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Investigative Stories from Ukraine: Russian soldiers deliberately, systematically kill Ukrainian children

by Daniil Ukhorskiy September 19, 2023 12:39 PM 7 min read
An illustration showing held by her grandfather after she was shot by Russian soldiers. ()
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The Kyiv Independent’s exclusive


Russian soldiers deliberately, systematically kill Ukrainian children

A documentary by the Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Investigations Unit reveals Russia’s systemic targeting of children in its war against Ukraine.

The Kyiv Independent showcases the Kremlin’s forces’ deliberate murder of Ukrainian kids by telling the stories of three children killed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. For this documentary, journalists spoke to the children’s families, interviewed witnesses, and corroborated their findings with open-source research.

More than 500 Ukrainian children have died since the start of the full-scale invasion. Dozens of them were gunned down with small arms at close range, according to the investigation.

Among others, the film features the story of 15-year-old Mykhailo Ustianivsky, shot by Russian soldiers on April 15, 2022, in Kherson Oblast. Ustianivsky’s friend, who was with him at the time, told the Kyiv Independent that the boys were startled by a Russian armored vehicle when walking through their village. Russian soldiers exited the vehicle as the boys ran away and fired at them, killing one.

Citing witness testimonies, the Kyiv Independent reported that the Russian commander of the area where Ustianivsky was killed was Suren Mkrtchian, who also allegedly committed sexual crimes during the occupation.

Deliberate murders of Ukrainian children by Russian soldiers reveal culture of impunity
Editor’s Note: The story is based on the documentary “Bullet Holes,” published by the Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Investigations Unit. On a cold March morning, the Mahdyk family bundled themselves into their minivan. Their village near Kyiv was occupied, and they couldn’t bear staying there any l…

While there is no direct evidence that Mkrtchian ordered Ustianivsky’s killing, a commander is responsible for the crimes of their subordinates if they fail to take steps to prevent and punish them.

Russian soldiers discussed orders to kill civilians, including children, in intercepted communications published by the Security Service of Ukraine and featured in the documentary.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told the Kyiv Independent that Russian forces commit wanton violence to terrorize the Ukrainian population and suppress resistance.

On Sept. 1, the first day of school in Ukraine, the Office of the Prosecutor General announced that they are investigating over 3,000 crimes against children committed by Russian forces, from killings and torture to indoctrination.

The first film of the Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Investigations Unit, “Uprooted,” documented Russia’s abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, the crime that forms the basis for the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Watch the documentary in English here or read it here.

Top investigative stories


NGOs help thousands of men evade mobilization by fleeing Ukraine

Almost 400 civil society organizations are helping conscription-age men permanently leave Ukraine and evade mobilization in breach of legislation, according to Lviv-based investigative outlet NGL Media.

Under martial law, in force since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are generally not allowed to leave the country.

Since the full-scale invasion, the “Shliakh” (Path) system offers an exception to martial law. It’s a policy that allows drivers transporting humanitarian aid to leave the country for a limited period of time.

According to the findings of NGL Media, NGOs exploit the system by registering conscription-age men as volunteer drivers, which allows them to leave the country.

The journalist investigation identified 372 organizations that helped 2,248 men flee the country. By analyzing border crossing data, NGL Media found that the men had exceeded the stay that was allowed by their permit.

According to NGL Media, some escapees pay civil society organizations from $3,000 to $5,000 to flee the country, meaning there is a multi-million-dollar black market for mobilization evaders.

The two most prolific organizations identified in the investigation were the Lviv branch of Prosvita, a society for promoting Ukrainian culture, and the local NGO Khlib Teatr (Bread Theatre), between them facilitating 200 men’s escape from the country. Neither organization responded to NGL Media’s requests for comment.

An investigation by an ad-hoc parliamentary commission found that as of April 2023, almost 19,000 mobilization-age men left Ukraine through the Shliakh system and never returned.

Local and national authorities told NGL Media that the government is contemplating reforms to the Shliakh system, including a possible ban on organizations abusing it.

An earlier investigation by NGL Media showed that some organizations exploited the Shliakh system by registering conscription-age men as “volunteers” only to help them leave Ukraine for good.

Read the full investigation in Ukrainian here.

Journalists identify Russian occupation officials in Kherson Oblast

Nikcenter, an investigative media outlet in southern Ukraine, identified 20 leading Russian occupation officials in Kherson Oblast.

