Explosions kill senior officials installed by Moscow; mass grave is uncovered in recaptured territory

By Matthew Luxmoore

Sept. 16, 2022

The Waall Street Journal

Explosions rocked Russian-held strongholds in Ukraine on Friday as Kyiv continued its push to regain territory seized by Moscow’s forces, while Ukrainian officials said investigators had uncovered a mass gravesite in a city recaptured from Russian troops.

Russian-backed authorities described separate attacks on government buildings, including a blast in the eastern city of Luhansk that killed two Moscow-installed officials and an explosion during a meeting of Moscow-appointed officials in Kherson, in southern Ukraine. Footage from Kherson showed a large plume of smoke rising above the regional administration building, with people running from a debris-strewn street.

In the southern city of Berdyansk, the deputy head of occupation authorities, Oleh Boiko, was killed with his wife, who was involved in organizing a referendum on the region joining Russia, Russian state news agency TASS reported.

The attacks come as Ukraine continues its push into territory held by Russia, pressuring Moscow’s troops positioned not only in the Kherson region but also in the easternmost parts of the Kharkiv region and areas of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials say they have retaken 9,000 square kilometers, about 3,500 square miles, from Russia in the northeastern Kharkiv region, and that attention focuses on whether Kyiv can capitalize on those gains to make headway in a long-telegraphed offensive in Kherson.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive won’t derail Russia’s campaign.

“Our offensive operations in the Donbas itself do not stop, they are going on,” Mr. Putin said after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan. “They are moving at a slow pace, but consistently, gradually, the Russian army is occupying new territories.”

He also said that Russia had launched several warning strikes in response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive and there could be a more serious response in the future.

U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday while in Estonia that Ukraine now has the strategic initiative, while Russia is on defense.

In Luhansk, Russian-installed officials told Russia’s RIA state news agency that the general prosecutor in the occupied Luhansk region, Sergei Gorenko, and his deputy were killed when an

improvised explosive device went off in his third-floor office. Videos posted to social media showed blown-out windows in the building of the city courthouse.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine wasn’t involved in the Luhansk blast.

“Elimination of the so-called ‘LNR prosecutor general’ and his deputy should be considered as showdowns of local organized criminal groups that could not share looted property before a large-scale escape,” he wrote on Twitter, using an acronym for the self-proclaimed republic of Luhansk.

Yury Sobolevsky, the Ukrainian deputy chairman of the Kherson regional council, confirmed that an explosion had occurred in Kherson but didn’t implicate Ukraine and said there was no information about the casualty count.

If it is confirmed that Ukraine is responsible for both attacks, it would demonstrate the growing reach of Ukrainian intelligence deep inside Russian-held territory and could further demoralize Russian forces at a time when they have suffered stinging defeats on the battlefield.

TASS said the strike in Kherson had wounded a local official and killed the official’s driver. Yekaterina Gubareva, a Russian-installed official in Kherson, said the attack came as she and her colleagues were meeting with Moscow-appointed mayors and district chiefs on Friday morning.

Ms. Gubareva said she was pulled from the ruins of the building by a stranger. “I didn’t understand what had happened,” she wrote on Telegram. “Smoke, a ringing in my ears. I came round when someone was dragging me in an unknown direction. When the smoke cleared I understood that it was some guy.”

Ms. Gubareva named the official who was wounded as Alla Barkhatnova, and said Ms. Barkhatnova was covered in blood as she made her way out. The attack, Ms. Gubareva said, “happened in broad daylight as people strolled and ran errands.” The regional administration said there were no members of the military in the building.

In the east, Russian military bloggers reported that Ukraine is staging ground offensives to the southwest of Izyum and moving to capture land on the east bank of the Oskil River, where Russia said it regrouped its forces after the retreat from Kharkiv.

In areas liberated from Russian troops in a Ukrainian lightning advance this month, officials say they are uncovering evidence of torture at a mass burial site on the outskirts of Izyum—which had served as a logistical hub for Russian troops—holding around 500 graves.

Dmytro Lubinets, an ombudsman overseeing human-rights issues for the Ukrainian parliament, said Friday that investigators and ordnance-disposal teams clearing the area of mines had

discovered the bodies. About 20 of the bodies were of soldiers, he said, but there were women, children and elderly people there, too.

In a video address late on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky said Russia would be made to answer for the atrocities it has committed on Ukrainian territory. Investigative work had begun at the burial site in Izyum, he said, adding that Ukrainian and foreign journalists had been invited to document the scene.

“We want the whole world to know what is really happening and what Russia’s occupation has wrought. Bucha, Mariupol and now, unfortunately, Izyum,” Mr. Zelensky said, referring to two other places where mass burial sites had been discovered. “Russia leaves death everywhere. And must answer for it.”

The Kremlin didn’t immediately comment on Mr. Zelensky’s allegations. Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, described the Ukrainian president’s statement on Friday as “another low-grade provocation and lie, devoid of any originality.”

Echoing a Russian narrative in response to evidence of previous atrocities committed by occupying troops, Mr. Slutsky said: “The scenario is known: The ‘correct’ journalists and photographers will be on the spot, who will make a picture for the same ‘correct’ media. No one will see any evidence.”

Gen. Milley said Friday that he couldn’t yet address the reports out of Izyum until he had received a U.S. analysis. But he said he believed “the facts will present themselves and the world should always remember and take appropriate [accountability] actions.”

“War crimes cannot be hidden, especially things like mass graves,” Gen. Milley told reporters traveling with him in Tallinn.

In the face of Ukraine’s military push since late August, pro-Kremlin pundits and officials in Russia have called on Mr. Putin’s government to launch a popular mobilization aimed at buttressing the depleted ranks of the armed forces and strengthening the defense of Russian-held areas in Ukraine.

The leader of Chechnya in southern Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov, on Thursday called on Russian regions to initiate “self-mobilization” by preparing volunteers for dispatch to the front line. “There’s no point waiting for the Kremlin to announce martial law,” he wrote on the Telegram social-media platform. “The head of every Russian region should prove today their readiness to help the state.”

The Moscow-installed head of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, backed Mr. Kadyrov’s calls in his own Telegram post and said the peninsula had already sent 1,200 volunteers to the front lines and was forming another two battalions. Russia’s Voronezh region, which borders Ukraine, said it had sent 950 volunteers. “I’m in solidarity with my colleagues,” Voronezh Gov. Aleksandr Gusev said.

The U.K. Defense Ministry on Friday said Russian military academies were shortening training courses and bringing forward graduation dates for cadets. “This is almost certainly so cadets can

be deployed to support the Ukraine operation,” the ministry said in its daily report. “The impact of Russia’s manpower challenge has become increasingly severe.”

At the Intelligence and National Security Summit on Friday outside Washington, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said: “They’re coming to a point right now where I think Putin might have to re-evaluate what his objectives are” for the Russian campaign in Ukraine.

Appearing with Gen. Berrier, Navy Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, agreed but cautioned that Russia has a centuries-long history of military operations that start poorly and then improve. “They have a possible adjustment in store,” he said.


Stephen Kalin, Georgi Kantchev, Nancy A. Youssef, Warren P. Strobel and Ken Thomas contributed to this article.