National guard special operations soldier checks the ruins of a building previously used as a local headquarters by Russian occupying forces during a search for evidence of war crimes by police investigators, on October 14, 2022 in Vyshneve, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
National guard special operations soldier checks the ruins of a building previously used as a local headquarters by Russian occupying forces during a search for evidence of war crimes by police investigators, on October 14, 2022 in Vyshneve, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine. © Carl Court/Getty Images

Investigating War Crimes Under Daily Attack

In Kharkhiv region, constant shelling of the border territories is a significant obstacle to inspecting incident scenes and collecting evidence.

Tuesday, 25 June, 2024

Since the full-scale invasion began, more than 2,500 people have been killed by Russian rocket fire in the city of Kharkiv and surrounding region, and more than 3,500 people injured. There are more than 16,000 criminal proceedings ongoing into these attacks. Spartak Borysenko, head of the war crimes prevention department of the Kharkiv prosecutor's office, told IWPR’s Olga Golovina about the challenges of investigating under fire. 

What types of war crimes are recorded most often? 

Spartak Borysenko: Most often, we record indiscriminate attacks and shelling of civilian objects by the Russian armed forces, which is a violation of international humanitarian law. These shellings lead to casualties among the civilian population, as well as destruction and damage to civilian objects, including objects under protection. 

Damage to infrastructural facilities of dozens of cities of the region, more than 100 villages and towns; almost 50,000 civilian objects, including high-rise buildings, were completely or partially destroyed; private residential buildings; life support facilities, industrial enterprises, cultural and sports facilities and others. All this is now our reality. 

As an example, particularly brutal attacks by the Russian military on the civilian population involve cases of the use of the Iskander-M operational-tactical missile system, namely on October 5, 2023, the shelling of the Hroza settlement of the Kupyansk district of the Kharkiv region which resulted in the death of 59 civilians. On May 19, 2024, seven people died, including a pregnant woman, and 28 were injured in the shelling of the Bereg recreation centre in the region’s Dergachiv district. 

In addition, the number of recorded cases of war crimes related to illegal deprivation of liberty, hostage-taking, inhumane treatment and torture of civilians and prisoners of war has increased. 

Also, since the end of March 2024, we have recorded the use of a new aviation munition by the Russian military in bombing the city of Kharkiv and the region. This is the unified multi-species planning munition (UMPB D-30 SN); we are waiting for the conclusions of examinations to confirm the type of weapon. At this time, the number of such cases in the city and its surroundings is already 49, with the use of more than 56 munitions, more than 197 people were wounded, 30 were killed.  

The intensity of their use has increased in May and June, which indicates the probable completion of tests of the new projectile, in particular in the areas of active hostilities, namely the cities of Vovchansk and Lyptsi. 

Spartak Borysenko, acting head of the department for combating crimes committed in armed conflict of the Kharkiv regional prosecutor's office. © I. Tambiiev

What methods are used to collect evidence and testimony about war crimes? 

First, during the inspection of the scene of the incident, we assess the scope of the work, inspect the area for the presence of ammunition remnants and munitions debris, agree on the order of fixation and determine the place of storage of physical evidence, followed by the order of their removal and storage. The inspection is carried out with mandatory video and photo recording and diagrams are drawn up. During the inspection, special attention is paid to the remains of ammunition, to determine the calibre and type of weapon; debris is also inspected for the presence of element numbers. We also use quadcopters during the inspection, which helps us to find out the extent of damage, the direction and spread of debris. 

In addition, we are constantly studying international practice regarding the investigation of war crimes. Also, during the investigation, we use OSINT tools and information that we receive from the military of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including the location and deployment of Russian troops, identification of commanders, etc. 

What challenges arise in the investigation process? 

The main challenge in our work is, of course, the ongoing war. Many civilians left their homes after the deoccupation of the region, the vast majority because of destroyed homes and fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They are afraid of the war and do not plan to return due to constant shelling, which makes it difficult for us to investigate. 

