How do people raised with a sense of right and wrong end up involved in terrible acts of violence against others? That’s the human mystery at the heart of 2,000 intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers in Ukraine. These calls obtained by The Associated Press offer an intimate new perspective on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s year-old war, seen through the eyes of Russian soldiers themselves. The AP identified calls made in March 2022 by soldiers in a military division that Ukrainian prosecutors say committed war crimes in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv that became an early symbol of Russian atrocities. They show how deeply unprepared young soldiers — and their country — were for the war to come. Many joined the military because they needed money. They were told they’d be welcomed as heroes for liberating Ukraine from what Russian officials falsely claim are Nazi oppressors, and their Western backers, and that Kyiv would fall without bloodshed within a week. The intercepts show that as soldiers realised how much they’d been misled, they grew more and more afraid. Violence that once would have been unthinkable became normal. Looting and drinking offered moments of rare reprieve. They tell their mothers what this war actually looks like: About the teenage Ukrainian boy who got his ears cut off. How the scariest sound is not the whistle of a rocket flying past, but the silence that means it’s coming directly for you. How modern weapons can obliterate the human body so there’s nothing left to bring home.
This is the story of one of those men, Leonid. The AP couldn’t reach Leonid directly but did speak with his mother in Russia. The AP isn’t using his full name to protect his family. The AP has no evidence of his individual actions beyond his own testimony.
The AP verified these calls with the help of the Dossier Centre, an investigative group in London funded by Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
___ In a joint production that airs on Saturday, February 25, The Associated Press and Reveal at the Centre for Investigative Reporting will broadcast never-before-heard audio of Russian soldiers at the front line of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
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___ LEONID Leonid became a soldier because he needed money. In the calls, there is an obvious moral dissonance between the way Leonid’s mother raised him and what he is seeing and doing in Ukraine. Still, she defended her son, insisting he never even came into contact with civilians in Ukraine.
”No one thought it would be so terrible,” his mother told the AP in January. ”My son just said one thing: My conscience is clear. They opened fire first. That’s all.” She declined to listen to any of the intercepts: ”This is absurd,” she said. ”Just don’t try to make it look like my child killed innocent people.” ___ ONE: Kill if you don’t want to be killed.
Leonid’s introduction to war came on February 24, as his unit crossed into Ukraine from Belarus and decimated a detachment of Ukrainians at the border. After his first fight, Leonid seems to have compassion for the young Ukrainian soldiers they’d just killed. Leonid: ”We shot from the tanks, machine guns and rifles. We had no losses. We destroyed their four tanks. There were dead bodies lying around and burning. So, we won.” Mother: ”Oh what a nightmare! Lyonka, you wanted to live at that moment, right honey?” Leonid: ”More than ever!” Mother: ”It’s totally horrible.” Leonid: ”They were lying there, just 18 or 19 years old. Am I different from them? No, I’m not.” ___ TWO: The rules of normal life no longer apply. Unprepared for a prolonged attack, Russian soldiers ran short on basic supplies. One way for them to get what they needed — or wanted — was to steal. When Leonid tells his mother casually about looting, at first she can’t believe he’s stealing. But it’s become normal for him.
As he speaks, he watches a town burn on the horizon.
”Such a beauty,” he says. Leonid: ”Look, mom, I’m looking at tons of houses — I don’t know, dozens, hundreds — and they’re all empty. Everyone ran away.” Mother: ”So all the people left, right? You guys aren’t looting them, are you? You’re not going into other people’s houses?” Leonid: ”Of course we are, mom. Are you crazy?” Mother: ”Oh, you are. What do you take from there?” Leonid: ”We take food, bed linen, pillows. Blankets, forks, spoons, pans.” Mother: (laughing) ”You gotta be kidding me. Leonid: ”Whoever doesn’t have any — socks, clean underwear, T-shirts, sweaters.” ___ THREE: The enemy is everybody. Leonid tells his mother about the terror of going on patrol and not knowing what or who they will encounter. He describes using lethal force at the slightest provocation against just about anyone.
At first, she seems not to believe that Russian soldiers could be killing civilians.
Leonid tells her that civilians were told to flee or shelter in basements, so anyone who was outside must not be a real civilian.
This was a whole-of-society war. Mercy was for suckers.
Mother: ”Oh Lyonka, you’ve seen so much stuff there!” Leonid: ”Well … civilians are lying around right on the street with their brains coming out.” Mother: ”Oh God, you mean the locals?” Leonid: ”Yep. Well, like, yeah.” Mother: ”Are they the ones you guys shot or the ones … ” Leonid: ”The ones killed by our army.” Mother: ”Lyonka, they might just be peaceful people.” Leonid: ”Mom, there was a battle. And a guy would just pop up, you know? Maybe he would pull out a grenade launcher … Or we had a case, a young guy was stopped, they took his cellphone. He had all this information about us in his Telegram messages — where to bomb, how many we were, how many tanks we have.” Mother: ”So they knew everything?” Leonid: ”He was shot right there on the spot.” Mother: ”Mhm.” Leonid: ”He was 17 years old. And that’s it, right there.” Mother: ”Mhm.” 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.” Mother: ”Did he admit it?” Leonid: ”We don’t imprison them. I mean, we kill them all.” Mother: ”Mhm.” ___ FOUR: What it takes to get home alive.
Leonid tells his mother he was nearly killed five times. Things are so disorganised, he says, it’s not uncommon for Russians to fire on their own troops. Some soldiers shoot themselves just to get medical leave, he says. In another call, he tells his girlfriend that he’s envious of his buddies who got shot in the feet and could go home. ”A bullet in your foot is like four months at home with crutches,” he says. ”It would be awesome.” He promises to bring home a collection of bullets for the kids. ”Trophies from Ukraine,” he calls them.
His mother says she’s waiting for him.
”Of course, you’ll come,” his mother says. ”No doubts. You’re my beloved. Of course, you’ll come. You are my happiness.” Leonid returned to Russia in May, badly wounded, but alive? He told his mother Russia would win this war.