How do we know that Russian commanders have ordered atrocities and war crimes? In large part because their comms systems are so bad that they’ve had to use open and unencrypted transmissions to maintain contact with their units. The Times of London reports on the contents of such communications intercepted by Ukraine’s military and released today, but as we’ll see, it’s not just the Ukrainians who are eavesdropping.
This one incident in Mariupol alone is clearly a war crime involving the higher echelons of the Russian military:
A Russian commander ordered his soldiers to open fire and “take out” Ukrainian civilians near the besieged city of Mariupol, according to what Kyiv said was an intercepted radio conversation.
“There are two people coming out of the grove in civilian [clothes],” an unnamed Russian soldier says in an obscenity-strewn recording, which was made public by Ukraine’s SBU security service.
He also says that a vehicle has been spotted but it is unclear whether it is civilian or military. “Take them all f***ing out!” his superior screams in reply, adding that it was unimportant if there were non-combatants or not at the scene. “Off them all, f***!” …
It also emerged yesterday that Russia’s military had boasted about killing dozens of Ukrainian “deserters” who fled the devastated southern city.
They’re also killing captured forces, according to Russia’s own media, but this looks more like an excuse to murder more civilians:
Mikhail Mizintsev, a Russian colonel general, said last month that his forces had “liquidated” 93 alleged fighters who had tried to escape. He said they had been wearing civilian clothes when they were killed, according to RT, the Kremlin-backed media outlet. It was unclear how the Russian army knew they were servicemen and why they were not offered the chance to surrender.
Were those really 93 “fighters,” or ninety-three civilians looking to get out of the way of the war? When fighting partisan warfare, those distinctions get pretty fuzzy. Russia will no doubt rely on that ambiguity to keep claiming that they’re killing active resistance-force participants in the war, but the audio from their comms tells a different story (NSFW):
Of course, this comes from Ukraine’s military, which has all sorts of motives to paint Russians in the worst light. However, the Germans are apparently eavesdropping too and hear the same things:
Germany’s foreign intelligence service claims to have intercepted radio communications in which Russian soldiers discuss carrying out indiscriminate killings in Ukraine.
In two separate communications, Russian soldiers described how they question soldiers as well as civilians and then proceed to shoot them, according to an intelligence official familiar with the findings who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
The findings, first reported by the German magazine Der Spiegel and confirmed by three people briefed on the information, further undermine claims by Russia that atrocities are being carried out only after its soldiers leave occupied areas.
In these cases, however, the forces committing atrocities aren’t regular Russian troops but a mercenary group closely tied to Putin himself:
These people also said the radio traffic suggests that members of the Wagner Group, the private military unit with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies, have played a role in attacks on civilians.Another person briefed on the intelligence said the involvement could have been by the Wagner Group or another private contractor.
It’s not the first accusation of war crimes against the Wagner Group, either. It’s been linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, better known for his indictment by Robert Mueller for Russian interference in the 2016 election, but also to the highest levels of the Russian government. The Wagner Group cut a swath through Syria in 2018, and in the Donbas four years prior to that as well:
The mercenary firm is named Wagner, and it has been linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who was recently indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for an alleged role in “information warfare” ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Worse still, U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Prigozhin was in touch with both the Kremlin and Syrian officials shortly before and after the attack, The Washington Post reported Thursday. The situation raises big questions about what role a Russian mercenary firm — or rather a “pseudo-mercenary” firm, according to Russian military expert Mark Galeotti — was playing in the Syrian war.
Wagner first gained attention for its operations in 2014 in Ukraine, where mercenaries with the group — mostly military veterans and ultranationalists — were reported to be fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The group was believed to have been led by Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 had served in Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU.
After leaving official military service, Utkin is reported to have worked with the private security firm Moran Security Group and the Slavonic Corps, a group of Russian mercenaries sent to Syria in 2013 with notoriously disastrous consequences. …
The Russian government has quietly embraced its mercenary allies at times — Utkin was photographed receiving an award from Putin in 2016. According to U.S. intelligence intercepts, Prigozhin told Syrian officials he had “secured permission” from an unspecified Russian minister for the Feb. 7 attack.
If the Wagner Group is conducting atrocities in Ukraine, it wouldn’t be far off from their usual modus operandi, in other words. If proven, it would tie those war crimes much more closely to Prigozhin and Putin personally, too. That would force the West to either step up sanctions or be accused of averting their eyes to avoid the obvious conclusion that war crimes and genocide are Putin’s policy rather than just a result of an undisciplined, low-morale military.
Putin has other issues to worry about from these intercepts, though. His military is thoroughly undisciplined, is ridden with defeatism, and can’t apparently communicate using any secured transmission channels. Part of the reason that Ukraine has successfully countered the invasion thus far is because the Ukrainians know exactly where they are, where they’re going, and what they’re being ordered to do. Morale issues have grown so dangerously bad that the Russian commanders are stripping soldiers of one easy alternate solution to the comms problems:
A separate leak revealed that to address declining morale and panic in the ranks, the Russian army had instructed commanders to restrict soldiers’ access to smartphones.
A military directive, revealed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, states that “commanders of all ranks have faced opposition from personnel” who have been influenced by the “internet and popular messengers”.
“The security services have become aware of numerous cases of soldiers being blackmailed through their personal data and cases of soldiers being deceived with false information communicated to them personally through messenger apps such as Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Vkontakte and others,” according to the document.
In response the Russian army said it would exert “increased control” over use of the internet, limiting their use of social media on their mobile phones and subjecting them to check-ups of their “moral-psychological state”.
At some point, the Wagner Group might end up getting tasked to attack Russian units who refuse to advance. One has to wonder whether that may not already be the case.