Constant shelling of the border territories from the Russian Federation is a significant obstacle to conducting inspections of incident scenes, collecting evidence and carrying out investigative actions. In the course of conducting primary investigative actions, teams have repeatedly come under fire, but investigators and prosecutors continue to perform their work. 

Another significant obstacle is a significant number of mined territories in the region. We currently cannot carry out full-fledged inspections of many buildings, private households, forest strips and other deoccupied territories, since the primary task of demining is buildings of critical infrastructure, communications and other life support systems for cities or local communities. 

Is there cooperation with international organisations or other countries to investigate and document war crimes? If so, how does it happen? 

We constantly hold working meeting with the participation of representatives of international organisations. 

In February 2024, the regional prosecutor's office, with the participation of representatives of the international Project Expedition Justice, held a meeting of the interdepartmental working group in the field of combating criminal offences related to the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. 

We discussed issues related to the interaction of law enforcement agencies of the region and international and NGOs in collecting materials and evidence that can be useful not only during the consideration of legal cases by national courts, but also by the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Since [some] crimes are a challenge because we have not encountered and investigated them before, we use the experience of international experts. We have already cooperated with the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Slovak police officers, and Lithuanian specialists. 

The Department of Combating Crimes Committed in Conditions of Armed Conflict of the Regional Prosecutor's Office cooperates closely with Global Rights Compliance, the Center for Information Resilience, and others. 

We are especially grateful to the experts of the National Gendarmerie of France for carrying out, together with the experts of the HOBSME, numerous forensic medical examinations, including on the subject of establishing the causes of death of exhumed persons in the city of Izyum. 

What measures are taken to ensure the safety of witnesses and those assisting in investigations? 

The safety of participants is one of the priorities of state policy. In the event of a threat to a person's life or health, prosecutors and investigators take all possible measures to eliminate these threats, or prevent their occurrence. 

We have already worked out a mechanism for changing the personal data of victims and witnesses during the investigation of criminal proceedings. 

The prosecutor or investigator informs the person about the possibility of applying such a procedure. As a rule, this applies to crimes of sexual violence.  

In cases where the interests of the security of persons taken under protection require it, a closed court session is held based on a reasoned decision of the court.

What expectations do you have regarding future investigations of war crimes in the Kharkiv region? 

Unfortunately, the war affected almost every family, brought pain and suffering to people, especially in the de-occupied territories, where it is still dangerous. 

Crimes of this category do not have a statute of limitations, and therefore we are convinced that all war criminals, from the private to the commander-in-chief of the Russian Federation, will certainly suffer the punishment prescribed by law. 

For example, investigators have declared a suspicion against a Russian major general, the commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District of Russia, Ivan Popov. He received a "promotion" and rank for preparing and conducting the occupation of part of the Kharkiv region. At that time, he was still the chief of staff of the 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet of the Western Military District of Russia, the commander of the Balaklia troop group. The occupier was coordinating the work of the military commandant's office in Balaklia; his groups constantly shelled Kharkiv Oblast. 

In addition, on February 13, 2024, a suspicion was reported concerning actions that may cause an environmental catastrophe to five Russians who gave criminal orders for the shelling and bombing of the facilities of the Kharkiv Physical and Technical Institute, which houses a nuclear critical installation and stores nuclear materials. 

The main suspect is a colonel-general, acting commander of the Western Military District of the Russian Armed Forces at the time, who oversaw the destruction. 

The next suspects in the military hierarchy are two generals and two colonels who commanded the respective military units. These orders were one step closer to ecocide — it could have been an ecological catastrophe with serious, large-scale, and long-term consequences. The pre-trial investigation is ongoing. 

On April 30, 2024, Lieutenant Colonel Yevgenii Zelenov, who ordered the shooting of civilians near Kharkiv, in which one person was killed and two injured, was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. 

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists