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Written by Esha Krishnaswamy. Originally published by The Gray Zone
Once condemned by Ukrainian officials and imprisoned for sadistic torture and the rape of minors, leaders of the notorious Tornado Battalion are free under Volodymyr Zelensky’s orders.
After banning virtually his entire political opposition, publishing a blacklist of foreign journalists and academics accused of advancing “Russian propaganda,” and ramming through a law exempting 70% of Ukrainians from workplace protections, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy has freed from prison fascist militants convicted of some of the most heinous crimes the country has seen since World War II.
According to a July 11 report in Ukrainian media, Ruslan Onishenko, commander of the now-disbanded Tornado Battalion, was freed as part of President Zelensky’s scheme to release prisoners with combat experience. Along with an unwavering commitment to fascism, Onishenko is known as a psychopathic sadist who was involved in sexually assaulting children, brutally torturing prisoners, and murder.
Onishenko’s release follows a February 27 order by Zelensky to free other convicted former Tornado members like Danil “Mujahed” Lyashuk, a fanatic from Belarus who has openly emulated ISIS and boasted of torturing captives for sheer enjoyment. According to Zelensky‘s decree, prisoners with combat experience would be allowed to “compensate for their guilt” by fighting in the “hottest spots.”
Back in 2015, when the Ukrainian state provided official support to his Tornado Battalion, Onishenko texted two fellow “patriots,” Voldomor and Svetlana Savichuk, propositioning Svetlana Savichuk to “suck my cock in front of the [toddler] children.” (See screenshots of the conversation here). He also asked Savichuk to perform lewd acts on her children for his viewing pleasure. Despite the magnitude of his crimes, which included torture, murder, rape – including that of children – kidnapping, amputation, and more, Onishenko was sentenced to a mere 11 years in prison on April 11, 2017.
Now, after serving just five years of his sentence, the convicted predator has been freed by a president hailed by Western patrons as a defender of democracy.
Zelensky’s move is not just a signal of desperation as his military is ground down by Russian forces in the east. It extends the virtual impunity that Ukrainian battalions infested with hardened criminals and neo-Nazis have enjoyed for over eight years as official enforcers of the post-Maidan regime’s rule.
As regular units defect after Maidan, battalions fill the gap
Back in February 2014, when the US-backed Euromaidan coup drove out Ukraine’s democratically elected president, the new regime in Kiev faced a crisis. All across the country, military units and local governments were still filled with ethnic Russians and other supposedly “unpatriotic” elements. Ethnic Russian politicians mostly from the east were branded as “radical deputies” and kidnapped, hunted down or otherwise forced to flee.
On February 23, 2014 Oleksandr Valentynovych Turchynov became acting President of Ukraine and enacted sweeping legislation without an electoral or constitutional mandate. Across Ukraine, a majority of citizens refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new coup regime. Areas east of the Dnieper river inhabited by a large number of Russian speakers, Jews, Muslims, and other national minorities would soon become targets of right-wing paramilitaries like Onishenko’s Tornado battalion.
In the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, Mariupol, Odessa and Kharkiv, residents besieged local government buildings and buildings of the Ukrainian security services to create pressure for a referendum on independence. Neither the local military nor the police tried to stop these protesters.
According to a 2016 US military report:
Certainly, no armed resistance was met by the pro-Russian forces in the beginning. In fact, the true situation on the ground was even worse. According to the Ukrainian interior minister, up to 70 percent of police in the region had allowed or actively assisted the building takeovers.
When the post-Maidan government refused to give these citizens either a referendum or meaningful representation in the government, two of the eastern regional Oblasts, Donetsk and Lugansk, declared independence.
The post-Maidan government’s crisis of legitimacy grew when Ukrainian military units sent to Donetsk to quell the rebellion ended up defecting to the side of the anti-Maidan coup residents. Desperate to save his new regime, the unelected interim President Oleksandr Turchynov announced large-scale anti-terrorist operations in order to “quell the terrorists” in the east. Yet the Ukrainian military remained obstinate, largely refusing to follow Kiev’s orders.
In April 2014, the 25th separate airborne brigade of the High Mobility Assault Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was sent to Donetsk to wage war on its residents. However, in the words of the embittered interim-president Turchynov on April 17, 2014 at the Verkhovna Rada, “the 25th separate Airborne Brigade, whose military showed cowardice and surrendered arms, will be disestablished… The Defense Ministry has received this instruction.”
