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Russia used "starvation tactics" against Ukraine civilians, investigators claim in new war crime allegation

Training for the frontlines of war in Ukraine
Ukraine battalion training for redeployment to the frontlines 02:40

An investigation carried out by an international nonprofit law firm in partnership with Ukrainian prosecutors has accused Russian forces of using starvation as a weapon of war against Ukrainian civilians during the early stages of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The "Starvation Mobile Justice Team team," from the Global Rights Compliance human rights law firm, which is working in partnership with the office of Ukraine's prosecutor general, said Friday that its investigation had focused largely on "starvation tactics" allegedly used by Russian forces in Chernihiv, a northern region that came under siege during the first three months of the invasion. 

"From our initial investigations into Russia's starvation crimes in Ukraine, the evidence is pointing towards a deliberate plan carefully designed to undermine and attack the very foundation and societal fabric of Ukrainians, subjecting them to inhumane living conditions," said Catriona Murdoch, a British lawyer who led the team.

The investigators accused Russia of using various methods to cut off Ukrainian civilians' access to food and water.

Russians using food as weapon in eastern Ukraine 02:28

"Armed sieges, obstruction of humanitarian access, pillaging of agricultural machinery and harvests, shelling of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and the blockade of ports and grain, are among barbaric starvation tactics being used by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his forces to break the Ukrainian people," the investigators said.

The team said Russia had carried out aerial attacks on critical water infrastructure throughout Chernihiv, and a bombardment it said had resulted in civilian casualties close to a hospital where people were lining up for water after local infrastructure was damaged by the strikes.

Men walk past a residential building damaged by Russian shelling in the city of Chernihiv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022.
Men walk past a residential building damaged by Russian shelling in the city of Chernihiv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty

Russia has previously been accused of deliberately targeting Ukrainian food supplies and production, including during the siege of on the key port of Mariupol, and Murdoch told CBS News her team's findings were "just the tip of the iceberg in Putin's calculated plan to terrorize, subjugate and kill Ukrainian people."

"There's been such a large focus on Mariupol that some of these other areas that have been besieged around the same time have sort of been overlooked," she said.

CBS News visited the front-line eastern town of Kupyansk in March and found Russia's assault on Ukrainian agriculture still well underway. Anatoliy Kozar, 70, didn't even flinch at the sound of the artillery as he showed CBS News around his obliterated 12,000-acre farm in the outlying agricultural community of Petropavlivka.

Anatoliy Kozar, 70, speaks with CBS News on his destroyed farm complex on the outskirts of Kubyansk, eastern Ukraine, in March 2023. CBS News

Wisps of smoke rose from scattered piles of smoldering grain at the entrance to his farm.

"We don't have anything that is not destroyed," Kozar told CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio. "No wheat, no corn, no pigs. Nothing left. No equipment, no warehouses."

Deliberately trying to starve civilian populations as a method of warfare is deemed a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Ukraine's prosecutor general's office has said it has registered over 88,000 incidents of suspected war crimes by Russian forces since the war began. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that its troops commit war crimes and insisted that it only targets military sites and infrastructure in Ukraine, despite significant evidence to the contrary.

New evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine 08:25

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March over alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine over the last 15 months.

The Global Rights Compliance team, which is made up of international criminal and war crimes experts, used a combination of first-hand and open source intelligence gathering, legal analysis and the consultation of weapons experts to reach its findings. 

Murdoch said her team was granted crucial early access to Chernihiv after the region was liberated by Ukrainian forces in April 2022.

"It means that we have really good access in relation to investigations that are ongoing there by the government," Murdoch said. "Where we have field access, we will go and speak to prosecutors and investigators there, speak to the war crimes units involved, to see what information and evidence they may have."

The firm said it had also identified evidence of widespread, indiscriminate Russian shelling of residential areas, hospitals and supermarkets, with specific new information on the March 2022 murder of civilians who had lined up for bread outside a supermarket in Chernihiv city.

Russian forces brutally attack civilians in Ukraine 03:07

Videos posted to social media of the apparent aftermath of the bread line attack [featured in the CBS News report above], showed a number of bodies lying on the ground.

Murdoch told CBS News her team had analyzed high quality drone imagery of the area from just before the attack, and "you can see very clearly the queuing up of civilians, that they clearly look like civilians — they don't look like a military formation — you can see very clearly that this was a clear distribution point outside of a supermarket."

While initial reports, including from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, suggested the victims had been hit by small arms fire, Murdoch said her team had determined that two larger, relatively imprecise weapons — GRAD rocket launchers and Howitzer artillery pieces – may have been used by Russian forces in the attack on the Chernihiv bread line.

"These types of weapons are not something that you would be using for a specific military target," she said. "You'd be using something much more precise."

Murdoch said it was vital to meticulously document Russia's alleged war crimes to ensure eventual accountability.

"It is imperative that these crimes are fully investigated so that we can create a bedrock of truth and a historical record which can be used both to counter Russia's lies, and to find justice for Ukraine's victims and the survivors of these crimes," she told CBS News.

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