The year 2022 marked the start of the full-out war in Ukraine and of Putin’s final crackdown on Russian independent media amid new military censorship laws. Nevertheless, Russian investigative reporters have continued their dangerous work in 2022 to get to the truth of what is really happening on the frontlines and back in Russia.
Novaya Gazeta Europe has made a list of ten best investigative articles published and translated into English by Russian independent media outlets this year.
This article by Roman Anin, prominent investigative reporter and founder of IStories, analyses how Putin made the decision to start the war in Ukraine and why no one was able to stop him.
Some main points outlined in the article:
- In making the decision to invade Ukraine, Putin, who has become more and more isolated in recent years, relied mostly on the reports of the special services, namely the so-called Fifth Service of the FSB.
- The Fifth Service, led by General Sergey Beseda, is tasked with gathering intelligence within Russia and the former Soviet states. Ukraine is among its areas of expertise. A former FSB officer told IStories that his former colleagues were essentially “air sellers”. “They were making things up, misinterpreting, and sometimes fantasising, and the leadership was happy to believe it,” another source said.
- The FSB’s informants on the situation in Ukraine were mainly fugitive officials from ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s team, who fed inaccurate information to Beseda, failing to understand the climate in post-2014 Ukraine. The general carried this intel to the very top.
- Nevertheless, Putin was supposed to receive information from various sources, but in practice that didn’t work. Officers tended to correct contradictory intel to fit “the way the boss thinks”, sources told IStories. This ultimately led to confirmation bias, negative personnel selection, and Putin believing what he wanted to believe.
The Project, an investigative outlet led by journalist Roman Badanin, published a guide to the Ukraine war, naming the Russian military units involved in hostilities and identifying over 160 people, from top defence ministry officers to brigade and regiment commanders. At least 20 commanders identified by The Project had died as of mid-May.
- All Russian army units capable of carrying out offensives are taking part in the “special military operation” in Ukraine: 11 combined arms and one tank army, all the offensive forces of the Airborne Forces, all the existing reconnaissance units, the marines of all four fleets, self-propelled artillery, bomber, attack and fighter aviation.
- People from the poorest regions of Russia are taking part in the war, which The Project suggests can explain the large-scale looting in occupied territories. What is more, every third top commander of the Russian army advancing into Ukraine was found to have debts, including housing and utilities bills and alimony payments.
- One in eight officers identified by Project are affiliated with Ukraine, including Colonel Vadim Pankov, who was born in Belarus but later went to Ukraine and became a commander of a Ukrainian army unit in 1992. However, he ended up breaking his military oath to Ukraine and became commander of the 45th separate Special Forces Brigade of the Russian Army.
Based on the photo and video evidence leaked online of Russian soldiers sending used household equipment to their hometowns, Mediazona published one of its key investigations of the year, proving that Russian soldiers were likely stealing not only from Ukrainians on occupied territories, but from their own army, too.
Here’s what Mediazona found out:
- In order to trace major delivery routes, Mediazona checked for destinations with more than two large (over a kilogram) shipments incoming in one day from packing stations near the border.
- Suspect packages were found at 13 branches of Russian delivery service CDEK located near the border. These locations match the largest prongs of the Russian assault in Ukraine.
- In the lead among the “suspect” cities was Yurga, a city in the north-west of Kemerovo region. More than 5,5 tonnes of packages were shipped from near-border towns to this place with a population of only 80,000 people. Here’s a possible explanation: three major military units are stationed in Yurga: the 106th Separate Logistics Brigade, the 74th Separate Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade of the Order of Suvorov Zvenigorod-Berlin and the 120th Artillery Brigade.
- The city of Chebarkul in Chelyabinsk region comes in second place in terms of total weight of shipments received. Two tank regiments, the 6th and 239th, are stationed there.
- A total of 114 suspect packages weighing more than 3,5 tonnes were sent to Kyzyl, the capital of Tyva. The 55th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade is stationed in Kyzyl. Mediazona confirmed the deaths of 11 servicemen from this city.
- What is more, video footage from the border town of Valuyki shows a Russian military officer came into a CDEK office with a winged device that looked like Orlan, a Russian military drone. The drone was packaged and sent on its way, but Mediazona was not able to trace Orlan drone to its destination.
