How is it that people who have grown up with a sense of right and wrong end up getting involved terrible acts of violence against others?
This is the human mystery at the heart of some 2,000 phone calls intercepted by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The wiretaps, obtained from Associated pressreveal a heartbreaking new perspective on war which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been conducting for a year, seen through the eyes of Russian soldiers themselves.
The AP verified calls, made in March 2022 by soldiers of a military division who Ukrainian prosecutors say committed war crimes in Bucha, a city outside Kiev that has become an early symbol of Russian atrocities.
show how unprepared the young people were soldiers – and their country – for the coming war. Many joined the military because they needed money and were notified of their deployment at the last minute. They were told they would be hailed as heroes for liberating the Ukraine from its Nazi oppressors and Western protectors, and that Kiev would fall without bloodshed within a week.
The wiretaps show that, when the soldiers realized how badly they had been duped, his fear increased. Violence, previously unthinkable, has become normal. Looting and drinking offered moments of rare respite. Some say they were carrying out orders to kill civilians or prisoners of war.
They tell their mothers what this war is really like: approx The Ukrainian teenager who had his ears cut off. Like the scariest noise is not the whistle of a rocket passing you, but the silence that means it’s coming straight your way. How modern weapons can destroy a human body so much that there is nothing left to go home.
We listen as their mothers struggle to reconcile their pride and horror, and as their wives and fathers beg them not to drink too much and to please call home.
These are the stories of one of those men: Leonid. The PA does not use their full names to protect their families in Russia. The AP confirmed he was in the areas where the atrocities were committed, but you have no evidence of your individual actions beyond what he admits.
The AP spoke to Leonid’s mother and screened the calls with help from the Dossier Center, a London-based research group funded by Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
leonid he became a soldier because he needed the money. He was in debt and didn’t want to depend on his parents.
“Me only I wasn’t emotionally ready that my son goes to war at age 19,” his mother told the AP in January. “None of us had experienced something like this, that your son would go through a time where he has to go to war.”
Leonid’s mother argues that Russia needs to protect itself from its enemies, but, like many other Russians, she expected her country to quickly seize areas of eastern Ukraine. Instead, Leonid’s unit was stuck in Bucha.
“No one thought it would be that bad”, claimed his mother. “My son said only one thing: ‘My conscience is clear. They opened fire first.” That’s all”.
In the phone calls, there is a clear moral dissonance between how Leonid’s mother raised him and what he is seeing and doing in Ukraine. However, he defended his son, insisting that he has never been in contact with civilians in Ukraine.
He assured that everything was calm and civil, that there were no problems at the checkpoints and that nothing bad had happened. She claims the war hasn’t changed her son.
She refused to listen to any of the recordings: this is absurd, she said. Don’t try to make it look like my son killed innocent people.
Kill if you don’t want to be killed
Leonid’s introduction to the war came on February 24, when his unit entered Ukraine from Belarus and decimated a detachment of Ukrainians in the border area. After their first fight, Leonid he seems to have compassion for the young soldiers Ukrainians who had just been killed.
Mother: When did you get scared?
Leonid: When our commander warned us that we were going to be shot, 100%. He warned us that even if we were bombed and hit, our goal was to get through.
Mother: Did they shoot you?
Leonid: Of course, but we defeated them.
Mother: Hmm. Did you shoot from your tanks?
Leonid: Yes, we did. We fired from tanks, with machine guns and rifles. We had no losses. We destroyed his four tanks. There were corpses thrown and burned. So, let’s win.
Mother: Oh, what a nightmare! Lyonka, you wanted to live in that moment, didn’t you, honey?
Leonid: More than ever!
Mother: More than ever, right honey?
Leonid: Of course.
Mother: It’s absolutely awful.
Leonid: They lay there, they were just 18 or 19 years old. Am I different from them? No I’m not.
The rules of normal life no longer apply
Leonid tells his mother that the plan was for them to take over Kiev in a week, without firing a single bullet. Instead, his unit started catching fire near Chernobyl. They had no maps and the Ukrainians had removed all road signs.
It was so confusing, she says. They were well prepared.
Not having foreseen a sustained attack, Russian soldiers have run out of basic supplies. One way to get what they needed, or wanted, was to steal.
