On July 29, an explosion tore through part of a Russian-operated prison near Olenivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. Fifty-three Ukrainian prisoners of war perished; 75 were wounded.
Ukrainian authorities have called for an international investigation into the incident, for which they believe Russia is responsible. But Russia accused Ukraine of attacking its own.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the explosion was from a U.S.-provided weapon known as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).
“Tonight, the Kyiv regime deliberately carried out a bloody provocation,” said spokesman Igor Konashenkov. “A missile strike from an American HIMARS multiple launch rocket system was delivered against the pre-trial detention center in the village of Olenivka, which contains Ukrainian prisoners of war, including militants of the Azov formation. 40 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed and 75 wounded.”
The attack claim is likely false. Ukraine unequivocally denied firing at the center, and available assessments and evidence point to Russia as the culpable party.
For starters, there is a puzzling contradiction in the Russian accounts. Konashenkov said “eight employees of the detention center received injuries of varying degrees of severity," but local separatist authorities claimed that no employees of the center were hurt.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) said that, based on videos, the explosion appeared to have come from inside the building housing the prisoners, noting that windows in some rooms of the prison “survived completely.”
“This indicates that the epicenter of the explosion was inside the destroyed building, and its walls ‘extinguished’ the blast waves and ‘protected’ the neighboring premises,” the SBU told Ukranian media. The SBU also cited intercepted phone calls suggesting explosives had been planted in the building.
Military commentator Thomas Theiner was among those who noted that satellite photos released by Maxar Technologies on July 30 show no debris outside the exploded building – which would be unlikely if the building had been hit by a HIMARS-launched rocket.
“The M31 unitary warhead is optimized for blast effect – blasts that rip meter long pieces out of railway steel rails and throw them 100m through the air ... No debris outside = no GMLRS detonation inside,” Theiner wrote on Twitter, referring to HIMARS.
On August 1, POLITICO cited two anonymous U.S. officials who similarly said there is no evidence the facility was struck by HIMARS. “We know Ukraine didn’t attack the site with HIMARS because the site doesn’t have the indications it would have if it were hit with HIMARS,” one of the officials said.
Six experts consulted by The Washington Post came to the same conclusion: The available images of the destroyed prison building were inconsistent with a HIMARS attack.
The lack of HIMARS blast evidence is significant, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), because HIMARS is the only munition Ukraine has that could strike so precisely.
“Satellite and other imagery from the site indicate that the attack only damaged one building, did not collapse the walls of that building, and did not leave any shell craters in the vicinity, very strongly suggesting that the destruction of the prison was the result of either a precision strike or an internally planted incendiary or explosive,” the ISW reported.
Most of the prisoners killed in the Olenivka prison explosion were soldiers of the Azov regiment, a division of the Ukrainian army especially despised by Russia. On August 3, Russia's top court had designated the Azov regiment a terrorist organization. Russian officials have tried to cast Azov fighters as neo-Nazis, a claim Ukraine denies.
Ukraine maintains that Russia’s FSB security agency and Wagner Group private military contractor staged the explosion in Olenivka. According to Ukrainian intelligence officials, the goal was to cover up the torture and beatings of Azov regiment soldiers.
In early August, The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper published reports citing humanitarian aid volunteers who’d been detained in the Olenivka facility and released. The reports said that the building where the Ukrainian POWs died was separate from where other captives were held.
According to these ex-prisoners, the Ukrainian fighters were transferred to an abandoned warehouse, the building that was later destroyed. In an interview with The Guardian, one of the aid volunteers, Ukrainian Anna Vorosheva, described torture and inhumane treatment of Azov prisoners. She said she had no doubt Russia “cynically and deliberately” killed them.
The Azov regiment soldiers were the last defenders of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel complex in mid-May. Vorosheva told the Guardian:
“The atmosphere changed when around 2,000 Azov fighters were bussed in on the morning of 17 May, she said. Russian flags were raised and the DNR colors taken down. Guards were initially wary of the new prisoners. Later they talked openly about how they were going to brutalize and humiliate them, she said.
“We were frequently called Nazis and terrorists. One of the women in my cell was an Azovstal medic. She was pregnant. I asked if I could give her my food ration. I was told, ‘No, she’s a killer’. The only question they ever asked me was, ‘Do you know any Azov soldiers?’”
According to the Post, the Olenvika detention center was formally known as Correction Facility No. 120 and was reopened by pro-Russian forces shortly before the invasion began at the end of February:
“Two of the aid volunteers told The Post that they had heard ‘cries, awful sounds’ while at Olenivka, where cells designed for a half-dozen people were sometimes packed with as many as 30. The [volunteers] left the prison in mid-July after a grass-roots campaign by a European initiative won their release.
A man named Dmitry, whom The Post is identifying only by his first name because of concerns for the safety of relatives living under Russian occupation, said he spent weeks in a cage in the prison’s detention center and witnessed multiple ‘initiation rituals’ of newly arrived Ukrainian soldiers.
"The new prisoners were told to disrobe and kneel with their heads pressed against a wall as guards beat them with batons, according to Dmitry. Then they were forced to crawl upstairs before being pushed into their cells by a kick in the back, he said.”
After the explosion, the International Committee of the Red Cross requested access to the Olenivka detention facility. Russia declined, and as of August 7 neither the ICRC nor other independent investigators had been granted access. Russian state media broadcast video of the destroyed building showing burned human remains and twisted metal beds.
On August 4, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, citing intelligence reports, said Russia might be planting false evidence at the scene to deflect blame.
“We anticipate that Russian officials will try to frame the Ukrainian Armed Forces in anticipation of journalists and potential investigators visiting the site of the attack," Kirby said, according to The Associated Press.
Separately, an unnamed Western government official said experts who have reviewed visuals of the site released by the Russians said the explosion was “much more likely to be incendiary and from inside the location,” the AP reported.