Russian investigators on Thursday said they had opened more than 1,100 cases into “crimes against peace” committed by the Ukrainian government, paving the way for what could turn into a mass show trial of hundreds of Ukrainian service members.
From the start, Russia has justified its invasion of Ukraine with a false claim that the government in Kyiv is controlled by far-right, pro-Nazi groups that have perpetrated “humiliation and genocide” against the Ukrainian people.
Announcing the invasion in February, President Vladimir V. Putin claimed the purpose of the offensive was to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians.”
Russian investigators are now moving forward with cases against Ukrainian soldiers, fulfilling Mr. Putin’s promise. The servicemen include members of the Azov regiment, whose roots in far-right movements have offered a veneer of credibility for Mr. Putin’s tenuous claims that Ukraine has been infected with Nazism.
Beyond holding trials to support its narrative of the war, the Kremlin might also turn the fate of these prisoners into a powerful bargaining chip in any future talks with Kyiv.
The Investigative Committee, the country’s top investigative body, said in a statement that hundreds of Ukrainian service members, including more than 200 officers, had already been interrogated. Among them were those captured at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
On Tuesday, Sergei K. Shoigu, the country’s defense minister, said Russia currently is holding 6,489 Ukrainian prisoners of war. Around 2,500 servicemen were captured at the Azovstal plant, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday.
The investigators have interviewed more than 75,000 people described as victims. On Thursday, they reported about their progress to Aleksandr Bastrykin, the agency’s head, who came to Mariupol to preside over a meeting with them. Mr. Bastrykin ordered his subordinates to speed up the process.
“These are not simple street sweepers, drivers and cooks,” Mr. Bastrykin told those at the meeting, referring to the prisoners. “These are commanders.”
Together with forensic experts, investigators have formed 30 mobile groups that began to scour through the city of Mariupol “block by block” looking for evidence, the investigators said.
On its website, the Investigative Committee opened a special section, listing dozens of Ukrainian servicemen and government officials that it had accused of committing crimes.