Russian Soldiers Used Phones of Bucha Victims to Call Home

  • Russians who occupied the Ukrainian town of Bucha in March used their victims’ phones to call home.
  • The New York Times published a sprawling investigation into the massacres committed in Bucha.
  • Dozens of civilian killings were part of a Russian effort to ensure a path to Kyiv, per The Times.

A regiment of Russian soldiers responsible for dozens of killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha earlier this year frequently used their victims’ phones to call home to Russia, often just hours after an execution, according to a New York Times report.

The outlet on Thursday published a sprawling investigation into the possible war crimes committed in Bucha, located outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, throughout the month of March, during which Russian soldiers brutally occupied the town. They left a literal “road of death” in their wake, residents told The Times.

Several dead bodies discovered along Bucha’s Yablunska Street were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Victims included men of fighting age, as well as women and children attempting to flee the invasion. Many stayed in the streets for weeks before the Russians retreated.

The International Criminal Court is already investigating possible war crimes throughout Ukraine, but Bucha residents seeking justice will need detailed evidence to make their case.

“If any Ukraine cases end up at an international court such as the ICC, it has to have a significant video component,” Matthew Gillet, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex with past experience working on international criminal courts, told The Times.

The newspaper spent eight months investigating the Bucha massacres, conducting interviews in the town and extensive research stateside to pin down who exactly was responsible for the organized bloodshed.

The Times ultimately found that Russian paratroopers from the 234th air assault regiment led by Lt. Col. Artyom Gorodilov, based in the Russian city of Pskov in the west, conducted the killings in Bucha as part of a larger, systemic effort to ensure a clear path to Kyiv.

Using myriad pieces of evidence, including phone records, decoded call signs from commanders on Russian radio channels, military equipment, uniform badges, and packing slips on ammunition crates, the newspaper zeroed in on the 234th air assault regiment.

Bucha residents said Russian soldiers often took their phones during interrogations, prompting the outlet to obtain a Ukrainian database of all calls and messages out of the town in the month of March. Reporters found that Russian soldiers often used their victims’ phones to call home to Russia, frequently placing calls only hours after the phone’s Ukrainian owner had been shot dead.

The Times then used the phone numbers that Russian soldiers had dialed out of Bucha to cross-reference those soldiers’ family members’ suspected social media profiles, leading them to identify two dozen members of the regiment, two of whom actually confirmed to the outlet that they were paratroopers who had served in Bucha.

Horrifying photos of mass graves and videos of street executions out of Bucha shocked the world earlier this year, with Russia denying involvement. Residents who survived told The Times that they now call Yablunska Street the “road of death” to commemorate the approximately 400 people who lost their lives during the occupation.

There are roughly 50,000 alleged war crimes under investigation in Ukraine. Russia has been condemned by world leaders and top human rights groups over its actions in the war thus far. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been described by President Joe Biden as a “war criminal.”

But war crimes investigations typically take years and prosecuting top Russian officials could prove extremely complicated. Legal experts have also said there’s a slim chance Putin would ever stand trial due to the limitations of the international justice system.

Russia, which has rejected the allegations of war crimes, does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC. The court also cannot try defendants in absentia.

There are currently 123 countries that are ICC members, and Russia and Ukraine are not among them — neither is the US. But Ukraine has “accepted the court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 2013, and in doing so, the obligation to cooperate with the court,” per Human Rights Watch.

With the ongoing fighting, there are many open questions regarding accountability over the thousands of alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

That said, in May a Russian soldier who pleaded guilty to shooting and killing an unarmed civilian was sentenced to life in prison in a court in Kyiv in the first war crimes trial linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Ukrainian court subsequently reduced the sentence for the soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, to 15 years.

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