A Russian commander dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bucha’ after being accused of committing war crimes in Putin’s war on Ukraine has been revealed as a veteran soldier blessed by the Orthodox Church late last year who claimed: ‘History shows that we fight most of our battles with our souls’.
Lieutenant Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov is commander of the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade involved in the occupation of Bucha, a town on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv which was occupied by Kremlin forces until their retreat last week.
Grisly images of what are claimed to be civilian massacres allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Bucha before they withdrew have stirred a global outcry in recent days, and prompted Western nations to expel dozens of Moscow’s diplomats and propose further sanctions, including a ban on coal imports from Russia.
Could Russian generals be prosecuted for alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine?
Under international law, a military commander is responsible for any war crimes committed by his troops.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules on disputes between states, but cannot prosecute individuals. If the ICJ ruled against Russia, the UN Security Council would be responsible for enforcing that.
But Moscow could veto any proposal to sanction it as one of the council’s five permanent members.
If investigators at the International Criminal Court (ICC) find evidence of atrocities carried out by Omurbekov’s men, the prosecutor will ask ICC judges to issue arrest warrants to bring individuals to trial in The Hague.
However, the court relies on states to arrest suspects. And because Russia is not a member of the court, Putin will not extradite any suspects.
Individuals suspected of war crimes who travel to another country could be arrested.
The ICC can also prosecute the offence of waging ‘aggressive war’ – the crime of an unjustified invasion beyond justifiable military action in self-defence.
Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch told the BBC there is evidence of summary executions and other grave abuses by Russian forces.
‘There’s one interesting episode in our Ukraine report where a commander instructs the soldiers to take out two civilians and shoot them dead,’ he said.
‘Two of the soldiers object to this and that command is not carried out. So, there’s clear evidence of some incidents in the Russian army, but also a command-and-control element to it.’
ABC News’ Foreign Correspondent James Longman interviewed a local man called Mykola, who described Russian soldiers ‘killing all the men below 50’ and ‘giving him 20 minutes to bury his friends’. In a thread on Twitter, he added: ‘Russians asked for documentation when they got there. Anything in your papers that made them think you were a threat, and you were dead. He [Mykola] said they made the men strip off, looking for tattoos. Perhaps military tattoos. […] This whole town is a crime scene.’
The Kremlin has predictably denied the allegations, and claimed the images of civilians were ‘a crude forgery’ staged by the Ukrainians themselves.
Omurbekov, who is thought to be about 40 and was given a medal for outstanding service in 2014 by Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy Russian Defence Minister, now stands accused of organising the alleged rape, pillage and murder of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians.
According to InformNapalm, a Ukrainian volunteer initiative initiative that monitors the activities of the Russian military and special services, Omurbekov was blessed by an Orthodox priest in November last year before his deployment to Ukraine.
Speaking after the service led by the Bishop of Khabarovsk, the commander, whose unit is based in a town outside Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, said: ‘History shows that we fight most of our battles with our souls. Weapons are not the most important thing.’
Under international law, a military commander is responsible for any war crimes committed by his troops.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules on disputes between states, but cannot prosecute individuals. If the ICJ ruled against Russia, the UN Security Council would be responsible for enforcing that. But Moscow could veto any proposal to sanction it as one of the council’s five permanent members.
If investigators at the International Criminal Court (ICC) find evidence of atrocities carried out by Omurbekov’s men, the prosecutor will ask ICC judges to issue arrest warrants to bring individuals to trial in The Hague. However, the court does not have its own police so relies on states to arrest suspects. And because Russia is not a member of the court, Putin will not extradite any suspects. Individuals suspected of war crimes who travel to another country could be arrested.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shocked the UN into silence after accusing Russia of committing ‘genocide’ in Ukraine, comparing Moscow’s military to the Islamic State terror group and demanding that Putin be brought to justice for his alleged atrocities in a video address to the Security Council.
Sharing harrowing pictures of charred bodies, civillians shot dead and mass graves taken in Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, Zelensky said that civilians had been shot in the back of the head after being tortured, blown up with grenades in their apartments and crushed to death by tanks while in cars.
‘They cut off limbs, cut their throats. Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because their aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them,’ he said.
‘Anyone who has given criminal orders and carried them out by killing our people will be brought before the tribunal which should be similar to the Nuremberg tribunals.’
Making his first appearance before the UN’s highest body, Zelensky said the Russian troops are no different from other terrorists. He showed the council brief video footage of bloody corpses that ended with the words ‘Stop Russian Aggression’.
