Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
At least several Ukrainian servicemen have been beheaded by Russian troops, as alleged by two videos shared online this week. The revelation comes as yet another instance of exceptional brutality demonstrated – and filmed – by Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
One video posted on Russian Telegram channels on April 11 shows a man in a Russian military uniform using a knife to decapitate a man who appears to be a captive Ukrainian soldier. The man, wearing a Ukrainian uniform and insignia, is screaming from pain as the murderer cuts his throat.
It is unknown when and where the video was filmed, and the victim hasn't been identified yet. Ukrainian authorities said they likely have identified the perpetrators.
President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the international community to hold Russia accountable for what appears to be yet another explicit war crime.
"This is a video of Russia as it is… of Russia trying to make this the new norm, such a habit of destroying life. This is not an (isolated) accident or episode. This has happened earlier. This has happened in Bucha. (This has happened) a thousand times," Zelensky said on April 12.
"We are not going to forget anything, nor are we going to forgive the murderers. There will be legal responsibility for everything," the president added.
Russian troops routinely commit extrajudicial executions of both POWs and civilians, sometimes beheading victims.
Shortly after the beheading video started circulating, CNN uncovered another video in which allegedly Wagner Group mercenaries behead two Ukrainian POWs in a separate case.
The Wagner Group, a Kremlin-controlled mercenary outfit, is notorious for its atrocities in Syria and other countries, and most recently in Ukraine.
Just a month before the beheading video circulated, footage of a similarly shocking execution of a POW surfaced online. In it, a Ukrainian POW, later identified as Oleksandr Matsiyevsky, is shot in the head by Russian troops after defiantly saying, "Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine)," a Ukrainian national salute.
In the most recent graphic video, a serviceman wearing a white taped band, which Russian soldiers wear as an identifying symbol, is seen torturing and killing a prisoner of war. Another serviceman is filming the execution and shouting encouraging comments.
The video is so explicit that most media have refrained from publishing it, while others published blurred screenshots.
The green foliage suggests that it was filmed in late spring or summer of 2022.
The victim is screaming in pain and apparently begging to be spared.
As one of the Russian servicemen is beheading the captive, another is shouting encouraging comments from behind the camera. He is heard telling the main perpetrator to break the man’s spine, before asking, mockingly, “Haven’t you cut off heads before?”
He then tells him to show the severed head to the camera and suggests it is “sent to Kyiv.”
The perpetrators later demonstrate the bulletproof vest apparently taken off the victim. It has a patch with a trident, Ukraine's coat of arms. It resembles what Ukraine's Land Forces wear on their bulletproof vests. They then start looting the equipment, commenting on how well-equipped Ukrainian soldiers are.
A Ukrainian military ID is visible lying on the ground next to the victim.
The original source of the video isn’t clear. The earliest posting of the video found by the Kyiv Independent is on the Telegram channel of a Russian ultranationalist blogger Vladislav Pozdnyakov, who shared it with his nearly 300,000 followers on April 11. He later claimed he was not the source of the video, but found it circulating in Russian online groups.
Ukraine's ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said on April 12 that the Ukrainian military intelligence “roughly knows” the details of the alleged execution.
“They roughly know who did it, in what area, and who was directly involved in this, including who was directly the perpetrator,” Lubinets told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Former Wagner Group mercenary Andrey Medvedev, who fled Russia and sought asylum in Norway, said he "recognized his fellow servicemen from the Wagner Group" in the video.
"He (Medvedev) unequivocally recognizes his colleagues there, he can tell they are Wagner Group fighters by their distinctive call signs, by the way they speak, by their voice," Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of Gulagu.net human rights group, said on the Russian YouTube program "Khodorkovsky Live" on April 12.
Osechkin also said Medvedev was helping Gulagu.net to identify the perpetrators.
Medvedev has been seen as a controversial figure, having been arrested in Norway and himself accused of mistreating prisoners while fighting for Russia.
