The documents the Russians are leaving behind
They’re giving us a head start on proving war crimes.
Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
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KYIV — “Russians, thank you for helping us.” That’s what Yuriy Byelousov, the head of war crimes in the Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office, told me as we sat in a restaurant in Kyiv that looked like it belonged in Lower Manhattan — shiny, sleek. Warm lighting.
Byelousov was dressed in all black and sat in a kind of nonchalant slump across from me. He’d been checking his iPhone throughout our interview, but put it down when I asked him to scroll through a series of Russian documents I’d been shown firsthand and photographed. The cache contains a couple dozen pieces of paper, at least, each one giving an accounting of some aspect of this war, be it is a page from a Soviet-style attendance book, a sheet of call names for higher-ups or a map of escape routes to a neighboring country.
Beyond these documents having incredible value to potential national and international prosecutions, they tell us a lot about the state of the invasion and the haste of the Russian troops. I’ve heard about a soldier’s unsent love letter being found and used in an investigation; it was written on the other side of a valuable sheet of information.
There are bags and bags of such documents that have been left by the Russians as a kind of present to the gods of justice for the atrocities committed on Ukrainian soil.
I’ve previously written about a classified map I was shown at the house of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, here:
The map depicts Irpin, a nearby town that experienced a horrific massacre in the early days of the war. But it is a relic: It shows Irpin as it was in 1985. The problem with using outdated maps is that they may show a military base, for instance, where now sits a school.
A couple of news outlets have reported other findings of similarly old maps. One of these, discovered by Ukrainian forces, “displays a red line which Russian tanks were supposed to follow to the capital,” writes The Economist. “But the 28-page map dates from 1987, says Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council. A junction it showed was long gone. The Russians took a wrong turn and ended up bogged down in Bucha, a middle-class suburb, where they committed a host of war crimes.”
That is the kind of information that can be inferred from a single document.
(In addition to using way outdated maps, the invading army has also been using commercial GPS, the kind you can get at Best Buy, I’ve been told.)
As I write this, technologists are doing all kinds of things with the documents I have. Things that make my head spin while watching them run related data sets over secure online channels. But you’ll hear much more about all of this in a long-form piece I’m writing for a major newspaper.
What I can tell you now is that Byelousov and others said that the bulk of documentation the Russians have left behind is, unfortunately, unusable. Not because it’s not valuable, but because it’s been compromised.
Ukrainians have been keeping such findings for themselves as kinds of mementos. Or they’re planning to hand them to museums. And even if investigators were able to reach these people to see what they’ve got, the documents are already useless once the chain of custody has been broken. Which, in these cases, it usually has.
It’s an uphill battle proving war crimes in any ongoing conflict, but, in the case of Ukraine, the Russians have at least given us a head start.