Turchynov sent a corresponding order to the Prosecutor-General’s office demanding the criminal punishment of the disobedient servicemen. While the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense denied that the brigade defected to the side of the separatists, the unit’s tanks began to fly the flag of the DNR, as even mainstream Western media reported.
Days after the interim President “disbanded” the 25th Brigade, the newly installed “deputy governor” of Dnipropetrovsk announced the formation of “special forces” in order to “protect the oblast” from falling into “Russia’s hands.” While the median Ukrainian salary for 2014 was 3480₴ ($117 USD), “volunteers” for these battalions, according to the Deputy Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Hennadiy Korban, received 29528₴ ($1000) per month. That’s nearly ten times the average salary in Ukraine.
After the loss of parts of the Oblasts of Lugansk and Donetsk and the entire peninsula of Crimea, Kiev believed that Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, with its large Russian-speaking population, would be the next Oblast to declare independence. Unable to rely on the Ukrainian military, nor the current police force, which they deemed to be “infiltrated by pro-Russian separatists,” Kiev officially deputized the fascistic paramilitary forces that functioned as street muscle during the Maidan coup.
In March 2014, Kiev passed a law establishing a “national guard” which was to be overseen by the Ministry of the Interior. With the consent of the then-Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kholmoisky bankrolled the creation of some of the country’s more notorious territorial defense forces. The first of these “special police battalions,” Dnipro-1, was born from the oligarch’s fortune. One of Kholmoisky’s deputies, Boris Filatov, stated that the goal of these special battalions was to “knit the country back together.”
Instead, the special battalions (Dobrobats) recruited from the core of Maidan activists who battled the deposed president’s riot police. Oleg Lyashko, a self-styled “people’s deputy” who founded the Radical Party and appeared on the main stage during the Euromaidan pro-coup rallies, attempted to establish his own Dobrobat named “Ukraine.” Because Lyaschko did not have the money to finance a formal battalion, his group would have to audition for support from oligarchs by volunteering to fight in the city of Torez in the Donetsk Oblast.
By this time, Ruslan Onishenko was known as a career criminal with three convictions for robbery, hooliganism, and unlawful imprisonment (kidnapping) under his belt. Born Ruslan Abalmaz, he adopted the family name of his wife, “Onishenko,” after Euromaidan. As a native of Torez, he became a central figure in the “test formation” of Lyashko’s new battalion.
The plan to retake Torez from the separatists failed, however, prompting Onishenko and his crew to flee to the neighboring city of Dnepropetrovsk, the home of billionaire Igor Kholmoisky. Eventually, with the support of Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov and his deputy, right-wing political fixer Anton Gerashenko, Onishenko was able to convince Kholmoisky to finance a new battalion called “Shaktorysk.”
In June 2014, a public relations campaign for the Shaktyorsk Battalion began on EspressoTv, the unofficial outlet of the “special battalions,” as well as on UkroTV, lionizing Onishenko as “the one man who struggles for the soul of the country”
That same month, Shaktorysk fighters underwent training under the auspices of the regional police headquarters. On July 8, 2014, the newly minted police unit officially “graduated” and took its oath of office before being posted to Mariupol.
According to former SBU agent turned whistleblower Vassily Prozorov, “From the decision of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to establish special police ‘patrol’ units within the structure of the ministry of the interior (MVD), these divisions began to appear like mushrooms after a rainy day.” The special battalions grew from only two in the days after Euromaidan to fifty-nine within several months.
Seven days before graduating from its training camp, Shaktoyrsk battalion members flaunted their sadistic tendencies. On July 1, just a week before the unit’s training ended, a local civilian named Ruslan Kyrenkov was visiting a friend’s house when he was accosted by “a gang of men with weapons.” They dragged him out of the home, claiming he was a separatist, and took him to one of their secret basement prisons. While his ordeal only lasted two days, he told this reporter, “it felt like fifteen days.”
Kyrenkov was tied to a chair, while a masked member of the battalion whipped out a blow torch and seared the flesh on the chest and arms. He was tortured for three days straight. Even today, he bears the scars of his torture. “They used to be much darker,” he said of his third degree wounds, “but now they have lightened up”
This is how they find separatists.
