Content warning: this article contains mention of murder, violence, and hate crimes, which some viewers may find disturbing.
A 12-second video emerged on Ukrainian social media on March 6, showing someone who appeared to be an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war being killed by Russian soldiers. Within several hours, the video went viral, causing shock, tears, and outrage on the Ukrainian side and celebration in pro-war Russian Telegram channels.
In the clip, a man in a Ukrainian military uniform is standing quietly, smoking a cigarette near something that looks like a small dug-out shelter. He is looking sideways but not in the direction of the camera, which is facing him.
“Film him,” a male voice near the cameraman commands in Russian. “Glory to Ukraine,” the man in the uniform says in Ukrainian, quietly but defiantly. “You bitch!” the same voice shouts, followed immediately by rounds of gunfire.
The man is shot from two directions, into his head, chest, and back. “What a “Glory to Ukraine,” someone says from a distance. “Die, bitch!” the first voice shouts again when the gunfire stops, leaving the man dead.
No details about the origins of the video have emerged since it became public, including when and where it was made. Within Ukrainian social media, it came to light via a Twitter post of a controversial right-wing activist Sergiy Sternenko. Sternenko did not respond to Global Voices’ comment requests.
By the end of the day on March 6th, Ukrainian Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter feeds were full of pictures and memes praising the soldier as yet another national hero.
It was suggested that the man was either told he would be killed and given a chance to smoke a last cigarette, or that the Russians who captured him tried to make him say something else to the camera.
Some users even speculated that the hole, which looked like a dug-out shelter, was a pit the killers forced the man to dig for himself.
Ukrainian top officials also reacted almost immediately after the video became public.
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights, pointed to the violation of the Geneva Convention and said that he sent the clip to “international partners and ombudsman colleagues from different countries.”
Andriy Kostin, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, said his office would open an investigation and vowed that the guilty would be found and punished. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, called upon the International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan to open an investigation as well.
Andriy Yermak, the presidential top aide, reacted sharply on social media calling the crime “another example” of Russians’ “national noughtness and weakness.”
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, talked about the killed POW in his regular evening address inviting the viewers and listeners “to respond to his words together, in unity: ‘Glory to the Hero! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to Ukraine!’.” “And we will find the murderers,” he continued.
From the Russian side, there were no official comments. The embassy of Russia in North Macedonia repeated the widespread claim in Russian social media that the killed man was a Russian POW changed into Ukrainian uniform and killed by Ukrainians. Macedonian users met its Twitter post with sarcasm.
The killed man's act was strikingly similar to that of Ukrainian border guards at the Zmiyiny (Snake) island at the second day of the Russian full-scale invasion answering “go fuck yourself” when a Russian military ship crew suggested them surrender.
The case was also reminiscent of a demonstrative castration and killing of another Ukrainian POW in late July 2022. That video was filmed and spread presumably to demoralize Ukrainian fighters and instigate reciprocal cruelties so already demoralized Russian soldiers would further resist being captured.
Only a few viewers raised questions about how the footage emerged. However, like in July, many users condemned others’ calls to kill or retaliate against Russian POWs. Sergiy Sternenko himself tried to convert the outrage into donations on behalf of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
There were also calls not to spread the clip as it could cause enormous pain to the man's family and friends.
Attempts to identify the hero, however, led to confusion. Two military units, two families, and several journalists and media outlets claimed the man was identified, but pointed to two different persons.
The first named was Tymofiy Shadura, who has been listed missing since February 3, 2023. The second, Olexandr Matsievsky, was killed in action on December 30, 2022, and was buried on February 14, 2023, after the sides exchanged the bodies of their soldiers.
In the evening of March 12, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) issued a confirmation that the filmed POW was Olexandr Matsievsky. Immediately after the SBU statement, in his evening address, president Zelensky said that he awarded Matsievsky with the highest national award, Hero of Ukraine.
Bakhmut takes toll
Both Shadura and Matsievsky fought in or around Bakhmut in the east of Ukraine, which has been the epicenter of the war since the late autumn.
Last week, Russian troops made a desperate attempt to encircle the town, making Ukrainian and international observers believe that Kyiv might decide to withdraw its troops. Both sides continued to bear heavy losses, but once again, the Russian attack failed.
Among dozens of less-known fighters, two battalion commanders, Andriy Lukaniuk, 34, and Dmytro Kotsiubaylo, 27, as well as a volunteer paramedic Yana Rikhlitska, 29, were killed in separate places in the area on March 6 and 7, 2023, adding to public shock and grief.
Kotsiubaylo, also known under his nom-de-guerre Da Vinchi, had been a volunteer fighter since 2014 and was decorated with the Hero of Ukraine award in 2021. His death has saddened and occupied the Ukrainian public since it was confirmed by Zelensky on March 7.
On March 10, Ukrainian social media was flooded with pictures of Kotsiubaylo lying in repose in central Kyiv with Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the main square, full of people, and Valery Zaluzhny, the widely adored commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, kneeled beside the Da Vinchi's coffin.
Filip Stojanovski contributed to the reporting.