Saturday, 25 February 2023 07:04

Listening in on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Ukrainian emergency personnel and police officers evacuate injured Iryna Kalinina, 32, from a maternity hospital damaged by a Russian airstrike in Mariupol, Ukraine, in March 2022. Both Kalinina and her baby died. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Secretly intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers in Ukraine reveal how fear and propaganda fueled Russia’s violence against their neighbor.

In this week’s episode, produced in collaboration with the Associated Press, reporters on the front lines take us inside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and share never-before-heard recordings of Russian soldiers.

The day President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, Feb. 24, 2022, Russia unleashed a brutal assault on the strategic port city of Mariupol. That same day, a team of AP reporters arrived in the city. Vasilisa Stepanenko, Evgeniy Maloletka and Mstyslav Chernov kept their cameras and tape recorders rolling throughout the onslaught. Together, they captured some of the defining images of the war in Ukraine. Stepanenko and Maloletka talk with guest host Michael Montgomery about risking their lives to document blasted buildings, burned-out cars, enormous bomb craters and the daily life of traumatized civilians. As Russian troops advanced on Mariupol, the journalists managed to escape with hours of their own material and recordings from the body camera of a noted Ukrainian medic, Yuliia Paievska. The powerful footage went viral and showed the world the shocking brutalities of the war, as well as remarkable acts of courage by journalists, doctors and ordinary citizens.

Next, we listen to audio that’s never been publicly shared before: phone calls Russian soldiers made during the first weeks of the invasion, secretly recorded by the Ukrainian government. AP reporter Erika Kinetz obtained more than 2,000 of these calls. Using social media and other tools, she explores the lives of two soldiers whose calls home capture intimate moments with friends and family. The intercepted calls reveal the fear-mongering and patriotism that led some of the men to go from living regular lives as husbands, sons and fathers to talking about killing civilians.

In Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, Russian soldiers left streets strewn with the bodies of civilians killed during their brief occupation. Kinetz shares her experiences visiting Bucha and speaking with survivors soon after Russian troops retreated. In the secret intercepts, Russian soldiers tell their families about being ordered to take no prisoners and speak of “cleansing operations.” One soldier tells his mother: “We don’t imprison them. We kill them all.”

Will Russian soldiers and political leaders be prosecuted for war crimes? Montgomery talks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer who received a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. She runs the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, which has been gathering evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes in Ukraine since Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Matviichuk says it’s important for war crimes to be handled by Ukrainian courts, but the country’s legal system is overwhelmed and notoriously corrupt. She says there is an important role for the international community in creating a system that can bring justice for all Ukrainians.

Dig Deeper

Read: ‘Never saw such hell’: Russian soldiers in Ukraine call home (Associated Press)

Read: 20 days in Mariupol: The team that documented city’s agony (Associated Press)

Read: Russia scrubs Mariupol’s Ukraine identity, builds on death (Associated Press)

Watch: Captive medic’s bodycam shows firsthand horror of Mariupol (Associated Press)

Watch: Associated Press stories from Ukraine by reporter Erika Kinetz


Host and Producer: Michael Montgomery | Reporters: Vasilisa Stepanenko, Evgeniy Maloletka, Mstyslav Chernov and Erika Kinetz | Lead producer: Stephen Smith | Editor: Cynthia Rodriguez | Fact checkers: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martinez | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode photo: Evgeniy Maloletka | Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis

Produced in collaboration with the Associated Press. Special thanks to AP editors Jeannie Ohm, Alison Kodjak and Ron Nixon and reporters Solomiia Hera and Anna Pavlova. Reveal had additional help from Dana Kurylyk and Evan Sachs.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Michael Montgom…: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Michael Montgomery sitting in this week for Al Letson.

The full scale war in Ukraine is entering its second year, with Russia pushing to grab territories in the east of the country. It’s a region Russia’s been fighting in for years and already partially claims. When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, president Vladimir Putin called it merely a special military operation. The war came as a shock to the world and media outlets scrambled to respond. For a small team of journalists working for the Associated Press, that meant getting to the frontline as quickly as possible.

Photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, and a third colleague, Mstyslav Chernov, headed to the strategic port city of Mariupol. Soon they’d be in the middle of a brutal and relentless Russian attack, and together they’d capture some of the defining images of the war in Ukraine. You’re about to be immersed in their story, and a warning: this show includes graphic depictions of war and violence that some listeners may find upsetting.

