How U.S. Intelligence Sees Russia's Behavior After Bucha

U.S. intelligence sources call it the Bucha Effect. After Kyiv triumphantly announced last weekend that Ukrainian forces had regained control of Bucha and other northern towns, elation quickly turned to anguish as civilian corpses were found on the streets, some with their hands tied behind their backs, evidently shot at close range.

The images of civilian deaths halted negotiations by the two sides, particularly as Kyiv and the international community leveled accusations of war crimes and genocide on the part of Russia - accusations it has denied.

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Visitors at a mass grave in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv on April 8, 2022. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Last Wednesday, Bucha Mayor Anatolii Fedoruk said that 320 people had been killed in the town of 37,000. Foreign Minister Kuleba called the deaths "mass murders," claiming as well that Russian killing of civilians was premeditated.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an official in Ukrainian President Zelensky's office, said that NATO and the United States shared some blame for the civilian deaths, saying that the pressure not to provoke Russia had hamstrung Ukraine. "Russia has been shelling and bombing residential neighborhoods and shooting civilians en masse for more than a month now," he said. The result of the world holding back on support, Podolyak said, was the "anti-humanity of Bucha and other towns."

"Hundreds, thousands murdered, torn apart, raped, tied up, raped and murdered again. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful citizens of Ukraine. Killed with particular brutality," he said.

"It is ugly," a senior official with the Defense Intelligence Agency tells Newsweek. "But we forget that two peer competitors fought over Bucha for 36 days, and that the town was occupied, that Russian convoys and positions inside the town were attacked by the Ukrainians and vice versa, that ground combat was intense, that the town itself was literally fought over."

The official, who has been conducting intelligence analysis of the Ukraine war and requested anonymity to discuss classified matters and share personal views, says the Bucha effect led to frozen negotiations and a skewed view of the war.

"I am not for a second excusing Russia's war crimes, nor forgetting that Russia invaded the country," says the DIA official. "But the number of actual deaths is hardly genocide. If Russia had that objective or was intentionally killing civilians, we'd see a lot more than less than .01 percent in places like Bucha."

Behind the political rhetoric leveled by Ukrainian and western officials, British military intelligence seems to agree with the DIA official. "Russia's departure from northern Ukraine leaves evidence of the disproportionate targeting of non-combatants including the presence of mass graves, the fatal use of hostages as human shields, and mining of civilian infrastructure," it said in a tepid statement on Saturday.

"Disproportionate targeting" is an international law standard that balances military objectives with the obligation to cause the least amount of damage to achieve those objectives, referring exclusively to what happens inside a war—even an illegal war.

"Have the Russians been indiscriminate? Absolutely. But it shouldn't too surprising. It's part and parcel of the Russian way of war, lining up their artillery guns and letting loose," the DIA official says. "But here in particular, in Bucha and the other towns around it—Irpin and Hostomel—there was intense ground fighting that involved almost 20 battalion tactical groups."

Intensifying the anger, Russian shelling of Ukrainian forces in the southern village of Kramatorsk hit a railway station Friday, killing some 40 civilians, according to Kyiv.

"This is an evil that has no borders," Zelensky said, referring to the attack. "Russian non-humans do not abandon their methods. Without the strength and courage to oppose us on the battlefield, they are cynically destroying the civilian population." Kramatorsk was presented as another Bucha, and again provoked international outrage.

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"An evil that has no borders." Tetiana Ustymenko weeps over the grave of her son, buried in the garden of her house, in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022, during Russia's invasion launched on Ukraine. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

But British intelligence was also more circumspect regarding Kramatorsk. On Friday, it released its daily take on the war, saying that "Russia continues to hit Ukrainian non-combatants, such as those killed in yesterday's rocket strike on Kramatorsk railway station in eastern Ukraine." It used the word "hit" rather than "targeted," suggesting that the attacks may not have been intentional.

Now that Russian forces have completed their withdrawal from northern Ukraine, their focus has wholly shifted to the southeastern quadrant, around Kramatorsk. There a combination of air, missile and artillery strikes pound Ukrainian defenders.

Despite the tragic levels of civilian casualties and damage in besieged Mariupol and Kharkiv, the Russians have still not been able to capture any of the cities that have been fought over for weeks. In Donbas, Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to fight over control of the town of Lysychansk, Popasna, Rubizne, and Severodensk.

Ukrainian defenders have also managed to push Russian forces away from Mykolaiv (outside Donbas and further west) and they have made some progress in their move south to recapture Kherson, the first major town that Russian occupied in February. Ukrainian forces are also advancing towards Volnovakha in the south with the possibility of breaking through to relieve besieged Mariupol, the true site of civilian catastrophe, where as many as 5,000 residents have died.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Russia will not pause its military operation in Ukraine before the next round of peace talks resumes, or while they are going on.

