A view shows a publishing house where, according to local people, a Russian military commandant, known to locals by his call sign “Granit,” set up his headquarters, in Balakliia, eastern Ukraine, September 30, 2022. REUTERS/Mari Saito
By Mari Saito, Polina Nikolskaya, Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev
BALAKLIIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – During an interrogation by Russian intelligence officers at a police station in Ukraine’s Balakliia town in June, local businessman Ruslan Volobuyev was beaten by one of the men, he said. At one point, according to Volobuyev’s account, a thick-set man in his 40s with a cleft chin entered the room. He greeted the two interrogators, shaking their hands, and left.
That man was the military commandant of Balakliia, a key figure in Russia’s six-month occupation of the eastern Ukrainian town. Russian forces unlawfully detained at least 200 civilians in the town, local police have said, and in some instances administered torture, four residents told Reuters. Dozens of detainees from Balakliia and the surrounding area remain unaccounted for, said Nelya Kholod, a volunteer helping identify those missing.
Town residents knew the commandant only by his call sign of “Granit,” the Russian word for granite, as Reuters reported in an October investigation into Moscow’s withdrawal from the town. The military commandant, who was part of the Russian defence ministry’s military police, was the most senior military officer in the town responsible for policing the local population, according to rosters for meetings of occupying section commanders reviewed by Reuters.
Reuters now is the first to publicly reveal his identity as Valery Sergeyevich Buslov, a 46-year-old military police Lieutenant Colonel. The Security Service of Ukraine as well as two of Buslov’s Russian servicemen colleagues – including one who worked for the Russian military headquarters in charge of Balakliia – said that was Granit’s real name. Volobuyev and two of the town’s female residents who saw the commandant said he looked the same as Buslov when Reuters shared photographs of him.
The defence ministry group stationed in the town was drawn from units based in Russia’s Kaliningrad region, according to several servicemen and documents found in a command bunker on the outskirts of Balakliia reviewed by Reuters. One of the documents listed Valery Sergeyevich Buslov as among the Russian officers present in Balakliia, stating his role was military commandant.
When Reuters called a phone number listed for Valery Sergeyevich Buslov in Kaliningrad, the man identified himself by that name and didn’t dispute that he was a military commandant. But he denied that he had been in Balakliia or had used the call sign “Granit.” Of the document found listing Buslov’s name, he said: “It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
The Kremlin, which has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Russia’s defence ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) intelligence agency also didn’t respond. The meeting rosters show there was a separate commander of the Russian combat forces operating from Balakliia, as Reuters previously reported.
Ukrainian and international investigators are currently seeking to identify those responsible for any abuses in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia since Moscow launched a full scale invasion last year. Kyiv says Russia operated 27 sites of unlawful detention and torture in the Kharkiv region, which includes Balakliia, and that some 1,300 people from the region were missing as of February.
Reuters has not seen evidence that the military commandant personally carried out or ordered abuses in Balakliia but he was in close proximity to them. His office sat in a publishing house across the street from the police station where Volobuyev and three other residents said they were beaten or witnessed abuse.
In a sign the commandant’s office may have been involved in detentions, one local man who asked to be identified only by his first name Oleksandr said he saw people being brought into the building that housed Granit’s office in handcuffs, or with bags over their heads, without specifying how many. He added he saw them released shortly after.
Volobuyev, a 46-year old cafe owner, said he later learned that the man who entered the interrogation room was the military commandant after seeing him while out in town and another local told him it was “Granit.”
In response to Reuters’ questions about the Balakliia commandant and alleged mistreatment of the town’s residents, the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, said in a statement that Lieutenant Colonel Valery Sergeyevich Buslov, the military commandant of the Russian defence ministry’s Kaliningrad garrison, was the military commandant of Balakliia from March to September last year and that he used the call sign “Granit.”
“He signed a number of orders and instructions which allowed service personnel of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, and illegal military formations, to conduct the illegal detention of the civilian population,” the SBU said.
The statement added that SBU investigators were conducting a pre-trial investigation into suspected criminal acts committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Balakliia. The agency declined to provide evidence of alleged wrongdoing by Buslov or other Russian forces, saying Ukrainian law prevents making public evidence that is part of an ongoing investigation.
A Ukrainian law enforcement source familiar with the SBU’s activities, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators are preparing a “notice of suspicion” in relation to Buslov, which can be a preliminary step to launching a formal criminal investigation.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Russian forces took control of Balakliia, which is about 70 kilometres south of Kharkiv, in early March and withdrew in early September. Weeks later, Reuters visited the area and found thousands of pages of documents – including the meeting rosters and the list with Buslov’s name – at the building on the outskirts of Balakliia that Russian forces had used as a command bunker.
The military commandant’s office was based in a separate building, the publishing house in town. There, a rudimentary wooden rifle rack displayed the call signs of the firearms’ owners, including that of “Granit.” That building’s basement, where surveillance cameras and metal cages were visible, served as a holding cell, said a woman who had worked at the publishing house.
Reuters could not independently corroborate Balakliia residents’ accounts of mistreatment, but a United Nations-mandated investigative body has found Russia committed war crimes in some parts of Ukraine, including unlawfully detaining and torturing civilians.
Photos posted to social media accounts associated with Buslov show a stocky man in parade uniform, with medals on his chest. He has served as the Kaliningrad garrison’s military commandant, responsible for maintaining discipline among troops and sailors stationed there, according to a 2019 military newspaper article. He has also sat with senior Kaliningrad officials on a civic committee on public safety.
By May, the military commandant had arrived in Balakliia, according to Oleksandr, one of the two female residents and another local woman.
Around town, he travelled in a Russian-made UAZ jeep, escorted by two armoured vehicles, said the local woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name of Olga said. She once spotted him from a distance wearing a bullet-proof vest and sunglasses and a Russian soldier standing guard told her it was “Granit,” 48-year old Olga recalled.
The commandant’s office issued passes that allowed selected people to break the nighttime curfew or travel outside of Balakliia to buy goods, according to Volobuyev and another local.
Reuters interviewed nine people who said they were detained at the police station during the Russian occupation; a further three said friends or relatives were held there. Many locals said they did not want to give their full names for fear of being accused of collaborating with the Russians.
Residents looking for detained family members were told by the Russian forces to go to “Granit” to petition for their release, four locals said.
One of the two female residents who said Buslov looked the same as the military commandant was an 82-year-old pensioner called Liudmyla. She said her son, a veteran of the Ukrainian military, was detained in Balakliia last April and that she repeatedly appealed to “Granit” and his assistant for his release. They said they would try to find him but never did, according to Liudmyla, who still doesn’t know his whereabouts.
Oleksandr said his brother was detained the same month and remains missing. According to Oleksandr, officials at the Russian-installed administration told him the commandant’s office decided all questions to do with the military. Oleksandr said on repeated visits he sought information from a balaclava-clad man who identified himself as “Granit,” but never got a clear answer about his brother’s whereabouts.