The former Russian base in Balakliia, Ukraine, seen from the air. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra When Russian troops fled the Ukrainian town of Balakliia last month, they left behind thousands of documents that detail the inner workings of the Russian war machine. By MARI SAITO, MARIA TSVETKOVA and ANTON ZVEREV Filed When Russian troops fled the Ukrainian town of Balakliia last month, they left behind thousands of documents that detail the inner workings of the Russian war machine.
By MARI SAITO, MARIA TSVETKOVA and ANTON ZVEREV Photographs by ZOHRA BENSEMRA Filed: Oct. 26, 2022, 11 a.m. GMT
BALAKLIIA, Ukraine – The Russian soldiers had fled weeks before. But they left their traces everywhere. Concrete steps led into the basement of their hastily abandoned headquarters in this small riverside town in eastern Ukraine. A bunker smelling of damp lay behind a steel door marked “Command Group.” Papers, some charred, were stuffed into a furnace. Others were scattered across the floor. In a floral notebook, an unnamed staff officer left a sketch of a cartoon soldier and mused about going home. The book’s 91 handwritten pages contained other information, too: coordinates of Russian intelligence units, records of calls from commanders, details of battles, men killed and equipment destroyed. And accounts of a breakdown in morale and discipline. In all, the bunker yielded thousands of pages of documents. Reuters reviewed more than a thousand of them. They detail the inner workings of the Russian military and shed new light on events leading up to one of President Vladimir Putin’s most stinging battlefield defeats: Russia’s chaotic retreat from Ukraine’s northeast in September. In the weeks before that defeat, Russian forces were struggling with surveillance and electronic warfare. They were using off-the-shelf drones flown by barely trained soldiers. Their equipment for jamming Ukrainian communications was often out of action. By the end of August, the documents show, the force was depleted, hit by death, desertions and combat stress. Two units – accounting for about a sixth of the total force – were operating at 20% of their full strength. The documents also reveal the increasing effectiveness of Ukraine’s forces and offer clues to how the eight-month-old war might unfold, with Russia now under intense pressure on the southern front around the Black Sea coast. In the weeks before their retreat, Russian forces around Balakliia, a town 90 kilometres south of Kharkiv, came under heavy bombardment from HIMARS rocket launchers, recently supplied by the United States. The precision missiles repeatedly hit command posts. A Russian officer who served in the Balakliia force for three months, described to Reuters a sense of menace hanging over the occupiers. One of his friends bled to death in early September after a Ukrainian strike on a command post in a nearby village. “It’s a game of roulette,” said the officer, who asked to be identified by his military call sign Plakat Junior 888. “You either get lucky, or you are unlucky. The strikes can land anywhere.” The Kremlin press service referred questions for this article to the Defence Ministry, which didn’t comment. Russia has said previously its military has everything it needs to fight the war. The documents in the bunker name Colonel Ivan Popov as the commander of the Russian military force operating from Balakliia. Popov and many of his senior officers belong to the 11th Army Corps, part of the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet. In 2017, the official newspaper of Russia’s armed forces published a profile of Popov. It said he served in Russia’s war against separatists in Chechnya and the 2008 invasion of ex-Soviet Georgia. He jogged with his men and remembered his officers’ birthdays, it said, adding that Popov “is motivated to achieve success.” Popov did not respond to a message seeking comment. His wife told Reuters he commanded a force in east Ukraine. The Balakliia force included a commandant responsible for keeping the local civilian population in check. He is identified in the papers by an apparent pseudonym, Commandant V. “Granit” (Granite). He oversaw at least one interrogation centre where civilians were beaten and questioned using electric shocks, according to six former detainees and Ukrainian officials. Reuters verified the authenticity of the documents by visiting five abandoned military outposts in northeast Ukraine whose coordinates were recorded in the cache. In each instance, local residents confirmed that Russian forces were stationed there. Reuters reporters also interviewed five soldiers who served in the Balakliia force, and cross-checked details in the documents with a contemporaneous account kept by one of the Russian servicemen. “Current as of 18:00 on July 21. Comrade commander, here is my report!” Extract from a status report to the base commander