ZDVYZHIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Even by the standards of the important military officers who came and went in this tiny village, the man walking behind the Kamaz truck stood out.
Soldiers providing security peered from behind fences, their guns bristling in every direction. Two Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters circled overhead, providing additional cover for Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko as he escorted an aid convoy in March from the schoolhouse on Tsentralna Street that Russian officers commandeered as a headquarters.
Fifteen minutes away, in the village of Ozera, the lives of three men were about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. While Chaiko was directing Russia’s attack on Kyiv from Zdvyzhivka, the men were interrogated and tortured by Russian troops and then shot in the garden of a large house less than a mile from where the general now stood.
In this image from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on March 24, 2022, Russian commander Alexander Chaiko is seen spaking to servicemen in Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
The deaths of these men were part of a pattern of violence that left hundreds of civilians beaten, tortured and executed in territory under Chaiko’s command.
This wasn’t the work of rogue soldiers, an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series Frontline shows. It was strategic and organized brutality, perpetrated in areas that were under tight Russian control where military officers – including Chaiko himself – were present.
This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and the documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” on PBS.
‘WE DO NOT TAKE PRISONERS’
The map seized by Ukrainian forces is almost as tall as a man. It’s frayed, creased and deeply outdated — describing towns as they no longer exist. A single red line snakes down from Belarus, along the Western flank of the Dnieper River, through Chernobyl and towards Zhuliany airport, in Kyiv.
Scrawled on the back are a date — Feb. 22, 2022 — and the stamp of a Russian military unit – number 07264, Russia’s 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division.
At 7 a.m. the morning of Feb. 24, the commander of that division, Major General Sergei Chubarykin, ordered his troops to cross into Ukraine from Belarus and fight their way to Kyiv, Ukrainian prosecutors say. Chubarykin reported to Chaiko during the initial phase of the war, two Ukrainian officials told the AP and Frontline.
Boy soldiers — some not much bigger than their guns — perched on top of their tanks, shouting: “Now we will take Kyiv! Kyiv is ours!” witnesses said.
The troops moving toward the capitol had been ordered to block and destroy “nationalist resistance,” according to the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank that has reviewed copies of Russia’s battle plans. Soldiers used lists compiled by Russian intelligence and conducted “zachistka” — cleansing operations — sweeping neighborhoods to identify and neutralize anyone who might pose a threat.
“Those orders were written at Chaiko’s level. So he would have seen them and signed up for them,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at RUSI who shared the battle plans with The AP.
While there is nothing necessarily illegal about that order, it was often implemented with flagrant disregard for the laws of war as Russian troops seized territories across Ukraine.
Witnesses and survivors in Bucha, as well as Ozera, Babyntsi and Zdvyzhivka — all areas under Chaiko’s command — told AP and Frontline that Russian soldiers tortured and killed people on the slightest suspicion they might be helping the Ukrainian military. Sweeps intensified after Russian positions were hit with precision, interviews and video show, and soldiers, in intercepted phone calls obtained by The AP, told their loved ones that they’d been ordered to take a no-mercy approach to suspected informants.
Soldiers told their mothers, wives and friends back in Russia that they had killed people simply for being out on the street when “real” civilians would have been in the basement, calls the Ukrainian government intercepted near Kyiv show.
On Mar. 21, a soldier named Vadim called his mother: “We have the order to take phones from everyone and those who resist — in short — to hell with the f——.”
“We have the order: It does not matter whether they’re civilians or not. Kill everyone.”
The slightest movement of a curtain in a window – a possible sign of a spotter or a gunman – justified slamming an apartment block with lethal artillery. Ukrainians who confessed to passing along Russian troop coordinates were summarily executed, including teenagers, soldiers said.
“We have the order not to take prisoners of war but to shoot them all dead directly,” a soldier nicknamed Lyonya said in a Mar. 14 phone call.
“There was a boy, 18 years old, taken prisoner. First, they shot through his leg with a machine gun, then he got his ears cut off. He admitted to everything and was shot dead,” Lyonya told his mom. “We do not take prisoners. Meaning, we don’t leave anyone alive.”
The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, verified the identity of the soldiers who made those calls by cross-referencing Russian phone numbers, linked social media accounts, pu