But Tornado outdid the latter in the heinousness of its crimes. The Kiev government released the sadists from this battalion in March and sent them to the front.
In the summer of 2015, Ukraine witnessed a scandal over the Tornado battalion – men who’d only recently been hailed as "ATO heroes"
were being called criminals. Perhaps what was most surprising is who called them that: the country's chief military prosecutor and minister of internal affairs.
Material presented by the Ukrainian media, prosecutors and human rights activists show that Tornado fighters robbed, tortured, and raped men and women and killed Ukrainian civilians. Some members of the national battalion have been accused of paedophilia.
Popular opinions were split: some, despite the evidence of crimes against Ukrainian civilians, believed in the innocence of the former "national heroes", while others wanted a fair trial and retribution. Both agreed that a public trial was needed. However, it was decided that the trials would be held behind closed doors. The victims included male and female rape victims who asked to remain anonymous. Moreover, survivors and witnesses of torture were simply afraid to testify against their torturers. The victims did not believe that the same authorities who had thrown them to the mercy of the Tornado fighters would give the battalion a fair trial: “today they are behind bars and tomorrow they'll be free – taking revenge on those who dared to testify against them” (spoiler: indeed that is what happened – the defendants were later released).
Since the beginning, the court was under enormous pressure from politicians, neo-Nazis and "brothers in arms". They repeatedly tried to storm the courthouse. The truth about their methods of "working with civilians" was too shocking to justify.
When Did the Tornado Battalion Emerge, and Who Joined It?
The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs established the Tornado battalion in September 2014 from the personnel of the “Shakhtyorsk” national battalion, who were disbanded due to allegations of looting and crimes against the population.
This prompted bewilderment and outrage during the trial in the summer of 2015 among some of the authorities: how could it be that a special police unit had recruited criminals, and who could have allowed this to happen? Nevertheless, the formation of the new national battalion was not kept secret.
The public learned about the crimes of the Shakhtyorsk battalion almost straight away. For example, a report by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, a Ukrainian human rights organisation, and the Truth Hounds, another human rights organisation, describes an incident involving the abduction by Shakhtyorsk fighters of several residents of Marinka, who were first used as human shields
to provide cover from sniper fire. Then, according to the reports, they were held for some time with plastic bags over their heads, subjected to beatings and forced to do hard, dirty work.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov personally disbanded Shakhtyorsk. Here is how he commented on his actions on Ukrainian television:
"The Shakhtyorsk battalion, having fought beautifully at Ilovaisk, was disbanded by ministerial order because of repeated incidents of looting in Volnovakha and other instances".
In other words, he knew of at least some of the crimes, and even then, in 2014, the obvious criminals were deliberately not put on trial and were never punished, but simply assigned to other "volunteer battalions" (ed. note – Sputnik).
What Exactly Were the Tornado Fighters Accused of?
The national battalion was stationed in the part of the Lugansk region which was under Ukrainian control (not to be confused with the LPR - Sputnik). Residents had been contacting the police and even other national battalions about the "lawlessness" and crimes of the Tornado fighters practically from the very start.
Eventually, several months later, in mid-June 2015, Hennadiy Moskal, the head of the Kiev-controlled administration of Lugansk, demanded that the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies disarm the Tornado battalion and remove it from Lugansk region. In other words, the regional authorities asked Kiev to disarm those who were sent to protect civilians. To get rid of the “defenders”. This is what Moskal said on 112 Ukraine TV at the time:
"They were sent by the Interior Ministry. How could someone recruit a gang into a battalion? They were first sent to Stanitsa Luganskaya, and when I first arrived, dear mother, I heard quite enough: they had kidnapped two people who had a large sum of money. We never found those people and we believe they are no longer alive. I do not know whether the military prosecutor's office knows this fact. Things were getting so bad that they would go along the street, smash up all the houses, and take everything. People live so poor there, anyone who has been to Stanitsa Luganskaya knows that it reminds of Stalingrad because everything is smashed and bombed, they took away juice from a 10-month-old baby; I have no words to describe that".
By this point, the Tornado radicals became so convinced of their ability to operate with impunity that they proceeded to block rail freight traffic in the region. They justified their rail terrorism by citing "the struggle against smuggling, corruption and illegal arms trade". However, neither the names of the generals who smuggled weapons into the LPR and DPR, nor any evidence were provided by the Tornado members, either during the trial or afterwards.
On 17 June 2015, eight members of the battalion, including battalion commander Ruslan Onishchenko, were detained. The next day, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signed an order to disband the Tornado battalion.
The Tornado members themselves did not accept this decision. They barricaded themselves in their base (the school premises), booby-trapped the approaches and said they were ready to use weapons in the event of an assault.
The then Chief Military Prosecutor of Ukraine Anatoliy Matios commented situation:
“Those 170 people, of whom 100 are now officially registered with the police, and about 70 are unidentified people, are armed and staying on the territory of the base...
...If this situation is not resolved today or tomorrow, it will be what it should be under the law. You can call it a disarmament operation. Whichever one you like, the code does not define it as an assault. It is the termination of the implementation of criminal actions.”
Matios reported that every fourth Tornado fighter had a criminal record. Onishchenko was previously prosecuted five times for serious and particularly serious crimes. He’d served time in prison twice and was a member of an organised crime group.
The law enforcers did not dare to storm the building. It is unknown what they really agreed upon with the Tornado fighters, but later Avakov said that the battalion obeyed his orders and respected discipline and order.
What Criminal Charges Did the Tornado Fighters Face?
Here are just some of the charges the Tornado fighters were tried on:
driving a person to suicide or attempted suicide
sexual indulgence in perverse forms committed by physical or psychological coercion
abuse of power and official authority by a law enforcement officer
abduction and unlawful deprivation of liberty
There are no charges under the article “murder” among those listed. The explanation is simple – no bodies were found, and so far, all the victims have been reported missing. Despite the enormous amount of circumstantial evidence, it is very difficult to prove murder unless a body is found. The legal counsels and the Tornado members themselves used this catch.
The case itself was reported to consist of 86 volumes.
As stated earlier, the court was under enormous pressure. Radical politicians, members of neo-Nazi movements and ATO veterans, who were convinced that the charges were fabricated, demanded an open trial. It should be recalled that the victims and survivors of the crimes, first and foremost, the raped men, asked for a closed trial.
At one point, the campaign to protect these “Heroes of ATO” in the press and on social media gained such momentum that Chief Military Prosecutor of Ukraine Anatoliy Matios decided to reveal the atrocities of the Tornado fighters live on 112 Ukraine TV.
The Protocol I described the events of 17-23 March 2015.
“In mid-March, when I was near the driveway, a bus pulled up and three men in camouflage uniforms got out and forcibly took me into the minibus. They did not talk to me and did not explain the reason for my detention. At 10 p.m., we were brought to the school building in our village, where the Tornado battalion was stationed, which everyone knew about, and put me in the basement. They promised to feed us three times a day and give us cigarettes. If we refused to work, they threatened to shoot us. After a while, a man, holding a grey plastic pipe, came in and started hitting the detainees present on their buttocks and thighs.
From around 17.03.2015 to 23.03.2015, members of the Tornado battalion, I am sure of it, regularly brought various men to the basement, who were systematically beaten. They hit them repeatedly with their hands, feet, plastic pipes and other objects, mainly on their legs, buttocks and intimate areas. The men were also subjected to torture with an object similar to an electric generator. In the basement, the men were stripped naked, placed on a concrete floor, and doused with water. Then they (Tornado members) used bare current-carrying wires to touch various parts of the prisoners’ bodies, such as the temples, the penis and the scrotum. The men screamed violently. The officers in question consumed marijuana about six or seven times in our presence by consuming it through a makeshift water bong”.
