Ukraine investigating ‘execution’ of surrendering troops by Russian forces

<span>Photograph: Libkos/AP</span>
Photograph: Libkos/AP

Ukraine is investigating the “execution” by Russian forces of two Ukrainian soldiers who emerged from their trench near the town of Avdiivka and were shot dead as they surrendered.

The public prosecutor’s office said it had launched an inquiry into the gruesome incident. Video showed the Ukrainian soldiers’ last moments. One raised his arms in the air. Next, Russian service personnel gunned both men down at point-blank range.

The footage was filmed near the village of Stepove, close to Avdiivka, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where intense fighting is taking place. “This is another crime committed by Russian terrorists. Violation of the rules of war. The killing of unarmed soldiers,” the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk tweeted.

He added: “Russia has once again proved that it is a terrorist country for which there are no laws and norms of international law.”

The dead soldiers served in Ukraine’s 45th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, the Deep State channel said on Telegram. They abandoned their frontline dugout only after running out of ammunition. One unconfirmed report said the Russians were themselves killed soon afterwards.

Pro-Kremlin military bloggers shrugged off the shooting. “In war, unfortunately, such events happen. Only a small part gets into the frame,” one commentator who posts under the name Rybar commented, adding that the “speed of decision-making in the heat of battle” was “a matter of life and death”.

Russia’s military command began a major offensive against Avdiivka in October, and has been trying for nearly two months to encircle the town. Its forces have had some success, capturing an industrial zone in the south and moving forward in Stepove and other villages to the north.

But there has so far been no breakthrough, despite huge losses of infantry and armoured vehicles. The town, just outside Russian-occupied Donetsk, has been on the frontline since 2014. It is now largely in ruins. Ukraine maintains control over a crucial access road.

On Sunday, Avdiivka’s military administration mayor, Vitaliy Barabash, said Ukrainian troops were holding firm. “Over the past 24 hours the number of [ground] attacks has decreased,” he said, adding that the Russian advance appeared to be “running out of steam”.

He said this was down to several factors including large losses of Russian manpower and adverse snowy conditions. “There are fewer and fewer [Russian] people willing to go on assaults voluntarily, and there are more and more refuseniks,” Barabash said.

Ukraine’s military spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun confirmed that the number of Russian attacks on Avdiivka had halved over the past 24 hours. Ukraine still controlled a coking plant, used as a vast defensive hub. “Enemy forces are trying to make their way inside, but are suffering losses in infantry and equipment,” he said.

Before last year’s all-out invasion, Avdiivka was home to around 25,000 people. About 1,500 continue to live there, despite daily Russian air and artillery strikes, and sweeping destruction and damage to practically all residential buildings. The town’s schools, medical facilities and three supermarkets have been hit.

Barabah said Avdiivka was “starting to look like” Maryinka, a nearby settlement to the south-west, where fighting has raged for months. “Maryinka basically no longer exists. It has been razed to its foundations,” the mayor said, speaking to Ukrainian TV.

On Friday, state media channels in Moscow reported that the Russian army had finally conquered Maryinka, raising the flag of the Soviet Union above a symbolic wrecked building. Ukrainian officials denied this. They said claims of its capture by Russian troops were untrue.

“We acknowledge that there was an advance there of the Russian military,” Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military analyst, said in an online presentation. “But the south-western and north-western parts of the town are under the control of Ukrainian forces.” Russia’s defence ministry made no mention of Maryinka.

Overall, the Kremlin is trying to advance across the entire eastern Donbas region. As well as its attempt to cut the Avdiivka salient, a bulge in the Ukrainian contact line, it is seeking to improve its position around Bakhmut, farther north, which the Russian army occupied in May. It is also trying to get back the town of Kupiansk, lost last year in a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The fierce fighting takes place amid concerns over European support for Ukraine as the full-scale war drags on. In an interview with German TV, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, warned that “a critical situation” had developed in Ukraine and that it could get worse “due to insufficient western assistance”.

He acknowledged Kyiv’s southern counteroffensive this year had not worked out but pointed to its success in winning back control over large parts of the Black Sea. Stoltenberg added that increasing ammunition production in Nato-member countries was essential in order for Ukraine to defeat Russia.

“We need to prepare for bad news. Conflicts develop in stages. We must support Ukraine in both bad and good times,” he said, adding: “The more we support Ukraine, the sooner this war will end.

“We must understand that the victory of President [Vladimir] Putin will become a tragedy for Ukraine but it will be dangerous for us, as well.”

Russia’s attritional tactics appear largely unchanged. Long-range drone attacks on Ukrainian cities are a daily occurrence. Ukraine said it intercepted 10 out of 12 Shahed drones launched on Saturday night by Moscow. Most were downed above the southern Mykolaiv province, Ukraine’s air force said.