Russian unit behind Kramatorsk and Bilenke attacks identified
A team of monitors and researchers from the Truth Hounds organisation has determined that the 47th Missile Brigade (commander Colonel Vitaly Bobyr) of the Eighth Russian Army was behind the attacks, which fired Iskander-K cruise missiles at the city of Kramatorsk (pop. 157,000, 2017) and the nearby village of Bilenke (Donetsk Region). The attack was a war crime, the Truth Hounds concluded, by reason of its indiscriminate nature.
The Truth Hounds team interviewed 22 eyewitnesses and victims, some of whom had never been consulted before. It investigated the nature of the damage and visited locations hit during the attacks; and it used open-source intelligence and consulted previous applications of international humanitarian and criminal law to analyse these crimes. Two versions of the investigation were prepared. One contains additional detail and is being passed to Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies. There are two versions because the unpublished text includes sensitive information about the circumstances of the crime while providing investigative bodies with full evidence. The details it contains in no way affect the conclusions reached or the legal qualification of these incidents.
Identification of the weapon used and the perpetrators
On Friday 27 June 2023, Russian forces launched a double missile attack, striking the city of Kramatorsk and the adjacent village of Bilenke [both are in a part of the Donetsk Region unoccupied by the Russian army, tr.] The attacks led to 13 deaths; 60 other people were injured. Among the dead was Truth Hounds monitor and Ukrainian PEN Club member Viktoriia Amelina.
The Russian Armed Forces carried out its attack using Iskander-K cruise missiles. This was established by examining the nature of the damage to the Ria Lounge restaurant in Kramatorsk, and the crater left in Bilenke and the projectile fragments it contained; the Truth Hounds team also gathered eyewitness statements and assessed other specific features of the attack to reach this conclusion.
The missiles were launched from a southeasterly direction, an area under the control of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces. Only four units in the district are equipped with Iskander missile systems. After analysing their location and the areas of active hostilities at the moment of the attack, the list of potential perpetrators was reduced to a single unit: the 47th Missile Brigade of the 8th Russian Army, commanded by Colonel Vitalii Bobyr.
Legitimate military targets
The Truth Hounds interviewed ten eyewitnesses and victims among the visitors to the Ria Lounge restaurant in Kramatorsk, and five of its former employees who were at work that day. This confirmed that 40 members of a Ukrainian military unit, including its commanding officers, spent a long while at the Ria Lounge restaurant on Friday, 27 June. They had been planning the event for a month and it was split into two parts: the first guests were expected to arrive at 1 pm; the second group planned to reach the Ria Lounge at 7 pm that evening. Each group, supposedly, contained 20 individuals but not all witnesses agreed that the second group actually showed up. At the same time, another celebration was due to take place at the Laguna café in Bilenke village. It is located on the corner of Bieliaiev and Sofiivska Streets, ten metres from where the second missile struck.
The Truth Hounds’ investigation revealed that there was a high percentage of military men among the customers of the Ria Lounge restaurant on Friday, the day of the attack. Most of the interviewees agreed that Ukrainian soldiers made up about half of all the guests that day. Two celebrations for the military were planned in the restaurant cellar on 27 June. Russia could have been aware of these celebrations and, we may assume, had grounds to consider the Ria Lounge restaurant and the Laguna café legitimate targets.
Yet despite the presence of Ukrainian military personnel in the Ria Lounge restaurant that evening, the double missile attack on Kramatorsk and Bilenke should be qualified as a war crime owing to its indiscriminate nature.
International Humanitarian Law not only prohibits attacks on civilian targets and installations: it also prohibits indiscriminate attacks, which “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated” (Article 8: 2 (b) iv of the Rome Statute).
In Kramatorsk the targeted facility was located in a densely-populated part of a large city, and was frequented by both civilians and the military. The only human targets who might be legitimately attacked were Ukrainian military personnel. Since they constituted a mobile rather than a stationary target the attacking force should have monitored closely where they were. However, as the Truth Hounds discovered, Russian forces did not take such a precaution.
The Truth Hounds’ investigation demonstrated that the missile took about 18 minutes to reach its target. The perpetrators of the attack against Kramatorsk, therefore, were not closely monitoring their target between the launching of the missiles and the moment they hit Kramatorsk and Bilenke. The perpetrators could not be sure that Ukrainian military personnel would still be in the restaurant or who would be affected when the missile struck. As it turned out, no more than two soldiers were among those killed.
Given the significant destructive power of cruise missiles, their use against such facilities and locations combined with the perpetrators’ failure to monitor the target, the Truth Hounds concluded that the attacker was well aware of the circumstances but had no desire to limit the excessive damage that could be (and eventually was) caused by the attack.
The large impact area of cruise missiles and the perpetrators’ failure to monitor their targets rendered the attacks on the Ria Lounge restaurant and the Laguna café indiscriminate in nature.
The way the Russian army uses Iskander missiles
The attacks on the city of Kramatorsk and Bilenke village are one incident among many. There is a general pattern of behaviour by the Russian army: there may be legitimate military targets but the attacks are planned and executed so as to cause as many civilian casualties as possible.
This approach is intended to induce a fear among civilians of being in proximity to their own military; it divides Ukrainians, marginalizes the army and separates it from the rest of society.
Subsequent attacks this year have displayed a similar pattern:
- Tuesday 4 July 2023 — An Iskander-K cruise missile hit the town of Pervomaiskyi (pop. 29,000; 2020) in the Kharkiv Region. The missile landed near a farewell ceremony for a fallen soldier of the Kraken special forces.
- Saturday 9 August 2023 — An Iskander-K missile equipped with a non-impact detonator hit the Chernihiv Drama Theatre. Although equipment and people that could have been legitimate targets were then inside the theatre, the type of detonator selected indicates that the perpetrator intended to strike civilians around the targeted building, rather than the military and drone manufacturers inside.
- Thursday 5 October 2023 — Russian Armed Forces attacked the village of Hroza (Kharkiv Region) with an Iskander-M ballistic missile. Local residents had gathered in a local café before burying a soldier from Hroza. Fifty-nine civilians died as a result.
This is a summary of their findings. See “The bill is on you” for a longer version.
You can read the full text of the investigation (in Ukrainian) and see more photos via this link.
A summary of the Truth Hounds earlier investigation of the sea-borne missile attack on Mykolaiv was published by T4P last October.