Story contains strong language
Ukraine’s counteroffensive was in its second month when Andrey, a Russian soldier, called his wife to say his unit was taking heavy casualties. They were so badly equipped, he said, it felt like the Soviet forces in World War Two.
“They are fucking us up,” Andrey said by telephone on July 12, comparing the onslaught to the worst moments of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. “No fucking ammunition, nothing … Shall we use our fingers as bayonets?”
The conversation was one excerpt from 17 phone calls placed by Russian soldiers fighting in the south and east of Ukraine that were intercepted in the first two weeks of July by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the country’s main intelligence agency.
The expletive-laden intercepts, shared with Reuters by a Ukrainian intelligence source, provide a rare – albeit partial – glimpse into the conditions of some Russian soldiers as Kyiv prosecuted a major counteroffensive, which started in early June, two military analysts told Reuters.
While Russia has so far largely stemmed Ukraine’s military campaign and made some modest territorial gains of its own in places, the soldiers in the intercepts complain that their units have suffered from heavy losses, a lack of munitions, proper training and equipment, as well as poor morale.
Both Russia and Ukraine treat their losses as a state secret. Ukraine has acknowledged that its efforts to recapture territory have been hindered by vast Russian minefields and well-prepared defensive lines. It has liberated a string of villages but retaken no major settlements so far and the frontline has remained largely unchanged, frustrating Kyiv’s Western allies.
Reuters was unable to determine how representative the intercepts are of the conditions in Russia’s armed forces. The Ukrainian intelligence source said they illustrated the challenges facing Russian soldiers but did not elaborate on how the recordings were selected.
Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think tank headquartered in London, said the calls appeared to confirm some Russian forces were thrown into defensive operations with little preparation and were sustaining high casualties, sowing tensions between soldiers and commanders.
Russia’s Defence Ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the military had to learn from and fix the problems it had experienced in Ukraine, promising to provide the army with whatever it needed. Reuters reported this month that Russia has doubled its defence spending target this year to more than $100 billion – a third of all public expenditure.
The SBU said in a statement it was constantly monitoring the situation in occupied parts of Ukraine, including via telephone intercepts, but it did not provide any further details.
“Turned it to crumbs”
The source provided what the SBU said were the names, telephone numbers and, in most cases, the units of 15 soldiers speaking in the intercepts. Reuters verified that the mobile numbers provided were registered in the names of the enlisted men or their relatives but calls either went unanswered or the phones were turned off.
Reuters is only using excerpts from some of the 10 soldiers whose identity it was able to verify using messaging accounts or social media in their names, which in some cases contained photographs of them in military uniforms.
The news agency is not disclosing the full names of the soldiers as it was not able to obtain their comments about the excerpts. In three cases, the soldiers’ wives confirmed their husbands were at the front in messages to Reuters but declined to comment further. One cited Russian secrecy laws.
In the excerpts, several soldiers used profane language to describe Russian units that had taken heavy casualties and had been unable to retrieve their wounded. One said his detachment had managed to advance but at a high price.
“That’s it. There is no second battalion left. They fucking turned it to crumbs,” Maxim, a soldier from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, told his wife Anna by phone on July 3.
He said the battalion – a unit that usually comprises around 500 troops – had been on the Lyman front in the northeast, one of three areas where the Ukrainian General Staff were reporting heavy fighting and Russian counter-attacks at the time.
British intelligence has said Russia has made some local advances around Lyman and Kupiansk in recent weeks.
The SBU said Maxim served in Russia’s 52nd Regiment. Reuters was unable to verify that affiliation or establish which second battalion he was referring to. The regiment could not be reached for comment.
According to an assessment by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency leaked online in April, Russia had 35,500-43,000 troops killed in action during the conflict, compared to roughly 15,500-17,500 for Ukraine. Russia says U.S. estimates of its losses are far too high – and propaganda.
Maxim referred to his dead comrades as “cargo 200”, a term that originated during the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 war in Afghanistan as a military codeword for the zinc coffins used to transport home the bodies of dead Russian soldiers.
Often shortened to “200”, it is still widely used in both Russia and Ukraine to describe slain soldiers, while “Cargo 300” denotes the wounded.
“Basically, they couldn’t even retrieve the (cargo) 300s. The 300s became 200s,” Maxim said, meaning that the wounded soldiers had been left on the battlefield and died.
‘Everyone is scared’
Following months of fierce Ukrainian resistance on the battlefield, Putin in September announced a “partial” mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists to replenish the ranks. He later acknowledged in a speech to defence chiefs in December that it had been dogged by “certain problems.”
Reuters traced one soldier back to the day he was mobilised into the Russian army on Sept. 29. His mother Elena posted a photograph online of her and her son in uniform on social media with the caption: “They took him today”.
About nine months later, the soldier, Alexei, was on the phone to his mother from Ukraine, talking graphically about battlefield losses.
“They were torn apart. They’re lying there: they can’t even collect some of them. They’re already rotten – eaten by worms,” he told her on July 12. Elena replied: “Really?”
“Just imagine, thrown on the front line with no equipment, nothing,” he told his mother. She did not respond to Reuters’s requests for comment by phone and on social media.
Alexei said that mobilised troops like him were being sent to the front line, despite public assurances by Putin that they would not be, and said they were not being provided with proper equipment to fight.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The SBU intercept said Alexei was located in Russian trenches around the occupied city of Rubizhne in Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk. Reuters was unable to verify that information or to determine the unit he belonged to.
Alexei derided his superiors and the army high command for concealing troop losses from Putin. “Everything is covered up,” he said.
“Everyone’s scared… They’re sending mobilised troops to the front line,” he added. “In the end, the generals couldn’t care less.”
Russian officials have said there are no current plans for a new wave of mobilisation and it is focused on recruiting professional soldiers. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said in July that 185,000 new recruits had joined the army as professional contract soldiers since the start of the year.
A fourth soldier, also named Andrey, told his wife on July 5 about problems retrieving wounded and dead troops from the battlefield as well as heavy casualties sustained by a Russian company.
The SBU intercept said the soldier was the deputy commander of a fighting vehicle. Reuters was unable to identify his unit or the company.
“The guys got fucked up yesterday. The whole ninth company was turned to rubbish – that’s 72 people. There’s 17 guys left.”
War of Attrition
By Tom Balmforth and Filipp Lebedev
Art direction and photo editing: Eve Watling
Edited by Daniel Flynn