case number one for Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors. Retreating soldiers left behind the bodies of over 450 men, women and children — almost all bore signs of violent death.
But the slaughter wasn’t limited to Bucha. It was repeated in town after town, village after village. Including in Zdvyzhivka.
“We didn’t know what was happening around us,” said Kozyr, the village head. “What was happening in the woods. And we knew people were missing.”
On March 30, Yevhen Pohranychnyi went to the luxurious home Russian officers had used. Now that they were gone, he wanted to check on his neighbor’s cat and see how badly the house had been looted.
The house was trashed, photographs show. Drawers had been ripped from desks and dressers. Clothes, books and papers were strewn all over the floor. What the Russians hadn’t stolen, they’d smashed.
Pohranychnyi made his way out the back, to the far end of the long garden. There, as night was falling, he found something far worse: The bodies of two men — one with a crushed skull curled up like a child, his joints at strange angles; the other with red marks around his neck, who had bled out from his head and face onto a pink cloth.
The next morning, he brought the village head, the village priest and others to the site. Three more bodies had appeared overnight. The blood was fresh. Some of them had their eyes and hands bound. Two seemed to be dressed in clothes that weren’t their own.
Three of those men – Mykola “Kolia” Moroz, Andrii Voznenko and Mykhailo Honchar – were picked up from nearby Ozera between Mar. 15 and Mar. 22 on suspicion of acting as spotters for the Ukrainian military, eyewitnesses told AP and Frontline. Moroz was captured the day after a precision strike on a Russian position hidden in the woods outside Ozera, a drone video analyzed by the Center for Information Resilience, a London-based nonprofit that specializes in digital investigations, shows.
AP and Frontline visited that garden in July and found bullet casings and a zip tie on the ground and bullet holes in the fence where the men were found — indications that they had been killed on the premises of the house frequented by Russian officers in one of the most tightly guarded sections of Zdvyzhivka in late March.
All told, 17 people have been found dead in Zdvyzhivka — a village of 1,000 before the war.
War crimes prosecutors in Ukraine are trying to gather evidence against Chaiko, who earned a global reputation for brutality as leader of Russia’s forces in Syria. The U.K. sanctioned him for his actions there, and Human Rights Watch says Chaiko may bear command responsibility for widespread attacks on hospitals and schools and the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas during a notorious campaign in Idlib province in 2019 and 2020. At least 1,600 civilians were killed; some 1.4 million were displaced, according to the group.
In Ukraine, prosecutors say they don’t have proof Chaiko ordered specific crimes, but it is clear that atrocities were committed under his watch.
In June, the U.S. State Department sanctioned Russia’s 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division and its 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, as well as the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade for atrocities in Bucha.
Those units were all under the ultimate command of Chaiko, Ukrainian authorities told AP.
But Chaiko’s responsibility extended beyond Bucha.
To try to understand who might have been involved in the deaths of the men from Ozera, the AP obtained data about their cell phone activity from the Ukrainian government. On Mar. 21, the day Russian soldiers captured Voznenko, his cell phone pinged the same cell tower as 40 Russian phone numbers — an indication of who was nearby when he was abducted.
The Dossier Center found explicit references to specific Russian military units in recent work history databases for 14 of those phone numbers. Nine came from units Ukrainian authorities told the AP were under Chaiko’s command. The formal wartime command structures for the rest are unclear, but four are from unit 62295, an airborne regiment based in Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow. That unit was in Ozera, along Chaiko’s front in the war, according to Russian phone numbers left behind on scraps of paper in Ozera that the Dossier Center traced to specific soldiers.
Days before the bodies of Voznenko and the others were found mutilated in the garden in Zdvyzhivka, two eyewitnesses spotted Chaiko again, less than a mile down the road at his headquarters in the village.
Both men independently identified him as Chaiko when AP and Frontline showed them a photograph of the colonel general in July.
“It’s him,” said Mykola Skrynnyk, 58, who served in the Soviet army in the 1980s, and says he exchanged a few words with the general. “Now I understand why there was so much security.”
“When you look at everything that was happening in Zdvyzhivka, it becomes evident that this is not just a singular case, this is their policy for the territory they capture,” said Taras Semkiv, a war crimes prosecutor in the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general.
As top commander, Chaiko obviously “would have to be aware of what was happening near his headquarters located in the same village,” he said. “It’s only logical.”
But, he added, “This has to be proven. And I think we will do it.”
There’s no concept of command responsibility in Ukrainian law, but if prosecutors can demonstrate that Chaiko played a key role in implementing illegal policies of the Russian Federation, or should have known what his troops were doing and was in a position to stop, or punish, their behavior, he could be charged for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in an international court.
Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer in London who is working to hold Russia legally accountable for atrocities in Syria, said the evidence AP and Frontline collected was enough to merit an investigation of Chaiko at the International Criminal Court.
“Significant events like this can then fall through the cracks, they don’t get properly investigated,” he said. “A case file could be taken to the ICC, because half the job is done.”
“It is a significant case. It is a strategically important area. It is a strategically important individual,” he said. “Everything about it makes it a significant matter to look at,” he said.
The ICC declined to comment, citing confidentiality.
While they seek more specific evidence, Ukrainian prosecutors have indicted Chaiko for the crime of aggression, a broad charge that seeks to hold him responsible for helping to plan and execute an illegal war in Ukraine.
They say he was in Zdvyzhivka from Mar. 20 until Mar. 31, directing the assault on Kyiv — that is, at the same time the three men from Ozera were killed and Chernysh was tortured.
Chaiko’s trial is expected to begin soon in Ukraine. But the dock will almost certainly be empty.
The International Criminal Court has a better chance than Ukraine of extraditing, or capturing, Chaiko one day. It is currently the only international forum that can hold leaders criminally responsible for wartime atrocities. But it is not a simple task.
The ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction over Russians for the broad crime of aggression because Russia — like the U.S. — never agreed to give it authority to do so. Instead, prosecutors must link commanders with specific crimes.
That makes it hard to build cases against leaders like Chaiko — and Vladimir Putin.
A growing number of people are calling for the creation of a special tribunal for the crime of aggression in Ukraine — similar to those set up for conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — to address this gap in international law. They say it would be the best way to make Putin pay.
“The crime of aggression is called the mother of all crimes,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told the AP and Frontline. “You don’t have war crimes if you don’t have the crime of aggression. So the best way to prosecute personally President Putin is to have a special ad hoc tribunal for the crime of aggression.”
It’s not clear whether Kuleba and his allies will succeed. They face political opposition from powerful nations who don’t want to see their own leaders in the dock and from the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Karim Khan, who said his court can handle prosecutions on its own.
“We have clear jurisdiction,” he said in an interview in July. “Victims don’t have much tolerance in my view for vanity projects or distractions.”
The Kremlin did not respond to AP’s requests for comment.
But there is no sign Moscow has sanctioned Chaiko for the very public atrocities committed on his watch. Instead, Putin praised Chaiko for his actions in Syria, awarding him the title “Hero of Russia” in 2020 and promoting him to colonel general in June 2021.
Cadman, the international human rights lawyer in London, watched with dismay as Russian atrocities in Syria — under the leadership of some of the same men, including Chaiko — went unanswered.
“If we do not act decisively now,” he said, “it will not end in Ukraine.”