He stressed that Bucha was only one place and there are more with similar horrors, and called for a tribunal similar to the one set up at Nuremberg to try war criminals after the Second World War.
Lieutenant Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov was blessed by an Orthodox priest in November last year before his deployment to Ukraine. Speaking after the service led by the Bishop of Khabarovsk, the commander said: ‘History shows that we fight most of our battles with our souls. Weapons are not the most important thing’
Omurbekov is commander of the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade involved in the occupation of Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Ukrainian capital Kyiv
Omurbekov, who was given a medal for outstanding service in 2014 by Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy Russian defence minister, now stands accused of organising the alleged rape, pillage and murder of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians
Field engineers of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine stand next to destroyed armoured vehicles on a street in the town of Bucha, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, April 5, 2022
Volodymyr Zelensky said atrocities have been carried out in Ukraine, with women raped and killed in front of their families
Russia’s envoy Vassily Nebenzia (pictured) predictably dismissed the claims as ‘lies’ as he repeated unfounded Kremlin claims about Nazis running Ukraine
A mass grave was discovered in the grounds of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha, containing the bodies of dozens of civilians
A satellite image taken of a street in the city of Bucha on March 19 – when Russian forces were in full control of the city – shows dark objects in the road that exactly match where civilian corpses were later discovered by Ukrainian troops
Soldiers and investigators look at charred bodies lying on the ground in Bucha where Russia has been accused of war crimes
Serhii Lahovskyi, 26, and other residents carry the body of Ihor Lytvynenko to bury him in Bucha, April 5, 2022
Serhii Lahovskyi, 26, hugs Ludmyla Verginska, 51, as they mourn their common friend Ihor Lytvynenko, following his burial at the garden of a residential building in Bucha, April 5, 2022
People light candles as they hold a vigil for those killed in Bucha and the surrounding areas on April 5, 2022 in Lviv
Secretary of State Blinken says Putin’s troops are on a ‘deliberate campaign to rape, kill and torture’ in Bucha and UN Ambassador says reports of Russians being sent to ‘filtration camps’ are ‘chilling’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken pulled no punches after the horrific accounts that came out of Bucha, Ukraine, claiming Tuesday that Russia was on a ‘deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape.’
‘As this Russian tide is receding from parts of Ukraine, the world is seeing the death and destruction left in its wake,’ he told reporters as he flew to Brussels. ‘What we’ve seen in Bucha is not the random act of a rogue unit. It’s a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities. The reports are more than credible. The evidence is there for the world to see.’
At the same time U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted that Ukrainians were being taken to ‘filtration camps’ in Russia. Russian federal security agents are now taking away passports, IDs and cell phones so Ukrainians cannot escape and ripping apart families, she said.
‘I do not need to spell out what these so-called filtration camps are reminiscent of. It’s chilling and we cannot look away. Every day we see more and more how little Russia respects human rights.’
Blinken said that the U.S. is working with other nations to gather evidence to help the Ukrainian prosecutor general and the UN Human Rights Council in investigations.
The scenes of battered and burned bodies and evidence that some of the dead were bound and shot in the head have led western nations to expel dozens more of Moscow’s diplomats and propose further sanctions, including a ban on coal imports from Russia.
The head of NATO warned that Russia is regrouping its forces to deploy them to eastern and southern Ukraine for a ‘crucial phase of the war’, and said more horrors may come to light as Russian troops continue to pull back in the north.
‘When and if they withdraw their troops and Ukrainian troops take over, I’m afraid they will see more mass graves, more atrocities and more examples of war crimes,’ Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Ukrainian officials claim the bodies of at least 410 civilians have been found in towns around Kyiv that were recaptured from Russian forces and a ‘torture chamber’ was discovered in Bucha.
Zelensky told the Security Council there was ‘not a single crime’ that Russian troops had not committed in Bucha.
‘The Russian military searched for and purposefully killed anyone who served our country. They shot and killed women outside their houses when they just tried to call someone who is alive. They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies,’ he said.
Police and other investigators walked the silent streets of Bucha on Tuesday, taking notes on bodies.
Associated Press journalists in the town counted dozens of corpses in civilian clothes. Many appeared to have been shot at close range, and some had their hands bound or their flesh burned. A mass grave in a churchyard held bodies wrapped in plastic.
The Kremlin denounced the images as fake and suggested the scenes were staged by the Ukrainians, but high-resolution satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies showed that many of the bodies had been lying in the open for weeks, during the time Russian forces were in the town.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed the images from Bucha revealed ‘a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities’. He said the reports were ‘more than credible’ and the US and other countries will seek to hold the culprits accountable.