Vasilisa is from Kharkiv, just about 20 miles from the border. On the first day of the invasion, Russian tanks stormed into her neighborhood.
Vasilisa Stepan…: My mother and grandmother were in this neighborhood, under shelling, under really hard shelling, and the battlefield was in my neighborhood. So, they stayed in the basement for a while and then they left, refugees to Germany.
Michael Montgom…: Months later, Vasilisa returned to see the destruction for herself.
Vasilisa Stepan…: My house was hit by rocket, and only after half of the year, I go to my apartment to see what’s inside, and I saw how my mother left a cup of coffee, cold cup of coffee half year ago, and that moment I understood that for now, I have no home and I will not come back, unfortunately. Before, it was really happy life. Every one of us was so happy, and I never can imagine that they would destroy my school, my neighborhood, my house, and all my past.
Michael Montgom…: Evgeniy is also from Eastern Ukraine, an area not far from Mariupol.
Evgeniy Malolet…: We just come from the front line, but we live in the front line for already nine years. The war started not one year ago. It was started from Crimea, and then in Donbas, and still continue, and now we have this.
Michael Montgom…: Do you remember arriving at Mariupol, and what you were all talking about right at that moment?
Vasilisa Stepan…: Yes, yes. I remember that night. We went through the front line road, straight to Mariupol, and then I remember this speech of Putin, like in a horrible movie.
Putin: I decided to conduct a special military operation. Its goal is the protection of the people who during eight years have suffered from abuse and genocide from the Kyiv regime.
Vasilisa Stepan…: And then the first sounds of explosions.
Michael Montgom…: So the bombing starts in the morning, early in the morning. Are you on the phone with your editors? Are you on the phone with friends and family? What are you doing?
Evgeniy Malolet…: We call to all of our families first, and we’re like, “Wake up. The war started.” And they said, “Yeah, we’ve heard explosions.” My mother was crying. I said them, “No panic, just prepare yourself. Refuel your car.” If something happened, they take the old relatives together, they go to the shelter.
Vasilisa Stepan…: I remember that first, that I did. I even didn’t call my family. I called some cameraman in Kharkiv to check if they can go out and shot it, because I understood that it’s really, really important to do right now, because something bad is coming. Then my friends called me and I asked my friend, because one of my friend was crying, and then she showed me that she saw it from her balcony, a big explosion, a big fire. And I ask her, “If you could shot it, please do it right now. It’s really, really important to do it right now.” I remember that. Just go out and started working, shot everything. We were working whole day, whole night without sleeping.
Michael Montgom…: With Russian bombs and artillery shelves crashing down on Mariupol, the Associated Press journalists had their cameras rolling. Their colleague, Mstyslav Chernov, captured the attack on video. Everything you’re hearing, the AP team recorded. For nearly three weeks, they risked their lives documenting blasted buildings, burned out cars, enormous bomb craters and traumatized civilians. Vasilisa, Evgeniy and Mstyslav made their way to one of the city’s hospitals.

You decided to sleep at the hospital because you felt maybe it was safer than other places?
Vasilisa Stepan…: In one hand, at first we decided to sleep in the hospital, because we wanted to stay here with the doctors, check out what they’re doing, because we understood every day there is more and more and more injured. That’s why we ask doctors if we can stay in the hospital. And they give us some place in the fourth floor of the hospital, where a lot of injured patients stayed here. I remember, in my memory, they all cried for a whole night when it was bombardment near the hospital, and it was really hard to sleep. So at one point, yes, we stayed in the hospital because we wanted to cover what’s going on in the hospital. In the second hand, we also thought that it’ll be safer, because we thought that they will not bomb the hospital.
Michael Montgom…: But Russian forces did bomb hospitals. On March 9th, 2022, a Russian airstrike tore through Mariupol Hospital Number Three. Russian officials claimed it was being used as a base for Ukrainian forces and that no civilians were inside. Evgeniy and Vasilisa say that is not true, the place was full of civilians, and two days later, a pregnant woman who survived that bombing gave birth during another attack.

