September 07, 2022 06:20 GMT
By Valeria Yehoshyna
Russian soldier Stanislav Shmatov's account of atrocities in Ukraine's Kharkiv region was recorded by Ukraine's Security Service in intercepted cell-phone calls to his family.
A severed ear. An order to "destroy everything you see." Houses looted or pulverized by Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Twenty-one-year-old Russian soldier Stanislav Shmatov had no idea the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was recording his conversations when he contacted family back in Russia this spring from northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region.
Like other Russian military personnel in Ukraine in the first months after the February 24 invasion, he spoke freely.
On April 15, in intercepted cell-phone calls with his 51-year-old father, Aleksandr Shmatov, and an apparent female relative, Irina Zheleznikova, Shmatov -- who identifies himself in phone recordings as an armored vehicle driver with Russia's 15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade -- described the torture and abuse of a Ukrainian prisoner, as well as looting and indiscriminate, heavy shelling of a village in Kharkiv Oblast, home of Ukraine's second-largest city and a conduit to the critical Donbas region to the south and east.
In a separate August 16 phone call with Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Shmatov, a native of the village of Novotulka, near the Volga River in Russia's Samara region, also passed on information about the alleged killing of a man during a separate operation shortly after the February 24 invasion.
Under the UN's 1949 Geneva Conventions, treaties of which Russia and Ukraine are signatories, torture, willfully causing injury, murdering POWs, deliberately targeting civilian populations, and the extensive destruction of property without military necessity all rank as war crimes.
Kyiv had launched investigations into about 32,000 suspected war crimes since the invasion. The 15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, the Russian armed forces' sole peacekeeping brigade, which participated in the March 2014 takeover of Crimea and the war fought in southeastern Ukraine's Donbas since that April, has featured among those investigations.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of Ukraine's most active rights monitors, has received appeals for investigation from over 400 people displaced from Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv Oblast and has identified almost 4,000 incidents via open sources including news reports and social media.
But without access to occupied areas, Ukrainian and international rights activists cannot easily investigate such reports.
"The situation is quite complicated," said Hanna Ovdiyenko, a lawyer for the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. "At the moment, most of the crimes are concealed due to the fact that the [occupied] territories are inaccessible."
Nonetheless, using satellite photos, telecommunications data, and comments from Shmatov himself, Schemes has been able to approximate the location of the Russian-occupied Kharkiv village that the soldier allegedly described.
His mobile phone calls to family in Russia provide the first clue.
According to detailed records obtained from law enforcement sources, the Ukrainian cellular network first picked up a signal from what Schemes later determined was Shmatov's phone on March 3, a week after the invasion began, at a location in the Chernihiv region some 140 kilometers northeast of Kyiv. His digital trail disappeared after about a month, when Russian troops withdrew from areas around Chernihiv and Kyiv in northern Ukraine after failing to seize the capital.
In mid-April, a cellular tower whose coverage straddled the border of three eastern regions where many of the Russian soldiers who had withdrawn from the north were redeployed around that time -- Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv -- next detected his signal.
On April 15, the SBU intercepted two calls from his phone.
The use of mobile phones in areas with nonsecure, Ukrainian-run cellular networks has repeatedly enabled the Ukrainian military to eavesdrop on Russian troops.
But Shmatov, if aware of this risk, apparently paid it no heed.
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