Even before the New York Times investigation into the Russian paratrooper unit that killed dozens of people in Ukraine’s Bucha, IStories found eight soldiers from Russia’s Pskov who may have been behind the shooting of civilians in this Ukrainian town.
Here’s what IStories managed to uncover:
- IStories reports that after the shooting of eight civilians that took place in Bucha on 4 March, Russian soldiers called their families using the phone of Ivan Skiba, the only survivor of the mass shooting.
- Skiba’s phone was left behind at a house in Bucha by Russian troops, who were forced to withdraw from the region in late March. The man managed to get his phone back and later agreed to give an interview to IStories and share his call log with reporters.
- The investigators studied three dozen outgoing calls from Skiba’s phone, which were traced to eight servicemen from the 104th and 234th Airborne Assault Regiments, based in Russia’s Pskov.
- Among the servicemen is Alexey Vishnevsky, 26, who called his wife, a nail tech from Pskov, using the Bucha man’s phone. He serves in the 234th Airborne Assault Regiment. His wife told IStories that Alexey sometimes gets in touch, but has not been back home yet.
- Another soldier to use the phone was Alexander Popov, 20, who called his mother on 4 March. He served in Pskov as a contractor. He was killed on 19 May near Donetsk.
The Project investigates how Kremlin-backed sociologists manipulate public opinion in Russia when it comes to Putin and the war in Ukraine. The investigation proves with concrete examples that most polls published in Russia simply cannot be trusted.
Here’s some of what the investigation tackles:
- Official Russian pollsters do not “draw numbers” — all they have to do is ask the right questions to the right people. Since 2018, when Putin’s previously colossal rating dropped by 20%, the polls started to include the so-called formative questions that pointed towards the right answer. The pollsters also stopped asking people open-ended questions.
- There are also biassed answer options best seen in an official poll about the purpose of the “special operation” in Ukraine. Three out of four answers are for supporters of the war: “to ensure the security of Russia,” “to protect the residents of the DPR and LPR,” and “to remove Ukrainian nationalists from power”. Only one is negative: “to liquidate the statehood of Ukraine and annex it to Russia”.
- Most citizens refuse to talk to pollsters. Researchers of Russian Field, a private survey agency, together with Russian politician Maxim Kats, conducted a survey of attitudes toward the war — 29,500 people out of 31,000 abstained from answering.
Back during the period of “hidden mobilisation” in Russia by private war companies and volunteer battalions, Novaya Gazeta Europe discovered 48 regional battalions, each with a unique name, and 11 other groups that were openly recruiting volunteer fighters. Novaya-Europe reporters contacted volunteer fighters and responded to the advertisements to find out more about how this process is organised.
Here’s what Novaya-Europe found out:
- Alexander, a former convict who was put on administrative supervision after prison, joined the volunteer battalion Akhmat in the spring. He spent ten days at a military base in Russia’s Gudermes, where recruits get taught how to hold and load rifles, practice shooting positions and urgent changing of the magazine, and are introduced to tactical medicine and cartography. After that, he was sent to Ukraine’s Sievierodonetsk and given a payout of 300,000 rubles (€4,783).
- Volunteer fighters are given camouflage uniforms for free. If they want additional equipment, they need to buy it themselves. Novaya-Europe’s data team has created a calculator of military expenses for starting mercenaries and volunteers.
- According to Alexander, every third volunteer was an ex-convict, some with their criminal records “hanging over them” and some with them erased.
- Only a third of Alexander’s unit survived after about two months in Ukraine.
- Novaya-Europe responded to various PMC advertisements to find out the main requirements for potential recruits. Here are some of them: a mercenary should be no younger than 18 and no older than 60; army experience and a military specialisation are not required; convictions, even outstanding ones, are allowed; citizens of “unfriendly” countries will not be recruited, however, Ukrainians and descendants from post-Soviet countries can become recruits.
An investigation by The Insider into the battalions of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechnya.
Here’s what the article covers:
- Ramzan Kadyrov is one of the staunchest supporters of the war in Ukraine and one of the only select few regional leaders who had his own “army” before 24 February: several Chechen battalions coming up to 20,000 fighters. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, they have been frequently appearing in the media, with Putin thanking Kadyrov personally for his battalions’ contribution to the war.
