The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence service, has acquired gruesome new insights into the atrocities committed by Russian military forces. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the BND has new satellite images and has intercepted incriminating radio traffic from Russian military personnel in the region north of Kyiv, where Bucha is located. Some of the intercepted radio traffic might be linked to dead bodies that have been photographed in Bucha.
Following the withdrawal of the Russian military from the town over the weekend, a mass grave was discovered as well as the bodies of several dozen dead civilians left lying on the streets. The hands of some of the victims had been tied, while other bodies showed signs of torture. Numerous women and children are also reportedly among the victims.
The Russian government has vehemently denied that Russian forces are responsible for these war crimes. Several – completely unsubstantiated – claims have been made that the alleged war crimes have been staged by Ukraine. Those claims, however, are contradicted by the statements of numerous witnesses interviewed by reporters from DER SPIEGEL and other news outlets in the town of Bucha.
The intercepted comments now appear to refute Russia’s denials. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the BND briefed parliamentarians on Wednesday about its findings. Some of the intercepted traffic apparently matches the locations of bodies found along the main road through town. In one of them, a soldier apparently told another that they had just shot a person on a bicycle. That corresponds to the photo of the dead body lying next to a bicycle that has been shared around the world. In another intercepted conversation, a man apparently said: First you interrogate soldiers, then you shoot them.
Part of the Plan?
The BND material also apparently provides evidence that members of the Russian mercenary unit called the Wagner Group played a leading role in the atrocities. The group is known to have perpetrated similar atrocities in Syria.
Eyewitnesses recently reported that the occupying force in Bucha was initially made up of "young soldiers." Once they were replaced by other units, the witnesses said, the attacks on civilians grew more frequent. Some eyewitnesses have said that Chechen units were in the town. The accounts raise the question as to whether this progression was part of the occupation plan.
The radio traffic intercepted by the BND makes it seem as though the atrocities perpetrated on civilians in Bucha were neither random acts nor the product of individual soldiers who got out of hand. Rather, say sources familiar with the audio, the material suggests that the troops spoke of the atrocities as though they were simply discussing their everyday lives.
That, say sources familiar with the audio, indicates that the murder of civilians has become a standard element of Russian military activity, potentially even part of a broader strategy. The intention is that of spreading fear among the civilian population and thus reducing the will to resist.
DER SPIEGEL has learned that more intercepted radio traffic is currently being analyzed, though it is apparently difficult to precisely localize some of the audio. Some of the recordings apparently indicate that incidents such as those in Bucha have also taken place elsewhere. There are reportedly indications of potential atrocities in the area surrounding Mariupol, the large city in southern Ukraine that has been besieged by the Russian military.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the BND had intercepted radio traffic discussing murders of civilians in Bucha. It stated that the radio traffic had been linked to the bodies photographed in Bucha. However, further research has revealed that the communications can only be geographically assigned to the region north of Kyiv, even if they show clear parallels to the killings in Bucha. The parts of the text in question have since been corrected to reflect our most current knowledge.