Life under occupation Russian troops occupied Balakliia, a quiet town of squat apartment buildings surrounded by bucolic villages, in early March. To the south was the Russian controlled Donbas region; to the north the city of Kharkiv, a Ukrainian stronghold. The soldiers occupied a rundown vehicle repair complex on the outskirts of town. It became the command centre for Balakliia and dozens of surrounding villages and farms. It was here, in the basement, that Reuters found the document cache. Russian helicopters and drones constantly circled over the base, said Volodymyr Lyovochkin, a local man who managed the premises before the Russians arrived. Dozens of GRAD rocket launchers and other military vehicles were parked in the grounds, he said. Inside the command room, a Reuters reporter saw desks arranged in a rectangle. Each bore a red nameplate of a military section: combat coordination, electronic warfare, intelligence, unmanned aerial equipment. The section commanders, including the commandant responsible for the civilian population, met here daily, according to rosters that were left amongst the papers. Reuters has identified at least 11 officers who attended these meetings. Five of the officers, including Colonel Popov, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The others couldn’t be reached. Lists of personnel showed that conscripts from the Russian-controlled Ukrainian region of Luhansk fought alongside men from Russia’s 11th Army Corps. The soldiers scribbled on the walls of the base and put up fliers warning of Ukraine’s descent into Nazi rule if they withdrew. The invaders had brought with them old Soviet maps of Ukraine. A poster admonished the soldiers: Do not smoke, do not drop litter. The notebook, kept by the unknown staff officer, contained coordinates for Russian military intelligence and other units scattered around the area. One unit had taken over a Balakliia kindergarten. Lyovochkin, the site’s former manager, said Ukrainian investigators had visited the base repeatedly since the Russians retreated. De-miners were still removing the ordinance. “Everything is mined,” he said. “They were really protecting themselves.” The base also served as a detention centre for captured Ukrainian veterans. One military veteran told Reuters he was hooded, beaten and thrown into a cellar, where he was held for six days with several others. Others were detained in Balakliia’s police station. Two men – one a firefighter, the other an inspector in the emergency services – said their jailers beat them with wooden batons and administered electric shocks. Russian soldiers questioned the inspector repeatedly about his calls with his supervisor in Kharkiv. They accused him of compiling a list of Ukrainians who had collaborated with the Russians, which he denies. The firefighter said he was accused of hiding weapons and organising a local partisan group, which he too denies. Albina Strilets, a 33-year-old logistics coordinator for the emergency services, recounted that she and other women were held simply for being “pro-Ukrainian.” “I heard men being beaten so badly that at one point I heard a Russian soldier say, ‘bring a body bag,’” Strilets said. “Another time I heard a woman being raped upstairs and crying for hours.” Strilets said she broke the cell’s toilet so “it sounded like a waterfall” and would block out the woman’s screaming. The Kremlin and Russia’s Defence Ministry didn’t respond to questions about events in Balakliia. Russia has said previously its forces do not target civilians. Kharkiv regional police said Ukrainian investigators had discovered 22 torture chambers across newly liberated towns and villages in the region. “We cannot count the number of people who were detained. We are talking about hundreds of people. But every crime has a name and we will surely find those responsible,” regional police chief General Volodymyr Tymoshko said. In an office opposite the police station, relatives of prisoners sometimes petitioned the Russian known as Commandant V. “Granit” to free their loved ones. Tetiana Tovstokora, 57, a school principal, said her husband was turned away when he sought information about her detention, which lasted several days. None of the detainees and families interviewed by Reuters had any success in swaying “Granit.” Under occupation, much of the policing of the population fell to the force from separatist Luhansk. It was a rag-tag group with even fewer resources than their Russian counterparts, the documents show. One Luhansk corporal was 64 years old. Another fighter was treated for finger wounds after the chamber of his Mosin rifle exploded, a medic wrote. The rifle was developed in the late 19th century and went out of production decades ago, as Reuters reported in April. A spreadsheet at the Balakliia bunker showed a typical Russian sergeant was paid 202,084 roubles ($3,200) a month in salary plus bonuses, while a sergeant in the separatist force received just 91,200 roubles ($1,400). The head of a Luhansk flame-thrower company recorded in one document that eight of his subordinates had previous convictions – including one man for rape and sexual assault. Locals sell vegetables in front of a damaged market in the Ukrainian town of Balakliia. REUTERS/Umit Bektas The village of Hrakove, above, was the scene of heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy A burned out car in Balakliia which for six months was under Russian occupation. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS “!!! The commander of the ZVO (Western Military District) ordered that Hrakove is not to be surrendered.” Extract from notebook of the anonymous staff officer A narrow victory On July 19, four months after seizing the area, the Russian occupiers encountered their first serious challenge from Ukraine’s armed forces, the documents reviewed by Reuters show. At the regular morning meeting in the bunker, reports submitted to the commander, Colonel Popov, were normal: The previous night had been relatively quiet and enemy positions were unchanged. On the agenda for the day: some scheduled artillery fire on Ukrainian positions. But by early afternoon, a column of Ukrainian soldiers, supported by tanks and under cover of an artillery barrage, attacked the Russian front line at Hrakove – a village on the north-western edge of the territory held by the Balakliia force. Troops belonging to Russia’s 9th motorised rifle regiment were holed up in a concrete grain elevator in Hrakove. They’d positioned guns along the top of the structure. A Reuters reporter who visited the facility in October saw signs the men slept on the grain conveyor belts. By 15:00, an unnamed Russian on the front line at Hrakove radioed his commanders in Balakliia: His position was being overrun, he said, and he had to retreat. He requested artillery strikes to destroy the post he was abandoning. Then communication was lost. In the Balakliia bunker, the anonymous staff officer wrote in his notebook: “The munitions are running out.” The commander of the Western Military District, one of Russia’s most senior officers, demanded a briefing on the situation and “ordered that Hrakove must not be surrendered,” further notebook entries said. According to official records, the commander at the time was Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlyov, since fired by Putin. Independent Russian military analysts CIT have said, however, that Zhuravlyov was replaced by July by Lieutenant-General Andrei Sychevoi. Reuters was unable to reach Zhuravylov. Sychevoi didn’t respond to a request for comment. In the hours that followed, Russian commanders sent in reinforcements and mobilised attack helicopters. By 18:00, the Ukrainians were retreating and Russian forces were retaking lost ground. But the cost was high. The Russians lost a tank, two armoured personnel carriers and other equipment. Thirty-nine men were wounded, seven were dead, and 17 were reported missing, according to a report that was presented to Popov on July 21. Among the Russian dead was Corporal Aleksandr Yevsevleev, a tank commander. A list of casualties inside the command bunker said his abdomen had been torn open, exposing his intestines, and he had shrapnel injuries to his right upper thigh. His parents, contacted by Reuters, said their son was fatally wounded when his position came under fire near Hrakove from a Ukrainian helicopter. After the battle, five soldiers needed treatment for “acute reaction to stress.” Next to each of their names in the medical record was written: “Does not require evacuation.” A soldier in his twenties was listed as having suffered blast injuries. Contacted by Reuters, the man said he remembered little, only that “the fighting was fierce.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity. Following the battle, Colonel Popov applied to his superiors for 34 of his subordinates to be given medals for their bravery. The documents did not detail how his superiors responded. Two of the soldiers told Reuters they have yet to receive their awards. Pyotr Kalinin, a 25-year-old commander of a reconnaissance platoon, was also on Popov’s list. Kalinin is from Crimea and briefly served as a cadet in Ukraine’s armed forces before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, according to his social media. A photograph shows him in a Ukrainian uniform. Kalinin didn’t respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment. Quadcopters – !!! Urgent – !” Handwritten note on a July 19 briefing document Near breaking point Documents in the bunker show that Russian commanders understood the shortcomings of their force. On July 19, hours before the battle of Hrakove, an unnamed officer scribbled on the daily briefing note a plea for drones to track the enemy: “Quadcopters!!! Urgent!” Quadcopter drones are generally not military grade and can be bought in store and on the internet. As Reuters reported in June, Russian troops have relied on crowdfunding to buy drones. The Balakliia force finally took receipt of three off-the-shelf Mavic-3 quadcopter drones on July 20, the daily report recorded. They weren’t ready to fly, however, because their software wasn’t yet installed. The same daily report stated 15 soldiers were being trained how to operate them. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, were busy flying drones over Russian positions, their task made all the easier because two of the Russian force’s three jamming devices were out of action in need of repair, according to a note on a report by the electronic warfare unit. The daily report on July 21 contained even more alarming news for Colonel Popov, the commander of the Balakliia force: Russian intelligence agency, the FSB had learned that Ukrainian forces were bringing to the area three highly accurate HIMARS missile launchers, supplied by the United States. And Ukraine had pinpointed the locations of one Russian command post and four warehouses that were being used by the Balakliia force. Ukraine’s Defence Ministry and military did not respond to questions about weaponry and tactics. Three days later, on July 24, the author of the handwritten notebook recorded that a HIMARS strike had killed 12 Russian soldiers belonging to the 336th marines brigade of the Baltic Fleet. The fight further eroded morale and discipline among the soldiers. Artyom Shtanko commanded a platoon that was in the thick of the Hrakove battle and suffered losses, according to his father Alexei and Plakat Junior 888, the officer who served in the Balakliia force. Alexei said Shtanko refused an order from his company commander to “send his men into artillery fire.” Plakat Junior 888 identified the commander as Viktor Alyokhin, who was operating from a command post near Hrakove. Contacted by Reuters, Alyokhin confirmed he was in charge of a company during the battle but declined to comment further. At the base in Balakliia, the notebook’s anonymous author wrote on July 24 – five days after the Hrakove battle – that Shtanko was a “bastard” facing disciplinary action because he “pulled back his platoon and took it into the rear.” Shtanko’s commanders moved him to a different unit, his father told Reuters. He said Shtanko is still fighting in Ukraine. The notebook also recorded the desertion of Roman Elistratov, a corporal in the 9th motorised rifle regiment, which felt the full force of the Ukrainian onslaught. Elistratov didn’t respond to messages from Reuters. Later, the author wrote of a soldier who deliberately shot himself in the hand to avoid further action. Command should be notified of the incident, he added. None of these details made it into the official reports seen by Reuters. “However many machine gunners you change, the machine gun still won’t work if it has no bullets inside.” Extract from notebook of the anonymous staff officer “No supplies” By the end of July, Russian officers were convinced Ukrainian forces were preparing a counter-offensive to “take control of Balakliia,” the documents in the bunker show. Intercepted communications indicated an attack was imminent. Some of the communications were from cell phones registered to countries including Estonia, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States. Russian officers in the command bunker concluded the phones were in the possession of mercenaries or foreign instructors helping the Ukrainian military. Approached for this article, Estonia said its defence forces were not operating inside Ukraine. Britain, the United States and the Netherlands didn’t respond. Around the same time, Russian military-electronics experts arrived in Balakliia. They wanted to see if Russia’s “Pole-21” system for jamming satellite navigation systems could be adapted to counter HIMARS missiles, according to the daily report of Aug 4. Whatever the outcome of that experiment, Ukrainian strikes continued. Interviews with Russian servicemen, relatives of dead soldiers, and local residents indicate that at least three Russian command posts in northeast Ukraine were hit by HIMARS missiles in the weeks that followed. Faced with increased Ukrainian attacks, the Balakliia command set about drafting in more troops, according to daily reports and records in the staff officer’s handwritten notebook. Yet a spreadsheet dated Aug. 30 showed that the force was at only 71% of full strength. Some units were far worse off, according to the same spreadsheet. The 2nd assault battalion had 49 personnel. It should have had 240. The 9th BARS brigade, an irregular unit, was at 23% of its intended manpower. This furnace in the Balakliia command bunker contained partially burned documents. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra A black and white photo, possibly from World War Two, shows Nazi soldiers and is overlaid with the words: “If we leave, they will come.” REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra Names of cities in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are scribbled on a wall inside the Balakliia base. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra Graffiti on a door inside the Balakliia base. The letter “Z” has become a symbol of Russia’s war. Above it someone has written “Death to Muscovites.” REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra Another spreadsheet tracked equipment. Where there had been five drones on July 25, by the end of August there were only two. Eight armoured personnel carriers were reduced to three. The force had four “Fagot” anti-tank weapons systems left, down from 24 at the end of July. The one “Zoopark” system they had for suppressing enemy electronics systems was gone by the end of August. Plakat Junior 888, the Russian officer interviewed by Reuters, described trying to fight off successive Ukrainian attacks during August without adequate supplies. The small calendar he kept in the trenches during his three months rotation paints a dire picture. Days were marked with scribbled notes saying “Attack” and “Escaped from encirclement” or bearing the names of comrades killed in action. Aug. 27 was marked simply as “the worst day.” That, he said, was when their position came under heavy artillery attack, and one of his friends died in his arms. “There were no supplies of munitions or drones,” he said of the situation in late August. Ukrainian forces mounted attacks, but “our artillery was not working in response.” “I went home on Aug 10, 2023, I’m already home with my family…I’m having a nice time in Khabarovsk with my family, with my wife and my daughters.” Extract from notebook of the anonymous staff officer Chaos and retreat Ukraine’s counter-offensive began in earnest on Sept 6. A Russian soldier who was in Hrakove that day told Reuters that Ukraine first attacked Russian positions with artillery. By the evening Ukrainian forces had outflanked them. At that point, the order was given to retreat from the village, he said. The battle continued. Between Sept 6 and 8, precision strikes hit the command centre in Balakliia. Lyovochkin, the local who formerly managed the site, said the entire facility erupted in flames. Dozens of bodies of Russian soldiers were pulled from the rubble, he said. “My house was dancing” from the blast, he said. A video posted on social media on Sept 10 showed Ukrainian soldiers viewing the destroyed hangar where Russian forces had kept their vehicles. “This is what the result of HIMARS’ work looks like,” said a voice in Ukrainian in the video. Nataliia and Viktor, an elderly couple who live less than 300 metres from the bunker, said they heard constant Ukrainian strikes in the final days of the occupation. When the attacks ceased on the 8th, the couple saw 30 soldiers, many of them wounded, limping along the road in retreat. Two other residents said they saw Russian soldiers throw away their guns and abandon their vehicles as they ran away. Related content Love letter, ID card point to Russian units that terrorised Bucha How Russia spread a secret web of agents across Ukraine Russian army base sees scramble for war supplies “It was just chaos,” said one of the two locals, Serhii, who lived across the street from the command headquarters. “There was a traffic jam” of fleeing Russians, he said. Other Ukrainians described how fighters from Luhansk fled, often trailing behind the retreating Russian military. Weeks after the Russian retreat, all that remained of the headquarters was a crater and a pile of documents. A plume of smoke rose from a heap of burnt out Russian equipment. Popov, the force commander, was injured at some point and spent a month in hospital, his wife told Reuters. She said he has since been promoted to the rank of general and is about to head off on a new assignment. She didn’t disclose where. The last, undated notebook entries by the anonymous staff officer are reflective. “If you sit and look at the river for long enough, you will eventually see your enemies floating by,” he wrote. One page later, he appears to be imagining his life in the future, in a city on the Russian border with China, 7,000 km from Balakliia. “I went home on Aug 10, 2023, I’m already home with my family,” he wrote. “I’m having a nice time in Khabarovsk with my family, with my wife and my girls.” reuters investigates More Reuters investigations and long-form narratives Got a confidential news tip? Reuters Investigates offers several ways to securely contact our reporters
Russian Roulette By Mari Saito in Balakliia, Maria Tsvetkova in New York and Anton Zverev in Tbilisi Photo editing: Simon Newman Video: Zohra Bensemra, Yesim Dikmen, Francesca Lynagh and Lucy Ha. Design: Catherine Tai Edited by Christian Lowe and Janet McBride