The Executioners Of Slovyansk

A Death Squad Unmasked As Ukraine War Grinds On Six Years Later

After an RFE/RL investigation, names and faces can now be put to the Russia-backed militants — including one with ties to a longtime Putin aide in the Kremlin — who ordered the extrajudicial executions of Ukrainians by firing squad and set a dark tone for the war in the Donbas.

  • By Christopher Miller
  • Contributing reporters: Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov

slovyansk, ukraine — The Russia-backed gunmen came and hauled away Oleksiy Pichko on the afternoon of June 17, 2014, three days after he allegedly broke into a neighbor’s home in a rundown district on the outskirts of Slovyansk, in eastern Ukraine, and stole two shirts and a pair of pants.

The 30-year-old Pichko, a civilian, was taken to a gloomy two-story building surrounded by armed guards and barricades. He was interrogated, forced to write a confession, and summarily shot to death by a firing squad of Russia-backed separatists who had seized control of the city. His executioners discarded his body on a battlefield of the war raging between them and Ukrainian forces, where it could be blown to bits by exploding artillery shells, according to family members and friends who sought out his whereabouts when he was taken and looked for his body after learning of his death.

He wasn’t the only person in Slovyansk to meet such a fate.

Three weeks earlier, on May 25, two Ukrainian men who had joined the Russia-backed separatist fight, Dmytro Slavov, 32 , and Mykola Lukyanov, 25, were arrested by their comrades-in-arms and dragged to the same guarded building in the center of Slovyansk, a city in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast near the heart of the coal-mining region called the Donbas. Accused of marauding, armed robbery, kidnapping, abandonment of their military positions, and trying to cover up their activities, they were also interrogated before being lined up and executed by a firing squad, according to family members, acquaintances, former detainees, and two Slovyansk residents with knowledge of their so-called “trials” and deaths.

According to documents, the fates of all three men were decided by so-called “military tribunals” established by Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer better known at the time by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, on the basis of a draconian law conceived by dictator Josef Stalin and imposed shortly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in World War II. The decree handed down by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. on June 22, 1941, and invoked by Girkin and his Russia-backed forces in 2014, allowed for capital punishment -- a penalty abolished by Ukraine in 2000 and not imposed in Russia, where a moratorium has been in place since 1996 -- for crimes Girkin called “grave” but ranged from petty theft to murder. 

 Girkin was aided by at least nine men who participated in the “military tribunals” and condemned Pichko, Slavov, and Lukyanov to death. But those nine men have received far less attention than Girkin — who is also one of four defendants charged with murder by Dutch prosecutors for their alleged roles in the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, which killed all 298 people on board. Several have remained unidentified, and their specific roles in these “tribunals” undisclosed.

Until now.

Using documents recovered from Girkin’s former office at the city’s security service headquarters, open-source investigative methods, and interviews with dozens of alleged torture victims, witnesses, and family members of the victims, RFE/RL has determined the identities of and new details about seven of the nine men who served on Girkin’s “military tribunals” in Slovyansk. 

On top of identifying the men, RFE/RL has found that one of them is tied through a Moscow-based organization for Russia-backed fighters to Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest aides at the time of the executions and the architect of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy. Another man is a senior military figure in the Russia-backed separatist forces in Donetsk. In addition, most of them appear to have been granted Russian passports and safe haven in either Russia or areas of Ukraine currently controlled by Moscow or by Russia-backed forces, effectively placing them under the protection of the Russian state and beyond the reach of Ukrainian and international law enforcement.

Many of the men are married and have resumed a more-or-less normal life, running local businesses and keeping active social media profiles where they share photographs of family gatherings and summer holidays in Russia, Russian-controlled Crimea, or the sections of the Donbas still held by the Russia-backed forces. Some are fathers and grandfathers, pictured embracing children and grandchildren born after the days of the firing-squad executions.

The iron-fisted tactics employed by Girkin in Slovyansk have been reported previously and Girkin himself has admitted to overseeing the executions of Pichko, Lukyanov, and Slavov, as well as at least three other men. His most recent comments on executions in eastern Ukraine came in May, when he told a Ukrainian journalist -- in an interview that caused a firestorm in Ukraine -- that he had executed one of the six men himself.

The new information uncovered by RFE/RL about the executioners adds to an ever-growing pile of evidence of what experts believe may constitute war crimes by Russia and the separatists it backs with soldiers, weapons, money, and political support. It comes as Ukraine pursues justice through cases in its own courts and legal claims against the Russian state in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and International Criminal Court (ICC).

Varvara Pakhomenko, head of mission in Ukraine for Geneva Call, a human rights group focused on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, reviewed the documents from Slovyansk. Speaking generally about summary executions in war zones, she told RFE/RL that “the death penalty is possible in exceptional circumstances for very serious crimes, but only if a fair and independent trial exists.”

“If not, it may constitute a war crime,” Pakhomenko said.

Wayne Jordash, a leading expert in international human rights law, said the Pichko "trial" documents lack "critical facts" that could provide more clarity, but that the sentence appears "to be disproportionate to the crime."

"Executing an individual for a petty crime would not seem to satisfy the requirement for a fair trial," said Jordash, a managing partner at the legal firm Global Rights Compliance. "In these circumstances, there is at least prima facie evidence of a war crime."

What The Documents Show

The dozens of documents from which this investigation derives were recovered by reporters from Girkin’s Slovyansk headquarters on July 7, 2014, two days after he and his Russia-backed forces retreated from the city to Donetsk, the regional capital, following weeks of heavy artillery bombardment from Ukrainian forces.

The documents were found lying on the desks where Girkin and the fighters under his command once planned their military attacks and strewn across the floors of the halls through which they dragged numerous prisoners, including civilians and journalists, who were falsely accused of various crimes, such as spying for Kyiv. The records were scattered about rooms where Girkin’s men carried out their summary justice against those who ran afoul of them.

As part of this investigation, RFE/RL is making the complete collection of the documents available to the public for the first time so that they may be further analyzed by journalists, researchers, and law enforcement officials who are trying to make sense of a war that has killed more than 13,000 people and is now in its seventh year, with no end in sight. Several of the key documents have been translated from Russian into English and Ukrainian.

The documents include detailed, typed records of the “military tribunal” proceedings in which Pichko, and separately Lukyanov and Slavov, were condemned to death.

They also include a third case involving a Ukrainian man who narrowly escaped a firing squad. He was acquitted of treason charges brought against him for allegedly betraying the separatists’ fighting positions when he shined a flashlight near the battlefield during an artillery exchange with Ukrainian forces. 

The documents include transcripts of interrogations of the victims, showing what are likely to have been some of their last words. 

Sometimes Girkin and his men used official letterhead from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) found inside the building they seized to type up their “tribunal” notes, making for a darkly ironic sight.

There are also several pages of handwritten “witness testimonies” in the cases, which some Slovyansk residents named in them told RFE/RL they were forced by Girkin’s gunmen to produce. Those residents spoke on the condition that they not be named for fear of repercussions from the Russia-backed separatists or from Ukrainian authorities who could accuse them of harboring separatist sympathies.

RFE/RL redacted information from some of the documents in order to protect civilians who may have provided information to Girkin and his fighters against their will.

Some of the documents include floor plans of the places where the alleged crimes of Pichko, Lukyanov, and Slavov occurred, showing the lengths to which the “tribunal” went to legitimize its process.

Taken together, the collection provides a window into a particularly harrowing period of time that set a dark tone for the war in eastern Ukraine.