Andrii Yusov, Ukraine's military intelligence spokesperson, said that Russians posted the video to demoralize the Ukrainian military and "to prevent Russian troops from surrendering," because they would expect Ukrainians to reciprocate violence.
Another spokesperson for Ukraine's military intelligence, Andrii Cherniak, told the Kyiv Independent on April 13 that Ukraine's special services were verifying the video.
Ukraine's Security Service is also conducting an investigation into violations of the laws and customs of war.
Western officials have condemned the beheading of a presumed Ukrainian POW.
"Executing a prisoner of war is a war crime. I won't share the video, but the clip appearing to show Russian forces executing a POW is simply horrific. This barbarity will only strengthen Ukrainian resolve and U.K. support," said U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said that “there can be no impunity for these heinous actions."
"Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the brutality of its forces has become more clear by the day," she tweeted.
Czech President Petr Pavel said that "if the authenticity of the recorded barbaric act on video is confirmed, Russian soldiers would side with the Islamic State."
A string of executions
After the video of the decapitation was posted online, CNN discovered another video, reportedly published on April 8, that appears to show beheaded Ukrainian servicemen.
According to the report, the video was purportedly filmed recently by Wagner Group mercenaries.
It shows two beheaded corpses of Ukrainian soldiers lying next to a destroyed artillery piece. Their hands appeared to be cut off as well. The scene has already been looted: some of the equipment, as well as the soldiers' shoes, are gone. The Russian soldiers filming the video steal what they can find – the Ukrainians' helmets.
The Wagner mercenaries have documented committing war crimes before – and not only in Ukraine.
In 2017, Wagner mercenaries were accused of torturing and executing a man in Syria, smashing him with a sledgehammer and cutting off his arms and head while filming everything on a phone.
Another video of Russian troops executing a defiant Ukrainian POW went viral in early March. The soldier captured in the video was identified as Oleksandr Matsiyevsky, a sniper from the 163rd Battalion of the 119th Territorial Defense Brigade of northern Chernihiv Oblast.
Zelensky posthumously awarded Matsiyevsky the Hero of Ukraine title, the highest state award.
On April 10, a photo surfaced online showing a severely decomposed human head stuck on a pole near the entrance of what appears to be a destroyed apartment block.
A popular pro-Ukrainian OSINT Twitter account Necro Mancer shared the photo on April 10 and claimed the picture was taken in the embattled city of Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk Oblast, most of which is now occupied by Russia. The Kyiv Independent couldn't verify this claim.
Several pictures of human heads stuck on poles in a similar way were published last August. They were reportedly taken in the Russian-occupied city of Popasna in eastern Luhansk Oblast.
In late July, a video appeared on social media showing people in Russian army uniforms cutting off the genitals of a Ukrainian serviceman and then killing him. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General's Office launched an investigation into the incident. Investigative group Bellingcat later identified one of the perpetrators.
Wagner mercenaries have also been known to assault and kill their own servicemen, and film it.
In November, a video circulated showing Wagner mercenaries executing their own fellow soldier, Yevgeny Nuzhin, with a sledgehammer in November 2022.
Nuzhnin, a former convict who had signed a contract to fight with the group in Ukraine, surrendered to Ukrainian forces shortly after being deployed to the front line. He was sent back to Russia in a prisoner exchange.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's ally Evgeniy Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner Group, said Nuzhnin was “a traitor” and approved of the execution.
Executions and tortures of POWs, as well as mutilation of the bodies of those killed in action, breach the Geneva Conventions and constitute war crimes. Following the latest explicit video of the beheading of an alleged Ukrainian POW, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry on April 12 called on the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to "immediately pay attention to another atrocity committed by the Russian military" in the investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Note from the author:
This is Alexander Khrebet, the author of this story. Many ghastly videos have been posted online since Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February last year. The most recent one, described in detail in this story, is especially horrible. I didn’t watch it when the video was first published, recalling the similar sensitive footage from Russia's war in Chechnya, but ended up watching it repeatedly when working on this piece. It made my blood run cold.
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