“The said events and torture were recorded by Tornado members on mobile phones. Moreover, one of the Tornado officers, threatening to kill the detainee, forced him to suck and lick a plastic pipe. According to him, the detainee was forced to imitate sexual intercourse and pretend to suck a penis. The detainees were also forced to rape each other anally and orally. All in all, I was kept in the basement for 17 days.”
“If we refused to work, the Tornado members threatened to kill us. The battalion commander hit us with a plastic pipe and organised our beatings. Until 23 March, armed members of the Tornado battalion brought various men to the basement, where they were systematically beaten, tortured with a field phone powered by a generator, stripped naked, placed on the concrete floor and poured water on them from plastic bottles. Afterwards, by rotating the metal handle of the telephone, bare wires were pressed against various parts of the body. Such torture was carried out with two stun guns, which were applied to every man in the presence of Tornado battalion fighters. One of the detainees was forced to suck and lick a plastic tube and imitate oral sex and pretend to suck a penis. They tied him to a support (a sports tool), beat him with their hands and feet and with a plastic rod, poured water on him and tortured him with electric shocks, made him dance naked and sing songs to them, do push-ups off the floor and squat with a 24 kg yellow kettlebell. The detainees in my presence were forced to rape each other at gunpoint. In total, I was kept in the basement for 17-18 days”.
"Throughout my detention in the basement, I do not remember the exact number of days, but for more than 15, the police came to the basement several times a day, tied me to a support, beat me with their hands and feet, poured water on me, and tortured me with electric shocks. Furthermore, I was forced to do humiliating chores every day, cleaning toilets, collecting cigarette butts, and so on. To prevent me from running away, they put metal handcuffs on my leg, which they attached to a 24 kg kettlebell. On one day, another detainee and I were forced, under threat of murder, to rape a third detainee who was stripped naked and tied to a support. I was standing on the side of his head, as they demanded that I put my penis into the mouth of the tied man and the other into his anus. Two Tornado members recorded the process I mentioned on mobile phones".
The Kharkov Human Rights Protection Group Report
Most of the citizens who experienced the so-called "mop-up" refused to describe their stories in writing, fearing for their safety. During the fight against the "separatists", almost every resident of the settlement went through the illegal detention facilities organised by the Tornado battalion members.
On 10 February 2015, fighters from the Tornado battalion and the Chernigov special police battalion led by SBU officers detained a pensioner M, who lived in the so-called LPR-controlled territory, at a checkpoint in Stanitsa Luganskaya settlement, Lugansk region. Immediately after the detention, they stripped the man down to his underwear, searched him, and hit him several times without finding anything.
The elderly man was put in the basement, where there were eight other people besides him. After some time, they took him out of the basement ("the pit") and while he was in a sitting position, some unidentified individuals beat his legs and back with an iron pipe. They tried to make him confess to having detonated an explosion at a military checkpoint, which he did not do. After the beating, they dragged the man to the “pit” as he fainted several times. After the brutal beating, he was in a painful condition and could not orientate himself in time, so he cannot clearly remember the sequence of events. In addition, he was in the basement in darkness and could not observe the change of day and night.
An eyewitness to the detention of the elderly man in the basement was Ms H., the business manager of the Stanitsa Luganskaya settlement council, who was held in the same room for several hours, together with the detainee, and accidentally witnessed his ill-treatment.
Later, SBU officers deceived Mr M. by promising to exchange him for the UAF fighters who were being held captive by illegal armed groups, and forced him to testify about his involvement in terrorist activities. It was not until 20 February 2015 that the detainee was transferred, as specified in the investigating judge's ruling, to his lawful place of detention – - the Starobelsk pre-trial detention facilities – where upon admission he was found to have sustained injuries inflicted on the day of his detention, on 10 February 2015, and marks which remained 10 days after his detention.
A high-profile criminal case against members of the Tornado battalion is known from the reported cases of sexual violence against men. In 2015, criminal proceedings were opened against members of the Tornado special-purpose police battalion. Among other things, three of the defendants were charged with committing crimes under Part 3 of Article 153 of the Criminal Code (sexual indulgence in perverse forms committed repeatedly or by a group of persons). The court hearings were held behind closed doors, without public access.