So, there’s something extraordinary in that scene. You have a baby being born. There’s a long pause. It seems as if we don’t know if the baby’s alive or dead, and then the baby screams and people kind of cheer, right? And the doctor’s smiling, and literally within seconds there’s bombs. That is unbelievable.
Evgeniy Malolet…: Actually, what you see, it’s actually cutted material. The pause when they get the baby out and when it starts screaming is take longer than you see here.
Michael Montgom…: Oh.
Evgeniy Malolet…: Because it’s in the news, you cannot give a long shot, and we were so limited with the space to send.
Michael Montgom…: So there’s a longer pause when the baby comes out?
Evgeniy Malolet…: Much longer.
Michael Montgom…: Before it…
Evgeniy Malolet…: It was much longer pause, and it was so happy moment when it starts screaming.
Vasilisa Stepan…: I remember, yes, this screaming of small child and this sounds of explosions. It’s really hard and difficult. And when one of the mother, like newborn baby, yeah, she told us that, “I’m feeling happy that my child is born, but also I’m so worried that I don’t know what will happen with us.”
Evgeniy Malolet…: People were scared because the situation was unpredictable, and we understood that they have no food even in the hospital, even to feed the babies and mothers.
Michael Montgom…: One of if Evgeniy’s most harrowing images from the siege is that of another woman who’s expecting a child. She’s wounded, bleeding, lying on a stretcher and being rushed by emergency workers through devastated city streets.
Evgeniy Malolet…: The name of the woman is Irina Kalinina. She was 32. She was in the nine months, mostly close to give a birth of a kid, on the last days, and she got a big wound during the air strike to the Hospital Number Three. And at that time, I took a picture, how the policemen and rescue workers transferred her to the ambulance.

Unfortunately, she lost so many blood and she got a big wound, that the doctors was trying to help her and to save the child, but unfortunately both of them died. Her husband, Ivan, at the same day, he start searching for her. Where is she? She didn’t found her in the nearest hospitals. And then he went to search in the morgues and looking for her in the morgues, through a lot of bodies.
Michael Montgom…: He found his wife and child in the morgue and had them buried together.
Vasilisa Stepan…: And I also want to say that I remember the real war started for me when I saw we had the first injured girl. She died in our eyes, and I remember how doctors crying, and I remember how her mother screamed at the whole hospital, her daughter died. Every day, we seen this. We seen people crying, like parents crying that their children died. And I don’t know why after that, people have questions who are right, who are not. Children dying.
Michael Montgom…: We talked about this scene with the baby being born, which is kind of uplifting. Do you try… Is it hard to find images of people showing strength or resilience or bravery? Do you look for those as well?
Evgeniy Malolet…: As a journalist, usually we try to give emotions. If it’ll be good emotions or hard emotions, we’ll capture it. I think we should keep both emotions of love, emotions of tragedy, emotions of power, emotions of victory, and emotions of lost. I think all of these emotions are important to capture.
Michael Montgom…: In the day-to-day work of covering a city under siege, Vasilisa and her AP colleague spent time with a Ukrainian medic named Yuliia Paievska. The volunteer medic is best known by her nickname, Taira. She wore a body camera as she and her colleagues treated the wounded, and they treated everyone, even captured Russian soldiers who thought they were going to be killed instead.

As Russian forces advanced on Mariupol, Vasilisa and the AP team made plans to evacuate. Taira was staying behind, so she gave the footage from her body cam to Vasilisa on an SD memory card and asked her to smuggle the tiny card across enemy lines and share the footage with the outside world.
Vasilisa Stepan…: I had this card in my purse, and I understood that it will be dangerous if in checkpoints Russian will find this card, because this card is from military hospital with the soldiers. It was really important footage. And I took this card to my tampon, in case if they will catch us, I will hide it, yeah?
Michael Montgom…: You hid the SD card in the tampon?
Vasilisa Stepan…: Yes, and we crossed 16 Russian checkpoints. So, I was really scary. I was really worried.
Evgeniy Malolet…: After each checkpoint, when we get the connection, we send a SMS where we are going. I was writing the messages to our editors, like where we are, which village we pass by and which direction we are moving for, like each village, each 10 kilometers.
Michael Montgom…: It took the AP team 10 hours to make it out, and the day after they left, the Russians bombed a theater complex in Mariupol. Civilians were sheltering inside. An estimated 600 people were killed in the strike. It was the deadliest attack against civilians so far in the war.

Vasilisa, Evgeniy and Mstyslav were the last international journalists to leave Mariupol before the Russians seized the city. They brought with them hard drives with hours and hours of their own footage. A lot of it had never been seen by the outside world. And then there was Taira’s SD card.
Vasilisa Stepan…: And after that, the first days I remember that they took this card into laptop and started looking for this footage, and it was one of the hardest footage that I saw in my life. A lot of injured people, soldiers, the surgery, the like, hundred of these wounds, big wounds. And the big conversation between Taira, this paramedic and her colleagues, with soldiers, with civilians, with paramedics that she helped. And the most important, your conversation with Russian soldiers, that she helped, treated them, and when they asked her on this footage like, “Oh, you help me. Why you help me? I thought that you will kill me.” She told, “I’m medic. I’m I’m help everyone.”
Michael Montgom…: When Russian forces moved into Mariupol, they detained Taira.
Evgeniy Malolet…: We keep this material for a long time, because we don’t know how this situation will be with Taira. We are not rushing to publish the material as soon as possible, because could be, this sensitive material can hurt her.
Michael Montgom…: When they do publish the body cam footage, the story goes global. There’s a clamor for the medic’s release. Three months later, Russian forces let Taira go.