As western leaders condemned the killings in Bucha, Italy, Spain and Denmark expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, following moves by Germany and France. Hundreds of Russian diplomats have been sent home since the start of the invasion, many accused of being spies.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the expulsions a ‘short-sighted’ measure that would complicate communication and warned they would be met with ‘reciprocal steps’.
In another show of support, the European Union’s executive branch proposed a ban on coal imports from Russia, in what would be the first sanctions from the bloc targeting the country’s lucrative energy industry over the war. The coal imports amount to an estimated 4 billion euros (£3.3billion) per year.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU needed to increase the pressure on Putin after what she described as ‘heinous crimes’ carried out around Kyiv, with evidence that Russian troops may have deliberately killed Ukrainian civilians.
She did not mention natural gas, with consensus among the 27 EU member countries on targeting the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes more difficult to secure.
Pictured: A Russian military vehicle (top-left) is seen in drone footage positioned on a road moments after a cyclist turned the corner into the street. The vehicle opened fire
People light candles as they hold a vigil for those killed in Bucha and the surrounding areas on April 5, 2022 in Lviv
Pictured: Still grabs from a video purportedly showing the aftermath of the attack on the cyclist in Bucha
Tanya Nedashkivs’ka, 57, weeps in the street over the death of her husband who was found killed as Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Bucha, to the west of Kyiv, after a month under the occupation of Russian troops
Ukrainian soldiers claim to have uncovered a Russian torture chamber in the basement of a children’s hospital where five men – their hands tied behind their backs – were brutalised before being shot dead
Images showing piles of dead bodies in the besieged city of Mariupol are shown to global leaders on Tuesday
The UN Security Council is shown a barrowing image of dog lying in the road next to its owner who has been shot dead in Bucha, Ukraine
Finland and Sweden would be welcomed into NATO if they applied to join, Secretary-General Stoltenberg says – as Russia warns of retaliation
Finland and Sweden would be welcomed into NATO if they applied to join, the head of the alliance has said today, in what would be a major blow for Russia amid Vladimir Putin’s faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO general secretary, told a news conference that the 30-member alliance would work to overcome ‘security concerns’ between the countries applying to join and being ratified – amid fears Russia would retaliate.
He spoke after Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin said her country could take a decision on joining the alliance within weeks and polls in Sweden also showed a majority of people support membership.
If either country opts to join the alliance, it would mark an historic reconstruction of European security architecture that has held since the end of the Second World War.
Finland, which fought a short but bloody conflict with the Soviets in the build-up to World War Two, has been officially neutral since signing a pact in 1948.
As part of the pact, Finland agreed never to join a military alliance viewed as hostile to Russia, never to allow its territory to be used for an attack against Russia, and to maintain an armed forces for self-defence purposes only.
In return, the country – which shares an 830-mile border with Russia – was given guarantees by Moscow that it would not be attacked.
The EU gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia, and many EU countries, including Germany – the bloc’s largest economy – are opposed to cutting off gas imports.
So far, Europe had not been willing to target Russian energy over fears that it would plunge the European economy into recession but the recent reports of civilian killings have increased pressure for tougher EU sanctions.
The US and the UK previously announced they were cutting off Russian oil, Poland said it plans to block imports of coal and oil from Russia, while Lithuania said it is no longer using Russian natural gas.
‘To take a clear stand is not only crucial for us in Europe but also for the rest of the world,’ Von der Leyen said. ‘A clear stand against Putin’s war of choice. A clear stand against the massacre of civilians. And a clear stand against the violation of the fundamental principles of the world order.’
Other measures proposed by the EU’s executive arm include sanctions on more individuals and four key Russian banks, including the second-largest, VTB.
‘These four banks, which we now totally cut off from the markets, represent 23% of market share in the Russian banking sector,’ Von der Leyen said. ‘This will further weaken Russia’s financial system.’
If the proposal is adopted unanimously by all 27 EU countries, the new package of sanctions would also ban Russian vessels and Russian-operated vessels from EU ports, with exceptions for essentials such as agricultural and food products, and humanitarian aid and energy.
Further targeted export bans worth 10 billion euros (£8.3 billion) have been proposed in sectors covering quantum computers, advanced semiconductors, sensitive machinery and transportation equipment.
Von der Leyen said: ‘With this, we will continue to degrade Russia’s technological base and industrial capacity.’
According to EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, 62% of Russia’s exports to the EU were hydrocarbons last year.
‘If we really want to affect Russia’s economy, that’s where we need to look,’ he said. ‘And that’s exactly what is subject to discussions concerning this sanctions package.’