In one case of criminal activity, Tornado commander Ruslan Onishchenko forced his ward's girlfriend to masturbate him.
"He forced me to share a room with him. Not just in a room with him, but together with him on the sofa ... He made me jack him off...” The girl admitted that she had petitioned not to sleep in the same bed with Ruslan Onishchenko: “I didn't ask to be put in a separate room, but at least in a separate bed. I was refused, there was regular verbal and physical harassment. Well, they physically abused me, kept me in the role of a servant".
Tornado fighters also set up a torture chamber in the basement of a school in Lysychansk where they raped and tortured locals, including minors and retired people regardless of their gender. This was mainly done with the aim of seizing property from the victims and further intimidating them.
According to the prosecutor, the most brutal forms of violence were sexual offences against men, committed in a particularly perverse form, with the entire process being recorded on mobile phones. Between 17 and 23 March 2015, Tornado members systematically used the basement to beat male civilians.
Lilia Ukrainskaya, a well-known volunteer who delivered food to the Tornado battalion, reported the following:
"A dozen fighters stole a young girl and raped her for 10 days until the child died. Several times, I have found myself in a situation where you bring help to the military and start praying to God to get out of there alive and well. It turns out I was only left untouched because according to some ‘criminal’ laws the hand that gives is not chopped off".
From the testimony given by the victims in court:
– "One day they brought a man in... They started torturing him, hitting him with stun guns... When the stun guns discharged, they told me and one other person to stand up. Then Ruslan Onishchenko told us to rape him. I told Ruslan that I would not do that. They pointed a machine gun at me and said they would shoot me", the victim said.
In their conversation with the mother of the deceased Yurchenko, the battalion fighters in court behaved aggressively.
– "I have no desire to live. Without my son. Do you think I am lying? They sit in that cage and laugh. They did a horrible thing to my son. That is wrong".
In response, one of the defendants started shouting:
– "Why are you so melodramatic? Are you sure that is what they did? Point your finger at who touched your son... Pick one of us to hang if you love your son so much... Look here, right here!”
Among the most gruesome witness accounts are testimonies of torture and looting led personally by battalion commander Onishchenko.
– “They put a bag over my head... They threw me in the trunk... It was winter. They put me in the basement... An hour or two passed – Onishchenko arrived and was glad they had brought me. They stripped me naked - spread me by my arms and legs. Onishchenko took a ski stick and hit me on the legs and genitals no less than 30 times,” the witness said.
The man said that after the beatings, he wanted to commit suicide.
– I did not want to live, so I ripped off a piece of rusty metal from the door and started to slit my wrists.
1. A survivor of the torture by the Tornado fighters shows signs of torture with a blowtorch.
2. Signs of torture inflicted on victims by members of the Tornado national battalion
Journalists from various media outlets with different viewpoints collected the evidence. For example, when a Novaya Gazeta* correspondent talked to both residents of Lugansk region and former Tornado fighters, he discovered a rather unambiguous picture ("The Tornado Effect", an article from 17 October 2016).
“Gradually it became clear to us that all those 'separatists' in the basements that Freeman (Onishchenko) and his people told us about were simple drunks and workers from Severodonetsk and the surrounding towns and cities but not militants of any kind. They were simply abducted, used as slaves, abused, and some were killed,” the newspaper quoted former Tornado fighters and testimony from civilians:
“Sometimes we were more afraid of them than the shelling. The fighters could come into any house and take whatever they liked.
There was an old woman living nearby on Lebedinskogo Street, paralysed, her children had fled the shelling when the conflict started, and her neighbour was looking after her. The Tornado fighters came to this grandmother's house, pulled a new mattress right out from under her and left. The neighbour found her the next morning behind the bed, the granny was dead. It was winter.
They could kick any man or woman with a butt stock – just to intimidate people... There has been scary rumours about their basements".