30 years ago, I covered the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo. It was a vicious conflict, people killing their own neighbors. The thing was, I could leave. I had a home far away from the war zone. But for my Bosnian colleagues, this was their home. I asked Vasilisa and Evgeniy how covering the destruction of their own country affected their work and affected them.
Vasilisa Stepan…: From the first days of the war, I understood that now is the most important moment in my life, because war came to my home. Like before, I worked as a local journalist in Kharkiv, and Kharkiv was not frontline city, but now war really come to my house, and I understood that it’s really, really important for me to work, and from the first day till now, we’re working every day. That’s why we staying. It’s most important moment in our life.
Evgeniy Malolet…: Journalism is not an army, but we can feel ourself as soldiers of not the truth, but soldiers of who might bring facts. Of course, what is truth, it’s difficult, and of course, we hope that our information will help society, that materials we collect, filmed, photographed, write will be used soon as evidence.
Michael Montgom…: Of war crimes?
Evgeniy Malolet…: Exactly.
Michael Montgom…: Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko are journalists covering the war in Ukraine for the Associated Press. We have links to their work on our website, Their colleague, Mstyslav Chernov, has directed an award-winning film about their experiences. 20 Days in Mariupol will be broadcast by PBS Frontline later this year.

When Russia attacked Ukraine, some of its soldiers used stolen cell phones to call friends and family back home. Many of those calls were intercepted.
Leonid: We were given an order not to take any prisoners.
Michael Montgom…: Listening in on Russia’s invasion, next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Michael Montgomery, in for Al Letson. When Vladimir Putin ordered the full scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago, Russia was expecting to capture the capitol, Kyiv, and swiftly dominate the rest of the country. So, when Russian soldiers were given orders to attack, they were told to expect a victory parade in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, but that’s not what they got, as this soldier says in a cell phone call.
Ivan: I wish this bullshit with Ukraine were over and we could come back, because this is fucked all up. I can’t put it in any other words. I just look around every corner. So many civilians are against us.
Michael Montgom…: This audio is from a batch of phone calls that Russian soldiers made to friends and family during the first weeks of the invasion. The calls were secretly intercepted. Around 2000 of the intercepts were obtained by Erika Kinetz. Erika’s an investigative reporter with the Associated Press.

Erika, so you’ve spent the past year exposing evidence of possible war crimes in Ukraine. Why are these cell phone calls so important?
Erika Kinetz: These recordings reveal a lot about what went wrong for Russia, and they show what the war looked like through the eyes of Russian soldiers themselves. Nothing turned out as expected for these guys, and we can hear how in war, some of them went from their lives as husbands, sons, fathers, to talking about killing civilians. But they talk about other things, too. Love, their dreams, when they last took a shower. Rising prices in Russia. Money is an overriding concern.
Michael Montgom…: I gather you got these intercepted calls from a source in the Ukrainian government.
Erika Kinetz: That’s right, I did, and we verified them with the help of the Dossier Center. That’s an investigative group in London funded by a Russian dissident named Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We made sure the phone numbers were real and also corroborated details from the calls, like military units and their positions, with other evidence that we gathered during our reporting.
Michael Montgom…: You decided to focus on two young men. Tell us their story. Where does it begin?
Erika Kinetz: Let’s go back a year, to the day Putin launches the invasion and we’ll start with the first soldier. His name is Ivan. He’s part of an elite airborne unit. These guys are in Belarus on the border, but they have no idea they’re about to invade Ukraine. Ivan is on a call with his mom talking about that day, and like all these calls, voice actors are speaking in English over the original Russian audio. We’re just using the soldier’s first names to protect the identities of their families in Russia.
Ivan: They came and read us a message on telegram. “Tomorrow you are living for Ukraine. There is a genocide of the Russian population and we have to stop it.”
Erika Kinetz: Ivan’s mother also had no idea Russia was going to war. She said she stopped speaking, stop sleeping, was basically in a state of hysteria for days when she discovered her son was fighting in Ukraine.

