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‘Putin Is a Fool’: Intercepted Calls Reveal Russian Army in Disarray

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This story contains audio

Russian soldiers made thousands of calls from the battlefield in Ukraine to relatives at home. Here are their conversations. (Note: They contain explicit language.)

00:24

Ivan

Hello?

Hi,
Mommy.

Yevgeniy

We
are
positioned
in
Bucha
town.

Sergey

Our
offense
has
stalled.
We’re
losing
this
war.

Andrey

Half
of
our
regiment
is
gone.

Sergey

We
were
given
an
order
to
kill
everyone
we
see.

Vlad

When
I
come
home,
I’m
quitting.
Fuck
the
army.

Aleksandr

Putin
is
a
fool.
He
wants
to
take
Kyiv.
But
there’s
no
way
we
can
do
it.

Visual Investigations

In phone calls to friends and relatives at home, Russian soldiers gave damning insider accounts of battlefield failures and civilian executions, excoriating their leaders just weeks into the campaign to take Kyiv.

Sept. 28, 2022

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.

00:14

Nikita to partner

Fuck.
There
are
corpses
lying
around
on
the
road.
Civilians
are
just
lying
around.
It’s
fucked
up.

Right
on
the
road?

Yes.

Nikita to friend

Everything
was
fucking
looted.
All
the
alcohol
was
fucking
drunk.
And
all
the
cash
was
taken.

Everyone
is
doing
it
here.

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.

00:18

Sergey to mother

No
one
told
us
we
were
going
to
war.
They
warned
us
one
day
before
we
left.

Nikita to friend

We
were
all
going
for
training
for
two
or
three
days.

Bro,
I
understand.

We
were
fucking
fooled
like
little
kids.

Aleksey to partner

I
didn’t
know
this
was
going
to
happen.
They
said
we
were
going
for
training.
These
bastards
didn’t
tell
us
anything.

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.

00:18

Sergey to mother

Mom,
this
war
is
the
stupidest
decision
our
government
ever
made,
I
think.

Ilya to partner

What
else
do
they
say?
When
is
he
going
to
finish
all
this,
Putin?
Fuck.

He
says
everything
is
going
according
to
the
plan
and
the
timeline.

He
was
gravely
mistaken.

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.

00:18

Aleksandr

We
can’t
take
Kyiv.

We
just
take
villages,
and
that’s
it.

Sergey to partner

They
wanted
to
fucking
do
it
in
one
fell
swoop
here,
and
it
didn’t
fucking
work
like
that.

Sergey to girlfriend

They
just
want
to
fool
people
on
TV,
like,
“Everything
is
all
right;
there’s
no
war,
just
a
special
operation.”
But
in
reality,
it’s
an
actual
fucking
war.

‘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.”

00:32

Sergey to mother

Our
position
is
shit,
so
to
speak.
We’ve
moved
to
defense.
Our
offense
has
stalled.

Sergey to friend

A
lot
of
paratroopers
were
moving
in
front
of
us.

They
got
fucking
hit.

Sergey to father

Tanks
and
armored
carriers
were
burning.
They
blew
up
a
bridge
and
a
dam.
The
roads
flooded.
Now,
we
can’t
move.

Nikita

The
khokhols
are
advancing
and
we’re
just
standing
here.

I
never
imagined
I’d
end
up
in
this
kind
of
shit.

Soldiers describe tactical blunders and complain about their lack of weaponry and basic equipment, like night vision devices and proper bulletproof vests.

00:26

Nikita to girlfriend

Our
own
forces
fucking
shelled
us.
They
thought
we
were
fucking
khokhols.

We
thought
we
were
fucking
done
for.

Sergey to girlfriend

Some
guys
took
armor
off
of
Ukrainians’
corpses
and
took
it
for
themselves.

Their
NATO
armor
is
better
than
ours.

Roman to unknown

There
is
a
lot
of
abandoned
equipment?

Everything
here
is
ancient.
It’s
not
modern
like
they
show
on
Zvezda
[state
TV].

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.

00:21

Yegor to relative

Do
you
guys
have
losses?