A woman told reporters that she had barely managed to save her 9-year-old daughter from the drunken Tornado fighters, who were about to rape the little girl.
How the Court Proceeded
When you watch the video footage of the trial, it is shocking how brazen and insolent the Tornado fighters are, apparently confident that they can get away with anything. The defendants regularly attempted to disrupt the trial, for example, by throwing faeces and spraying urine on those present. Court and prosecutor's office staff members at one point began to walk into the trial with umbrellas.
Rallies of support for the Tornadoes were held outside the court building and supporters threatened to take the building by storm. At one point, the authorities threatened to send a thousand police officers to guard the courthouse during the trial against the Tornado fighters.
As the trial proceeded, more and more details emerged about what was going on inside the Tornado battalion itself. Once again, let us turn to the information that a correspondent of Novaya Gazeta* was able to obtain from a former "Tornado" member:
...You could roughly divide the Tornado personnel into three groups. "The ‘Blacks’ were fighters who were not formally recruited because they had criminal records; ‘Freeman’ actively recruited them into the Tornado. They were personally loyal to the commander and ready to carry out any assignment. They had nothing to lose and nowhere to return. One of Freeman's cronies, codenamed ‘Achilles’, who had also served time before the conflict and had connections in criminal circles, specifically collected information on who was released and when. He was constantly on the phone, calling up those ‘retired out of jail’ and persuading them to come to the battalion. Many agreed and came.
The battalion also had a category of "white" and "grey" fighters.
The "Whites", fighters that were former police officers who were discharged or had not been re-certified in the summer of 2015 and came to serve in the battalion. They were recruited officially.
The "Greys" were ordinary guys without any military experience who came as volunteers. They accounted for half of the battalion. They immediately received an assault rifle and were trained by more experienced fighters. According to former Tornado members, “there was no hurry to officially recruit them, although Freeman promised that after the training they would be registered according to all the regulations. If they got killed, the Tornado had nothing to do with it – they were not officially listed, just like the “Blacks”.
If you joined the battalion, it was virtually impossible to leave. Here is a video of the 'lineup' that Onishchenko, a battalion commander and repeated criminal, held for those who were disillusioned and wanted to leave the Tornado. The yelling, public threats and humiliation paralyzed the fighters.
After the lineup, not on camera, they could receive a beating.
Among the Tornado members who came to their senses, there were some who dared to escape. If they were caught, all hell broke loose on the ground: the ‘deserters’ were sometimes tortured for weeks. Those who managed to escape found themselves with no documents, since the commander would confiscate the passports of the new recruits. The police, to whom the Tornado battalion reported the defection of a subordinate, often found those who managed to get home. Those caught would be returned to the Tornado, where the same pattern of beatings and torture would be repeated.
Some of the Tornado men have personally confessed to having a tendency towards sadism, a predilection for torture. Here, for example, a conversation:
The voices of two of the Tornado battalion's most notorious criminals, Ruslan Onishchenko (codename “Freeman”) and Danil Lyashuk (codename "Mujahid"), are clearly distinguishable on the recording. Both are perverted maniacs.
“There would be no life without torture. There's nothing like raising your vitality when you have someone's life in your hands”, says Mujahid.
“He did well. He first went in to see these... he took two tasers to his neck before (tasing) them: 'Scum, I'm going to start sharing my feelings with you....
...The philosophy is all like this. If you are ready to die, you have the right to kill. If you are willing to endure torture - you have the right to torture. That's fair”, says Onishchenko.
From an article published by Novaya Gazeta*, a former Tornado fighter's story about Mujahid:
He was the one who came up with the idea of scripting role-playing scenarios of same-sex torture-rape.