I really wanted to know more about these young men, so we looked at public records and social media to understand who they are and where they came from. Ivan is from a rural area of Russia, and he and his dad talk about the family farm, selling the cow, buying pigs. He loves horses.

Ivan dreamed of being a soldier from the time he was a kid. I’ve seen family photos of him that show him as a 12-year-old in the woods dressed in camouflage for a paintball game. He’s holding a large air soft rifle. In one of the pictures there’s a mark on his chest, this slimy splotch of green that means certain death in paintball.
Michael Montgom…: So Ivan sees himself as a professional soldier, and as the calls progress, it sounds like his mother gets over her initial shock of him going into combat.
Erika Kinetz: She does. His mom is a real supporter of this war, super patriotic. We learned that the family has relatives in Kyiv, but his mom several times vows to go fight in Ukraine herself. Says she’ll volunteer, she’ll be a nurse, she’ll go beat people with a shovel if she has to.

It seems like she’s taken in a lot of the Russian propaganda about Ukraine, that it’s filled with Nazis and her son is there to defeat them and liberate the population. At one point, Ivan tells her he’ll kill people if he has to. And she says, “I understand. I love you so much and I’m so proud of you. I don’t even have the words to describe it.” And she tells him God is with him.
Michael Montgom…: There’s a second soldier, and it sounds like his story is different from Ivan’s.
Erika Kinetz: His name is Leonid. He joined the military because he needed money. He was in debt, didn’t want to depend on his parents, and over the course of his calls, we can hear about terrible things that he’s seen, what it takes for him to survive, how there’s no room for mercy.

In this call to his mother, he talks about that very first day of the invasion and how he was told they’d take Kyiv without even firing a bullet, and the whole thing would be over in a week. Instead, they get in a firefight right as they cross into Ukraine.
Leonid: We shot from the tanks, machine guns and rifles. We had no losses. We destroyed their four tanks, so we won.
Erika Kinetz: As he goes on, he seems to show some empathy for the young Ukrainian soldiers they’ve just killed.
Leonid: Were lying out there, just 18 or 19 years old. Am I different from them? No, I am not.
Erika Kinetz: This is hard for Leonid’s mom to hear. She says, “What a nightmare, Leonid.” And she asks her son, “You wanted to live at that moment, right, honey?” And Leon says, “More Than ever.”

Leon and Ivan’s unit moved from Belarus down the western flank of the Dnipro River. They were still a long way from Kyiv.

I later talked with Ukrainian civilians, locals who’d followed all this from a tiny village north of the capitol, bucolic place that became a major forward operating base for the Russians. The Ukrainians, this one mom in particular, she’d peek over her fence and see these boyish soldiers, some of them not much bigger than their guns, on top of their tanks, heading south, shouting, “Now we’ll take Kyiv. Kyiv is ours.”

This triumphant mood does not last long at all. Those tanks start coming back wrecked if they come back at all, and the soldiers return wounded if they return at all. And in the phone calls, you can also hear the mood darkening.

This is Leonid talking with his mom. She’s calling him by his nickname, and he’s describing to her how he had to collect the bodies of dead Russian soldiers. I want to add that his description is pretty graphic.
Leonid: I have personally seen 12 blown up tanks holding a line. It was terrible. There was a body without legs, arms, or a head, with nothing. We wrapped it up in a blanket.
Erika Kinetz: The Russians are taking far more casualties than anyone expected, and they’re doing their best to hide it from the public. They’re also running short on basic supplies. So, one way for soldiers to get what they needed or wanted was to steal.

A lot of these guys didn’t have a lot of money, and suddenly they can just take stuff that would normally have been out of reach. This is Ivan talking about it with his mom.
Ivan: Hear me out. We have hundred percent discounts here. We go in and nobody says anything at the cash register. You walk into a store and you can take anything you want. There’s just no meat or bread.
Erika Kinetz: This is something that Leonid also talks about with his mother, and she’s like, “You guys aren’t looting, are you?” But it’s become normal for him.
Leonid: Look, mom, I’m seeing tons of houses. I don’t know, dozens, hundreds, and they’re all empty. Everyone ran away. We take food, bed linen, pillows, blankets, forks, spoons, pans.
Erika Kinetz: And when he tells her about it so casually, she laughs like, you got to be kidding me.

