A Russian tank officer who was captured after one month fighting in Ukraine was found to have been filming a home movie about the invasion on his mobile phone.
The footage, in which he talks about comrades being turned into ‘scraps of meat’ and ‘mince’, offers an astonishing insight into Moscow’s spluttering invasion as his gun jams, his vehicle explodes and a raid on a Ukrainian military base goes wrong.
It was filmed by Yuri Shalaev – a 23-year-old lieutenant who trained at Moscow’s top military academy and was stationed in Chechnya before the war – in defiance of Kremlin orders to avoid using personal mobile phones on security grounds.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Kyiv’s interior ministry, says: ‘This is very rare since 95 per cent of the occupiers do not take their phones and if they do, very few of them have smartphones, since most come from poorer regions of Russia. It is significant since it shows the callous actions and chaotic military approach of the Russian forces.’
Prepared: Lieutenant Shalaev trained at Moscow’s leading military academy
Shalaev (commander of motorised platoon) was captured after spending three days in Donbas basement with two of their injured comrades following an attack by the armoured personnel carrier.
His video material – which starts with happy family scenes as he gives his daughter a pink bike and ends with the frightened officer whispering in hiding to his wounded comrades – has been spliced into a documentary by Ukrainian journalists.
They obtained the text conversations of his conversation with 172 soldiers who were involved in the invasion. This revealed their dismay at heavy losses and fury over shoddy equipment. It also exposed instances where troops refuse to fight as well as incidents in which ill-equipped, unarmed riot officers were sent to battle.
One soldier complains that three trucks are full of bodies from five regiments, just days after the war started. ‘That is true,’ says another recruit, before adding: ‘Many just ran away.’
Another desperate soldier says he is the only officer surviving in Kharkiv, the country’s second city that was attacked at the start of the war and is slowly returning to normal life after Ukraine pushed back Russian forces a fortnight ago. ‘I’m in danger, I’m wounded,’ he writes, pleading for help.
The extraordinary video starts several months before the war with film of Shalaev’s family celebration, singing along to patriotic pop songs and drinking whisky with an uncle who ends up urinating on himself and struggling to clamber on to a bed.
In one scene filmed at a party, smartly dressed young people belt out a popular song called Officers that contains lines such as ‘Officers, officers, your heart is at the gunpoint, for Russia and freedom to the end’.
The reality proved rather different after Shalaev – who is from a small town near the Arctic Circle – was taken to Crimea, bussed into southern Ukraine and then brought to the Donbas frontline.
Twelve days after the start of the war, the Russian young officer captured himself looking for weapons in what appeared to be a captured Ukrainian location.
‘B****, will at least one gun be here?’ he asks, attempting to open a safe marked ‘Combat control documents’ and filming an empty arsenal. ‘Damn, did they really keep the f****** defence here or did we shoot this place for nothing?’
He swears yet again, and then he laughs bitterly. A few days later he films two men with injured hands inside his vehicle and then starts talking about taking ‘the dead guy’ from an engineering battalion, describing him as ‘ground meat – just mince’.
He also points out the uncertainty in military operations during their failed invasion. ‘They began building the bridges and they got bombed. Now they don’t know what to do. Regroup? Don’t regroup?’
As the days pass, Shalaev admits on several occasions to losing track of time and then looks pleased as he boasts on March 29 that ‘yesterday I took a bath’.
In the following frames, he tells a baffled colleague that ‘I am making a video’ as he films through a slotted window while they trundle along, before they drive past destroyed military vehicles beside a wooded area.
Home movie: Stills from Yuri Shalaev’s video showing Russian forces on the move and, right, a soldier with his arm in a sling
‘They blew up the APC,’ he exclaims. ‘F***. Also here. Are they ours or theirs?’
In panic, he swears yet again. ‘Gotta get the hell out of here, they’ll blow us up as well. We’ve been under attack for three hours now. They are f****** us up.’ There is thick black smoke ahead as he orders colleagues to ‘shoot them’. The only sound is that of a jammed pistol, which prompts even more swearing.
Next, Shalaev is in another village saying ‘our vehicle exploded’. Later, he told his Ukrainian captors his APC had been hit by a mortar/grenade. He fled into hiding with two of his wounded coworkers in a basement in Donbas.
While he is relieved to see a Russian automobile ahead, smoke rises from the vehicle as he captures small parts of an individual’s body on the muddy ground. ‘Someone’s flesh. Someone blew up. You can find scraps of meat. It’s here. That was what we were doing. F*** me, it’s done,’ he says.
These last scenes are blurred, as though shot from hiding, and show Ukrainian soldiers moving along, as one falls to his knees. ‘I can’t figure out what the hell he is doing,’ whispers Shalaev. ‘Is he putting a mine there?’
Ukrayinska Pravda (an online news source) created the documentary, The Occupant. It is 24 minutes long.
Found, PoW’s film of cruelty and chaos as bungled invasion crumbles
‘This is a person who came to occupy our land and it felt important to share it,’ said Mykhailo Tkach, its head of investigations. ‘It shows the life of a Russian soldier – having fun, drinking with his friends, drinking with his uncle – but then we see how it ends with his capture. But he made the choice to come to a foreign country and commit war crimes.’
After Shalaev’s capture, a Ukrainian military brigade formed by Russians seeking to overthrow Vladimir Putin approached him and several others from his battalion to see if they would defect. Some prisoners of war from Chechnya have pledged to fight for their cause, according to the unit.
Shalaev’s use of a mobile phone shows again the risks of Russian troops using civilian communications after such actions reportedly led to the death of one general tracked down by Ukraine after a call he made was intercepted.
Many Russian soldiers carried their phones to battle, despite having been told that they could rely solely on military communications. Ukrainian leaders realized that Russian numbers were not allowed to access their mobile network.
Invading forces began to take phones from civilians living in the occupied territories. They often gave tips that allowed officials to tap the numbers. The Russian forces have released damning conversations that they intercepted discussing torture, murder and rape.
Yevhen Yenin, Kyiv’s first deputy minister of internal affairs, said authorities were collecting video footage from captured soldiers. ‘They are important since in some cases they contain direct evidence of war crimes,’ he added.
Kate Baklitskaya provides additional reporting