Russia Claims Ukraine Killed Its Own POWs—Here’s Why Few Believe It

In 2014, the town of Olenivka in Eastern Ukraine fell under control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), a separatist group now controlled by Moscow. That August, the Volnovakha Correctional Colony No. 120 in the town of roughly 4,500 persons became a prison camp for Ukrainians soldiers and political prisoners captured by DPR militants and the Russian military.

Eight years later in July 2022, a group of between 193 and 211 Ukrainian soldiers were regrouped into a new barracks in the Volnovakha complex. All were members of the far-right Azov unit which had surrendered on May 16 under a guarantee of protection from the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after resisting beseiging Russian forces for three months in the city of Mariupol.

Just few days later in the evening of July 28, a blast consumed their new dormitory in flames, killing at least 53 of the interred POWs and injuring at least 75 and up to 130 more. Gruesome video footage released by Russia and other news agencies show numerous scorched bodies, some reduced to carbonized ashes while sleeping in their beds.

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No other buildings were damaged (as can be seen in satellite photos) and no guards were killed.

The ICRC subsequently requested access to the surviving Ukrainian POWs, the safety of which it had guaranteed, but were refused it.

Moscow claimed the Olenivka prison had been struck by a missile fired by a HIMARS rocket artillery system given to Ukraine by the U.S. The HIMARS’s GPS-guided M31 rockets have proven effective in destroying Russian ammo depots and surface-to-air missile batteries, as well as holing bridges Russian logistics depend upon.

Russian troops displayed fragments allegedly from the HIMARS strike, though without evidence that they were recovered at the site of the attack.

Russian sources claimed Ukraine attacked to prevent the POWs from ‘exposing’ their supposed crimes, or to discourage Ukrainian troops from surrendering.

Ukraine denied it had carried out a strike and Ukrainian intelligence specifically claimed that the Russian private mercenary company Wagner Group set out on its own initiative to cover up the torture of Azov prisoners by killing them in such a manner to discredit the Ukrainian military and deflate Ukrainian morale after the successes of its HIMARS artillery.

In effect, besides the supporters of Russia’s war in Ukraine, most observers find it far more likely that forces allied with Moscow carried out the deadly attack. Here’s why.


The prison’s use to house Ukrainian POWs was known since 2014.

Unlike conventional rocket artillery which often scatters unguided projectiles hundreds of meters from the designated target, the M31 rockets used by Ukrainian HIMARS systems are designed to land within a few meters of a pre-specified GPS coordinate—a capability affirmed by holes that have precisely been punched through targeted bridges.

So the attack couldn’t be a case of a random shot landing far off target. An M31 was only likely to strike the dormitory in Olenivka if Ukrainian planners deliberately intended it to.

To be sure, it’s not unheard of in war for POWs to inadvertently fall victim to friendly bombardments. But Ukrainian personnel would have been well aware of the prison’s location and function. The DPR also prior released propaganda videos highlighting the internment of Azov fighters in the facility.

Ukraine’s military would have had to deliberately seek to kill its own prisoners in the one specific building the Azov prisoners had been moved into.


Ukraine probably wouldn’t have used a HIMARS to hit a target in Olenivka.

Olenivka is about 9 miles away from the frontline—a short enough distance that regular Ukrainian shorter-range artillery could attack it without expending expensive HIMARS missiles capable of hitting targets over 43 miles away.


Expatriating the Azov POWs would have been a big political win for Kyiv.

There has been immense political pressure on Kyiv to somehow secure the release of forces captured by Russia in Mariupol, who came to be seen as icons of Ukrainian resistance for their three-month stand in Mariupol while starving and under constant bombardment.

The notion Russia’s supporters propose that there was some cynical political incentive for Ukraine to kill its own POWs is absurd when the return of these prisoners alive would have been an important boost to morale and a big political win for Ukrainian leaders.


Even pro-Russian militants appear to believe the POWs were deliberately killed by Russian forces.

A purportedly intercepted phone call released by Ukraine’s intelligence service appears to show that a DPR fighter stationed near Olenivka doesn’t believe the official line that Ukraine attacked the facility.

The caller claim that Russian Grad rocket artillery trucks were positioned “100 meters from the fence” of the prison facility and launched several volleys towards Ukrainian positions.

He insists, however, that during the rocket barrage, three explosions detonated inside the dormitory even though no sound or other evidence of incoming fire was discernible. He believes instead that explosives planted inside the prison by Russian personnel were remotely detonated, using the racket of the rocket salvo and the possibility of counter-battery fire as a cover.


The damage to the facility doesn’t resemble a HIMARS attack.

Photos from inside the Olenivka complex show rows of scorched bunk beds that, though warped by heat, have mostly remained upright. And the building’s exterior remains essentially intact.

Thomas Theiner, a former solder in the Italian Army with expertise on artillery, notes in a Twitter thread that the dormitory doesn’t exhibit the kind of extensive kinetic impact damage typical of a building hit by an M31 rocket, which would likely have left a notable crater and knocked everything down around it.

Theiner points out that Russia, however, makes relatively extensive use of incendiary and/or fuel-air explosive type weapons like the portable RPO-A and RPO-Z “Shmel” ‘flame-thrower’ rockets that do cause combustion and are designed to efficiently kill people in buildings.

However, both Ukraine’s intelligence service and the DPR fighters in the intercepted phone call above suggest another method—explosives planted inside the building prior to the explosion.


Questionable messaging from Russian embassy

The day after the attack, Russia’s UK embassy shared a quote from alleged pro-Russian civilians in Mariupol advocating for the “humiliating death” of the Azov prisoners of war, in contravention of the Geneva convention:

The post has come under scrutiny for violating Twitter’s rules against advocating violence, but Twitter explained it would keep the post up out of public interest.


Who has a track record of deception?

Strictly speaking, one side can easily dismiss evidence produced by the other as doctored. Furthermore, one should generally treat the claims of warring parties with skepticism, especially claims of enemy losses.

However, that doesn’t mean all claims are equally plausible, nor that all parties should be treated as equally credible.

Russia’s narrative claims Ukrainian officials diabolically used an expensive guided long-range missile to kill their own celebrated war heroes in service of some hypothetical coverup, despite Kyiv having orchestrated several prisoner swaps for other well-known prisoners and having pressed hard to secure the exchange of Azov fighters.

Alternatively, one could believe that Moscow is deliberately lying about the actions of its own forces.

Consider that…

The massacre at Olenivka coincides horribly with the release of an atrocious video on Telegram depicting a Russian soldier mutilating the genitals of a Ukrainian POW while two other soldiers watch. In a separate video, the soldier is then killed with a shot to the head. A Russian military vehicle with the pro-Ukraine invasion ‘Z’ emblem can be seen in the background.

It should go without saying that prisoners of war are entitled to humane treatment regardless of which side they are on as defined in the Geneva Convention. (Yes, that includes Russian POWs, several of whom were apparently maimed or killed in Ukrainian captivity based on videos in March and April). If POWs are allegedly culpable of war crimes, than they are entitled a fair, non-kangaroo court trial with due process to ascertain guilt or innocence.

Incidents such as that at Olenivka should receive the scrutiny of an independent investigation to determine exactly who was responsible for the killing of more than fifty sleeping men.