From
my
regiment
alone,
one-third
of
the
regiment.

That’s
a
lot.

Nikita to mother

Sixty
percent
of
the
regiment
is
gone
already.

Yevgeniy to partner

No
one
is
left
from
my
Kostroma
regiment.

Sergey to mother

There
were
400
paratroopers.
And
only
38
of
them
survived.

Because
our
commanders
sent
soldiers
to
the
slaughter.

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.

00:19

Partner to Ivan

Vanya,
the
coffins
keep
arriving.
We
are
burying
one
man
after
another.
This
is
a
nightmare.

Semyon to partner

I’m
warning
you.
There
are
about
100
“200s”
[dead].

Don’t
panic.

Partner to Maksim

The
wives
are
going
crazy.
They’re
even
writing
to
Putin.

‘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.

00:18

Aleksandr to relative

We
were
driving
in
the
city,
returning
to
the
position.
Bodies
were
lying
on
the
road,
nobody
had
picked
them
up.

Huh?

I’m
saying:
There
are
limbs
scattered
around,
already
fucking
bloated.
Nobody
is
picking
them
up.
They’re
not
ours;
they’re
fucking
civilians.

Fuck.

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.”

00:31

Sergey to girlfriend

We
detained
them,
undressed
them
and
checked
all
their
clothes.
Then
a
decision
had
to
be
made
whether
to
let
them
go.
If
we
let
them
go,
they
could
give
away
our
position.

So
it
was
decided
to
shoot
them
in
the
forest.

Did
you
shoot
them?

Of
course
we
shot
them.

Why
didn’t
you
take
them
as
prisoners?

We
would
have
had
to
feed
them,
and
we
don’t
have
enough
food
ourselves,
you
see.

As the week passes, Sergey tells his mother about the “mountain of corpses” in the forest.

00:23

Sergey to mother

There
is
a
forest
where
the
division
headquarters
is.
I
walked
into
it
and
saw
a
sea
of
corpses
in
civilian
clothing.
A
sea.
I’ve
never
seen
so
many
corpses
in
my
fucking
life.
It’s
just
completely
fucked.
You
can’t
see
where
they
end.

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.

00:35

Sergey to girlfriend

They
told
us
that,
where
we’re
going,
there’s
a
lot
of
civilians
walking
around.
And
they
gave
us
the
order
to
kill
everyone
we
see.

Why
the
fuck?

Because
they
might
give
away
our
positions.

That’s
what
we’re
fucking
going
to
do,
it
seems.
Kill
any
civilian
that
walks
by
and
drag
them
into
the
forest.

I’ve
already
become
a
murderer.
That’s
why
I
don’t
want
to
kill
any
more
people,
especially
ones
I
will
have
to
look
in
the
eyes.

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.

00:29

Soldier

Dear,
I
really
want
to
go
home.
I’m
so
fucking
tired
of
being
afraid
of
everything.
They
brought
us
to
some
fucking
shithole.
What
are
we
fucking
waiting
for?
To
be
fucking
killed?

Andrey to partner

The
mood
is
so
fucking
negative.
One
guy
is
fucking
crying,
and
another
one
is
fucking
suicidal.
I’m
fucking
sick
and
tired
of
them.

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.

00:21

Yevgeniy to friend

First,
we
received
dry
rations
for
10
days;
we’ve
eaten
them
already.
Then,
we
got
rations
for
three
days,
and
tomorrow
they
run
out.

They’ll
have
to
come
up
with
something.

Aleksandr to mother

I
have
frostbite
on
my
fingers
and
toes.

Don’t
you
have
any
medics
there?

Yes,
but
they
don’t
give
us
anything.
I’ll
have
to
go
get
it
myself
from
the
shops.

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.

00:33

Roman to partner

Fucking
higher-ups
can’t
do
anything.
Turns
out,
they
don’t
really
know
anything.
They
can
only
talk
big
in
their
uniforms.

Sergey to girlfriend

Our
new
general
was
removed
because
there
were
too
many
losses
under
his
leadership.

