Fact check: Putin’s lies about the bombing of Ukraine

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Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed since neighboring Russia invaded on February 24. Every day brings new images of destruction and the desperation of the Ukrainian people.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government continue to insist that they don’t attack civilian targets. But journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and political organizations have consistently proven otherwise.

“We see a clear pattern of violations against international humanitarian laws [IHL] designed to protect civilians,” Wolfgang Benedek, told DW. Benedek led investigations into possible IHL violations in Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He called Moscow’s claims that its troops do not attack civilian targets a “blatant lie.”

Hard evidence of Russian attacks on civilian targets

The United Nations (UN) has documented 4,731 Ukrainian civilian dead and 590 injured between February 27 and June 27, though the organization says real fatality numbers are likely to be much higher.

The international research collective Bellingcat has also been documenting Russian attacks in Ukraine since the start of the war. “We have seen large numbers in terms of destruction of civilian infrastructure, and of injured and dead civilians,” Nick Waters, head of justice and accountability investigations at Bellingcat, told DW.

In short, organizations and journalists have delivered clear evidence that Russian forces have directly attacked civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. DW has put together a list of several thoroughly investigated and well-documented incidents.

Kremenchuk shopping mall air strike (June 27)

According to Ukrainian officials, more than 1,000 people were inside a shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk when it was hit by Russian rockets on June 27. At least 11 people were killed in the incident and more than 500 injured.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack but offered a deflecting explanation on its website, saying Russian soldiers had bombed, “a hangar loaded with arms and ammunition received from the US and Europe.” The ministry claimed the mall caught fire after the neighboring munitions depot exploded. Russia has offered no evidence to support the claim.

Surveillance video made public by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to show the attack as it happened. In it, one can see a rocket directly, or very nearly directly, hit the mall — contradicting Russian claims that fire from a burning storage facility spread to engulf the site.

Writing on Twitter, British intelligence services said it was indeed possible that the Russians had wanted to hit something nearby in their attack but had missed their target. Bellingcat research has shown that the Russians hit other targets nearby but that they had definitely hit the mall, too.

Vehicles damaged in a train station rocket attack, paint charred from their bodies and hoods, trunks and windows blown open or out

More than 30 civilians were killed and 100 more wounded in a rocket attack on Kramatorsk train station

Kramatorsk train station air strike (April 8)

On the morning of April 8, the Kramatorsk train station in eastern Ukraine came under rocket attack. Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said roughly 4,000 people were at the site when the attack occurred.

Reporters from the Washington Post newspaper were on the scene within 15 minutes; reporting at least 20 dead, some children. According to Donetsk Regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, at least 50 people were killed and a further 100 injured.

Investigators found a Russian-made Tochka-U missile in front of the station. Russia says it is not using the Tochka at the moment, but Bellingcat research has proven that Russian troops are indeed using the mobile missile system in Ukraine.

The UK’s Defense Ministry says it is possible that Russian forces missed an intended military target as a result of the missile’s poor maneuverability. 

A woman wearing a knit hat covers her face as she prays in a church in Bucha, candles and icons in the background

Bucha was occupied by Russian forces in March and April

Bucha massacre (end March / early April)

In early April, gruesome images from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha began circulating around the world. They showed hundreds of bodies left dead in the city’s streets when Russian soldiers withdrew in late March. Ukraine claims that civilians were killed, even tortured, by Russian soldiers in the city.

Russia immediately countered. The Foreign Ministry again took to Twitter saying the whole thing was a lie: “All of the photos and videos published by the Kyiv regime ( … ) are just another provocation.” Yet, as a March DW fact check showed, that is simply not true.

Research by The New York Times analyzed satellite imagery recorded by the US-based space technology company Maxar. Journalists at the paper were able to identify bodies along Bucha’s Yablunska Street as early as March 11, and then consistently more from March 19. The images clearly contradict the Russian narrative that bodies only began to appear after Russian troops left Bucha on March 30.

Research by the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel also provided evidence that Russian soldiers in fact murdered civilians in Bucha. The magazine reported that German BND intelligence services had intercepted and recorded radio communications between suspected perpetrators in Bucha in which they discussed the killing of civilians.

Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk described the ruthless behavior of Russian soldiers toward the city’s citizens when he spoke with DW. About 90% of the bodies found had evidence of gunshot wounds, he said. Russia continues to deny any responsibility for atrocities committed in Bucha.

Overhead view of the destroyed remnants of a theater in the city of Mariupol

Rights group Amnesty International (AI) condemned the Mariupol theater air strike as a ‘Russian war crime’

Mariupol theater air strike (March 16)

The city theater of Mariupol was destroyed on the morning of March 16, when it was directly hit by one or more missiles. An investigation by Associated Press (AP) news agency estimated that at least 600 people were killed in the attack. The NGO Amnesty International cited a lower number in its report on the incident but nevertheless described it as a “Russian war crime.”

A great number of Mariupol citizens had taken shelter in the theater as pitched battles were being fought for control of the key port city.

The Vienna-based OSCE’s council of experts concluded that a Russian air strike was responsible for the deliberate “destruction ( … ) of the theater, which was clearly marked as housing children by signs on both sides, and in which many civilians had taken refuge.”

Experts stated, “Russia does not claim that it was a legitimate target but that it was blown up by the Ukrainian Azov battalion. The Mission did not receive any indication that this could be the case. Up to 1,300 persons were allegedly seeking shelter in the theater, both underground and on the floors.”

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton

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