Beatrice Dupuy Richard Lardner Russia-Ukraine

UN Says Ukraine Forces were Complicit in Nursing Home Attack They Blamed on Russians

A United Nations report says Ukraine’s armed forces bear a large share of the blame for a deadly assault on a care home for the elderly and disabled.
This image from Maxar Technologies shows the nursing home attacked in the eastern region of Luhansk, Ukraine, on Oct. 13, 2021. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)

By Richard Lardner and Beatrice Dupuy / The Associated Press

This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” that includes the  War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience  and an upcoming documentary. 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian forces assaulted a nursing home in the eastern region of Luhansk. Dozens of elderly and disabled patients, many of them bedridden, were trapped inside without water or electricity. 

The March 11 assault set off a fire that spread throughout the facility, suffocating people who couldn’t move. A small number of patients and staff escaped and fled into a nearby forest, finally getting assistance after walking for 5 kilometers (3 miles). 

In a war awash in atrocities, the attack on the nursing home near the village of Stara Krasnyanka stood out for its cruelty. And Ukrainian authorities placed the fault squarely on Russian forces, accusing them of killing more than 50 vulnerable civilians in a brutal and unprovoked attack. 

But a new U.N. report has found that Ukraine’s armed forces bear a large, and perhaps equal, share of the blame for what happened in Stara Krasnyanka, which is about 580 kilometers (360 miles) southeast of Kyiv. A few days before the attack, Ukrainian soldiers took up positions inside the nursing home, effectively making the building a target.

At least 22 of the 71 patients survived the assault, but the exact number of people killed remains unknown, according to the United Nations.

The report by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn’t conclude the Ukrainian soldiers or the Russian troops committed a war crime. But it said the battle at the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home is emblematic of the human rights office’s concerns over the potential use of “human shields” to prevent military operations in certain areas. 

The aftermath of the attack on the Stara Krasnyanka home also provides a window into how both Russia and Ukraine move quickly to set the narrative for how events are unfolding on the ground — even when those events may still be shrouded by the fog of war. For Ukraine, maintaining the upper hand in the fight for hearts and minds helps to ensure the continued flow of billions of dollars in Western military and humanitarian aid. 

Russia’s frequently indiscriminate shelling of apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and theaters has been the primary cause of the war’s thousands of civilian casualties. Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, have rebuked Moscow for the deaths and injuries and called for those responsible to be brought to justice. 

But Ukraine also must abide by the international rules of the battlefield. David Crane, a former Defense Department official and a veteran of numerous international war crime investigations, said the Ukrainian forces may have violated the laws of armed conflict by not evacuating the nursing home’s residents and staff. 

“The bottom-line rule is that civilians cannot intentionally be targeted. Period. For whatever reason,” Crane said. “The Ukrainians placed those people in a situation which was a killing zone. And you can’t do that.”

The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline,” drawing from a variety of sources, have independently documented hundreds of attacks across Ukraine that likely constitute war crimes. The vast majority appear to have been committed by Russia. But a handful, including the destruction of the Stara Krasnyanka care home, indicate Ukrainian fighters are also to blame. 

The first reports in the media about the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home largely reflected statements issued by Ukrainian officials more than a week after the fighting ended. 

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, declared in a March 20 post to his Telegram account that 56 people had been killed “cynically and deliberately” by “Russian occupiers” who “shot at close range from a tank.” The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said in a statement issued the same day that 56 elderly people died due to the “treacherous actions” of the Russian forces and their allies. Neither statement mentioned whether Ukrainian soldiers had entered the home before the fighting began. 

The Luhansk regional administration, which Haidai leads, did not respond to requests for comment. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office told the AP on Friday that its Luhansk division continues to investigate Russia’s “indiscriminate shelling and forced transfer of persons” from the nursing home. About 50 patients were killed in the attack, the office said, fewer than it stated in March. The prosecutor general’s office did not directly respond to the U.N. report, but said it also is looking into whether Ukrainian troops had been in the home.

Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas, which includes the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. They have declared two independent “people’s” republics, which were recognized by Russia just before the war began. After the invasion, these separatist fighters came under Russian command.

Viktoria Serdyukova, the human rights commissioner for the Luhansk separatist government, said in a March 23 statement that the Ukrainian troops were responsible for casualties at the nursing home. The residents had been taken hostage by Ukrainian “militants” and many of them were “burned alive” in a fire started by the Ukrainians as they were retreating, she said.

