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Schemes: Investigating Ukraine

Wednesday 10 August 2022

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The Antonivsky Bridge across the Dnieper River near the Russian-held city of Kherson has been badly damaged by Ukrainian strikes.

Russia has begun using a makeshift ferry crossing to move military equipment across the Dnieper River to supply forces holding the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson as Kyiv’s forces press forward, an examination of satellite imagery by Schemes shows.

The crossing first appeared in images taken on August 1 by the private company Planet Labs. They appear to show six pieces of military equipment on the ferry at a landing near the village of Prydniprovske, just northeast of the city of Kherson, and four others on shore ready for crossing.

Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, has received copies of the images. Drone photographs contain additional evidence.

On July 30, the British Defense Ministry said it was “highly likely” that Russian forces had established two pontoon bridges and a ferry system on the Dnieper to compensate after Ukrainian forces knocked out to key two bridges – one for motor vehicles and one for trains -- with rocket attacks.

The developments came at a time when Ukrainian forces have taken back some towns and villages that Russia had seized in the Kherson Oblast, and ahead of what could be a major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area, aimed in part to drive Moscow’s forces out of the city of Kherson.

Russian troops seized Kherson shortly after President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It is the biggest city they control outside the Donbas, further east, and lies in a key area near the isthmus linking mainland Ukraine to the Russian-held Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow-installed authorities are trying to consolidate Russian control over the region – which has an active resistance movement -- and prepare Kherson for a possible referendum on joining Russia later in the year.

However, military experts say Kherson is not as well defended as other regions of Ukraine currently under Russian control, making it a prime target for a counteroffensive.

Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at Kings College London, said a victory in Kherson is critical for Ukraine to maintain the confidence of its people and Western partners.

The Kherson regional military governor has claimed that Ukrainian troops have already liberated dozens of towns and villages in the area and are now about 50 kilometers from the edge of the city.

Mykola Byelyeskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government think tank, told Schemes that the Russian equipment being moved across the river looks likes trucks used to supply weapons, ammunition, and food.

The ferries are not very large and cannot move many vehicles at once, he said.

The Kherson front line is about 200 kilometers long and had already been a challenge to supply.

The recent successful attacks against bridges by Ukrainian forces will only reduce Russia’s ability to move heavy equipment in and out of Kherson, experts said.

Russian forces are now “on notice that the Ukrainians can cut off their lines of escape” in Kherson, Freedman said.

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by Kyrylo Ovsyaniy of Schemes.
Ruslan Kulyk was one of five civilians whom relatives and residents say were summarily executed by Russian soldiers at a post office in Peremoha shortly after they seized control of the village on February 28.

PEREMOHA, Ukraine -- For years, Serhiy Kulyk has been holding onto a plot of land next to his modest house in Peremoha, a village about 60 kilometers northeast of Kyiv.

He hoped his 27-year-old son, Ruslan, would one day build a home on the spot for his own family so they could remain close together.

That dream is gone forever: It died along with Ruslan, one of five civilians whom relatives and residents say were summarily executed by Russian soldiers at a post office in Peremoha shortly after they seized control of the village on February 28, according to an investigation by Schemes.

The Ukrainian government is investigating the killings as a possible war crime. Based in part on reporting by Schemes, the authorities have identified two Russian officers they allege ordered soldiers to shoot civilians in Peremoha -- Maksim Krasnoshchyokov and Aleksandr Vasilyev -- as suspects.

Maksim Krasnoshchyokov (left) and Aleksandr Vasilyev
Maksim Krasnoshchyokov (left) and Aleksandr Vasilyev

Serhiy and Larysa Kulyk are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after their loss, but every day the question looms: What’s the point?

“We have come to terms a little bit, but it is difficult, very difficult, to bury your children,” Ruslan’s mother, Larysa Kulyk, told Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, as she placed flowers on the fresh grave of her only son.

After Russian forces were driven out of Peremoha in March and April, the Kulyks went back to a semblance of the lives they were living before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, including returning to work. But the attraction of everyday activities, like tending to their garden and picking food for their children, has faded.

“Why do we need [the garden] without our son?” Larysa Kulyk asked through tears. “What is the purpose?”

Shot On The Stairs

The Kulyks, who have two adult daughters, are among thousands of Ukrainian families across the country who have lost loved ones in Russia’s war, which is grinding on more than five months after the invasion with no end in sight.

Their son and the four other men shot at the post office are among the many victims of Russian soldiers who held sway in parts of northern Ukraine in the weeks after the invasion -- and left a trail of death, destruction, and allegations of rape, torture, and other atrocities when they retreated, having failed to take Kyiv.

