Caught on camera, tracked by phone: Russian military unit that killed dozens in Bucha

Caught on camera, tracked by phone: Russian military unit that killed dozens in Bucha

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This investigation was reported and created by Yusur Al-Khlaw, Masha Frolyak, Dmitry Khavin, Christoph Kettle, Haley Willis, Alexander Kardia, Nathalie Reno and Malachi Brown.

When videos and photos emerged in April showing the bodies of dozens of civilians strewn across a street in Bucha, Ukrainians and the rest of the world expressed horror and outrage. But in Russia, officials reacted quite differently: denial.

President Vladimir V. Putin dismissed the horrific scene as “provocation”, and claims that the Russian army has nothing to do with it.

But eight months visual examination from The New York Times concluded that the perpetrators of the Yablunska Street massacre were Russian paratroopers from the 234th Airborne Regiment led by Lt. Col. Artyom Gorodilov.

Evidence suggests the killings are part of a deliberate and systematic effort to ruthlessly secure a route to the capital, Kyiv. Soldiers interrogated and executed unarmed men of fighting age and killed people who unwittingly crossed their paths – whether children fleeing with their families, locals hoping to find groceries, or people just trying to return home on their bicycles.

We have identified 36 of the Ukrainian victims killed on Yablunska Street. Read more about their final moments.

Times reporters spent months in Bucha after Russian forces pulled out, interviewing residents, gathering massive security camera footage and obtaining exclusive tapes from government sources. In New York, Times researchers analyzed the footage and reconstructed the murders on this single street down to the minute. Some of the most damning evidence implicating the 234th included phone records and decoded call signs used by commanders on Russian radio channels.

Everything points to a brazen and bloody campaign that turned a quiet suburban street into what residents now call “death road”.

Historically, journalists and investigators have relied on a single photo or video to uncover wartime atrocities. In 1992, Time magazine published a photo of an emaciated prisoner in Bosnia on its cover. Almost 20 years later, a video shot execution of captured Tamil Tiger fighters in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war.

What distinguishes the evidence found in Bucha is the scale and detail that links a single unit and its commander to specific killings, with possible implications for ongoing investigations. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is already investigation into possible war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.

“This kind of digital evidence is a huge change, especially compared to past investigations, such as in the former Yugoslavia,” said Matthew Gillett, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex who previously worked in international criminal courts. “If any Ukrainian cases end up in an international court like the ICC, it should have a significant video component.”

Here are some of the key findings from the investigation.

While various military units were present in Bucha – and the death toll in the entire city reached over 400 — The Times identified the 234th Regiment, a parachute unit based in the western Russian city of Pskov, as the main perpetrator of the Yablunska Street killings. Airborne units like this are considered to be some of the best trained and equipped in the Russian military. Evidence of the 234th’s involvement includes military equipment, uniform badges, radio chatter and packing slips on ammunition crates. Military experts from Janes and on Institute for the Study of War provided insight into Russian armored vehicles and their markings, as well as tactical operations seen in the visual evidence.

Bucha residents said that when Russian soldiers interrogated them, they often took away their phones. Suspecting that the soldiers may have also taken the victims’ phones, our reporters obtained from the Ukrainian authorities a database of all calls and messages sent from the Bucha region to Russia in March. While interviewing relatives of the victims, we collected their phone numbers and checked if they were in the database. A chilling pattern emerged: Soldiers routinely used victims’ phones to call Russia, often just hours after they were killed.

By analyzing phone numbers dialed by Russian soldiers and uncovering social media profiles associated with their family members, The Times confirmed the identities of two dozen paratroopers as members of the 234th Regiment. In many cases, we interviewed their relatives and spoke with some of the soldiers themselves, two of whom confirmed that they were in the 234th and served in Bucha. We linked our findings to personal data obtained from leaked and official Russian databases provided by Center for Advanced Defense StudiesA Washington, D.C., nonprofit group focused on global security.

The Times identified – for the first time – three dozen people who were killed on “Yablunska” street in March. We reviewed the death certificates for most of these victims and the predominant cause of death was gunshot wounds.

The victims are residents of Bucha or neighboring towns, of all ages and professions. Among the victims killed by Russian paratroopers were 52-year-old Tamila Mishchenko and her 14-year-old daughter Anna on March 5. They were among four women fleeing Bucha when Russian soldiers fired at their blue minivan.

Almost all of the victims we identified on Yablunska Street were civilians or Ukrainian prisoners of war. Their killing could have been prosecuted by the International Criminal Court and considered war crimes under international humanitarian law. Due to its systematic and widespread nature, the killings in Bucha could also amount to crimes against humanity. Russia has not joined the International Criminal Court and is unlikely to cooperate in any future cases involving Russian soldiers.

The victims on Yablunska Street did not die in the crossfire between Russian and Ukrainian forces, nor were they shot by mistake in the fog of war. Our investigation shows that Russian troops deliberately killed them, apparently as part of a systematic “clearing” operation to secure the road to the capital. Dozens of civilians were shot. In other cases, men suspected of ties to the Ukrainian military were arrested and executed.

Lt. Col. Artyom Gorodilov, regimental commander at the head of the 234th, led the parachute unit’s operations in Bucha. Times investigators obtained documents that confirm the call sign he used when he radioed his troops. Security cameras on Yablunska Street captured part of these radio conversations, establishing that Lt. Col. Gorodilov was in command, and two soldiers from the 234th who served in Bucha confirmed in interviews that he was there.

After Russian troops retreated from the Kyiv area, Lt. Col. Gorodilov was promoted to colonel in April by then-Chief of the Airborne Forces, Col. Gen. Andrey Serdyukov. The ceremony took place days after the shocking footage of Bucha emerged.

Neither General Serdyukov nor Colonel Gorodilov’s immediate superior at the time, Major General Sergey Chubarikin, have publicly announced any investigation into the carnage in the city despite global outrage over the footage. As senior officers, they are ultimately responsible for the actions of the forces under their command. By neither stopping nor investigating the Bucha atrocities, they could ultimately be held responsible for them.

The Russian Defense Ministry, the Russian Embassy in Washington and Colonel Gorodilov did not respond to requests for comment.

Reporting contributed by Evan Hill, Ishan Jhaveri and Julian Barnes. Translations and studies by Alexandra KorolevaOksana Nesterenko and Milana Mazaeva.

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