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The Hallmark of Russian Occupation – Torture

Paul Niland argues that those calling for a negotiated peace in Ukraine fundamentally misunderstand how Russian torture, rape, and other war crimes make such a peace impossible

“It’s not a war crime if you had fun” – graffiti on a wall in a part of Ukraine liberated from Russian occupation.

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Looking at the blinking cursor, there are several ways that I could open this article and try to make an impression to hold your attention. Shall I cite a statistic? Shall I tell you a story about something I saw in a documentary film?

How about the image above, graffiti scrawled on the wall in a liberated part of Ukraine, the words read, “it’s not a war crime if you had fun.”

There, in a nutshell, is the attitude that Ukrainians under occupation are faced with.

The Statistic

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently stated that, having looked at the overall picture from 103,000 recorded claims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainians, 90% of those cases were torture related. Leading to the inescapable conclusion that it is a “deliberate policy” to act with such barbaric cruelty.

However, that is nothing like the full picture. Following the blitzkrieg of landgrab in the initial weeks of the full-scale war, Russia was occupying 26.4% of Ukraine in March of 2022, in March of 2024 that figure stands at 18.5%. The information that we have on these crimes only comes from liberated territory. There is no way of documenting evidence of crimes in areas beyond Kyiv’s control. But in every part of that 7.9% of their land that the Ukrainians have liberated, the exact same thing is uncovered.

The Documentary Films

The biggest crime scene that remains beyond investigation is the city of Mariupol. The Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Days in Mariupol offers a first-hand view of Russia’s crimes there.

In Kharkiv region, only 30% of which had been occupied, 25 torture chambers have been examined. In one mass grave alone, in the city of Izium, 449 bodies were recovered. Some of the victims there had been shot in the head, their hands tied behind their backs.

We know that this is Russian policy because we saw the exact same thing in the town of Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv when that was liberated too.

In the film Under Deadly Skies, a Byline TV production, veteran journalists John Sweeney and Zarina Zabrisky went into a torture chamber in the city of Kherson in Ukraine’s south accompanied by a man who had been held there during the Russian occupation. That man, Oleksander, wept when he entered the prison cell where he had been incarcerated. Oleksander is a bear of a man, probably in his 40s or 50s. The kind of person who would normally hide his emotions. In this case it was impossible to do so.

These are not only war crimes being documented, or lives that will always be burdened by nightmares as experiences are involuntarily recounted, this practice implemented everywhere shows us several things that are fundamental to understanding the Russian war in Ukraine. The most important thing that it tells us is that the occupiers are not welcome anywhere.

Had the Russian military been met as liberators by “ethnic” Russians frustrated by a supposed inability to speak Russian as their native language, there would surely be no need to torture them. That is self-evident.

The Victims

When the Russians have occupied any space in Ukraine, they have systemically gone after anyone who they perceive might pose a threat to their control. Certain categories of people are the primary targets. Anyone who had, or has, relatives who had fought against the initial Russian invasion of the Donbas since 2014, they would be rooted out first. Anyone who had served in local administrations would be considered to be likely to be loyal to Ukraine.

Russian occupation means carting such people off to a torture camp. In further efforts to depopulate the areas that Russia is trying to steal from their local populations, many people were sent from their homes to so-called “filtration camps” where lengthy interrogations and strip searches were designed to determine their loyalty towards Ukraine, the nation they knew as their home. The presence of a patriotic tattoo would be sufficient grounds for someone to be disappeared for good. That has been the fate of tens of thousands of people.

Another form of torture, alongside the beatings and mock executions and electric shocks, is sexual violence. As I noted in my last Byline Times article, victims of this kind of torture are both men and women, but it is predominantly girls and women who have been the targets of such heinous depravity. Why? Well, it is not just because the abuser(s) believe it to be fun, as per the opening image, according to testimonies given by the victims they are told that the horror they are subjected to is so that they do not, or cannot, in the future give birth to Ukrainian children.

From Kyiv Oblast in central Ukraine, to Kharkiv Oblast in northeastern Ukraine, to Kherson in southern Ukraine, the picture is always the same. Torture. Summary executions. Rape. Deportation.

Those who argue that Ukraine needs to somehow reach a compromise with Russia, “for the sake of peace”, have to realise that this is no such thing. Their underlying thinking, that maybe Russia does have legitimate claim to this or that part of Ukraine, is blown apart by the fact that the Russians have to torture people to subdue the populations that they have – for now – taken under their control.

Of course, this is not new. And, of course, this behaviour is reflective of the very nature of the hyper-authoritarian Putin regime. Dissent must be crushed and the methods for accomplishing this are always violent. That is the modus operandi at home and for his overseas aggressions.


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The Pope

This past weekend the Pope himself drew scorn for suggesting that Ukraine realise it was time to wave a white flag. “When you see that you are defeated, that things are not working out” the Pontiff said, “have the courage to raise the white flag and negotiate.” Pope Francis is wrong in every way.

Ukraine does not see defeat, and it is determined to fight on in this war because it is a war between good and evil. The white flag indicates surrender, is it official Vatican policy that people should be surrendered unto a regime that would torture them? Is it Christian to compromise with evil?

Some Hard Truths

Putin will not countenance giving up an inch of occupied Ukrainian land. His war that began in 2014 has spiraled out of control for him through a series of errors entirely of the Kremlin’s own making. The seizure of Crimea was unwise when it could not be adequately resourced, he should have known that, but he acted impulsively and recklessly. The 2022 invasion of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts were an attempt to rectify that problem on a permanent basis. The only way to bring an end to Russian occupation and the violence that comes with this is through military force. That is a responsibility that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are more than ready to accept. The way to ensure that this effort will continue to be successful is through the provision of military aid.

The “negotiated peace” camp needs to understand that living under Russian occupation is not peace. The Pope needs to understand that Ukrainians see only victory. Reversing the occupation of 50% of lands seized in early 2022 and taking control over the Black Sea are evidence that they are capable of this. The parties blocking aid to Ukraine need to understand that they are complicit in sentencing millions of people to continued occupation with every horror that is entailed therein.

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