Now, we know the scale of this looting was much more extensive. In the intercepts, we can hear other soldiers gleefully describe piles of gold and electronics that they’ve made off with. Some of these guys seem proud that they can come home and give their families something.
Michael Montgom…: There’s another thing the soldiers talk about stealing, and it’s Ukrainian cell phones,
Erika Kinetz: And this has real importance for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The government and military were doing very clever signals intelligence. So, if they pick up a bunch of Russian numbers clustered in one place, they can figure out where the enemy troops are and attack them. So, the Russians eventually wise up to this and ditch their Russian phones, but they just can’t give up that itch to stay connected. So, they take those stolen Ukrainian phones, pass them around, and a bunch of guys call home from one number. Of course, the Ukrainians were still listening, and they intercepted those calls whenever they ping a Ukrainian cell tower. These conversations provided really important intelligence to the armed forces of Ukraine, and now there are also potential evidence for war crimes prosecutors.
Michael Montgom…: So, the Ukrainians were able to listen in on Russian soldiers’ phone calls, like we’re doing right now, but in real time, as the Russians were trying to capture Kyiv?
Erika Kinetz: That’s right. Ukraine had teams of people monitoring and logging these calls, and believe it or not, this is still going on. Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine keep talking on cell phones and the Ukrainians keep listening in. And conditions haven’t gotten better. They’ve gotten worse.

By mid-March, the Russian advance is bogged down on the outskirts of Kyiv. Leonid and Ivan’s unit is stuck around the town of Bucha, trying to reach the capitol. We know this from evidence Russian soldiers left behind that we analyzed, the locations of cell phone towers they were calling from, and it’s what Ivan tells his mom.

She says she’s afraid to ask him where he is because people might be listening in, but Ivan says he doesn’t care.
Ivan: Bucha.
Michael Montgom…: Bucha. Russian soldiers occupied the town for weeks. It’s now synonymous with some of the worst atrocities of the war.
Natalia Vlasenk…: They took him away. I held into them. I begged them. I was on my knees.
Michael Montgom…: That’s next on Reveal.

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Michael Montgomery, in for Al Letson.

Associated Press investigative reporter Erika Kinetz is following the trail of Russian soldiers in the early weeks of the invasion of Ukraine last year. Unable to capture the capitol, Kyiv, they occupied a town just to the northwest, Bucha.

Erika, you made it to Bucha for the AP and Frontline. The Russian army had just retreated. What did you see and hear?
Erika Kinetz: If you had visited Bucha before the war, you would’ve found a nice suburban town. It was nothing like that when I got there in April. This is going to be pretty graphic.

The place still stank of death. Russians had left the streets strewn with bodies. These were people shot dead as they tried to flee, people killed with their hands bound and their eyes blindfolded.

It’s a big focus for war crimes investigators. Everybody who died in Bucha had to be exhumed for an autopsy. This was excruciating. A psychologist told us that mothers who’d buried their children in their yards had to watch them get dug up again and taken away. People fainted. It took months to grasp the scale of what had happened. More than 450 men, women, and children died here.

One person we interviewed in Bucha was a woman named Natalia Vlasenko. Her 20-year-old grandson, Dima, worked in a local shop.
Natalia Vlasenk…: When the Russians arrived, he was on the second floor of the house and yelled, “Grandma, Grandma, tanks!”
Erika Kinetz: The family says Soldiers found images of Russian tanks on Dima’s cell phone.
Natalia Vlasenk…: He pointed the rifle at me and said, “if you won’t give him up the easy way, then we will do it the hard way.” They took him away. I held onto them. I begged them. I was on my knees.
Erika Kinetz: His body was found just down the road outside a building that the Russians had used as a command post. He’d been executed.

Dima was one of dozens of Ukrainians the Russians rounded up right as they were taking control of Bucha. We documented the deaths of eight other men taken to the same command post as Dima that day.

We heard a lot of stories like Natalia’s. We also got security camera video showing a line of men in civilian clothes hunched over, no shoes, being marched across the street to their deaths. The camera footage also captured one of the final battles for Bucha. You can see Ukrainian soldiers leave and the Russians start creeping down the street.

And when we put all that together, it became clear that a lot of the violence was strategic. It was part of a system that the Russians used to terrorize and control the local population.
Michael Montgom…: What do we know about Ivan and Leonid’s role in some of these atrocities? I mean, we know from the phone calls that Ivan, at least, was in Bucha.
Erika Kinetz: Ivan and Leonid themselves described killings of civilians and prisoners, but Ivan is never clear about what his own involvement was. He tells his mom that Russians will shoot anybody who has a weapon, man, woman, or child, and that military units from Chechnya are just killing people on a whim. He talks about cleansing operations.

This is something the Russians did, sweeping neighborhoods to root out potential threats. They were constantly searching people’s cell phones to see if anybody was posting information about the war. The Ukrainian government actually made this really easy to do. They created apps and bots that effectively crowdsourced gathering information about Russian troop positions.

