The first crack of a sniper’s round in Kiev’s Independence Square came shortly after nine o’clock on the morning of February 20 and the last about seven hours later at around four o’clock in the afternoon drawing to a close the bloodiest day in what had been a months-long struggle to oust Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.
Many of the 53 people slain died from clean shots to the head or neck—telltale wounds inflicted by expert marksmen; while others were gunned down at closer quarters by less expert assassins armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Most of the photographs accompanying this article were taken on February 20, and they appear to reveal the truth about who carried out the shootings in Independence Square on that day—a fateful one for both Ukraine and for Europe, which suddenly witnessed the continent’s worst political violence of the 21st century. The pictures shared exclusively with The Daily Beast show members of a crack anti-terrorist unit known as the Alfa Team in the courtyard of the headquarters of Ukraine’s feared state security service, the SBU, preparing themselves for battle. The agency’s seven-story headquarters occupies an entire city block and is just three streets from the Maidan.
The SBU is the successor intelligence agency to the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet-era KGB and it still maintains exceptionally close ties to Moscow. For many years “leading SBU functionaries came from the KGB,” says Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian military intelligence officer and author of the book The KGB’s Poison Factory. He says Russia’s intelligence service, now known as the FSB, has made sure over the years to maintain deep penetration of its Ukrainian counterpart and to ensure that its “agents and associates remain in place.” That was easily done during thepresidency of the pro-Russian Yanukovych.
A U.S. intelligence source says that “since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Western security services have considered Kiev to be FSB territory.” Instructors from Russian Special Forces have trained Alfa units.
According to Dr. Olga Bogomolets, a Maidan leader and a candidate in Ukraine’s slated May presidential elections, the photographs shown to her by The Daily Beast provide unique insight into what took place on February 20. She argues they cast doubt on an official investigation currently underway into the events of that day, which was ordered by the country’s interim government and is being conducted jointly by the new head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, along with the prosecutor general’s office. The SBU failed to respond to phone and email requests for a meeting with Nalyvaichenko to discuss the substantial photographic material.
“We have demanded an independent and transparent investigation into who was involved in the crimes that took place and we are very worried that the people who are investigating are members of the bodies responsible for the shootings,” says Bogomolets. Bogomolets, a physician who was nicknamed by Maidan protesters the “White Angel” because of her ministrations to the wounded in Independence Square, was on her way to visit the grave of her mother that morning to mark the first anniversary of her death. When phone calls alerted her to the start of the carnage she sped to the Maidan instead.
More than a hundred people were killed and at least 900 injured in February during the battles that seesawed in Kiev’s Independence Square between security forces loyal to Yanukovych and the protesters, who came from all walks of life and from across Ukraine’s political spectrum. They were determined to topple him and end the five-year kleptocracy in which he, his family and close associates looted the country to the tune of $70 billion.
February 20 marked a critical turning point in the conflict. It was the most violent day in the history of Ukraine since Soviet times and it proved to be the undoing of the Yanukovych regime. The snipers failed to break the spirit of Yanukovych’s opponents, but the carnage inspired key loyalists in his ruling Party of Regions, including the city’s mayor and members of the Rada, or parliament, to quit. The next day Yanukovych fled the capital, and then the country.
The death toll of at least 53 people on February 20 doubled the body count of the previous two days. At first the protesters had lost ground. Waves of coordinated sniper fire and riot police assaults pushed them back. But they clung on finally to the Maidan. Most of their barricades remained intact. They had evacuated their burned-out headquarters, the towering Trade Unions Building, which was still sending up plumes of black smoke. But still they occupied some office blocks overlooking Independence Square.
Many of the protesters who were tending the wounded and mourning the dead were in shock. But the preparations for the next day’s fight showed that sniper rounds and bloodshed had failed to cow them. Thousands worked to rebuild the barricades, laboring through the icy smoke-filled night using anything that came to hand—tires, bricks, debris—while others in a nearby underground metro station set about making Molotov cocktails.
The following day Yanukovych fled the capital, making first for the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv and then traveling to Crimea before going into exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, from where he has threatened to return. He, his lieutenants and top Russian officials have since claimed Maidan organizers themselves, or the Americans, were behind the February 20 shootings, purposely engineering a massacre for propaganda reasons, hoping to gain political and diplomatic advantage.
The unique photographs and 90 gigabytes of video material shared with The Daily Beast provide strong evidence that the massacre in the Maidan was in fact a vicious and clinical assault ordered by the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime and executed by its arch loyalists. But that has not prevented the Kremlin from attempting to orchestrate its own narrative of events.
In a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently complained about the “rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies in various regions and in Kiev with impunity.” At least, according to the Kremlin readout on the conversation.
Moscow’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin on Thursday repeated Russia-Today-type claims that the US embassy in Kiev was somehow behind the snipers, providing no documentary or photographic evidence for his allegations. And Oleksandr Yakymenko, Yanukovych’s former SBU head, claimed in an interview earlier this month on the Russian TV channel Rossiya that snipers started shooting at the riot police, or Berkut, a special unit overseen by the interior ministry, but then directed their fire on anti-government protesters.
The former SBU chief suggested the snipers could have been foreigners, including mercenaries from the former Yugoslavia, hired by Maidan leaders. In fact, Balkan mercenaries have cropped up recently in Ukraine—but among the ranks of thuggish Kremlin-backed local “self-defense units” that assisted Russian forces consolidating Moscow’s hold on Crimea.
On the morning of February 20 in the courtyard of the agency that Yakymenko was still in charge of there were dozens of men, many identified as members of the elite Alfa team by former SBU officers and private-sector defense experts from a variety of Western nations who have looked at the photographs.
The images accompanying this article show Alfa Team members and others from SBU and Ministry of Interior special forces units donning body armor, helmets and other equipment, grabbing ammunition and sporting sniper rifles and modified AKs. Some of the Alfa members carry lethal fragmentation grenades: “Not the kind of equipment used for crowd control,” remarked a surprised Western defense official looking at the photographs.