— Esha K (@eshaLegal) July 23, 2022
The Shaktoyrsk Battalion was hardly unique in its barbarism. Many of the special battalions operated with total impunity while their commanders raked in money by engaging in smuggling of virtually any good, knowing they could always establish a monopoly through brute violence.
For example, in July 2015, the Right Sektor operated a tobacco smuggling cartel in the city of Mukachevo. When a conflict erupted between two factions of the far-right unit, a shoot-out ensued, and police attempted to intervene.
According to the local prosecutor’s office:
On July 11 in Mukachevo at about 14:00, 20 armed persons in camouflage with the labels “Right Sector” and similar stickers on their automobiles came to an appointment with local residents in a cafe for the purpose of divvying up spheres of influence. A conflict broke out and the armed men began shooting from firearms at the above-mentioned establishment. According to preliminary information 6 policemen and 3 civilians suffered gunshot wounds of various degrees of severity. Five of the armed men with the ‘Right Sector’ labels also suffered injuries.”
However, Right Sektor members wound up escaping from the police, who were unable to disarm them. After the police pursued the armed gang, Right Sektor retaliated by taking a 6 year old boy hostage. In July 25 2015, after failing to disarm the Right Sektor, Interior Minister Arseniy Avakov suspended the police-chief in Mukachevo. Now the right-wing gang could not only pursue its tobacco smuggling activities without official harassment, it could decide who would be next to lead the local police.
Along with total impunity, the right-wing paramilitaries were provided with a seemingly endless store of weapons by the US. Then-comedian Zelensky made light of the trend in one of his nationally televised comedy routines. In one especially notable bit, Zelensky played a cop in the post-Maidan police whose sole qualification for the job was being the nephew of the police chief.
In Zelensky’s routine, a hapless unit of rookie cops accidentally blows up an expensive tank. “Don’t worry, America will replace it,” they declare with a casual shrug.
As president, Zelensky seems to have forgotten the damage done to his country by out-of-control, completely unaccountable Dobrobats – and has authorized their ongoing rampage.
Tornado forms amidst military failure
In August 2014, the Shakhtyorsk Battalion of Ruslan Onishenko participated in another ill-fated operation by the Ukrainian government to take back a separatist-controlled area, this time in the eastern town of Ilovaisk. In the end, the Ukrainian Dobrobats were surrounded by fighters from the Donetsk People’s Militia and forced to abort their mission. The painful defeat was a major factor in forcing Ukraine’s coup government into negotiations with the breakaway Donbass republics under the guidelines of the Minsk Accords.
Strangely, despite retreating with its collective tail between its legs, Onishenko’s Shakhtyorsk Battalion received a commendation from Interior Minister Arseny Avakov for its supposed bravery in Ilovaisk. Yet only a month later, in September 2014, President Poroshenko and other cabinet members suddenly handed down a decision to disband Shakhtyorsk, accusing it of looting.
In a confusing statement, Avakov declared, “While fighting beautifully within Ilovasky, the Shakhtyorsk battalion was disbanded under my orders because of many cases of looting in Volnovakha and other situations in nearby places.”
The Shakhtyorsk battalion was thus split into two groups: one which called itself “Saint Mary, and a second led by Onishenko called “Tornado,” which consisted largely of pro-Maidan residents of Lugansk and Donetsk, as well as some foreigners.
In the meantime, under four waves of mobilization in 2015, Ukraine attempted to expand its regular armed forces from 130,000 to the “official count” of 230,000. However, the haphazard nature of the recruitment only managed to entice soldiers who were unable to effectively engage in any combat operations. In March 2015, Yuri Birukov, one of the advisors to then-Ukrainian President and billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko, stated on Facebook that Ukraine managed to recruit a large number of “alcoholics, dodgers, drug addicts and morons.”
In the Donbass region in 2015 alone, the Ukrainian armed forces saw over 16,000 cases of desertion. Some of these defections occurred after a law passed that year which authorized commanding officers to legally shoot deserters.
The Ukrainian government was increasingly forced to turn to extremist Dobrobats like Tornado and psychotic leaders like Onishenko for help in battling the eastern separatists.