In his phone calls, Leonid describes how Russian soldiers were ordered to take no prisoners. We hear him tell his mom a really horrible story about a teenager found with supposedly incriminating information on his cell phone. A warning again that this is a graphic description of violence.
Leonid: There was a prisoner. It was an 18-year-old guy. First he was shot in his leg, then his ears were cut off. After that, he admitted everything and they killed him. We don’t imprison them. I mean, we kill them all.
Erika Kinetz: Leonid’s mom at first struggles to comprehend this. She says, “Leonid, they might just be peaceful people.” Leonid tries to explain to his mom what it’s like, why they do this, and he tells her that doing patrols can be really nerve-wracking, and they will take extreme lethal action against pretty much anyone.
Leonid: It was scary at some moments, especially when we were driving or walking through areas where there were no other Russian soldiers yet. Moving forward slowly, looking in both directions, left, right, checking all the windows. If one was open or a curtain moved, we were told to open fire. If a civilian jumps out of their house, everyone opens fire.
Erika Kinetz: Leonid says to his mom, look, civilians were told to flee or shelter in basements. They’re not supposed to be outside, so anyone outside must not be a real civilian. Remember, Russian soldiers had been repeatedly told by Putin and others that they’d be welcomed by their brothers and sisters in Ukraine as liberators, and anyone who resisted was therefore a fascist, an insurgent, not a real civilian.

About three weeks into the invasion, it’s clear to just about everyone that Kyiv will not fall easily, and that just about everything the soldiers expected was wrong. And you hear this in the calls from the soldiers. They’re saying Ukraine is a meat grinder, that the Ukrainian army was ready for us and the Americans were helping them. It’s hell. We have to drink so we can cope.

Leonid says it’s so scary and bad that Russian soldiers are shooting themselves in the leg so they can go home. He tells his mom he’s almost been killed five times.

Ivan Is also scared about getting killed.
Ivan: You can go crazy. It’s such shit. I really thought it would be easy here, to tell the truth.
Erika Kinetz: His mom fusses over him, asking if his feet are dry, is he eating? Does he have medicine for his cold? Is he carrying his cross, an amulet to keep him safe? His dad is panicked. He pleads with Ivan to keep calling him.
Leonid’s Father: Even if it’s for 30 seconds, if you have time. I don’t care if it’s daytime or night. Call anytime.
Erika Kinetz: The calls from Ivan and Leonid end on March 21st.
Michael Montgom…: The stories we’re hearing of two Russian soldiers came through cell phone calls that were secretly recorded while they were in Ukraine, and there’s so many things we don’t know, things we couldn’t ask them ourselves. Erika, you and your colleagues spent weeks following their trail. Ivan’s digital footprint led you to a local newspaper in Siberia.
Erika Kinetz: That’s right. We found a posting from last summer with two photographs of Ivan. In one, he’s wearing his regiment’s dress uniform, and in the other, he’s posing in combat gear, holding an assault rifle. This posting is Ivan’s death notice. It says he died a hero in Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. It says, “We’ll always remember you. All of Russia shares this grief.” He was 22 years old.
Michael Montgom…: I’ve listened to these calls quite a few times, and it’s a little unsettling to hear Ivan’s voice now that we know he’s dead, sort of like we’re peering into something we’re not supposed to see. I mean, these were private conversations, and a lot of them show his deep love of his family and his friends, but the calls are happening in the context of a brutal invasion that Ivan didn’t expect, but that he was a part of.
Erika Kinetz: The calls show these guys in another light, out of the context of the war. And it’s strange looking at pictures of Ivan from childhood, listening to him tell his girlfriend how much he loves her, when you know he is going to die. It’s like you see him grow up and then just disappear.
Michael Montgom…: You worked with a Russian reporter and reached out to Ivan’s mother. She’d been so devoted to her son and so devoted to the war. What did she say?
Erika Kinetz: We reached her just a few weeks ago at the same phone number Ivan had dialed from Bucha. She really didn’t want to talk over the phone, especially to an American media organization. That can be pretty risky in Russia today. So, at first she denied Ivan had ever called her from the front, but she agreed to listen to one of the calls and she confirmed that it was her and her son talking. She insisted that Ivan had not been involved in any murders or looting, and she hung up.
Michael Montgom…: What about the other soldier, Leonid? You found out he was wounded and sent back to Russia. Were you able to talk to him or his family?
Erika Kinetz: Well, we couldn’t reach Leonid, but we did talk with his mom, again at the same number he had used to call her from Ukraine. She was also nervous about talking with the foreign media on the phone. We asked her several times if she could help us speak with Leonid directly, but she declined. She said she didn’t want to be interviewed, but she answered some basic questions about Leonid’s service in Ukraine and her feelings about the war.
Michael Montgom…: And just to be clear, this is a voice actor reading what Leonid’s mother had to say,
Leonid’s Mother: I was scared. I just wasn’t prepared emotionally. None of us had experienced anything like this, that your child will live in a time when he has to go and fight.
Erika Kinetz: She says Leonid doesn’t like talking about Ukraine with her.
Leonid’s Mother: My son said a single phrase, “My conscience is clear. They opened fire first.” That’s all.
Erika Kinetz: Leonard’s mom didn’t want to listen to any of the intercepts. We walked through some of the material, some of the things he said on the calls with her, and she got upset. She said, “This is absurd. Just don’t try to make it look like my child killed innocent people.”
Michael Montgom…: Erika Kinetz is an investigative reporter with the Associated Press.

