A Russian major general now believed to be helping lead his country’s missile and artillery efforts in Syria was behind the indiscriminate shelling in January 2015 of a Ukrainian town that left at least 29 civilians dead.
Working off of raw video, cellphone intercepts and information gleaned from social media and military websites in Ukraine and Russia, a joint reporting team that includes U.K.-based Bellingcat and McClatchy has identified nine Russian officers — including Major Gen. Stepan Stepanovich Yaroschuk — thought to have been directly involved in the military operation that killed and injured scores of civilians.
The shells that rained down on Mariupol came from two Russian artillery batteries transported on the eve of the operation into Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine.
The shelling was part of Russia’s hybrid military operation in Ukraine, combining military support to ethnic Russian separatists with direct incursions into breakaway border regions. The goal was to extend Russian control in a country that was flirting with closer ties to Western Europe.
Russia had seized Crimea in early 2014, and its aggressive posture in the area led to strained relations and U.S. and European financial sanctions. The relationship soured further, and diplomatic expulsions followed, after Russia was accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last year brought charges against Russia before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, and these Russian military men likely will be dragged into that case. Ukraine must present evidence by June 12.
The identification of the military leaders is key because even if Russia does not extradite them to face justice, their travel abroad will be curtailed because of their penetration into a sovereign nation.
Their legal plight is similar to that of the Russians identified by the reporting team in a story last year as part of the chain of command responsible for downing Malaysia Air Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed after the plane was struck by a surface-to-air missile.
In both events, Russia has publicly disavowed responsibility and blamed Ukrainian forces. Its embassy in Washington declined comment for this story.
Bellingcat and McClatchy analyzed a large volume of intercepted calls to and from participants in the Mariupol attack, which lasted from the night of Jan. 23 into the early evening of Jan. 24, 2015.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry shared the intercepts with the reporting team hoping that an independent investigation could be compared against the conclusions the government reached in preparing its detailed court filing.
Many of the Russian officers used code names, and their true identities were learned from clues in the intercepted calls that allowed Bellingcat and its Russian-speaking associates to trace calls back to locations in Russia. The effort involved cross-referencing events, names and locations.
It was aided by simple mistakes, like when the men stationed far from home took calls from wives who called them by their real names, or when the wives posted to social media photos of themselves next to vehicles registered to their military husbands.
Once the commanding Russian officers were identified by Bellingcat, McClatchy worked with the University of Colorado’s National Center for Media Forensics in Denver to compare voices on the intercepts to audio of the men found in videos or recordings posted on the internet. In several cases, the results were inconclusive and the team’s identification process relied on other factors. But for two main players, the results indicated strong probabilities of a match.
Noisy, short recordings don’t provide the best samples for audio analysis, and it is impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that any two speakers are the same. The Denver-based center uses complex algorithms and software to compute voice patterns and compare the voices in question against a broader sample of Russian-speaking voices to determine likelihood ratios.