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.
'We Were Shooting At Everything'
In a call to a man Schemes determined to be his father -- among other ties, they share an address in Russia -- Shmatov said his brigade attacked a village with missiles from Grad multiple-rocket launchers and machine-gun fire and used armored personnel carriers to surround it on three sides.
"We were shooting at everything -- at houses, cars, everything. We…ripped apart all the houses with tanks and APCs," the voice Schemes identified as Stanislav Shmatov's said, using expletives frequently.
"We took two prisoners. Took away their AK-47, their rifle, their SVD [sniper rifle]," he said. "Cut off one of their ears."
"What for?" his father, Aleksandr Shmatov, asked, according to the recording.
"He didn't want to talk, so his ear was cut off," came the reply.
The elder Shmatov said this sounds "tough," but his son disagreed.
"It's not like he got a bullet in the forehead or was quartered by an armored personnel carrier, so it's still fine, mild," the voice attributed to Stanislav Shmatov said.
The soldiers could have "cut off a finger or two," he added with a laugh, or fired 100 rounds and "made a colander" out of the victim.
A Village 'Cleanup'
In the phone call with his father, Shmatov does not give his exact location, which he does not seem to know; he says only that it is a village in the Kharkiv region. But he does name landmarks: a railway that runs through the village, a river, and a nearby forest.
According to the Ukrainian government, data records showed that telecommunications towers covering Borova, a Russian-occupied village in the Kharkiv region, transmitted Shmatov's conversation with his father.
The head of Borova's village government, Oleksandr Tertyshniy, who has left the area, said he is almost certain Shmatov was describing the nearby village of Pisky-Radkivski, 15 1/2 kilometers to the south, along the Oskil River and Oskil Reservoir.
Russian troops entered Pisky-Radkivski on April 15, according to Russian media reports.
Tertyshniy told Schemes that, in one building in Pisky-Radkivski, Russian soldiers "interrogated our people; especially those who were the members of the Anti-Terrorist Operation," referring to Ukrainians who have fought in the war against Russia-backed forces in the Donbas.
"They collected lists" of locals who who have fought in the Donbas, Tertyshniy continued, referring to Russian occupying forces in Pisky-Radkivski. "They behaved extremely cruelly."
Intelligence sources who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their identities told Schemes that several Ukrainian servicemen were captured in the village when Russian forces occupied it in April. For security reasons, Schemes is not disclosing the servicemen's names.
But what occurred in Pisky-Radkivski did not affect captives alone.
In his April 15 conversation with Zheleznikova, the apparent female relative, Shmatov described what he falsely termed the Russian "liberation" of the village from "Nazis" actually entailed, and indicated that a commanding officer gave the order to destroy the village's buildings.
"Your commander gave the order?" the voice identified as Zheleznikova's asked.
"Well, yeah," the voice attributed to Shmatov responded. "The battalion commander, the brigade commander, the deputy brigade commander. He says, ‘Take out all the f****** buildings, damn it, as soon as you see them. To f*** with all the buildings.'"
Borova village head Tertyshniy said he has received reports that, after Russian forces occupied Pisky-Radkivski, residents lived in cellars "for a long time." According to one account he relayed, civilians stayed in a cellar for a week with the body of an elderly woman killed by machine-gun fire.
Schemes could not independently verify these reports, but satellite images of Pisky-Radkivski from the U.S.-based company Planet Labs show the extent of the destruction.
Shmatov is recorded as saying his brigade attacked the village on three sides.
To the north of the village, along Sadova Street, which locals and other evidence indicates was the Russian military's entrance route into Pisky-Radkivski on April 15, several completely destroyed buildings can be seen in satellite imagery.
Photographs shot by villagers and provided to Schemes further illustrate damage on this street.
At the opposite end of the village, satellite imagery and video shot by locals show houses without roofs and other damaged buildings.
In the village center, Russian forces apparently fired on an agricultural warehouse.
The local school on Tsentralna Street was also destroyed.
The gutted school building in Pisky-Radkivski
Pictures of the school's computer room before and after the Russian occupation.
Satellite images also confirm the destruction of private residences further along Tsentralna.
As in other parts of Ukraine that have been occupied, there is also evidence of looting and the forcible expulsion of citizens from their homes by Russian forces.
'We've Got Guns. We've Got A F****** Tank'
After one scouting trip, Shmatov's fellow servicemen returned with sausage, mayonnaise, and lard, he told his father:
"They went into a store?" Aleksandr Shmatov wondered.
"Of course not," his son said. "They've been going after people. And why would they f*** with us? We've got guns."
"We've got a f****** tank. Somebody wants to f*** with us, lose their house and live on the street, be my guest."
"And you can do that, yeah?"
"You've got to do that."
Displaced residents and other Ukrainians routinely post requests for information about relatives in Pisky-Radkivski whom they can no longer contact. "Acquaintances hear terrible things," one female user wrote.
The Russian Defense Ministry has denied previous reports that its soldiers have tortured and abused Ukrainian prisoners of war or mistreated Ukrainian civilians in occupied areas, but has provided no information to support those denials.
Denials And A Threat
On August 16, Schemes reached Shmatov by calling the mobile phone number he had used in Ukraine. Wounded and recovering in Russia, he claimed that he "had never seen a single prisoner" during his posting in the Kharkiv region. He sidestepped personal responsibility for the violence described in the phone calls intercepted by the SBU.
He claimed that when he described the assault on the Kharkiv region village, he had been recounting "what the guys did there" and "things the guys said." Asked whether anyone's ear was cut off, he said, "Honestly, my brigade and my guys themselves, the people who were there with me, no one did anything like that."
When the Schemes reporter identified himself as a Ukrainian journalist, Shmatov ended the exchange with a threat: "I'll come and shoot you in the f****** head if you call someone from my brigade or my guys one more time."
Yet, despite his denials, Shmatov implicated fellow Russian military personnel in the killing of a Ukrainian man he described as a spotter held by Russian forces during his first mission in Ukraine – apparently referring to the offensive in the north in the weeks following the February 24 invasion.
With a little laugh, he told Schemes that "the guys" gave the prisoner a severe beating at a factory. "And then they shot him dead," he said.
Nonetheless, he denied that the soldiers had committed a war crime, saying: "We didn't do that stuff." At first, Shmatov did not directly answer when asked whether his brigade commander had given orders for the soldiers to terrorize civilians.
"I was kind of there on my own wavelength, so to speak," he said. "I didn't give a damn about anyone at all."
Later in the call, however, he was asked about what he had told Zheleznikova was an order to destroy buildings and "put everyone down."
"Well, yeah, we had this order," he told Schemes.
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