Sergey to girlfriend

I’m
constantly
fucking
thinking
about
how
lucky
I
am
that
I
manage
to
fucking
survive
here.
Because
of
some
fucking
moron’s
orders.
While
we
were
driving
our
column
almost
got
ambushed
twice.

‘I’ll quit at once.’

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.

00:18

Soldier

I’m
quitting
immediately.
When
I
return
I’ll
tell
you
everything.
It’s
total
bullshit.

I’ll
never
go
back
to
this
shit
ever
again.

Vadim to partner

I’m
quitting,
for
fuck’s
sake.

I’ll
take
a
civilian
job.
And
my
son
won’t
join
the
army,
either,
100
percent.

Tell
him
he’s
going
to
be
a
doctor.

Several soldiers fear the consequences, saying they’ve been told — sometimes by their commanders — that they could face prosecution and imprisonment.

The scare tactic had no legal grounds at the time, Sergey Krivenko, a Russian human rights lawyer, told The Times. But in September, days before Mr. Putin announced a mobilization to draft hundreds of thousands of civilians, Russian lawmakers approved harsher punishments for desertion, insubordination and evading military service.

00:18

Sergey to girlfriend

While
there
is
active
combat,
they’re
not
going
to
let
me
fucking
go.

Why
the
hell?

They’re
not
letting
people
resign.
They
said
if
you
do
that,
you
will
go
to
prison
for
five
years.

Aleksandr to partner

Dear,
if
you
refuse
to
go,
what
will
happen
then?

I
don’t
know,
they
may
send
us
to
prison.
There
are
so
many
who
refuse
to
go.

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.”

00:23

Aleksandr to partner

I’m
sick
and
tired
of
this
contract.
On
the
other
hand,
where
else
can
I
earn
such
money?

Sergey to girlfriend

I
try
to
console
myself
by
thinking
that
if
I’m
here
for
a
long
time,
at
least
I
will
earn
a
lot
of
money.

Soldier

I
am
finished
with
the
fucking
army.

Maybe
I’ll
go
to
Syria
one
more
time
so
that
we
can
buy
an
apartment.

No
way.

So
that
we
can
buy
an
apartment.

‘What TV do you want? LG or Samsung?’

Throughout the campaign, the soldiers brag about what may amount to more war crimes: looting. They occupy civilian homes, sleep in their beds and take their clothes. When they discover cash, they steal it.

00:26

Aleksandr to partner

Look
for
an
apartment
in
Orenburg.

Why?

So,
we
went
to
this
house.
Misha
and
I
opened
a
safe
with
a
key.
There
was
5,200
[5.2
million
rubles].

Put
it
back.

I’m
not
an
idiot.
I
have
an
entire
apartment
in
my
pocket.

Aleksandr, a medic in the 237th Airborne Regiment, marvels at the wealth of Ukrainians who are “rolling in money.” Several soldiers promise to bring “trophies” back home to their families, who are variously pleased and dismayed by the looting.

00:26

Sergey to girlfriend

What
TV
do
you
want?
LG
or
Samsung?

Seryozha,
how
are
you
going
to
bring
it
back?

Well,
we’ll
figure
it
out.

What
the
hell,
do
each
of
you
take
a
TV?

Not
only
TVs.

Two
guys
took
TVs
that
are
the
size
of
our
damn
bed.

Aren’t
you
going
to
be
punished
for
that?
Isn’t
that
looting?

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.

00:34

Yevgeniy

They
are
fucking
savages.

They
are
stealing
everything.

Our
guys?

But
of
course.
Fucking
TVs.

Why
do
they
need
them?

TVs,
fucking
meat
mincers,
screwdrivers
and
some
fucking
suitcases.

Sergey to girlfriend

Are
you
bringing
a
vacuum
cleaner,
too?
We
already
have
one.

Yep,
I
already
packed
it.

Soldier

I’m
driving
a
Kawasaki
here.

Seriously?

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.

‘What are they saying on the news?’

