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Satellite Images Disprove Kremlin’s Claims That Bucha Massacre Was ‘Staged’

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Images depicting a massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha were "staged."

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On April 3 2022, photographs appearing to show a massacre by invading Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Bucha spread globally — and Russian state media claimed that the mass deaths were “staged.”

On that date, Russian state media source TASS published “Photos and videos from Bucha staged by Kiev regime for Western media …” and claimed:

Photos and videos from Ukraine’s Bucha “evidencing the crimes” of the Russian military are yet another fake stages by the Kiev regime for the Western media, the Russian defense ministry said on Sunday.

“The photos and videos from Bucha are fakes staged by the Kiev regime for the Western media, as it was done at a Mariupol maternity home and in other cities,” it stressed.

On April 4 2022, a photograph of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting Bucha also circulated:

On April 4 2022, TASS followed up with “Lavrov slams situation in Bucha as fake attack staged by West and Ukraine,” attributing the news to “anti-Russian” efforts to deceive the international media:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the situation in the Ukrainian town of Bucha as fake attack. According to him, a fake attack was staged there, which Ukraine and the West disperse through all channels and social networks.

“The other day another fake attack was carried out in the city of Bucha in the Kiev region after the Russian servicemen left the area in accordance with the plans and agreements reached. A fake attack was staged there a few days later, and it’s being fomented on all channels and social media by Ukrainian representatives and their Western patrons,” the Russian Foreign Minister said on Monday at talks in Moscow with UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths.

Lavrov stressed that Russian troops completely withdrew from the city on March 30 [2022]. “On March 31 [2022], the mayor [of Bucha] solemnly said that he had everything in order. And two days later we saw the same staging organized in the streets, which they are now trying to use for anti-Russian purposes,” he added.

Russia’s claims that the Bucha massacre was “staged” were far from the first time that narrative was floated by the Kremlin and its associates during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On March 15 2022, USA Today debunked a similar claim of “staged” violence involving a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

On April 3 2022, the New York Times covered Russia’s denials of the massacre in Bucha in an ongoing live blog about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reporting:

Reports of atrocities committed by retreating Russian forces in the town of Bucha near Kyiv are “fake,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on Telegram on Sunday [April 3 2022], in what was also a rare acknowledgment that its troops were withdrawing from the area.

The statement, reposted by the ministry on the messaging app from an account that debunks claims made against the Russian war effort in Ukraine, said that the country’s forces had left Bucha on Wednesday.

Without providing any evidence, it claimed that Ukrainian forces had shelled the area following the Russian retreat, which led to losses of civilians. It also referred to a video posted by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on Twitter that showed the aftermath of the withdrawal, claiming that one of the corpses shown lying on a street in Bucha “is moving its hand” … Aleksandr Kots, a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, who reported from the area, claimed that the killings in Bucha were staged.

On April 4 2022, CBS News included information provided by independent journalists about scenes in Bucha amid their coverage of Russia’s “staging” narrative:

Independent journalists who went into the town of Bucha, just northwest of the capital, over the weekend found the streets littered with bodies. The dead were wearing civilian clothing, and some had their hands tied behind their backs, apparently executed.

Others were buried in a mass grave. More than 300 residents were killed, according to the town’s mayor.

As reported, the atrocities in Bucha transcended “he said, she said,” with verifiable proof recorded by journalists, governments, and other entities. CBS News continued by quoting United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, as well as Russian denials of the events in Bucha:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said almost two weeks ago [as of April 4 2022] that the U.S. had determined that Russian forces had committed “war crimes” in Ukraine, accusing them of “indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians.”

On Sunday [April 3 2022], he told CNN the images from Bucha were “a punch to the gut,” and he said the U.S. was “working to document” and provide its own information “to the relevant institutions and organizations that will put all of this together” to ensure any forces guilty of war crimes would he held accountable.

[…]

On Monday [April 4 2022], Russian officials denied civilians were killed in Bucha. The Russian defense ministry claimed the gruesome scenes in Bucha were faked by Ukrainian forces as a “provocation.” It has become a common refrain from Moscow, issued after previous alleged atrocities came to light in this war, and during Russia’s long involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war.

On the same date, English-language news organization The Moscow Times cited Russia’s claims that it left Bucha well before the massacre, and further reported:

The images of dozens of bodies in civilian clothing scattered in the streets and piled in mass graves have galvanized calls to investigate the deaths as war crimes as well as for a fresh round of sanctions on Moscow.

But Russia has doubled down, with both officials and state media throwing out a number of theories aimed at discrediting the claims as more evidence of civilian killings emerged.

The Kremlin said the footage is “not to be trusted” and “should be looked at with considerable doubt.”

“Our specialists from the Defense Ministry have found signs of video forgery and different kinds of fakes,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Russian officials including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated claims that the footage from Bucha was “staged,” possibly with Western involvement — but did not provide any evidence for this.

The organization further described efforts to suppress the news inside Russia:

Meanwhile, Russia’s top investigative body ordered a probe into those who it said were spreading “fakes” about the alleged atrocities. Under a newly passed law, anyone found guilty of distributing “fake” information about the Russian military faces up to 15 years in prison.

On Russia’s top search engine, Yandex, users are being warned that some results for “Bucha” have been omitted in compliance with Russian legislation, according to a screenshot shared by journalists.

On April 4 2022, open-source and anti-disinformation journalism collective Bellingcat examined claims about mass civilian deaths at the hands of Russian soldiers in Bucha. Bellingcat published a careful, detailed refutation of Russia’s assertions, citing “open source evidence [which] appears to run counter to claims of elaborate fakes and staged productions”:

Videos and photographs from Bucha, showing deceased individuals in civilian clothes, first appeared on social media channels on April 1 [2022].

This would again run counter to Russian claims of such evidence not appearing until April 3 [2022]. A video shared on Telegram at 6:18pm BST (8:18pm in Ukraine) and a video shared on Twitter at 9:02pm BST on April 1 [2022] show dead bodies lying on Yablunska Street in Bucha. Other videos from the same street published between April 1 and April 2 [2022] can be found here [link].

All videos show the same sections of the street, with the same corpses and wreckage visible in the same position.

Later on April 4 2022, additional confirmation in the form of satellite imagery of bodies in the streets of Bucha for “weeks” emerged:

On the afternoon of April 4 2022, the New York Times published “Satellite images show bodies lay in Bucha for weeks, despite Russian claims,” providing an analysis and timeline concerning the images –which directly conflicted with Russia’s attempts to deny the atrocities:

An analysis of satellite images by The New York Times rebuts claims by Russia that the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, occurred after its soldiers had left the town.

When images emerged over the weekend [ending April 3 2022] of the bodies of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha — some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head — Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied responsibility. In a Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry suggested that the bodies had been recently placed on the streets after “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30 [2022].

Russia claimed that the images were “another hoax” and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on what it called “provocations of Ukrainian radicals” in Bucha.

But a review of videos and satellite imagery by The Times shows that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.

According to the New York Times, many of the bodies seen in the images were visible on satellite footage captured as early as March 9 2022 — while Russia was, by its own admission, operating in Bucha:

One video filmed by a local council member on April 2 [2022] shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to The Times by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11 [2022], when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town … Further analysis shows that the [bodies] remained in those position[s] for over three weeks.

On April 3 and 4 2022, news of mass death in the Ukrainian city of Bucha came to global notice, quickly followed by Russian state media claims that the atrocities were “staged.” Independent analyses by outlets like Bellingcat and the New York Times invalidated Russia’s denials. Satellite imagery of Bucha proved that several of the bodies seen in the images “remained in those position[s]” from as early as March 9 2022.