KYIV — The Ukrainian capital was supposed to fall in a matter of days.
But plagued by tactical errors and fierce Ukrainian resistance, President Vladimir V. Putin’s destructive advance quickly stalled, and his forces became bogged down for most of March on the city’s outskirts.
From trenches, dugouts and in occupied homes in the area around Bucha, a western suburb of Kyiv, Russian soldiers disobeyed orders by making unauthorized calls from their cellphones to their wives, girlfriends, friends and parents hundreds of miles from the front line.
Someone else was listening in: the Ukrainian government.
The New York Times has exclusively obtained recordings of thousands of calls that were made throughout March and intercepted by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies from this pivotal location.
Reporters verified the authenticity of these calls by cross-referencing the Russian phone numbers with messaging apps and social media profiles to identify soldiers and family members. The Times spent almost two months translating the recordings, which have been edited for clarity and length.
The calls, made by dozens of fighters from airborne units and Russia’s National Guard, have not previously been made public and give an inside view of a military in disarray just weeks into the campaign. The soldiers describe a crisis in morale and a lack of equipment, and say they were lied to about the mission they were on — all conditions that have contributed to the recent setbacks for Russia’s campaign in the east of Ukraine.
The conversations range from the mundane to the brutal, and include blunt criticisms of Mr. Putin and military commanders, remarks that may be punishable under Russian law if they were publicly expressed at home. The Times is using only the first names of the soldiers, and is withholding the names of family members in order to protect their identities.
Soldiers complain about strategic blunders and a dire shortage of supplies. They confess to capturing and killing non-combatants, and they openly admit to looting Ukrainian homes and businesses. Many say they want to terminate their military contracts, and they rebut the propaganda broadcast by Russian news media back home with the stark realities of the war around them.
‘Things aren’t going well here.’
Within two weeks of the invasion, the soldiers seem to realize that Kyiv is out of reach. After Ukrainian forces stage ambushes and cut off the key access route to the capital, Russian soldiers tell their relatives that the military strategy is failing. They express surprise at the “professional” Ukrainian forces and often use the term “khokhol,” a slur directed at Ukrainians. One named Yevgeniy says bluntly, “We’re losing.”
Soldiers describe tactical blunders and complain about their lack of weaponry and basic equipment, like night vision devices and proper bulletproof vests.
By mid-March, three weeks into the invasion, they report heavy losses.
Nikita, a soldier with the 656th Regiment of the National Guard, tells his partner that 90 men were killed around him when they were ambushed while driving. On a phone shared by members of the 331st Airborne Regiment, a soldier named Semyon estimates that a third of his regiment was killed. Another describes rows of coffins containing the bodies of 400 young paratroopers waiting to be returned home from an airport hangar.
Soldiers of the 331st Airborne Regiment report that the entire Second Battalion of 600 soldiers has been wiped out. A soldier named Andrey tells his father that more than half of his regiment is “gone.” They say that their regiment commander, Sergey Sukharev, has been killed in the fighting, an event confirmed by contemporaneous news reports.
Back home in Russia, the phone calls reveal that the mounting deaths are beginning to reverberate in military towns, where tight-knit communities and families exchange news of casualties. Relatives describe rows of corpses and coffins arriving in their cities, as soldiers warn that even more bodies will soon return. One woman tells her husband that a military funeral was held every day that week. In shock, some families say they have begun to see psychologists.
‘Civilians are lying around everywhere.’
Even as the bodies of dead Russian soldiers are returning home, those of Ukrainian civilians are mounting in the streets and forests around Bucha.
When images of those dead bodies led to a global outcry in early April, Mr. Putin and other high-ranking Russian leaders repeatedly denied wrongdoing and described the atrocities as a “provocation and fake.”
But during their occupation of these areas in March, Mr. Putin’s forces recounted in horror what they had witnessed.
In what may amount to evidence of war crimes, a soldier named Sergey confesses to his girlfriend that his captain ordered the execution of three men who were “walking past our storehouse,” and that he has become “a killer.”
A soldier with the 331st Airborne Regiment named Andrey tells his wife that he threatened to kill a drunk Ukrainian man and throw his body in the forest where no one would find it. Later, Sergey says that a commander has ordered them to do the same.
When Russian forces retreated at the end of March, Ukrainian officials discovered over 1,100 bodies in the Bucha region, on streets and in gardens, stashed in wells and cellars, and buried in makeshift graves. Some were charred or had their hands bound. Some 617 of those people died as a result of gunshot wounds, Andriy Nebytov, Kyiv’s regional police chief, told The Times.
‘The mood is so negative.’
Throughout the stalled offensive — and before the Russian forces would ultimately retreat at the end of March — the phone calls reveal a crisis in morale. Impatience, fear and fatigue set in as soldiers describe a military in disarray. “Frankly speaking, nobody understands why we have to fight this war,” Sergey tells his girlfriend.
Other soldiers complain of freezing temperatures and frostbite, harsh sleeping conditions and logistical failures. Soldiers say they raided a butcher shop and killed chickens, piglets and an ostrich for food.
Many of the soldiers express contempt for their commanders, whom they hold responsible for deadly tactical decisions. And some brazenly criticize the highest of their “higher-ups,” President Putin.
‘I’m quitting immediately.’
Frustrated by continuous setbacks and fearing for their lives, Russian soldiers say they are fed up with the military. They consider cutting their contracts short or even deserting.
Many are motivated to stay for another reason: They need the pay. In addition to their monthly salaries, soldiers say they are earning the equivalent of $53 per day in combat pay, which is triple the average salary in the soldiers’ hometowns like Pskov, where many of the airborne troops sent to take Kyiv are from.
The soldiers’ loved ones respond in different ways. Some encourage them to leave, others ask them to remain strong. One wife says: “I don’t need your fucking money. I just need my husband back.”
‘What TV do you want? LG or Samsung?’
Nothing appeared too big or too small for the taking, including extension cords and Christmas lights, blenders and construction tools, fishing gear and even a toothbrush.
Some of the loot makes it back to Russia. Previously published security camera footage from a shipping company in Belarus and shipping documents obtained by The Times confirmed that soldiers from the 656th Regiment of the National Guard, the same unit identified with some of the call intercepts, sent packages home in the days after withdrawing. The documents record at least one soldier, Aleksandr, whom The Times identified in the intercepts as an owner of one of the cellphones used, shipping clothes to his wife on April 4.
In Russia, Mr. Putin recast the failed campaign as an effort not to take Kyiv, but to weaken Ukrainian troops. As quickly as they came, the Russian soldiers in northern Kyiv withdrew, regrouped and pivoted east, where Russian-backed separatists have been waging war for over eight years.
On April 1, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies and journalists entered the liberated territories of the Kyiv region for the first time since early March. The grim reality of Russia’s occupation — relayed privately between soldiers and their families — now became visible to the world.[Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/09/28/world/europe/russian-soldiers-phone-calls-ukraine.html]