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, the commander of a motorised platoon, was captured last month after three days cowering with two injured comrades in a Donbas village basement following an attack on their armoured personnel carrier (APC).
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 also obtained his text message conversations with 172 other soldiers involved in the invasion, exposing dismay over heavy losses, fury with shoddy equipment, incidents of troops refusing to fight and ill-equipped riot police being sent into battle.
Three days after the war began, for example, one soldier says there are three trucks filled with corpses from five regiments. ‘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 into the war, the young Russian officer filmed himself searching for weapons at what appears to be a captured Ukrainian position.
‘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?’
Then he swears again and 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 highlights the military uncertainty amid their bungled 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***. Here as well. Are they ours or theirs?’
Then he swears again in panic. ‘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’. But there is only the scrunching sound of a jammed gun, prompting more swearing.
Next, Shalaev is in another village saying ‘our vehicle exploded’. He later told Ukrainian captors that his APC was hit by a mortar or grenade, leading him to flee into hiding with two wounded colleagues in a Donbas basement.
He seems relieved to see a Russian vehicle ahead, but there is smoke billowing from it as he films small bits of a human body on the muddy ground. ‘Someone’s flesh. Someone blew up. Scraps of meat. Here it is. We were in it. F*** me, it’s done,’ he says.
The final scenes, blurred as if shot while zooming in from a hiding place, show Ukrainian soldiers walking along as one drops to his knees. ‘I can’t figure out what the hell he is doing,’ whispers Shalaev. ‘Is he putting a mine there?’
The 24-minute documentary called The Occupant was put together by Ukrayinska Pravda, an online news outlet.
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. The unit claims some prisoners of war from the Chechnya-based force have agreed to join their fight.
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 took their mobile phones into battle despite being told to rely on their military communications for security. When Ukrainian leaders realised this, they stopped Russian numbers working on their phone network.
So the invading troops started to seize phones from civilians in occupied areas, who often tipped off officials so the numbers could be tapped. This has led to the release of damning intercepted conversations from Russian troops discussing murder, rape and torture.
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.
Additional reporting by Kate Baklitskaya