The U.N. report examined violations of international human rights law that have occurred in Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. The Stara Krasnyanka attack totals just two paragraphs in the 38-page report. Although brief, this short section is the most detailed and independent examination of the incident that’s been made public. 

The Stara Krasnyanka section is based on eyewitness accounts from staff who survived the attack and information provided by relatives of residents, according to a U.N. official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is still working to fully document the case, the official said. Among the remaining questions are how many people were killed and who they were.

At the beginning of March, according to the U.N. report, “when active hostilities drew nearer to the care house,” its management requested repeatedly that local authorities evacuate the residents. But an evacuation wasn’t possible because Ukrainian forces were believed to have mined the surrounding area and blocked roads, the report said. The home is built on a hill and is near a key highway, which made the location strategically important.

On March 7, Ukrainian soldiers entered the nursing home, according to the U.N. Two days later, they “engaged in an exchange of fire” with the Moscow-backed separatists, “although it remains unclear which side opened fire first,” the report said. No staff or residents were injured in this first exchange. 

On March 11, 71 residents and 15 staff remained in the home with no access to water or electricity. That morning, the Luhansk separatist forces, which the U.N. referred to as “Russian-affiliated armed groups,” attacked with heavy weapons, the report said. 

“A fire started and spread across the care house, while the fighting was ongoing,” according to the U.N. An unspecified number of patients and staff fled the home and ran into a nearby forest and were eventually met by the separatist fighters, who gave them assistance, according to the U.N. 

A correspondent for the state-owned Russia-1 news channel gained access to the war-ravaged home after the battle and posted a video to his Telegram account in April that accused the Ukrainian soldiers of using “helpless old people” as human shields. 

The correspondent, Nikolai Dolgachev, was accompanied into the building by a man identified in the video as a Luhansk separatist soldier who goes by the call sign “Wolf.” The extensive damage to the building, both inside and out, is visible in the video. A body is laying on the floor. The AP verified that the location in the video posted by Dolgachev is the care home by comparing it to other videos and photos of the building. 

Dolgachev said the Ukrainian troops set up a “machine gun nest” and an anti-tank weapon in the home. In the video, he stops amid the rubble inside the building to rest his hand on the anti-tank weapon, which he incorrectly called a Tor. The Tor is a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. 

Ian Williams, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reviewed the video and said the weapon is an RK-3 Corsar, a Ukrainian-built portable anti-tank guided missile. 

While the opposing sides blame each other for the Stara Krasnyanka tragedy, the grim reality is that much of the war in Ukraine is being fought in populated areas, increasing the potential for civilian casualties. Those deaths and injuries become almost inevitable when the civilians are caught in the line of fire. 

“The Russians are the bad guys (in this conflict). That’s pretty clear,” Crane said. “But everybody is accountable to the law and the laws of armed conflict.”

Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Washington and photographer Zoya Shu in Berlin contributed to this report.

12 comments

  1. The Russians are the immediate cause of this war, but the ultimate cause of the war lies at the feet of the USA, NATO, and the Western-backed Ukrainian govt. To say that “Russia are the bad guys” is incorrect and misleading. The Fascist Ukrainian govt and the West are ultimately to blame, here.

  2. Oh? Nothing deeply researched here. This statement actually goes against so many other experts and the reality that Russia is discriminating. Not blasting away. But what is AP now? A shell of a news source. More propaganda:
    “Russia’s frequently indiscriminate shelling of apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and theaters has been the primary cause of the war’s thousands of civilian casualties. Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, have rebuked Moscow for the deaths and injuries and called for those responsible to be brought to justice. ”

    Attribution?

    Right. Composite of other cobbled together non factual reporting. We see right through this ‘balanced’ statement.

    1. Thank you for this principled defence of the obvious truth. When US-NAYOYO go to war they destroy essential public utilities such as water and sewer, electricity, and heating, cooking and transport fuels. Neither hospitals, schools, consulates, embassies, nor listed bomb shelters are safe.

      AFU had time to mine and setup road blocks. So they did have time to remove less than a companies worth of old people to inner city Kiev shelters or relatives. The troops firing the provocative rounds initiating the catastrophic firefight had 2 days to clear the home of its staff and residents. I imagine their testimony was quite compelling, and now politically muted so the document receives a polite nod of ‘official approval’.

