Horrific video and photos have emerged that appear to show the head of a Ukrainian prisoner of war stuck on a pole outside a house in the eastern Ukrainian city of Popasna, which was captured by Russian forces in May and is close to the current frontline in the Donbas.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, posted the gruesome photo on his Telegram channel. It has since been widely shared on social media. Ukrainians have accused Russian troops of barbaric medieval behaviour and likened the image to Lord of the Rings.
“They really are orcs. Twenty-first century, occupied Popasna, human skull on the fence,” Haidai wrote. “There is nothing human about the Russians. We are at war with non-humans.”
The Guardian has not confirmed the authenticity of the photo. Geolocation tools suggest it is genuine and was taken in late July, not far from the centre of Popasna. A sign on a wall says “21 Nahirna Street”.
The video shows the headless and handless body of a man dressed in military uniform. A head is stuck on a wooden pole. Two hands have been placed on metal spikes on a fence either side of the head, in what looks like a front garden.
The Ukrainian army retreated from Popasna in early May. The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, claimed his troops had seized control of the town. In July Russian forces captured the entirety of Luhansk province.
On Saturday they were attempting to storm the city of Bakhmut, 18 miles (30km) west of Popasna, in neighbouring Donetsk oblast. Fierce fighting was continuing, Ukrainian officials confirmed, with the Russians edging towards the city’s western outskirts.
The photo is the latest apparent atrocity committed by Moscow’s soldiers since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Last week footage emerged of a Chechen fighter allegedly castrating a bound Ukrainian prisoner, who was then shot dead.
The footage was originally posted on pro-Russian Telegram channels. On Saturday the website Bellingcat published an investigation into the incident. Citing visual clues and open source evidence, the website said a Chechen paramilitary formation was present at the scene.
It identified a Russian soldier wearing a distinctive black wide-brimmed hat seen in the footage. The soldier denied taking part in the mutilation and execution, but confirmed Russia’s security services had questioned him about it, Bellingcat reported.
The alleged location was an abandoned sanatorium in Pryvillia, near the city of Lysychansk. Russia took control of the area, about 25 miles north of Popasna, in early July. Ukrainian forces had previously occupied the 1970s complex that overlooks the Siverskyi Donets River.
The head on the pole image has caused widespread revulsion. Writing on Twitter, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Austria Olexander Scherba described it as a Russian war crime, adding: “The occupied #Popasna in Donbas. A head of a Ukrainian PoW on a stick.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch jailed by Putin who is now in exile in London, said the picture was an example of Russky Mir, or “Russian world”. The phrase describes the Kremlin’s efforts to reunite Russian speakers in the cultural and political realm.
He tweeted: “Will Russia be able to recover from this & come back to the community of civilised nations? For now, it brings the darkness of the middle ages to its neighbours & peoples around the globe #russianworld arrived to the occupied Popasna in Donbas.”