On March 31, Ukrainian forces retook the city Bucha from Russian troops, before later reporting evidence of war crimes committed by Putin’s forces. Since Ukraine retook the city, more than 500 bodies have been found, with Kyiv claiming they have evidence of mass killings, sexual violence and torture. Russia denied responsibility and instead claimed that Ukraine faked footage of the event or staged the killings itself as a false flag operation.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence intelligence directorate (SBU) accused the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade of the 35th All-Russian Army of being the primary unit responsible for war crimes in Bucha.
On Monday, Putin awarded the Brigade the honorary title of “guards” for defending the “motherland and state interests”.
He praised the “mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage” of the Brigade’s members.
The honours come despite the SBU intelligence suggesting the brigade has already redeployed to eastern Ukraine to the front lines of the conflict in the hope they would be killed and would therefore unable to testify in any future war crime tribunals.
A report published on the Ukrainian MoD’s website earlier in April said the brigade is being sent to the “hottest spots”, likely around Kharkiv, Izyum and the Donbas.
The report said: “Another goal of the rapid return of the 64th Brigade to Ukrainian territory is the quick ‘disposal’ of unnecessary witnesses.
“That is, redeployment to a part of the war front where they will have no chance of surviving, thus making it impossible for them to testify in future courts.”
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On April 3, a day after images of Bucha were first released, Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s public image is now one of torture and execution.
The Ukrainian President called Russian soldiers “murderers, butchers and rapists”.
He added in an attack on Putin’s forces “your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women”, and warned Ukrainian’s “even worse things” may be found in other occupied regions.
Mr Zelensky said the Kremlin-ordered attack on his country amounted to genocide, and said Ukraine’s refusal to be subdued to Russia was the reason “we are being destroyed and exterminated”.
It comes after Mr Zelensky called for US President Joe Biden to visit his country and declared Ukrainian authorities have “substantial evidence” Russia’s troops are committing genocide in Ukraine.
Mr Zelensky was asked by CNN State of the Union host Jake Tapper about whether there are “any plans” for Biden to come see the situation for himself.
He answered: I think he will. It’s his decision of course, and about the safety situation.
“But I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here to see.”
It also comes as Ukrainian officials fear Izyum, regarded as the gateway to the Donbas region, will see the same alleged war crimes as Bucha.
Izyum fell to Russian forces on April 1, trapping thousands of civilians in a city with 80 percent of its residential buildings destroyed.
Valerii Marchenko, Izyum mayor, told The Guardian: “We cannot know for sure, because about 1,000 civilians were killed in airstrikes, artillery shelling and bombings.
“The last centralised evacuation was on 10 March. We organised a green corridor with 60 buses. Humanitarian aid flowed in and people fled on those buses.
“Then we tried three times to organise green corridors, but when the buses got closer to town they were shot by the Russians and had to turn around.
“Some volunteers used their own cars and risked their lives to evacuate people, but the organised evacuation was impossible. And now that the city is occupied, our hands are tied.”
Oleksandr Motuzianyk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s ministry of defence, said Izyum was the area with highest concentration of Russian troops.