- Kadyrov tries to present his soldiers as efficient fighters, but in reality, they are mercenaries from various regions, either forcibly recruited (as punishment for various violations) or lured by money (promised but often not paid), poorly capable of performing real combat tasks.
- Instead of fighting on the frontlines, the Kadyrovites tend to post staged TikTok videos from far behind the enemy lines. This is why they’ve been dubbed “TikTok warriors”.
- What is more, only a tiny fraction of about 20,000 Kadyrovites went to Ukraine: according to Ukraine’s Defence Ministry, only 2,500 Chechen mercenaries were sent to Ukraine between March and late May.
The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office recorded three times as many terrorism crimes in the past six months alone than in 2012. Novaya Gazeta Europe researched several hundred FSB reports on terrorist attacks Russia’s secret service claims to have prevented in the last decade.
- According to FSB statistics, the number of plotted terrorist attacks in Russia by Islamists has been on the decline since 2013. Because of that, the security officers started finding new “future-oriented focus areas”.
- The FSB carried out a total of 48 counter-terrorist operations in 2020, a record within a six-year period. After the war had started, the efforts of Russia’s security agencies were redirected at fighting a new underground movement: more than half of the reported prevented attacks had been allegedly plotted by Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and the country’s Security Service, namely seven attacks in November alone, as per the FSB’s information.
- Most of the attacks prevented in 2022 did not threaten people’s lives: in 2022, 69% of plotted attacks aimed to destroy property or infrastructure and 23% had homicidal aims. This is a stark contrast to 2013, when, according to the FSB, 97% of plotted terrorist attacks aimed to kill people.
- Russia-occupied Crimea has hit the top-5 most “terrorist” Russian regions in just 9 years due to the special forces’ crackdown on members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s Supreme Court banned the organisation in 2003 alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban. The members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is not banned in Ukraine, faced large-scale persecution after the peninsula’s annexation in 2014.
Together with BBC Russian, Mediazona has been keeping track of Russian casualties since the early days of the war in Ukraine. In April, it published one of the first data investigations tackling this topic.
Here’s what Mediazona has managed to uncover so far:
- The majority of Russian soldiers killed come from poorer regions, such as Dagestan, Buryatia, Yekaterinburg region, and Bashkiria.
- 110 military pilots are known to have been killed. The loss of pilots is particularly painful for the army: it takes 7–8 years to train one first-class frontline pilot, and costs about $3.4 million.
- Volunteer units have been sustaining the heaviest casualties since the summer. In comparison, in the first weeks of the war, the airborne forces suffered heaviest losses, and the motorised rifle forces followed suit.
- By 16 December, Mediazona had been able to confirm the deaths of over 1,500 officers. 176 of them had the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel or higher.
- In the regular military units, the 21–23-year-old bracket saw the highest number of deaths. Volunteer and mobilised fighters are considerably older. Generally, men who go to war as volunteers are aged 30–35 and older, and the majority of mobilised soldiers are older than 25.
The Insider has published a series of articles on how the Kremlin is spreading its influence abroad by using “compatriots” loyal to the Russian government. The latest article in the series covers Germany.
- In recent months, members of the Russian diaspora have been taking to the streets of Germany protesting against anti-Russia sanctions, German and NATO policies.
- Protesters cannot take on an openly pro-war stance, as back in the spring, Germany introduced a zero-tolerance policy for public endorsement of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Scandalous blogger Yulia Prokhorova, who had been posting videos glorifying Russia and cheering on the shelling of Ukraine, is under investigation for “having approved of criminal acts”. (Editor’s note: it has since been reported that Prokhorova returned to Russia.)
- Pro-Russian demonstrations in Cologne were organised by spouses Elena Kolbasnikova and Maxim Schlund. A video showing Kolbasnikova and her associates collecting aid for Donbas residents was posted by Rossotrudnichestvo, the federal agency responsible for relations with Russian compatriots abroad.
- Despite calling the Ukrainians “fascists”, Kolbasnikova does not hesitate to cooperate with right-wing radical politician Markus Beisicht in Cologne. He helps her organise anti-NATO rallies. Both Beisicht and Kolbasnikova were invited to meet with Russian Consul General in Bonn, Alexey Dronov.
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