How two weeks of occupation in Bucha turned into a massacre as Russian tactics changed

  • Screams of the grieving permeate the air, as Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports on the brutality of Bucha

Within two weeks of occupation Russian forces launched a massacre in Bucha, ITV News exclusive analysis based on 67 interviews with residents and officials can reveal.

Soldiers occupying the commuter town switched tactics during the second week of the invasion - around 7th March - because a 40-mile armoured convoy sent to mount an overwhelming assault on the capital began to break up. 

Elite Chechen fighters were brought in to replace young conscripts and carry out a massacre in Bucha when Russian troops became frustrated by the Ukrainian resistance in nearby Kyiv.

Several Russian soldiers told residents that during the first week of the invasion they believed their assignment to Bucha would last “only a few days”.

During indiscreet conversations with local people, some said they had spent 30 days travelling to the suburbs of Kyiv and knew their final destination all along, despite claims by the Kremlin that they had no plans to take the capital during the build up to the war. 

Mass graves dug in Bucha. Credit: AP

Our timeline, based on eyewitness testimony and official assessments, reveals a pattern of brutal behaviour by Russian soldiers trying to respond to failure. 

“The first soldiers were conscripts” said Volodymyr Kozachenko, a garage worker who remained in the city during its occupation.

“They were young - maybe 21 or 22 years old. They acted like zombies. They were just saying all we need to do is go to Kyiv and change your president, we don’t need anything else.”

But the soldiers’ behaviour became more brutal around a week later, as some subjected civilians to treatment previously reserved for Ukrainian soldiers. “I saw seven or eight people killed by a sniper. My co-worker died in my arms” he said.

  • Rohit Kachroo on the new Russian offensive and what grim lessons can be learnt from past atrocities in the war

Anton Kyryk, a commercial pilot, wanted to wait for the Russians to leave but as their behaviour worsened he decided to leave. He was arrested on 7th March during an attempt to escape to Irpin, a nearby town.

He told ITV News how he was tortured during his captivity. “They led me into a shed while aiming a gun at me, then threw me to my knees in front of their leader, still aiming a handgun from the front and a rifle from the back at me. They asked where the Nazis were”.

He said many civilians were killed by time he left for Kyiv on 9th March. “The scariest thing of all is that while living in Bucha, we had gotten used to seeing corpses. Corpses around the street, corpses in shopping carts, parts of people around. When asked for directions we were told once to ‘take a left behind the corpse’.”

Yulia had the heart wrenching task of identifying her husband as one of the victims of the massacre.

She told ITV News: "We had so much planned. We just finished furnishing our house. My husband had dreamed of owning a home and he bought one three years ago.

"We just did everything. We had so many plans. And even after he was wounded he called me on the brink of death and said we will have a new son. I asked 'what do you mean?' He said there is a boy from the orphanage who would come to bring me sweets. I promised him when this all ends I will adopt him."

  • Yulia on the heartbreak of her loss

When instructions came down to increase the level of brutality used against the civilian population, discipline broke down.

During early March, some occupying forces were overheard preparing to defy orders to kill civilians. For a group of soldiers who stormed the Town Hall and took officials and volunteers hostage, reality dawned and arrogance vanished. They knew they would eventually be told to kill the people they were holding hostage.

Bodies being retrieved in Bucha for identification by family. Credit: ITV News

A former captive said of one of the Russian troops: “His comrade said he would refuse to do that because it would come back to bite him. The other one said he would not do it either because it would come back to bite him too”.

“After 15th March the mood changed” said a second former hostage. “Our people who saw the soldiers would say they would undress people, people would disappear, it looked like different troops had come in. They were more aggressive."

Grieving the lost of their loved ones in the town of Bucha.

Some of those different troops were Chechen fighters who were sent it to reinforce the young conscripts who had become disillusioned.

The assignment of elite forces to Bucha might be interpreted as tacit consent from Russian commanders for the use of the brutal tactics against civilians for which they are well known.  

On 23rd March, during the fifth week of the invasion, some troops stationed closed to Bucha told local residents that plans were being made to retreat. That day, an advisor to the Zelenskyy administration, Oleksiy Arestovych, told a television interviewer that Russia’s military planning was not “corresponding with reality”.

But in Bucha, their plans seemed to be recognition that the long-planned assault in Kyiv was failing.

On the night of 30th March, residents in three neighbourhoods in Bucha saw Russian troops packing their belongings to leave.