They include Ukrainian collaborators, Russian officials with a history of corruption, and Russian-appointed “officials” from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

Following the Russian-organized sham “election” attempting at annexation of then-occupied parts of Kherson Oblast in September 2022, Russia has appointed acting “ministers” in the occupied region. Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson on Nov. 11, 2022, while the southern part of the Kherson Oblast remains occupied.

On Sept. 8-10 this year, Russia held sham elections to form a regional parliament that will confirm the “acting ministers,” reports Nikcenter, citing Russian law.

Among the 20 so-called “ministers” journalists identified is Andrey Alekseenko, a former local Russian official subject to corruption and subordinate abuse allegations.

Since November 2022, he has served as the head of the regional occupation government of the Russia-occupied , based in the seized city of Henichesk, close to the Russian-occupied Crimea.

Six of the 20 so-called “ministers” are Ukrainian collaborators from Kherson Oblast, according to the journalist investigation. This includes Russia-appointed “culture minister” Oleksandr Kuzmenko, formerly a director of a Kherson music school.

Kherson OblastMost high-profile collaborators fled when the north part was liberated in November 2021, leaving Russia to appoint “nobodies,” according to a political scientist quoted by Nikcenter.

Read the full investigation in Ukrainian here.

Journalists identify officials leading Russian drone production in occupied Crimea

Ukrainian journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism identified the key figures tasked with implementing Russia’s multi-billion-dollar push for drone production in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Russia allocated more than 300 billion rubles ($3 billion) for the domestic production of drones between 2024-2026.

In July, the Russian occupation government in Crimea ordered the creation of a working group to implement drone production on the occupied peninsula.

The 21-person working group includes Russian officials in the occupation government of Crimea and Ukrainian collaborators, according to the journalist investigation.

The head of the working group is Igor Mikhailichenko, who was part of the Russian airborne forces that illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and later became the deputy head of occupied Crimea. He is sanctioned by Ukraine but not by the U.S. or EU.

One of the few technical experts in the working group is a representative of Roboavia, a Crimean company with connections to the Russian Defense Ministry, as shown in a previous report of the Center for Investigative Journalism.

Read the full investigation in Ukrainian here.



US sanctions top Russian missile producer following media investigation

The U.S. included a top Russian missile producer and key executives in its latest sanctions package following an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation of Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, that showed the company’s connection to Russian war crimes.

The investigation, released in February, revealed that Russian missile manufacturer Soyuz, the company’s chief designer Mkrtich Okroyan, and his family members who sit on the board were not under sanctions as of February 2023 despite their active support of Russia’s war.

According to the report, Soyuz is a crucial player in Russia’s military-industrial complex; it produces engines for Kh-22, Kh-59, and Kalibr missiles, all used in attacks that killed Ukrainian civilians.

The investigation also found that Okroyan’s 28-year-old daughter, who sits on the Soyuz board, is the registered owner of a 6-million-pound mansion in Surrey, UK, and that the Okroyan family has a raw-material export business based at the mansion’s address.

In their report, the Anti-Corruption Foundation called for sanctions against the Soyuz company, Okoryan, and his family and for freezing their UK-based assets.

The newest U.S. sanctions package includes other Russian military-industrial companies, dozens of millionaires deemed to be supporting the war against Ukraine, and foreign companies helping Russia evade sanctions.

Meanwhile, in Russia


Journalists identify companies helping Russian airlines evade sanctions

Companies worldwide, including in the European Union, help Russian airlines acquire spare parts and evade sanctions, according to an investigation by a Russian independent media outlet, iStories.

The EU, the United States, and its allies imposed sanctions on Russian airlines, which operate Western-built aircraft and require parts for maintenance. Still, Russia found a way to circumvent sanctions, according to the investigation.

Russia imported at least $188.7 million of spare parts for Boeing and Airbus planes between March 2022 and March 2023, according to customs data analyzed by iStories.

The UAE, China, and Turkey were the main facilitators of airlines’ sanction evasion, with almost 90% of parts sold by companies registered in one of the three countries, customs data showed.

According to the journalist investigation, two Russian citizens own one of the largest UAE-based companies selling Western-made parts to Russia. The company’s managing director denied the allegations.

Companies based in the Czech Republic and Lithuania also reportedly sold parts that ended up in Russian airlines. The CEO of the Lithuanian company claimed he had been deceived, while the Czech company did not respond to the request for comment.

Facilitating sanctions violations is a criminal offense in the U.S., and legislation is pending to make it a crime in the EU.

The New York Times reported in March 2023 that two Russian businessmen based in the US who helped Russian airlines acquire spare parts were arrested for violating export controls and international money laundering.

Read the full investigation in English here.

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