It’s been a year since Ivan and Leonid entered Ukraine as part of the massive Russian attack, but I was reminded of something over and over again by people in Ukraine: this war has really been going on since 2014. That’s when Russian forces stormed the Crimean Peninsula and Vladimir Putin annexed it. At around the same time, an NGO in Kyiv also started documenting alleged war crimes.
Oleksandra Matv…: I spoke with more than hundreds of people who survived Russian captivity and they told me horrible stories.
Michael Montgom…: Oleksandra Matviichuk is a human rights lawyer who heads the Center for Civil Liberties.
Oleksandra Matv…: And they told me that people who committed this crime, this horrible tortures, they were totally aware that they will remain unpunished.
Michael Montgom…: Since Russia launched its full scale invasion last year, she says the work of collecting testimony and other evidence has been overwhelming.
Oleksandra Matv…: When we faced with enormous amount of crimes, which means enormous amount of human pain. We work directly with people, and I ask myself, for whom do we document all these crimes for? Who will provide investigation and justice for people with whom we are speaking?
Michael Montgom…: While there have been some war crimes allegations against Ukrainian soldiers, the vast majority, tens of thousands, have been against Russian soldiers. Oleksandra says it’s essential not to wait until the war is over to pursue justice. Russian soldiers attacking Ukraine today need to know they will go to prison if they break international law.
Oleksandra Matv…: So, justice can provide a cooling effect to the brutality of violation, because some people start to think, okay, maybe Putin will avoid responsibility, but maybe not me.
Michael Montgom…: Oleksandra and the Center for Civil Liberties received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. It was in part for their work documenting human rights abuses, but also for promoting free speech and tackling longstanding corruption in the Ukrainian government. Oleksandra insists that the only way the Ukrainian people will believe that war criminals will be prosecuted is if they know their own legal system could be trusted, and this will require help from the international community.
Oleksandra Matv…: Because when people waiting for justice for years, it’s not effective justice. It’s not something which people deserve. So, we need to ingrain international element onto the level of national investigation and national justice. I speak about model where national investigators work together with international investigators. National judges work together with international judges.
Michael Montgom…: So far, more than 40 countries have agreed to help investigate and prosecute war crimes in Ukraine. She says international participation can be a temporary arrangement, a boost for Ukraine’s struggling courts
Oleksandra Matv…: Like a vaccine, which make national systems stronger, and then national system sooner or later will be able to tackle all these cases by themselves. But now, we need assistance. People are waiting for the simplest procedures, measures, for months, because national system is stuck with enormous amount of Russians’ war crimes, which still committing every day.
Michael Montgom…: Oleksandra Matviichuk heads the Center for Civil Liberties based in Kyiv. Just in the past year, more than 66,000 potential war crimes have been reported to Ukrainian authorities.

This week’s show was produced in collaboration with the Associated Press. We have links to the AP’s extraordinary coverage of the war in Ukraine, including powerful documentaries they produced with Frontline. Go to our website,

Our lead producer is Steven Smith. Cynthia Rodriguez edited the show. Special thanks to AP editors, Jeanie Om, Alison Kojack and Ron Nixon, and reporters, Sola Mia Hera and Anna Pavlova. We had help from Donna Kerlick and Evan Sachs. Nikki Frick and Kim Frieda were our fact Checkers. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda.

Our post-production team this week also includes Kathryn Styer Martínez. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Meyers. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Riva and David Logan Foundations, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Michael Montgomery, in for Al Letson. And remember, as Al likes to say, there is always more to the story.