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In The Heart Of Russia, A Hunt For Soldiers Accused Of War Crimes In Ukraine

The bodies of civilians, some with their hands tied behind their backs, who were reportedly shot and killed by Russian soldiers, lie on a street in Bucha on April 3.

RUSSKAYA LYAZHMAR, Russia -- The last time Maria Knyazeva saw her grandson, Private Vasily Knyazev, was when he visited over the New Year holiday, traveling from the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk. That’s where he had been serving as a soldier in the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade.

“He had served under a contract three years ago,” Knyazeva, 70, told Idel.Realities as she planted potatoes in the yard of her house in a rural village. “His unit was from Khabarovsk. He came here from there.”

Knyazeva said she is not sure what her grandson is up to now. She said she didn’t know that he is, in all likelihood, among the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who have been fighting in Ukraine in the biggest war in Europe in nearly eight decades.

She doesn’t know that he’s been implicated in war crimes that Ukrainian authorities, rights groups, and survivors say were committed by Russian military units against civilians in the districts north of Kyiv in March.

Now in its fifth month, Russia’s “special military operation” -- as the Kremlin insists on calling the war -- has shifted away from north-central Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces beat back an invasion force that had sought to seize the capital and topple the government.

In the wake of the withdrawal of Russian forces -- who pulled out of areas north of Kyiv and Chernihiv in late March and shifted east and south, to concentrate on seizing and holding territories there -- Ukrainian and international investigators have uncovered a trail of atrocities allegedly committed by Russian military units in the districts they had occupied: Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, and others.

The bodies of at least 403 people who were killed by the Russian troops had been located and are being identified, Bucha’s mayor said on April 12.

While eyewitnesses have provided brutal first-hand accounts of civilians being summarily shot, in some cases executed with their hands tied behind their backs, investigators have also said they located a trove of computer files that were left at the temporary Russian military headquarters in Bucha when the soldiers retreated.

The files include a list of 1,600 soldiers from the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade who served in Bucha and nearby districts.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (center) and other European leaders stand next to bodies exhumed from a mass grave in Bucha on April 8.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (center) and other European leaders stand next to bodies exhumed from a mass grave in Bucha on April 8.

On April 28, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Iryna Venediktova, published a list of 10 names that she said had been identified as being members of the rifle brigade.

Agents from the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s main intelligence agency, also said they had obtained a cell phone that had been left behind in the Bucha area by a Russian soldier from the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade.

The phone, according to the service, contained personal photographs that were then provided to a group of open-source researchers called InformNapalm.

InformNapalm later said it had identified the phone’s owner as a sergeant who served in a reconnaissance unit of the Khabarovsk-based rifle brigade.

From photographs and other data on the phone, the group compiled its own list of soldiers it said had served in the rifle brigade in Bucha.

Volga Soldiers

Using the lists complied by Ukrainian prosecutors and the open-source researchers, Idel.Realities, a project of RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, identified and sought to contact 11 soldiers who had served with the rifle brigade who were originally from Russia’s central Volga region. All were contacted initially using VK, the Russian social media giant, where they had profiles.

One man, identified on the lists as Aleksandr Koloyarov from the Saratov Oblast, told RFE/RL via a VK private message that he had served with the 64th brigade but had retired in 2018. His rank was unknown.

Another man, Viktor Loktionov, responded to RFE/RL via a VK message: "Send an article or at least a source so I can read what I'm talking about there, having nothing to do with it." He later stopped communicating.

Loktionov’s passport was issued in the Orenburg region, according to InformNapalm’s data. His rank was also unknown.

Another man who appeared on InformNapalm’s list was Aleksandr Yegorov. He denied he had ever served in the 64th Brigade.

The body of a woman who witnesses said was shot and killed by Russian soldiers lies on the street in Bucha on April 2.
The body of a woman who witnesses said was shot and killed by Russian soldiers lies on the street in Bucha on April 2.

Yet another name that appeared on the lists was Private Aleksei Shiyan. RFE/RL located his mother, Yelena Zakharova, who lives in the Urals region of Perm. She responded to questions about the Bucha events, replying via VK: “Who came up with this? This is some kind of nonsense.”

Shiyan had never been in Ukraine, she said.

“Everything is fine with my son. He has a family -- a wife, and their daughter is growing up,” she told RFE/RL before she then blocked a reporter from communicating further with her.

Vasya Knyazev From Mari-El

Private Knyazev, whose name appears on the list compiled by Ukrainian prosecutors, hails from the Mari-El region, a small, poor region on the Volga River about 800 kilometers east of Moscow.

On VK, Knyazev called himself Vasya -- a diminutive of his name. One of the photographs on the account -- dated January 20, 2021 -- contains precise coordinates where it was taken: the home base of military unit No. 51460 of the 64th Rifle Brigade.

In another photograph, posted on December 19, 2021, a young man believed to be Knyazev is shown in a dark down jacket and white sneakers next to a monument near the Kremlin in Moscow.

Knyazev did not respond to multiple messages sent to him via VK.

The body of Mykhailo Romaniuk, 58, lies next to his bicycle on Yablunska Street in Bucha on April 2. According to witnesses, Romaniuk was shot by a Russian sniper.
The body of Mykhailo Romaniuk, 58, lies next to his bicycle on Yablunska Street in Bucha on April 2. According to witnesses, Romaniuk was shot by a Russian sniper.

Passport data published by InformNapalm shows that Knyazev’s main ID document was issued in the village of Sernur in Mari-El. The birthdate given on the list compiled by InformNapalm and the birthdate listed on Knyazev’s VK account are the same.

RFE/RL contacted one of Knyazev’s friends listed on VK, a person named Pyotr Knyazev. The person replied that Vasily Knyazev had not served in the military since 2020.

According to Maria Knyazeva, Pyotr is Vasily’s brother.

Other information on Knyazev’s VK account indicated his hometown was Russkaya Lyazhmar, where he graduated from high school, though it was unclear when.

Knyazeva told RFE/RL that Knyazev’s mother had been killed several years ago, by his father.

RFE/RL did not speak to the father, who also lives with Knyazeva, and could not confirm that he killed his wife.

Another name identified by prosecutors was Mikhail Kashin, a 24-year-old from Votkinsk, a town in another central region, Udmurtia. Kashin, whose rank was unknown, did not respond to messages sent via VK seeking comment.

Contacted by RFE/RL, Kashin’s sister, Yekaterina Cherepanova, declined to discuss her brother’s military service:

“I don’t know anything about it at all,” she said via a VK message.

'Mass Heroism And Bravery'

The efforts of Ukrainian and international prosecutors have drawn support from United Nations and European Union officials, and from some of Ukraine’s biggest financial supporters.

During an unannounced visit to Kyiv this week, the top law enforcement official in the United States, Attorney General Merrick Garland, said he was appointing a veteran prosecutor with experience tracking former Nazis to help Ukraine in tracking Russian war criminals.

For Russia’s part, neither the Kremlin nor Russian commanders have made any public acknowledgment of the mounting evidence and allegations that Russian troops may have committed war crimes.

On April 19, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree lauding the work of the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade and praising it for “mass heroism and bravery, steadfastness, and fortitude” and for “distinguishing itself in military action for the protection of the Fatherland and state interests.”

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities.