The 4-metre-wide board detailing the entire Russian military chain of command in Ukraine

For more than a year, Russian jets have been pounding Ukrainian cities, destroying hospitals and apartment blocks, while Moscow’s troops on the ground have been accused of executing civilians. Flooded with evidence of Russian war crimes, Ukrainian prosecutors moved swiftly.

Kyiv has compiled hundreds of dossiers, naming more than 600 Russians – many of them high-ranking political and military officials – as suspects. The suspects range from senior officials including the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to a lesser-known colonel believed to be responsible for some of the most brutal aerial attacks on Ukraine.

As the international criminal court in The Hague opens two war crimes cases tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Guardian profiles some of the commanders and generals accused by Ukraine, based on interviews with former soldiers, defence officials and open-source data.

An aerial view of residential buildings destroyed in Irpin. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

The Guardian has also reviewed a board used by Ukrainian prosecutors to track evidence of Russian war crimes. The board, 4 metres wide by 1.5 metres high, contains a detailed diagram of the entire Russian military chain of command in Ukraine. There are names and mugshots: an array of those under investigation by Ukraine for possible involvement in war crimes. The chart maps hundreds of Russian soldiers, divided by regiment, all the way up to the supreme commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin.

“We started mapping the Russian commanders and generals last year,” said Oleksandr Filchakov, the chief prosecutor for the Kharkiv region who alongside colleagues in other regions has been working on the board since the Russian invasion. “And we keep updating it, week after week.”

Oleksandr Filchakov shows the board used by Ukrainian prosecutors.
Oleksandr Filchakov shows the board used by Ukrainian prosecutors. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian
A building in Kharkiv hit by Russian strike.
A building in Kharkiv hit by a Russian strike. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian
A Russian soldier patrols at the Mariupol drama theatre.
A Russian soldier patrols the Mariupol theatre weeks after it was bombed on 16 March 2022. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

‘The butcher of Mariupol’

If one battle more than any other has defined the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is undoubtedly the three-month siege of Mariupol, where, according to the Ukrainian authorities, 22,000 people were killed. The city’s destruction has drawn comparisons to the siege of Aleppo, in Syria, also reduced to a pile of rubble by Russian bombs, after Moscow joined the war in 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad.

Both Russian campaigns were run by Col Gen Mikhail Mizintsev, a Russian military official placed under sanctions in March 2022 by the British government, which cited his role in the bombardments of both cities.

Col Gen Mikhail Mizintsev
Col Gen Mikhail Mizintsev.

Mizintsev made his name as the first head of the National Defence Management Centre of Russia and oversaw the construction of the imposing command centre located in the heart of the Kremlin.

“He is known as an extremely good organiser,” said a former defence ministry source who has previously worked with Mizintsev. He is also well connected: the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said Mizintsev had close ties with the chief of staff of the Russian army, Valery Gerasimov.

According to military experts, in Mariupol he used some of the experience gathered in Syria, where he oversaw the brutal bombings that destroyed much of Aleppo. As in Aleppo, Mizintsev first cut the Ukrainian forces off from their supply lines and then squeezed them, street by street, while indiscriminate bombing took place, preventing civilians from leaving the town. As a result, the colonel general earned the nickname “the butcher of Mariupol”.

It has been clear since the Russian invasion began that troops and officers fighting in Ukraine included many who had been in Syria. Before the war, Yuri Stavitsky, 61, the chief of engineer troops of the Russian armed forces, was best known for leading the demining of Palmyra. In 2016, his name was mentioned in the Panama Papers leak. The documents, taken from the former Panamanian offshore law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, revealed that Stavitsky was the owner of a British Virgin Islands-registered company called Asante Trade & Finance SA.

“It was a big scandal at the ministry,” said the former defence ministry source. “Stavitsky had to apologise profusely for this hiccup and almost lost his job.”

A Russian cluster rocket after landing in front of the regional state administration building, Kharkiv.
A Russian cluster rocket after landing in front of the regional state administration building, Kharkiv. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Kharkiv cluster bombing

The north-eastern region of Kharkiv has been one of the most affected by the Russian armed forces. A number of illegal weapons have been dropped on its cities, killing hundreds of civilians.

Tailfins of RBK-500 cluster bombs and fragments of 300mm Smerch cluster rockets, banned by most of the world – although not Russia – under the 2008 convention on cluster munitions were found in areas where there were no military personnel and no military infrastructure.

The Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), an independent, non-profit social enterprise dedicated to exposing human rights abuses, has not only identified exactly where cluster munitions were used in Kharkiv and from where they were fired within Russia’s borders, but also the commander responsible for those bombings. His name is Alexander Zhuravlyov, a colonel general who assisted Mizintsev in the 2016 Aleppo bombing campaign.

Zhuravlyov, 57, was commissioned as a Soviet officer in the 1980s, deployed to Syria three times, and awarded one of the highest Russian military awards: Hero of the Russian Federation.

Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlyov
Col Gen Alexander Zhuravlyov.

According to multiple reports, Zhuravlyov was the only senior Russian officer who could sign off an order to launch a Smerch rocket attack on Kharkiv from the Russian western military district in Belgorod.

After the Ukrainian army’s surprise counteroffensive, which recaptured almost the entire Kharkiv region and pushed the Russians back to the border, Zhuravlyov was sacked by the Kremlin and replaced by Lt Gen Roman Berdnikov.

Volunteers and firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a shopping centre after a rocket attack in Kremenchuk.
Volunteers and firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a shopping centre after a rocket attack in Kremenchuk. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

A series of deadly strikes

On 27 June, a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber took off from the Shaykovka Russian airbase, in the Kaluga region, carrying a Kh-22, a long-range, anti-ship missile, which was launched over the territory of the Kursk region. At 3.52pm, the bomb hit the large Amstor shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, reducing the building to a pile of burning rubble and killing at least 20 people. According to Ukrainian prosecutors, the strike was carried out by the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation regiment, currently commanded by Col Oleg Timoshin, 51.

Timoshin has also been accused by Ukraine’s security services of involvement in a missile strike on an apartment building in the eastern city of Dnipro that killed at least 44 people.

Little or nothing is known about Timoshin. According to some open sources, Timoshin attended the Tambov Higher Military Aviation School of Pilots and was appointed to head the regiment after his predecessor, Col Vadim Beloslyudtsev, died in 2019.

Col Oleg Timoshin
Col Oleg Timoshin.

Timoshin’s immediate superior in the chain of command is Sergei Dronov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian air force, responsible for all wartime air operations in Ukraine.

Dronov, born in rural eastern Ukraine, first served as a pilot during Russia’s Chechen 1994 war. He made his name two decades later, overseeing the Russian air force during its intervention in Syria, where Moscow relied heavily on aviation support, with its planes conducting constant air raids.

Russia’s war in Syria is widely seen as a low-cost strategic success and elevated the air force’s standing as one of the world’s most formidable forces. That image was further boosted in 2021 when Dronov announced that the air force was getting more than 60 new and 200 upgraded aircraft. By the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia was believed to operate more than 700 fighter jets, as opposed to Kyiv’s reported force of about 64 fighters. However, Moscow’s inability to dominate the skies, central to the overall faltering performance of its forces in Ukraine, has provoked questions over Dronov’s credentials.

“Dronov was known to be hugely corrupt,” said Gleb Irisov, a former Russian air force lieutenant who left the military in 2020. “It is no surprise that Russian aviation failed poorly.”

People walk among ruined buildings destroyed by Russian bombings.
Residents of Bucha walk in streets destroyed by Russian bombs. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Bucha massacre

When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region in early April last year, they left a gigantic crime scene in their wake. About 458 bodies, buried in dozens of mass graves, have been recovered from the town of Bucha. Hundreds more corpses of civilians were found under the rubble of buildings in Borodianka and Hostomel. Among the individuals named on the blacklist of Russian war criminals is Azatbek Omurbekov, 40, who led the troops that were allegedly responsible for the killing, rape and torture of civilians, a series of atrocities that earned him the nickname “the butcher of Bucha”.

Azatbek Omurbekov
Azatbek Omurbekov

Omurbekov, born in then Soviet Uzbekistan, currently serves in the position of commanding officer of the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade. In 2014, he was awarded for outstanding service by the then deputy defence minister, Dmitry Bulgakov.

It is not clear where he is at the moment. Some sources say that after his retreat from the Kyiv region, Omurbekov transferred his soldiers to Belarus. According to others, however, he subsequently reached Belgorod, from where he joined other regiments in operations in the Kharkiv region.

In the Russian military chain of command, Omurbekov, like all senior officers deployed in Ukraine, responded to the orders of Oleg Salyukov, the army general and current commander-in-chief of the Russian ground forces. Almost all Moscow battalions engaged in artillery operations and the invasion of villages are under his control.

Bodies of victims from Bucha being carried into a morgue
Bodies of victims from Bucha a morgue in north Kyiv, where pathologists and coroners are carrying out postmortems. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

At 67, Salyukov is one of the oldest senior officials in the Russian army. Salyukov is best known in Russia for heading the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square. Salyukov generally keeps a low profile but is said to have a significant influence within the higher echelons of the army.

“If you want to make a career in the army, you have to get approval from Salyukov,” said the former defence ministry source.

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