Peremoha, which means victory in Ukrainian and is named after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, is one of the many cities, towns, and villages in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions that Russian forces swept into from the north in the first several days of the invasion.

On the evening of February 28, the day Russian troops entered the village, Serhiy and Ruslan Kulyk made their way to the post office. They were part of a group of Peremoha men communicating via chat about how to defend their village of 1,100 people. Several of the men had agreed to meet that day at the post office, where one of them worked, to discuss what steps to take.

Serhiy Kulyk told Schemes that he thought the Russian column of armored vehicles would pass through Peremoha on its way to Rusaniv, a village 7 kilometers to the west.

He expected the Russian forces to face stiff resistance in Rusaniv -- and reasoned that as they retreated, Peremoha’s volunteer defenders could try to pick off some armored vehicles with Molotov cocktails.

The post office massacre is among countless acts by Russian soldiers -- some proven, some alleged -- that are being investigated as possible war crimes. 

But the column stopped in Peremoha, he said, and the Russian soldiers immediately began looking for individuals -- especially men -- serving in local militias known as territorial defense units or in any way helping the Ukrainian armed forces.

Peremoha resident Olena Palivoda said she told her husband, Oleksandr, not to meet up with the group at the post office, warning him that it was too dangerous.

It was one thing for the villagers to attack a single Russian military vehicle with Molotov cocktails, she told him, and another for them to stare down at an entire armored column.

"We will defend the village," she said he answered in reply.

Palivoda said her husband and the others may have been inspired by videos of Ukrainian acts of heroism during the first four days of the war.

But whatever plans they may have had, they never got a chance to put them into action. Russian troops learned of their meeting, possibly from a collaborator or a villager they interrogated, and made their way to the post office.

Ruslan's Last Text

Serhiy and Ruslan Kulik had nearly reached the building when they saw Russian armored vehicles heading in the same direction, Serhiy said. He said he ran through a fence and called out to his son, who he thought was running behind him, only to realize later that he had decided to hide with others in the cellar of the post office building.

“Mom, they have almost found us,” Ruslan texted that night, at 9:50 p.m. It was the last time his parents heard from him.

Andriy stands in the ruins of the post office building. “Before my eyes, they were simply shot and thrown into the basement,” he said.
Andriy stands in the ruins of the post office building. “Before my eyes, they were simply shot and thrown into the basement,” he said.

Andriy, another member of the group chat, told Schemes he was captured by Russian forces near the village council building and beaten. The soldiers interrogated him, taking his phone away, and frog-marched him to the post office, where they interrogated him again. Two other men were being questioned there as well.

The soldiers ordered the two other men into the cellar, he said, and shot them from behind as they took the first few steps down the stairs.

“Before my eyes, they were simply shot and thrown into the basement,” said Andriy, who did not want his last name published.

He would later learn that the Russian soldiers had already killed three other men inside the post office, their bodies lying out of sight in the cellar.

The post office now lies in ruins. Andriy said the soldiers blew it up in an attempt to hide evidence of the killings.
The post office now lies in ruins. Andriy said the soldiers blew it up in an attempt to hide evidence of the killings.

Four of Andriy’s childhood friends, including Ruslan Kulyk, were among the dead.

Oleksandr Palivoda, who had moved to Peremoha three years ago, was the fifth victim.

The post office now lies in ruins. Andriy said the soldiers blew it up in an attempt to hide evidence of the killings.

Since the invasion, Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian civilian men for interrogations, beatings, and in some cases extrajudicial execution, sometimes accusing them of helping the military.

'Happiest Day'

Civilians who spontaneously take up arms -- as Ruslan Kulyk and the other victims may have been planning to do -- are entitled by international law to protection against violence when captured.

The post office massacre is among countless acts by Russian soldiers -- some proven, some alleged -- that are being investigated as possible war crimes.

While some of the suspects are in Ukrainian custody, most of them -- including the two soldiers named by the authorities in the killings at the post office in Peremoha, both of them majors who eyewitnesses said were giving orders -- have either been killed, are still fighting, or have returned to Russia.

Like Serhiy and Larysa Kulyk, other relatives and residents are struggling to come to terms with the killings five months later.

Olena Palivoda left Peremoha with her son after her husband’s killing, but she has since returned.

The couple had toiled for a decade to save up money for the house they bought there. Among other work, they sold strawberries, raspberries, and vegetables they grew in the garden of their previous home to make money for the purchase.

"For us, it was the happiest day of our lives,” Olena said of the day they bought the house. “It’s our castle.”

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by Kira Tolstyakova

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Schemes

About Schemes

Schemes (Skhemy) is an award-winning investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that focuses on exposing high-level corruption. It was created in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution.

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