  3. During the 8 years when Ukrainian forces were raining shells on their own people in the separatist areas of the Donbass, where were was the Press … will we ever hear of “war crimes” committed there – are the Russian reports any more propaganda than the stuff coming out of Kyiv …

    RT had news coverage of those years – which is why, no doubt, it was shut down here – didn’t fit the narrative the US and its media was putting out as soon as it decided to get involved – the first casualty of war is always truth ….

    An interview with Scott Ritter – who revealed the lies about WMD in Iraq – about what’s going on in Ukraine would be well worth it. Check out PirateTV for his take – makes a lot of sense …

  4. Get sick of hearing this kind of thing over and over. Russian special operation in Ukraine is right and necessary. Nazi governments cannot be allowed.

    Ukraine Nazis use same terrorist tactics as ISIL. Trained by the same people. Use the civilian population as shields. 

    The Russians do all they can to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But if they are fired on they have to shoot back. They do not know who else is in the building. The Ukrainians who started shooting do. That is the essential fact about all these kinds of incidents.

    The Ukes can end suffering of civilians by surrender, turning Nazis over to justice, and cooperating with reorganization of Ukraine territory on a just basis. tr

    1. same terrorist tactics as ISIL. Trained by the same people. Use the civilian population as shields.

      Is there a possibility that there is going to be some investigation of the officers involved which might uncover the particulars of how, where, and by whom this training was given? It would be one thing if it was a spook trainer strategy a la Syria, but what if it’s actually official Nato policy?

  5. Patrick Lancaster has frequent interviews with civilians who directly contradict the blame being placed on the Russian forces here.

  6. In the style of typical yellow journalistic sensationalism, your headline is misleading. Per your own article “Ukraine’s armed forces bear a large, and perhaps equal, share of the blame”. Your headline implies that Ukraine is mostly, if not entirely responsible for this atrocity. This is why no one trusts the media anymore. Innuendo and dishonesty. Be better.

  7. Obviously, your headline writer did not read the article. Maybe the word “partially” or “equally” to blame should have been inserted

  8. Scott Ritter addressed this very question of human shields, a military and propaganda tactic used by German Nazis as much as by terrorists from ISIS and others.

    As Ritter emphasizes, law of war and Geneva Conventions clearly address such military tactic as a war crime because law puts 100% of responsibility on party who actually moved into civilian buildings permanently or temporarily as it automatically makes such buildings legitimate military targets.

    It is regardless of actual knowledge by advancing commanders if there are civilians in the targeted buildings or not. It is all to the discretion of advancing commanders.

    Any city or building that is chosen by military as firing, troop resting or armory or observation position is de fact declaring the area a fortress and hence must be cleared of all civilians who must be orderly evacuated.

    No doing so is a war crime by itself even if there was no damage to building and no one civilian was injured.

    If such evacuation is impossible then such object must not be chosen as military position at all.

    In fact such responsibility lays also on advancing side. As soon as they take over building with civilians they must evacuate them to the back beyond fighting zone as soon as safe, if not they are also responsible for civilian well being to the level of committing a war crime.

    If one examined tactics of Russians and LDPR in Mariupol would know that they were all very sensitive to Geneva conventions and evacuated promptly all the civilians from buildings they took over. Ukrainians in contrast committed war crimes by not letting civilians mostly ethnic Russians to evacuate to safety.

    Notion that supposed Russian aggression justifies Ukrainian war crimes and atrocities and makes any Russians and LDPR caused civilian deaths into war crimes is utter nonsense as law of war and Geneva conventions apply the same to aggressors and defenders.

    Nuremberg trials addressed exactly that question and while declared NSDAP, SS, GESTAPO etc. as criminal organizations meaning that anything they did was a war crime, they refused to call Wehrmacht a criminal organization and German soldiers were held responsible case by case for their specific war crimes.

    Russians committed absolutely no war crime in this case, broke no Geneva Conventions by shelling this building in Stara Krasnyanka LPR. Ukrainian army did that by endangering all residents of this care home for elderly and disabled. Whole thing was blatant deliberate provocation repeated multiple times in last five months.

    There are hundreds of cases where Ukrainian army was responsible for civilian deaths as a result of Russian or LDPR shelling. Many will be put on trial for exactly that.

    Instead of this sham of war crime instigations where Russia was apriori declared guilty Chinese and Indians war crime judges should lead less western biased investigation not a witch hunt we are witnessing.

    1. “Ukrainians in contrast committed war crimes by not letting civilians mostly ethnic Russians to evacuate to safety.”

      ‘not letting’ has meant ‘shooting those who try’

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