A culture of brutality runs deep in the Russian military

For anyone who has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warfare, this is a depressingly familiar pattern. Russia’s military has a culture of brutality and contempt for the laws of armed conflict that has been well documented in the past.

“The history of Russia’s military interventions – be it in Ukraine or Syria, or the domestic military campaign in Chechnya – is marked by blatant disregard for international humanitarian law,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.

“The Russian military repeatedly flouted the laws of war, failing to protect civilians and even attacking them directly.

That statement, made less than a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, has proved sadly prophetic. In the first weeks of the war, the international community reacted with horror as Ukrainian cities were relentlessly bombed by Russia. Protected civilian infrastructure has been hit, much like Russian planes once attacked Syrian schools and hospitals.

But the scenes playing out in places like Bucha suggest an intimate kind of violence, something reminiscent of Russia’s war in Chechnya.

Allegations of widespread human rights abuses by Russian troops also surfaced during the second Chechen war – which coincided with Putin’s rise to power. In 2000, to cite just one well-known incident, Human Rights Watch investigators documented the summary executions of at least 60 civilians in two suburbs of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Locals excavated mass graves in Chechnya; International officials made fact-finding missions to the region and expressed concern at reports of abuse and extrajudicial killings. These statements did not stop the Russian military from pressing ahead with its ruthless pacification campaign.

Similar evidence of summary executions abounds in cities like Bucha. A CNN team visited a building’s basement and saw the bodies of five men before they were removed by a Ukrainian team. An adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Anton Gerashchenko, told CNN the five men were tortured and executed by Russian soldiers.

CNN cannot independently verify Gerashchenko’s claims. But equally worrying is the alleged treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian forces. Ukraine’s Parliament Human Rights Ombudsman Liudmyla Denisova said Monday that Russia’s treatment of prisoners of war violated the Geneva Conventions, laying a theoretical ground for possible prosecutions of war crimes.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Denisova said that released Ukrainian soldiers “told about the inhumane treatment by the Russian side: they were detained in a field, in a pit, in a garage. From time to time one was taken out: beaten with rifle butts, shots fired near the ear, intimidated.”

CNN cannot independently verify Denisova’s claims.

Igor Zhdanov, a correspondent for the Russian state propaganda daily RT, published March 22 videos showing Ukrainian prisoners of war being processed for “filtration,” as Zhdanov put it, after being captured. The videos show masked Russians searching their prisoners for tattoos or badges that allegedly show affiliation with nationalists or “neo-Nazi” groups, which Russians have viewed as their main enemy in Ukraine.

Zhdanov said in his post that Ukrainian prisoners of war are treated humanely. But his choice of words was ominous. During the war in Chechnya, Russian forces notoriously used so-called “filtration camps” designed to separate civilians from rebel fighters. Legendary Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya collected testimonies from Chechen civilians being held in filter centers, where detainees said they were being held in pits and subjected to electric shocks, beatings and ruthless interrogations.

Russian forces have also targeted local Ukrainian mayors for detention — and in at least one case, Ukrainian officials say, an extrajudicial killing.

The horrors of Putin's invasion of Ukraine are increasingly coming to light

“Currently, 11 local mayors from Kyiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Donetsk regions are in Russian captivity,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a message published on social media on Sunday. She said the Ukrainian government learned on Saturday that Olga Sucheko, the mayor of Motyzhyn, a village in the Kyiv region, was killed in custody by Russian forces.

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol — who was detained by Russian forces but subsequently freed as part of a prisoner exchange — said Russian forces occupying his city were appropriating local businesses, saying the “situation is difficult , because Russian soldiers have declared themselves authorities, but of course they don’t care about the people and their problems, they only care about taking money from businessmen, [and seizing] their business.”

Long before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military had a culture of cruelty. Russia has a hybrid personnel system of contract soldiers and conscripts. Although the Russian government claims to have made strides in professionalizing its armed forces, the country’s military still has a brutal system of harassment known as dedovshchina, an infamous tradition that encourages senior conscripts to brutally beat younger conscripts treat or even rape.

Biden demands a war crimes trial after pictures of Bucha surface

Putin recently announced a spring conscription decree that would target 134,500 people for conscription into the Russian armed forces. The Russian president initially claimed Russian conscripts would not participate in what Russia euphemistically calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. However, the Russian Defense Ministry later acknowledged that conscripts were fighting in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces claim to have captured a significant number of Russian conscripts.

Ukrainian investigators are already launching criminal investigations into alleged crimes committed by Russian forces as more areas are liberated from Russian control – particularly around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.

It will be days or maybe weeks before we get a more complete picture of what happened in Bucha. But if history is any guide, there is little hope that the Russian perpetrators will be brought to justice.

CNN’s Alex Hardie contributed to this report. CNN’s Vasco Cotovio contributed coverage from Bucha, Ukraine.

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