April 8, 2023

Notes from a return trip to Ukraine


PERF members,

In January, I made a memorable trip to Ukraine to better understand the challenges facing the country’s police, particularly those in and around Kyiv. Two weeks ago, I made a second trip to the country with Jim Burack, who previously served as PERF’s chief of staff, was a police chief in Colorado, and is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Terry Chowanec, who previously worked as a police officer in Calgary and as a senior associate at PERF and is now one of our executive search consultants. This visit focused on the police role in investigating war crimes, with stops in Kyiv and Kharkiv. We also attended a ceremony recognizing American author, journalist, and philanthropist Mitzi Perdue’s donation of ten cars to the Kyiv Regional Police, which PERF helped facilitate.


During my previous visit, I met with General Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police. Shortly after that meeting, General Klymenko was appointed interior minister after the tragic death of the previous minister. On this trip to Kyiv, we met with Minister Klymenko and Acting Chief Ivan Vyhivsky and First Deputy Chief Sergiy Panteleyev of the National Police of Ukraine to discuss war crimes investigations. (Deputy Chief Panteleyev spoke at our Town Hall meeting in October.)  They told us the National Police have about 69,000 war crimes cases and have identified 1,800 war criminals.

Meeting with Minister Klymenko, Acting Chief Vyhivsky, and First Deputy Chief Panteleyev

Minister Klymenko had done his homework and noted PERF’s work on use-of-force issues and its commitment to the sanctity of human life. And he spoke of his country’s gratitude for American support in the face of Russian aggression.

Minister Klymenko was already looking beyond the conflict to the long-term implications of war and its effect on society. After the war, police will need to consider broader social issues like the mental health challenges of veterans and all those affected by the war, the return of displaced persons and refugees, and the proliferation of military-grade weapons in the country.


A November 2022 missile attack on Vyshhorod, located just north of the city of Kyiv, resulted in severe damage to the targeted residential complex and surrounding buildings, including an adjacent school. Seven of the building’s residents were killed and 42 were injured, including six children. Police officers from the Kyiv Regional Police arrived on scene within four minutes of the missiles hitting the building, risking their own lives to enter the burning building and evacuate the injured residents. Police officers transported some injured residents to local hospitals in their police vehicles.

One of the police officers who arrived at the apartment building recently transferred to the Kyiv Regional Police from the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. While serving with the regional police in Mariupol, he witnessed the indiscriminate destruction of his home city as Russian forces sieged the city last February to May. The officer performed countless similar rescues as Mariupol incurred continuous shelling and missile attacks. As Mariupol fell under Russian occupation, police officers were ordered out of the city, and this officer evacuated with his family. They moved to the capital when the officer was redeployed to the Kyiv region.

Speaking with the officer from Mariupol (center)


The village of Bohdanivka lies just 27 miles northeast of the center of Kyiv and it became a base for the invading Russian forces. The local school was occupied and used as a headquarters for Russian military operations, including an area in the building where they tortured prisoners. As Ukrainian forces took back the area, the retreating Russian forces burned the building, presumably to erase any evidence of their crimes, leaving the village with no operating school.

While in Bohdanivka, we spoke with the wife and two young children – a 5-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl – of a police officer who was taken from his home last March by the Russians. A year later, the family has not heard from him and does not know if he was killed or remains a prisoner.

The destroyed schoolhouse in Bohdanivka

With the missing officer’s family and Irina Priyanishnikova, head of the Kyiv Regional Police’s communications division

Support to Kyiv Regional Police

In recent months, PERF helped facilitate Mitzi Perdue’s generous donation of ten patrol cars to the Kyiv Regional Police. These cars will replace vehicles destroyed during the early stages of the Russian invasion last spring. While in Kyiv, I attended a presentation ceremony and news conference with General Andriy Nebytov, chief of the Kyiv Regional Police, and Mitzi, who participated via video.

With General Nebytov at the presentation ceremony

The new cars for the Kyiv Regional Police

One of the cars destroyed by Russian forces

Terry Chowanec, Jim Burack, Irina Priyanishnikova, and General Nebytov

Standing outside the damaged Special Operations Center

No place more clearly encapsulates the losses the police force has endured than the wall near St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, where there are photos of about 120 fallen police officers who have lost their lives in service to the nation since the newest phase of the invasion began last February. The wall also has thousands of photographs of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action, and I was struck by how many appeared to be in their early 20s.

Images of the over 100 police officers killed in the line of duty since February 24, 2022


Kharkiv sits a mere 25 miles from the border of Russia, and missiles launched from Russia need only 40 seconds of flight to hit their targets in the city. When the war first began, police in Kharkiv helped residents escape by driving them to the train stations. It’s a region where Ukrainian military forces have taken back hundreds of square miles of territory, and it falls on the police to reestablish civil order and reengage with the citizens.

General Vlodymyr Tymoshko, chief of the Kharkiv Regional Police, provided a broad overview of their evolving policing challenges. General Tymoshko was appointed as chief of the Kharkiv Regional Police on February 24, 2022, the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Six days later, Russia launched missile attacks on Kharkiv’s downtown core, specifically targeting government buildings. Two Russian missiles hit the police building while General Tymoshko was chairing a meeting.