Cut off from the outside world and frustrated by commanders who the soldiers say keep them in the dark, the soldiers rely on the calls home for updates on the war they’re fighting. But what they hear from their families — a rosy picture propagated by Russian state media — is often at odds with their reality.

00:30

Vitaliy to father

What
are
they
saying
on
the
news?
We’re
sitting
here
with
no
information
at
all.

Victory
here,
victory
there.
That’s
all
we
see.

Eduard to mother

They’re
showing
on
TV
that
you
have
saunas,
and
they’re
baking
bread
for
you.

Really?

We
don’t.
You
should
see
the
way
we
look.

Pavel to father

That’s
what
they
said
on
TV.
That
there’s
no
more
Ukrainian
Armed
Forces;
it’s
just
the
Nazis
left.

Did
they
lay
down
their
arms?

Yes,
they
laid
down
their
arms,
and
they
no
longer
exist.

Sergey disputes the disinformation in separate candid conversations with his mother.

00:34

Sergey to mother

Mom,
we
haven’t
seen
a
single
fascist
here.

This
war
is
based
on
a
false
pretense.
No
one
needed
it.
We
got
here
and
people
were
living
normal
lives.
Very
well,
like
in
Russia.
And
now
they
have
to
live
in
basements.
The
old
lady
who
lived
near
us
had
to
live
in
the
cellar.
Can
you
imagine?

Seryozha,
you
can’t
be
so
one-sided.
I
understand
that
it’s
scary
there
and
you
feel
bad.

What
does
scary
have
to
do
with
it?
We
all
think
the
same
thing:
This
war
wasn’t
needed.

The families share how they’re feeling the effects of sanctions and how the price of staple items is rising. They bemoan the closing of brands like McDonald’s, H&M and Ikea, and the blackout of media companies.

00:35

Wife to Yevgeniy

By
the
way,
Amazon
closed,
you
know.
And
Wildberries.
We
don’t
have
anything,
Zhenya.
You’ll
come
back
to
the
’90s.

Girlfriend to Sergey

All
the
popular
clothing
brands
have
fucking
left.
They
won’t
sell
graphic
cards,
software
or
iPhones
here.
It’s
complete
shit.
There
won’t
even
be
fucking
Coca-Cola.

Partner to Aleksandr

Instagram
is
closing.

It
was
deemed
extremist
because
they
bash
Russians.

‘Not our problem anymore.’

On the afternoon of March 30, nearly five weeks into Putin’s invasion, soldiers sharing the same cellphone make seven back-to-back calls in just 15 minutes. Each of the fighters shares one last piece of news.

00:22

Yevgeniy to wife

Hello?

Hi.

That’s
it,
I’m
in
Belarus.
We
just
crossed
the
border.

You’re
in
Belarus?
Oh
thank
God,
damn
it.

Aleksandr to mother

We
just
crossed
the
border.

I
see.
Thank
God.
Who
knows
when
it
will
end.

Well,
it’s
not
our
problem
anymore.

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.

How we reported this story

As part of a monthslong investigation into atrocities committed during Russia’s campaign to seize Kyiv, reporters with The New York Times exclusively obtained more than 4,000 recordings of Russian soldiers’ phone calls intercepted in the Bucha area by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.

The Times spent almost two months translating the recordings from Russian to English. Twenty-two phones were shared among dozens of soldiers who identified themselves as being members of several military units, including the 656th National Guard Regiment and the 237th and 331st Airborne Regiments. The phones were used to call hundreds of phone numbers in Russia during its campaign in March.

Reporters with the Visual Investigations team independently authenticated the calls by cross-referencing outgoing and incoming Russian phone numbers with messaging apps and Russian social media accounts, and information contained in leaked Russian databases. The Times confirmed the identity of one soldier and his relative over the phone. And details divulged in some calls were verified with contemporaneous reports in Russian media. In some instances, soldiers said their names or gave other personal details, including the names of their commanders, or their unit number. Those details matched personal profiles registered to those phone numbers, along with other New York Times reporting on the units present in the areas around Bucha. The Times used common spellings for the soldiers’ names.Sign up for our e-mail newsletter to receive more Visual Investigations.



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