The Russian armed aggression in Eastern Ukraine

Seven years ago, the Russian Federation launched an undeclared war against Ukraine. Having illegally occupied and attempted to annex the Crimean peninsula, the Kremlin moved on to the next stage of its armed aggression in Ukrainian Donbas.

Units of Russian special forces and other armed formations of the Russian Federation, Russian military ‘on leave’ and military advisors - and without any insignias - in an organized, methodical and targeted manner seized local government institutions, police stations, Ukrainian military facilities in Donbas and carried out other forceful operations against Ukrainian army and law enforcement agencies. Continuous artillery and rocket attacks on positions held by Ukrainian border guards and the Ukrainian Armed Forces came from the territory of the Russian Federation. Russian military units with heavy equipment and other means carried out an armed incursion and directly participated in military actions on Ukraine’s territory. The numerous Russian regular armed forces and units subordinated to the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation personnel that have been taken prisoner during this military activity serve as confirmation of this.

Russian military presence in the occupied part of Donbas continues to this day. Illegal crossing of the uncontrolled by the Government of Ukraine section of the Ukrainian-Russian border by transport convoys and military equipment to strengthen and rotate Russian regular armed forces and units subordinated to the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation has become a constant practice. Information on regular violations of the Ukrainian State border is present in numerous OSCE reports.

These are facts that are recorded, confirmed and are not subject to doubt. Documentary and other evidence of Russia's role and direct participation in the armed conflict against Ukraine is and will continue to be submitted by the Ukrainian side to international jurisdictional institutions.

Therefore, the persistent claims by Russian officials about Russia's allegedly "mediating" role in Donbas peace process are indignant. Since the first day of the armed conflict Russia has not been and cannot in principle take a mediative role, a conflict which it began and in which it continues to participate.

The Minsk agreements in the Normandy format, mediated by the OSCE, as well as Germany and France, whose implementation continues to serve as the basis for a political and diplomatic settlement of the conflict, have been deliberately ignored by Russia since the very first day. One need only recall the seizure of Debaltseve and other Ukrainian territories six years ago - within days of Russia's signing of the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements of 12 February 2015 and the decision to cease fire along the line of demarcation.

All further Russian actions to date aim to destroy any efforts to end the conflict and peacefully reintegrate the occupied Ukrainian territories.

The Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict in Ukrainian Donbas has led to negative humanitarian consequences such as military and civilian casualties and significant damage to civilian facilities and infrastructure.

Moreover, the said armed conflict has given rise to mass arrests, particularly random ones, as well as torture and murder by the representatives of the Russian occupation administration. The detainees are held incommunicado in secret detention. They are subject to torture and ill-treatment, including psychological and sexual violence.

Since 2014 around 4000 citizens of Ukraine have been taken prisoner. In the temporarily Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, at a minimum 26 points have been recorded as hosting illegal prisons (de facto concentration camps) and mass graves. The cellars of city water plants, police stations and public prosecution buildings, the basements of private homes and schools, and abandoned mines in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts have been transformed into these places for illegal imprisonment of Ukrainian citizens.

According to the office of the Ukrainian Parliament Comissioner for Human Rights, as of September 2021, 296 civilians are imprisoned in the temporarily Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Among the specified number of citizens of Ukraine there are those who have been held in captivity for more than 5 years.

Russia-backed illegal armed formations equipped one of these illegal prisons on the site of the ‘Izolyatsia’ platform for cultural initiatives after the active stage of the occupation of Donetsk began in April 2014.

According to the DRA and the Media Initiative for Human Rights report, since June 2014 the so-called ‘Vostok’ battalion has been deployed in the occupied territory, and both prisoners of war and civilian hostages have been held on the premises. As of 2014, there were more than 100 prisoners, and as of 2019 there were 70. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in the ‘Izolyatsia’ illegal prison detainees are subjected to torture, including electric shocks and through mock executions, and sexual violence.

After the Paris Summit of the Normandy Format (09.12.2019) two phases of simultaneous release of prisoners took place: on 29 December 2019 and 16 April 2020.

Currently, work on the preparation and conduct of the next simultaneous exchanges of detainees is blocked as a result of artificial linkages made by the Russian side and representatives of its occupation administration.

In the temporarily Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the OHCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) do not have systematic access to places of imprisonment, despite the agreements made during the Paris Summit of the Normandy Format (09.12.2019). The Ukrainian side is only aware of a few of cases of ICRC access to prisoners in these territories.

The Ukrainian side continues to demand urgent full and unconditional access from the Russian side for representatives of the ICRC and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine to all so-called ‘places of deprivation of liberty’, without exception, in the temporarily Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contract Group for the peaceful settlement of the situation in eastern Ukraine (TCG) constantly raises the question of including to the agenda of its Humanitarian Working Subgroup an item concerning the operation of the ‘Izolyatsia’ illegal prison in Donetsk, temporarily Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine.

For its part, Ukraine guarantees international organisations, including the ICRC, full and unconditional access to detainees throughout all territories controlled by the Government of Ukraine (On December 22, 2019, the Law of Ukraine ‘On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine ‘On Pre-Trial Detention’ to ensure unimpeded access of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to persons taken into custody’ entered into force).

In the thirty-second report by the OHCHR on the human rights situation in Ukraine, that covers the period from 1 February to 31 July 2021 and based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, іt says, in particular, the following:

  • OHCHR continued to enjoy unimpeded access to official places of detention in Government-controlled territory, allowing for confidential interviews with detainees. During the reporting period, OHCHR interviewed 28 detainees and prisoners (25 men and 3 women) in detention facilities in Bakhmut, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Odesa, Mariupol, Starobilsk, and Zaporizhzhia;
  • By contrast, in the temporarily Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, OHCHR continued to have no access to detainees and places of deprivation of liberty despite repeated requests. This was particularly concerning given the widespread and credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment in a number of facilities, and of detention conditions that do not meet international human rights standards.