“This unit is out of control”: Ukrainian officials and State Department-sponsored human rights reports detail Tornado’s unbelievable sadism
Tornado, like the other Dobrobats, recruited a mix of far-right fanatics and hardened criminals. Its ranks included the Belarussian extremist Danil Lyashuk, who went by the call-sign “Mujahed” and has made claims claims about converting to Islam and supporting ISIS. While it is unclear whether Lyashuk actually served in ISIS, he has openly emulated the Islamist militia’s appetite for unhinged sadism. In one 2015 audio recording, Lyashuk proclaimed, “without torture, life isn’t living.” This became his motto.
Danil Lyashuk al-Takbir, known as “Mujahid” is a Belarusian far-right extremist, Muslim convert, and ISIS sympathizer who fought with the defunct Ukrainian MVS special unit “Tornado” Battalion in Donbass. In 2015, he was arrested for multiple war crimes and sentenced to 10 years. pic.twitter.com/yD0LvXiTdt
— Freelancers (@cbtfreelancers) June 30, 2021
Immediately after its official formation, some of the members of Tornado began selling their weapons on the black market. On November 2, 2014, six fighters from Tornado were recalled by Kiev, disarmed and reassigned to the eastern Oblast of Zaporizhya. There, they attempted to extort money from the mayor, Alexander Sin. However, he stood firm and demanded that the Tornado battalion be transferred out of his region. Sin was predictably met with accusations of corruption, separatism and treason by radical nationalist elements, but in the end, he secured the extremists’ transfer to the Lugansk Oblast, which was still under the control of Kiev in 2015.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Group authored a report on behalf of the US Department of State detailing the terror imposed on locals by Tornado’s “daily patrols” in Lugansk:
People wearing camouflage, carrying machine guns, knocked out doors, broke into private homes, conducted searches (without permission from judges), “requisitioned” valuables, humiliated and beat owners, and threatened to shoot them. They grabbed people from the streets and checkpoints, and with bags over their heads, they were taken to basements, where they “conducted work on identifying separatism” amongst the residents of the village.
The State Department-commissioned reported continued:
Many men were taken forcibly from their homes and taken under escort to the building of the railway hospital in Novaya Kondrashovka. Most of the detainees were released, but there have been cases of people disappearing after being illegally detained by battalion fighters. Between the summer of 2014 and the end of 2016, there were 11 known cases of missing residents of Stanytsia Luhanska.
On January 3, 2015, two Lugansk locals, Sergey Valuveskii and his friend, Kosta, fell victim to the Tornado battalion during a routine visit to a shop in the village of Mareko. To the locals’ astonishment, the store was filled with a column of men dressed in military gear, with their faces covered, bearing fully-loaded automatic rifles. Valuveskii told one of the masked men in the store, “You’re standing there with a machine gun and showing off in front of a girl.”
This seemingly innocuous comment was enough for the masked militiamen to drag both Valuveskii and Kosta out of the store and beat them senseless with the butts of their machine guns. Eventually, they were thrown inside of a van and taken to a basement of the hospital in Novaya Kondrashova. After two weeks of torture, he returned home so disfigured that his wife was unable to recognize him.
While Onishenko now roams free thanks to Zelensky’s official order, several Lugansk locals who incurred his unit’s wrath remain in prison on the most specious grounds. A particularly disturbing example of Tornado’s cruelty occurred following an explosion at a checkpoint in the town of Stanitsa Luganskaya that killed a 36-year-old soldier in January 2015. A full month after the deadly blast, the Tornado Battalion detained a 65-year old pensioner named Nikolay Ruban. According to claims by Markiyan Lubkivsky, adviser to the chairman of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency, the pensioner was caught “red-handed” carrying a “TNT” and a fuse concealed in a jar of honey.
Nikolay Ruban was subsequently tortured in an underground make-shift prison maintained by the Tornado battalion, according to a fellow prisoner’s account.
“I saw him, this grandfather, who was later convicted for holding a jar of honey at a roadblock,” the former cellmate told the Kharkiv Human Rights Group. “He was also in the basement of Motobond at the same time we were detained. First of all, the grandfather was beaten badly. He was almost naked and completely barefoot. His clothes were torn. He was crying all the time and asked me to explain why he was detained. They came to beat him every two hours. Different people came in each time. When [a cellmate] and I were released, he was still there. So were the other prisoners. What happened to them afterwards,I don’t know. When it became known that he was sentenced to 15 years, I was shocked.”