There are some areas in the south where the Russian army is advancing. After taking control of Izium, Russian troops moved further to threaten Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the town where the tragic railway station attack occurred on Friday. This is the area of greatest concentration of Russian forces in the past week, according to Ukrainian experts.

Last Tuesday, Russian troops also took control of the village of Brazhkivka, advancing towards Barvinkove in this area. Other towns and villages in Donbas and the south being fought over include Avdiivka, Chuhuiv, Derhachi, Kreminna, Lozova, Marinka, Vuhledar and Zolote. Intense artillery and air strikes continue along these front lines.

In the formerly occupied areas in the north, Ukrainian officials have started to report of overall civilian deaths and injuries as a result of the Russian occupation. On Sunday, Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venedyktova said that 1,222 residents had died in the Kyiv region. That includes the town of Bucha. More than 700 civilians were killed in Chernihiv, the region northeast of the city, officials also say. The mayor of Chernihiv city Vladislav Atroshenko said last week that 70 percent of the city's buildings had been damaged or destroyed in the month of war. The city had a pre-war population of just over 300,000 people.

On Monday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had recorded 1,793 deaths and 2,439 injuries to civilians in all of Ukraine since the war began on February 24. U.S. intelligence believes that the true number is some five times greater, as previously reported by Newsweek.

"It's bad," the DIA official says. "And I don't want to say it's not too bad. But I can't help but stress that beyond the clamor, we are not seeing the war clearly. Where there has been intense ground fighting and a standoff between Ukrainian and Russian forces, the destruction is almost total. But in terms of actual damage in Kyiv or other cities outside the battle zone, and with regard to the number of civilian casualties overall, the evidence contradicts the dominant narrative."

Asked if Bucha and Kramatorsk are war crimes, the official says that that's an issue for the courts to decide. "A huge part of all of the vocal outbreak over war crimes is as much to motivate the Ukrainian people to outrage and sacrifice, as well as to prod a flagging public in the U.S. to continue to care.

"I'm not arguing that there aren't war crimes, but just because there are terrible images, it doesn't mean that there are ... in every case."

The official says that it is dangerous to attribute one or even several graves and scenes of civilian disaster to Russian barbarism rather than just being realistic about the depredations of war.

The official also worries that attributing the destructiveness only to Russian conduct, rather than to war itself, creates future dangers.

"If we blame all the damage on Putin, as if he commanded it and that it is due solely to Russian war crimes, we are going to walk away from Ukraine with some illusion in our heads that modern warfare can be fought more cleanly, that the Ukraine war is an anomaly solely created by Russia's behavior. This war is just demonstrating how destructive any war on this scale would be."

"Everyone is now talking about modernization of the NATO armies and spending more on preparing for conventional war in the future," the official added.

The official says that the Ukraine war should be a warning of how important it is to stop war from starting in the first place, and how much more important it is to have the right defense: strong territorial forces with abundant anti-tank weapons and robust air defenses.

"Russia is a paper tiger, a mean and angry tiger, one who will claw us to death if we're not vigilant. But it's time, though, to rethink what the defense of Europe should look like rather than to just pile on more arms in the future, as if nothing has changed."

While the information war behind the ground war is stalled on the subject of atrocities, U.S. military and intelligence experts say that neither side has much prospect of defeating the other in the short term. And as a result of that deadlock, Ukraine is again calling for negotiations.

On Sunday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told NBC News that if negotiations with Russia help prevent at least one more bloodshed, the opportunity should be seized.

"It is extremely difficult to even think about sitting down at the negotiating table with people who commit or seek justification for all these atrocities and war crimes that have caused such monstrous damage to Ukraine," he said. "But I understand one thing ... I must seize this opportunity whatever I feel. If I have the opportunity to save a human life, a village, a city from destruction I will take this opportunity."

President Zelensky also spoke of negotiations on Sunday, telling 60 Minutes of a possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking a shot at NATO and the international community for a "bureaucratic" approach to diplomacy.

"That's why the way I am talking to them [the Russians] is absolutely justified," Zelensky said. I don't have any more lives to give. I don't have any more emotions. I'm no longer interested in their diplomacy that leads to the destruction of my country."

Zelensky says that he envisions that the two countries would "fight and bargain for a long time" over the occupied territories, in essence admitting that a cessation of hostilities could come before Russia withdraws.

"Maybe it's heartless to urge that we look at Ukraine with precision, without human emotion," says the DIA official.

"But for those who think tens of thousands have died and Russia is intentionally killing civilians and pursuing genocide, I say that's even more of an argument to find a diplomatic solution to cease fighting. But nothing is going to happen in the coming days or weeks to change the reality on the battlefield. That's why stopping the fighting should be our highest priority."