Slaying of Ukrainian soldiers amid botched Avdiivka retreat sparks war crime claims

19 apr., 2024

Inna Pavlova struggles to hold back her tears as she recalls the moment she knew Russian troops had killed her 29-year-old son after he was captured in Ukraine’s fierce battle for Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. “I recognized the body,” she said. 

Located just 13 kilometers from the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, Avdiivka has been on the front line of the conflict since 2014. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022, capturing Avdiivka became a key military objective for Moscow to open up transport networks across the region.

George Pavlov, a sniper in Ukraine’s 110th Brigade, had been stationed at a former military base known as “Zenith” since January 2023. In February 2024, Ukraine’s fight for Avdiivka deteriorated rapidly and Pavlov’s unit came under heavy Russian fire. 

“We tried to talk to my son daily,” his mother recalls. On February 8, as the situation for her son and his fellow infantrymen worsened, she said he called and sounded depressed. She told him to flee while he could.  

On February 14, as Ukraine’s chances of holding ground in Avdiivka deteriorated further and Pavlov’s unit received evacuation orders, he called his father to wish him happy birthday. The next day, Pavlov called again at seven in the morning and his words did not ease his parent’s worries. “They just abandoned us – I’m hurt,” he told them. „There are still guys seriously injured with me.”

He added: “No evacuation vehicle came for us.”

Pavlov had received shrapnel wounds to both his legs as they tried to escape the area, forcing them to return to their previous position where medical facilities had been improvised to try to save the injured.

A few hours later, Pavlov called his parents again. His voice now sounded hollow, but he told his mother that their command apparently agreed with the Russians that they would not shoot them, but would take them prisoner, his mother recalls. 

Pavlova frantically called Ukraine’s security services and the Ministry of Defense to try to obtain more information and get help for her son. They promised they would investigate the situation and asked her to hold tight. 

A long, painful silence followed as Pavlov’s parents feared the worst. Pavlov’s last words to his mother amid the botched retreat now haunts her. “We were just left to die,” he said, before being shot to death along with other Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russian troops. 

In the aftermath of Ukraine’s withdrawal, Avdiivka served as a stark reminder of Ukraine’s urgent need for additional military support from its Western backers to push back against Moscow’s troops which have been slowly gaining ground in recent months.

Inna Shubina, the sister of 31-year-old combat medic Ivan Zhitnik who was also captured alongside Pavlov and killed by Russian troops, told that he had contacted her on the morning of February 15 and told her that he’d suffered leg and back injuries.  

Later, Zhytnik called again from the bunker where the wounded soldiers were. At that time, the Russians came to them. “We heard how the Russians came to the boys and said: ‘We are leaving the machine guns’,” Shubina recalls. “I still had hope that an agreement was reached.” 

None of the relatives were sure what happened next until a video purportedly depicting Russian soldiers executing the Ukrainian prisoners appeared on Russian channels on the messaging service Telegram on February 16. “When I looked at the video …  I recognized my brother,” Shubina said. “He was lying in a pool of blood.”

Dmytro Lubinets, the Ombudsman of Ukraine, lodged complaints to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross alleging Russia committed war crimes in the Zenith slaying. He also said that Russia had agreed any Ukrainian soldiers who remained there would not be killed. 

The families of the executed prisoners have also filed a complaint to Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation against the military leadership of the 110th Brigade for negligence, alleging they were not evacuated in time. 

Shubina, Zhitnik’s sister, regrets not urging her brother to flee sooner. “For two years, the boys kept Avdiivka as best they could,” she said. “All of them are patriots; they wanted to fight for Ukraine.”

Despre autor: Taisiia Bakharieva

Avatar of Taisiia Bakharieva
Taisiia Bakharieva este o jurnalistă din Kiev, Ucraina, care acum locuiește în România. Este în media din 1994 și a lucrat pentru agenția de presă RATAU, ziarele Kray și Vseukrainskie Vedomosti și ca redactor-șef al departamentului de cultură al ziarului și al site-ului FAKTI. Taisiia a intervievat numeroase personalități din Ucraina și este autor și prezentator al secțiunii de televiziune TV-FAKTI. După ce Rusia i-a invadat țara, Taisiia s-a mutat în România și s-a alăturat echipei CONTEXT. Munca ei se concentrează acum pe investigații privind crimele de război ale Rusiei în Ucraina și realizează interviuri cu victimele și martorii terorii rusești. Este de multă vreme membră a Uniunii Jurnaliștilor din Ucraina.

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