Because of its climate ambitions, the EU has been moving away from coal. Coal use fell from 1.2 billion tons a year to 427 million tons between 1990 and 2020, but imports rose from 30% to 60% of coal use.
The European Union gets about 25% of its oil from Russia, while the EU imported 53% of hard coal from the country in 2020, which accounted for 30% of the EU’s hard coal consumption.
Russian coal would be easier to replace than Russian gas because coal comes by ship and there are multiple global suppliers. Germany’s association of coal importers said in March that Russian coal could be replaced ‘in a few months’.
Analysts at the Bruegel think tank said in March that Germany and Poland were particularly reliant on Russian coal for power generation and that ‘Russian coal can be replaced because global markets are well supplied and flexible’.
But they added that ‘replacing Russian coal imports will require the lightspeed deployment of new supply chains to bring the right type of coal where it is needed. Most European coal users already source from different suppliers and should be able to build on existing relationships’.
But the switch would mean more import demand from Europe and higher global coal prices, with significant effects on emerging and developed economies that also rely on coal.
It was once a tree-lined idyll… now all you see is destruction: RICHARD PENDLEBURY sees the grim evidence of Russian slaughter in Bucha
By RICHARD PENDLEBURY for the DAILY MAIL
As we watch, she is lifted and carried by a policeman to where the others lie.
He is able to do this with one hand because the woman – it was probably a woman – is now only a head, an arm and half a torso, still delicately attached, and charred to the bone.
The daylight seems to be fading but it is still early afternoon. Piercingly cold.
Under a slender oak tree on the edge of Lisova Bucha (Bucha Forest), once a Kyiv commuter idyll, we are confronted by a grotesque jumble of human remains.
One victim looks as if he had been trying to crawl from his funeral pyre. Certainly what is left of his face wears a grimace of determination.
No doubt it is a trick of the heat that was meant to destroy this evidence of civilian murder by the Russian military.
The town of Bucha continues to give up new horrors that revolt much of the world – and are promptly denied by Moscow as a sham.
But on the ground it is hard to view Bucha as anything other than one vast war-crime scene.
In the courtyard of their house, Vlad Tanyuk, 6, stands near the grave of his mother Ira Tanyuk, who died because of starvation and stress due to the war, on the outskirts of Kyiv
Named: ‘The Butcher of Bucha’
This is the Russian commander accused of orchestrating heinous war crimes in Bucha.
Lieutenant Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov has been branded the ‘Butcher of Bucha’ over the mass slaughter of civilians in the Kyiv commuter town.
Ukrainian intelligence indicates that he commands the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, involved in Bucha’s occupation before retreating to Belarus last week.
Omurbekov was blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest in November.
As Ukraine said troops behind the atrocities could already be back on the front line, one report suggested they could be sent to areas which left them ‘no chance of surviving’ to stop them testifying at war crimes trials.
Azatbek Omurbekov, Lieutenant Colonel, commander of unit 51460, the 64th separate motorized rifle brigade, which according to preliminary data committed war crimes in Bucha
Our journey begins in central Kyiv and at first you appreciate the attraction of its now infamous satellite community.
Bucha has a charming setting; beyond the Irpin River, amid birch woods and rolling vistas of agricultural land and stands of firs along the horizon.
Kyivans who moved there no doubt felt they had escaped the mega-city – among the ten largest in Europe – with all its cares, its grime and irritations.
Instead they made themselves horribly vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s military adventure.
On the outskirts the vegetation has been burned long before harvest. Myriad tank tracks criss-cross a ploughed field below the road. Putin’s crop circles.
We reach a low-rise neighbourhood. Every house has been smashed and burned. A man is walking a dog that looks like a chihuahua. Incongruous.
A woman is wheeling a suitcase as if intending to leave. Less so. The Intersport megastore has been reduced to ashes.
We pass shelled apartment blocks with curtains flapping in the breeze through smashed windows – a sight commonplace in Ukraine now – and war-battered avenues of pleasant housing amid trees.
In side roads, cars used as barricades are now bullet-riddled or smashed.
We reach a ruined shopping parade where civilians – mostly pensioners – have formed a queue.
They are waiting for the rumoured arrival of humanitarian aid. One of them is Sasha, a florist who didn’t always distrust Russians because she once trained as a ballerina in Moscow.
Now she is a nerve-shattered woman of late middle-age with shabby clothes and dirty fingernails.
A woman who has survived an ordeal. ‘I have been here for the whole of the occupation,’ she tells me and she starts to cry.
‘We had to bury a civilian volunteer in the backyard of our apartment building. He had been foraging food for us when he was shot dead by a sniper.
‘The Russians also came to my neighbour. They stole all her appliances and took all the males in her family to a basement where they made them undress and beat them. The Russians were saying that they wanted our weapons. That they knew every home had a weapon. But such weapons are illegal here!
‘My neighbour’s husband had a heart attack during the occupation and died. We also buried him in the yard. Four of my family left Bucha after that but I stayed here because of [my widowed neighbour] and my four dogs. I was taking heart tablets every day for the stress of it.’
Sasha had no electricity or heating but ‘a grocery store was bombarded and after that the owner said we could take our pick’, she says.
‘I asked the Russians: ‘Why did you destroy the maternity hospital in Mariupol?’ And they said ‘That was the Ukrainians who did it. We have come to save you!’ Save us? They are worse than fascists!’
She adds: ‘Bucha was lovely here before the war. A relaxing place, even in Soviet times. I am still afraid the Russians will return. I would not survive another occupation.’
I ask her what her favourite ballet is. Her expression softens, she smiles and says ‘Giselle’.
Then she gives me a hug and says that talking about what happened here makes her feel a little better.
Vladislava, 50, is also waiting here with her daughter Nastya, aged ten. ‘The Russian checkpoints were a gamble,’ she says.
Devastation: The ravaged town of Bucha, pictured on Railway Station Street
‘One time they would let you through, the next shoot without reason. Crazy.’
Finally, a couple of vehicles arrive carrying free bread, vegetable oil and other basics.
There is a scrum of hungry, exhausted people and conversations are forgotten.
I notice that an old lady – who, for some reason, has brought a dustpan brush in a cardboard box on a trolley – has secured a bag of madeleines.
She has waited for two hours for this success. Such is life in Bucha in the aftermath of the Russian occupation.
We carry on to Vokzalna Street. It is a totemic scene of destruction, both of Russian military hardware and Ukrainian lives and property.
When the bridge over the Irpin River was blown up – by the defenders to stop the advance on Kyiv – a Russian armoured column was halted here and then destroyed piecemeal from the air, by drone and artillery.
The street and adjoining properties are a junkyard of burned and ruined vehicles.
One armoured personnel carrier sits on its side in a garden. Another has been blown on top of a third.
All of them have had their turrets lifted off and on to the road, like hats flung skywards at an old political meeting.
A heavy machine gun is resting against a tree, having been torn from a tank on the roadway that is covered in congealed oil, melted metal, caterpillar tracks, snapped branches and ragged uniforms.
One has to pick a path through the cog wheels, engine blocks, fuel tanks, rubber hoses and fallen telephone wires like jungle vines.
One of the wrecks has a tree trunk tied to its flank, presumably for extra protection. No good.
The armour has been peeled open from above, like a sardine tin. In the back of another iron coffin are two ration boxes which say ‘Army of Russia’ and ‘Not for Sale’.
There is a Russian soldier’s boot on a grass verge. His foot is still inside.
The cottages, villas and chalets that line the road have all been damaged or destroyed by battle.
Yet there is life here. A cock is crowing from a garden. Magpies scold in a tree in which the drive wheel of a tank now hangs from a branch.
And there are some dazed residents. Outside Number 19a, the householder is explaining: ‘I had to stay in the city because I have elderly parents. ‘When this fight happened we had to stay on the floor, face down with the doors and windows falling on top of us. When Russians left we found 15 [civilian] bodies in the vicinity.’
Another man, restraining a huge Alsatian, recalls: ‘I was shot in the buttock but at the moment I was hit I was already falling and that saved me.’
Resilient: An elderly resident collects essential food supplies in Bucha
On the paling fence outside No 31 there is scrawled: ‘People inside.’
Were they alive or dead? They are very much dead, those people under the oak tree in the sylvan suburb of Lisova Bucha.
There are six bodies, four women and two men, all from one family, we are told – though they have yet to be formally identified.
They had been shot, then doused with petrol and burnt, it is claimed.
Locals say they had been executed by Russian soldiers while looking for food. Whatever happened, the aftermath is terrible to behold.
Seared meat, exposed bones, sinews, ripped cadavers. A human rubbish heap.
One victim lies on his back, arms wide. His skin is taut and pale caramel like a mannequin.
One can tell it is a male because the fire had burned off his clothes, exposing his genitalia.
We watch as policemen begin to lift the cadavers into body bags. Some disintegrate.
It is undignified, revolting. ‘Alas, there is a lot of such crimes in Kyiv region,’ says the police spokesman under the oak tree.