Ruban was soon transferred to the custody of SBU, where after a year, during a highly suspect trial in which the lone piece of evidence was his possession of a jar of honey, he was sentenced to 15 years of prison for committing acts of terrorism. He also apparently confessed to being a Russian spy who had contacts with the GRU.
Another local named Sergey Petrinko claimed that the Tornado Battalion “took him and a friend in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon.” In the battalion’s dungeon, he lost track of time and fell into a terrified stupor. “Some were always there,” Petrinko recalled. “Some were brought in, some were taken away, some were ransomed.” He also testified that foxes in the woods had dug up bones of another acquaintance whose corpse was dumped after dying in Tornado’s torture chamber.
On top of these acts of cruelty, Tornado battalion members have boasted of extreme sexual violence, including the rape of small children. It was the unit’s penchant for perversion that likely prompted the June 2015 Interior Ministry order to disband them.
However, the Ukrainian government was in for a surprise when it realized it did not have the authority to control these battalions after all. Following the order to disband and search the bases of Tornado, deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashenko appeared on the pro-opposition Channel 112 to complain about the extremist paramilitary he had personally deputized. ”There is a court order to search the base where the Tornado battalion is located,” Gerashenko stated. “If someone allows himself not to comply with the court order, in this case, this unit is out of control.”
Later, in June 18, 2015, the chief military prosecutor Anatoliy Matios reported that the Tornado fighters refused to disarm and barricaded themselves inside their base in a school in Severodonetsk.
The Ukrainian authorities were finally able to arrest Onishenko at the Donetsk airport. His brothers-in-arms responded by refusing for several days to obey orders from Kiev, blocking investigators from entering their base to conduct searches, and threatening armed resistance if law enforcement attempted to do so with the use of force.
In the midst of the crisis, Gennadiy Moskal, then-chairman of the Lugansk Military-Civil Administration, reported that the Tornado battalion fighters had taken up defensive positions and deployed military equipment in preparation for a battle with Kiev. Eventually, after sending other Ukrainian military units, the rogue battalion was finally quelled and its members arrested.
A real life horror film unfolds at the Tornado battalion’s trial
Following the arrests, the Ukrainian chief prosecutor found evidence of hideous crimes committed by various members of the Battalion. On the phone of Daniel “Mujahed” Lyshook, the prosecutor found a video (at 2:23) of two other members of the Tornado battalion raping a third man in two separate orifices. Lyshook claimed during his trail that he ordered the horrific rape because he found it amusing.
During the 2016 trials, another kidnapped victim testified that he was chained to a giant yellow ball for weeks (see after the 10 minute mark). The court proceedings also brought forth sickening images from the phones of the Tornado fighters showing disfigured women and rotting corpses littering military bases.
The trial of the Tornado battalion saw testimony by 111 witnesses along with evidence scattered within the areas of Lugansk, at least 80 bodies, attributable to Tornado violence. The judges were overwhelmed with pictures of mutilated genitalia, castrations and other forms of sexual torture.
One witness exhibited a scar on his arm: a penis and two testicles sadistically etched onto his left arm by a Tornado member with a carving knife (see photo above). In the gallery, a mother was forced to hear testimony of how her son was brutally raped by the battalion before he was killed. Witnesses described how a ten-year old girl was kidnapped for ransom and repeatedly raped on film until she died a little over a week after she was seized.
The government of Kiev reacted with obligatory condemnation of the Tornado goons, painting them as a collection of bad apples that did not reflect on the overall character of the Ukrainian military.
Tatyana Chornovil, a Euromaidan activist and former member of the ultra-nationalist Aidar Battalion, took to channel 112 shortly before the trial to issue a dramatic declaration: “The Tornado commanders were arrested and their cell phones were seized. This is a video of various sexual orgies, rapes. And I would even say that there were newborn babies. I understand that the mother with this newborn was forced to do this under the threat of death of her child. There were rapes of underage girls. These are animals, not people.”
Now, Zelensky is letting the “animals” out of their cages under the cover of war.
Though Tornado’s members represent some of the wildest beasts to have stalked the public, 58 other battalions just like it remain operational across Ukraine.