Terror tactics of Putin thugs: Beatings, kidnap and pitiless repression

Published by The Daily Mail (18th March, 2022)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mykola Khalupenko opened the first winery in Ukraine built along the lines of a French vineyard.

He worked hard to win an international reputation for his bountiful bottles of Chateau Kurin.

But now this celebrated Ukrainian winemaker is distraught. His lifetime’s work has been wrecked by Russian troops who moved into his hotel, threatened to shoot his family, stole all their belongings and burned down their vines.

‘They wanted to execute us,’ said Khalupenko, 71, describing the atrocities after Vladimir Putin’s troops moved through his village of Stepanivka. ‘We ran away. We took nothing. We had nothing to take since they took everything from us.’

His family had spent three decades nurturing Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Saperavi grapes on their 125 acres of land and building a thriving business – but their efforts were destroyed in days after Russian troops invaded from Crimea.

‘The Russians started taking everything they wanted,’ he said. ‘They took the machinery, the cars, our belongings, our laptops, even our phones. They took the wines from the cellars, stole all the wine. They were robbing us and we could not say anything.’ 

His voice breaking, Mykola seemed on the verge of tears as he recalled the horror. ‘We are safe now, but the vineyard is on fire,’ he said. ‘I built it with my own hands, all of our family built it – and they just burned it.’

One more family shattered by Vladimir Putin’s forces as evidence grows that the Kremlin and its troops are turning to hostage-taking, looting, theft and wanton destruction as their struggling invasion meets a ferocious Ukrainian response.

The Russian president planned a rapid blitzkrieg to capture the country, then – just as he did in the separatist Donbas region eight years ago – to subvert local leadership, suppress dissent and install his repressive regime.

But from the Belarus border in the north to the Sea of Azov in the south, Putin’s forces have found frenzied resistance. In the captured regions, brave flag-waving residents have marched through streets and shouted abuse at the invaders.

This has led to the beating and disappearance of civic leaders such as politicians, activists and journalists in a desperate attempt to enforce collaboration.

‘They are using intimidation,’ said Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Centre for Civil Liberties. ‘We’re seeing so many reports of people being threatened, some beaten and detained. It is the first stage of something terrible.’

Galina Lugovaya, secretary of the city council in Kherson in southern Ukraine – the only major city so far captured by the Russians – fled her street during shelling on the invasion’s first day only to discover that her home had been burned down deliberately on Sunday.

Neighbours saw two men running away after throwing an explosive device into the building. ‘I put my whole life into that house,’ said Lugovaya. ‘I built it with my own hands. This was intentional. Now I think I am on the list for physical extermination.’

Yesterday the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, revealed that he was free after being detained for six days, during which time Galina Danilchenko, a pro- Russian councillor, assumed control of the city in south-eastern Ukraine and told people to ‘adapt’ to their new reality.

At least seven other senior local officials have been seized, including the mayor of another city who was grabbed on the same day as Fedorov. The leader of a community near Kharkiv, in north-east Ukraine, was abducted yesterday.

Fedorov was marched from the centre of Melitopol by armed men with a plastic bag over his head. He was released after being swapped for nine Russian conscripts taken as prisoners of war, although other local activists remain missing.

‘I thank Melitopol residents who were not afraid to defend their position, go to rallies and declare that we – Ukrainians – are free people,’ said Fedorov in a statement. 

One of those who took part in the Melitopol protests in support of the mayor was Natalya, 35, who told the Daily Mail that the Russians have unleashed ‘terror’ on the city to thwart their demonstrations and create a climate of fear.

‘We were coming into the streets to say that we do not agree with the occupation – that we are Ukrainians and we do not need to be “saved”,’ she said.

On Monday armed forces blocked their access to the city’s central square, dragging away one man with a Ukrainian flag who was badly beaten, along with two other citizens who have not been seen since.

The next day Natalya was told that she was not allowed on the streets holding a bag in the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine’s flag.  When she queried the decision, asking Russian security forces if they were ‘fascists’, she was put on a police bus.

‘They started beating people up with batons and sprayed tear gas and put some more people in police cars. They were severely beating people and handcuffing them. One man lost consciousness – we were afraid that he might die.

‘At the same time, they were emptying people’s pockets taking their money, wallets, mobile phones. They took us out of the city and dumped us in a field 25 kilometres outside Melitopol. We walked three hours back to the city.’

Now the protests have stopped. Natalya said many people were missing and women were scared to be in the streets alone. ‘People are so afraid – they know that the occupants are kidnapping and beating people,’ said Natalya. 

‘They feel like they can do anything here. They tell us that it’s Russia here now, not Ukraine.’

She claimed the Russians have brought in ‘thugs’ from the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. ‘They are always drunk walking in the streets,’ she said. ‘We’ve heard that they were brought here to rob and loot.’

Kyiv alleged that Russia has sent in top-level security operatives to crush dissent and ensure compliance of the local population in places such as Kherson. 

Konstantin Ryzhenko, a journalist in Kherson, claimed that specialist security forces have lists of activists who either oppose occupation, have shown support for Ukraine or shared details of Russian military movements.

‘I was told several times that they were specifically looking for me,’ he said. ‘They know which floors to go to, which doors to knock and which apartments to search.’

Missing journalists include Oleg Baturin, who has not been seen since leaving his home in Kherson region on Saturday to attend a meeting. 

‘This is pure terror,’ said another journalist, currently in hiding in a captured town in the Luhansk region.

Oleksandr Starukh, head of Zaporizhia Regional Administration, said they have seen regular kidnapping reports and business leaders being taken hostage for ransom. 

‘There are multiple reports of looting and robbery in the occupied territories,’ he added. ‘Russians steal food, gasoline, medical supplies from homes, shops and even stop the cars of the refugees.’

He said even women and children fleeing the horrifying bombardment of Mariupol were being stopped at checkpoints by soldiers to steal their food and possessions. ‘They are robbing civilians trying to escape.’ 

This matches a raft of claims that Russian troops are stealing food, looting homes, taking cars and raiding shops in seized areas following reports their forces are running out of supplies due to the logistics failures that have blunted their attack.

Ukraine claims the Russian army has been told to ‘switch to self-sufficiency’, which it terms ‘Kremlin-sanctioned looting’. 

One video widely shared – and mocked – on social media even shows soldiers chasing after chickens in a village smallholding.

Distressed families arriving in Zaporizhia from Russian-held areas have talked about roving bands of starving, undisciplined troops shooting unarmed people, scavenging food from shops and pillaging homes for any valuables they can find.

‘They just brazenly come in, without any shame and take whatever they want,’ said one woman in her sixties, who spent several days hiding in a cellar with her daughter and grandson as occupying troops ransacked houses.

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