“Mujahid came up with the idea of shooting a movie in the basement involving prisoners, he called it just like that – “the cinema", says one of the battalion fighters, for whom the prosecutor's office has no questions and he was not prosecuted. He came up with a plot, such as ‘Givi and Motorola, the separatist commanders, rape their boss, Alexander Zakharchenko’. He wrote out the roles and lines. And forced the prisoners to do all this, and if they refused, they were beaten until they agreed. And then he filmed this video. He would show this video to half the battalion. He also liked to paint swastikas and pagan symbols on the walls and talk about white supremacy. ‘Freeman’ found all this amusing”.
"Mujahid” (Danil Lyashuk), a supporter of the “Islamic State” (a terrorist organisation outlawed in Russia), according to Ukraine's Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios, was known for his exceptional cruelty:
"Lyashuk committed with extreme cynicism and audacity, cruelty and ruthlessness the most brutal torture of the local population of Lugansk region, organised and directly participated in the rape of detainees whom he and other suspects abducted for profit”.
The case file contains correspondence, including photos** seized during the arrest from the phone of Tornado commander Onishchenko. It shows his communication with Ukrainian volunteer Volodymyr Savanchuk and his wife Svetlana. Much of the correspondence, which has been going on for months, is devoted to discussing sexual orgies involving Onishchenko and Savanchuk's wives, and often the Savanchukes' children – boys aged four and nine. The correspondence is stacked with a large number of relevant photographs.
Volodymyr Savanchuk, a volunteer, is now also on trial. He is on trial for molesting his own young children.
**The editorial team has screenshots of the correspondence but we hesitate to publish them due to their shocking content, even for a seasoned reader.
Tornado battalion commander Ruslan Onishchenko received 11 years in prison and was stripped of his rank of police lieutenant.
Danil Lyashuk received ten years in prison.
Nikolai Tsukur received nine years in prison and was stripped of his rank of police lieutenant.
Nikita Kusta received a nine-year prison sentence and was stripped of his rank of junior sergeant.
Boris Gulchuk, Maxim Khlebov and Ilya Kholod received nine years in prison each.
Anatoly Plamadyal received a sentence of eight years in prison.
Yuri Shevchenko received a sentence of five years in prison. The court ruled to commute the sentence by releasing him from prison and imposing a probation period of three years.
Roman Ivash, Nikita Sviridovskiy and Andrei Demchuk were released from the sentence with two years' probation.
All those convicted fall under the Savchenko Law (one day in pre-trial detention counts as two days in prison). The court ordered that all of them be charged 7,750 hryvnyas (about 263 USD) for court costs. Both the prosecution and the defence said that they were going to appeal against the verdict as one side considered it too lenient and the other too severe.
Zelensky Frees Tornado and Sends Back to the Front
In February 2022, prisoners with military experience who were ready to take part in combat activity, under martial law, started to be released from their places of detention, a prosecutor's office official, Andriy Sinyuk, told reporters.
Later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukrainians “with combat experience” were released from detention and had all sanctions lifted.
"I had to take a morally difficult decision: under martial law, combatants - Ukrainians with real combat experience - will be released from detention and will be able to redeem themselves", Zelensky said in a video message posted on Telegram.
The criminals released under the emergency amnesty are now not just at large; they were given weapons. Including those known for their particular cruelty, penchant for sadism, paedophilia, incest and other monstrous pathologies. Ruslan Onishchenko, a former commander of the Tornado volunteer battalion, is one such example.
According to witnesses and leaks, Onishchenko, together with his team and other criminals involved, has formed a new battalion stationed near Kiev. There are reports that the former Tornado members have seized APCs and additional weapons from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and have started doing their usual business.
The Tornado criminals are in no hurry to go to the front line. However, they never rushed there, preferring to engage in torture, provocation, mockery and robbery behind the lines.
Among the released former fighters of the punitive battalion is Danil Lyashuk, known by his moniker "Mujahid". According to the former MP Ihor Mosiychuk, Mujahid, who received a ten-year sentence, was released back in the summer of 2021. Since February, videos have been appearing on social networks in which Lyashuk with a weapon in his hands says that he is fighting as a member of the Ukrainian Army.
This perverted sadist, Mujahid, is currently at the front.