General Tymoshko shows picture taken as he was led away from the damaged police building

In what has become a hallmark of Russian missile strikes on civil infrastructure targets, the first missile hit was followed by a second, several minutes later, in what can only be seen as an effort to cause additional casualties as first responders arrived at the initial strike. 

Police across the country believe police buildings were targeted because Russians wanted to destroy the records and case files of war crimes investigations. The attack on the Kharkiv station certainly emphasized the risk of keeping case files in one physical location, and police have accelerated their efforts to digitize case file data.

Many buildings in downtown Kharkiv have been destroyed

Chief Serhii Bolvinov

Chief of Investigations Serhii Bolvinov is a 41-year-old career police officer. He entered university at age 16 to study in a police law program.  After graduating, he rose through the ranks and before the war, he led a department of nearly 1,000 investigators and civilian employees who covered the entire 12,129 square miles and 4 million people of Kharkiv Region, including the city of Kharkiv.

Chief of Investigations Serhii Bolvinov

On February 24, 2022, the Russian Army invaded Ukraine, including the Kharkiv region, and came within six miles of the city center. As Russian forces approached Chief Bolvinov’s home just outside the city, his wife and children left for the western part of Ukraine and subsequently left the country. After he saw his family off, he returned to his office to continue his work, as he does to this day.

Before war came to the Kharkiv Region, Chief Bolvinov’s investigators responded to a range of offenses, including homicides, robberies, frauds, auto thefts, and sexual assaults. The region saw 200-240 killings per year, most of which were related to domestic violence or local grievances. Gang activity was non-existent and, as a result, they cleared 95 to 97 percent of cases.

Since the start of the war, over half of the city’s population have left for other parts of Ukraine, resulting in a significant decrease in criminal cases. However, there has been a simultaneous increase in war crimes investigations. To meet the growing caseload, Chief Bolvinov has reassigned all his investigators to war crimes investigations.

Observing a War Crime Investigation

In regions where the Ukrainian armed forces have liberated territory previously captured by Russian forces, the police are taking a primary role in identifying and investigating war crimes committed by occupying troops. We accompanied investigators and criminalists from the Kharkiv Regional Police who had been assigned a case of a man murdered by Russian soldiers who stole his car. Police have established that the 55-year-old victim was driving near a destroyed bridge outside Izium, about 75 miles southeast of Kharkiv, when Russian soldiers shot him. Local residents contacted the man’s family, who recovered his body and buried him in a local cemetery. The city was liberated on September 11, 2022, and now police need to confirm the identity of the body that was buried, collect evidence and statements, and attempt to identify the soldier(s) and unit responsible for the killing. 

The damaged bridge where Russian soldiers executed a 55-year-old man outside of Izium

We traveled with crime scene investigators to the cemetery on the outskirts of Izium where we observed the exhumation of the body from the grave for removal to the morgue for DNA samples and further examination. 

Investigators examine the gravesite where a victim was exhumed

A technician gathers samples to run in the rapid DNA machine

Later in the afternoon, we visited another graveyard outside Izium filled with victims of war crimes, where 451 bodies were exhumed by Kharkiv police.

Some of the more than 450 graves of Izium citizens murdered by Russian soldiers

This is the all-too-common reality for Ukrainian police in regions that have been retaken by the Ukrainian military – police investigators who once focused on routine crimes are now on the front line of war crimes investigations, with cases that could flow eventually to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Technology in War Crimes Investigations

Lastly, we noted how investigators are using new technologies, including voice recognition, social media, DNA, cell phone data, and facial recognition, to identify war crimes suspects.  American philanthropist and former Macon County, Illinois Sheriff Howard Buffett met with Chief Bolvinov while visiting Kharkiv, and Chief Bolvinov discussed the challenges his staff faced when attempting to identify those murdered by Russian forces. Buffett purchased 18 rapid DNA analysis machines, which are now used to identify victims. The DNA testing process, which used to take six months, can now happen in under two hours.

A recent case from the Kharkiv Region that was highlighted on CNN demonstrated how Ukraine’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are leveraging the technologies available to them. A couple traveling to the city of Bakhmut to rescue the woman’s father turned down the wrong road and encountered Russian troops. The troops fired on the couple and the male driver was hit several times. Ukrainian police were able to use a drone to lead the woman to safety, and the man miraculously survived after the Russians left him for dead in a ditch. Using drone footage and intercepted cell phone calls, the Ukrainian police were able to identify one of the Russian perpetrators.

Hoodie exchange with Chief Serhii Bolvinov

I left Ukraine inspired by the incredible spirit and work ethic of the country’s police, as well as the amazing resilience, determination, and optimism of the country’s people. In both Kyiv and Kharkiv we saw the police making impressive progress in investigating war crimes. Using tools like video and voice analysis, they're gathering evidence, carefully documenting each case, and preparing the cases for future prosecution. And they are doing all of this while active military operations are going on around them and as they reestablish a police presence in newly liberated communities. This is what good policing looks like.