Many soldiers, Leonid among them, talk about money with the guarded precision that comes with not having enough. Some get requests from friends and family for specific shoe sizes and specific car parts, proud to come home with something to give.
When Leonid casually tells his mother about the looting, at first she can’t believe he’s stealingbut for him it became normal.
As he speaks, he sees a city burning on the horizon.
What a beauty, you express.
Leonid: Look, mom, I’m looking at a lot of houses – I don’t know, dozens, hundreds – and they are all empty. Everyone fled.
Mother: So all the people are gone, right? You’re not looting them, are you? Don’t you enter other people’s houses?
Leonid: Of course we will, mom. You are crazy?
Mother: Oh yes you do. And what do you take from there?
Leonid: let’s get foodbedding, pillows, blankets, forks, spoons, pans.
Mother: (laughing) You’re kidding.
Leonid: Those who don’t have them, take socks, clean underwear, T-shirts and sweaters.
The enemy is everyone
Leonid tells his mother of the terror of going out on patrol and not knowing what or who they will meet. He describes how he uses deadly force at the slightest provocation against almost anyone.
At first, he doesn’t seem to believe that Russian soldiers can kill civilians.
Leonid tells him Civilians were ordered to flee or take shelter in basements, so anyone outside doesn’t have to be a real civilian. Putin and others had told Russian soldiers that they would be welcomed as liberators and that anyone who resisted was a fascist or a rebel, not a real civilian.
It was a war of the whole society. Mercy was for fools.
Mother: Oh, Lyonka, you saw so many things there!
Leonid: Well… there are civilians lying there, on the street, with their brains out.
Mother: Oh my God, you mean the residents?
Leonid: Yes, well, of course, yes.
Mother: Are they the ones who shot or the ones who…?
Leonid: The ones our army killed.
Mother: Lyonya, they could be peaceful people.
Leonid: Mom, there was a battle and then some guy came, you know? Maybe I’d take out a grenade launcher… Or there was a case, they arrested a young man and took his cell phone. He had all the information about us in his Telegram messages: where to attack, how many of us, how many tanks we have. And this is.
Mother: So they knew everything?
Leonid: They shot him right there, on the spot.
Leonid: I was 17 years old. And that’s it, right there.
Leonid: There was a prisoner. He was an 18 year old boy. First they shot him in the leg. Then they cut off his ears. 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.
What does it take to come home alive
Leonid tells his mother on five occasions they almost killed him. Everything is so disorganized, he says, that it’s not uncommon for Russians to shoot their own soldiers, which happened to him as well. Some soldiers shoot themselves just to get a medical license, he says.
In another phone call, he tells his girlfriend that he envies his friends who got hit in the foot and had to go home. “A bullet in the foot is like four months at home on crutches.”, he expresses. “Would be great”.
He then hangs up due to the shots coming his way.
Mother: Hello, Lyonechka.
Leonid: I just wanted to call you again. I can speak now.
Mother: Oh, that’s fine.
Leonid: There are people here shooting themselves.
Leonid: They do it for the insurance money. Do you know where they shoot?
Mother: This is nonsense, Lyonya.
Leonid: In the lower left thigh.
Mother: It doesn’t make sense, Lyonya. They are crazy, you know that, right?
Leonid: Some people are so scared that they they are ready to get hurtjust to leave.
Mother: Yes, it’s fear, what can you do here, it’s human fear. everyone wants to live. I don’t argue with this, but please don’t. We all pray for you. You should cross yourself every chance you get, get away from everyone and do it. We all pray for you. We are all concerned.
Leonid: I’m here and do you know what the situation is? Now I’m 30 meters (100 feet) from a huge graveyard (laughs).
Mother: Oh, it’s awful… it’ll be over soon.
Leonid tells his girlfriend that he had to learn a way to clear his head.
“Imagine, it’s night. You are sitting in the dark and everything is silent. Only with your thoughts. And day after day, you sit alone with those thoughts,” he says to her girlfriend. “I’ve already learned not to think about anything while sitting outside.
Leonid promises to bring home a collection of bullets for the children. “Ukrainian trophies“, he calls them.
His mother says she will wait for him.
Of course I’ll come back, why not? Leonid replies.
“Of course you will,” says his mother. “No doubt. I love you Of course you will come back. You are my joy”.
Leonid returned to Russia in May, badly wounded, but alive. He told his mother that Russia will win this war.
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.