“We will find you:” Russians hunt down Ukrainians on lists
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Three days after the first Russian bombs struck Ukraine, Andrii Kuprash, the head of a village north of Kyiv, walked into a forest near his home and began to dig. He carved out a shallow pit as a just-in-case, a place to lie low if he needed.
A week later, Kuprash got a call around 8 a.m. from an unknown number. A man speaking Russian asked if he was the village head.
“No, you’ve got the wrong number,” Kuprash lied. “We will find you anyway,” the man responded. “It’s better to cooperate with us.’” Kuprash grabbed some camping kit and his warmest coat and headed for his hole in the woods.
The hunt was on.
In a deliberate, widespread campaign, Russian forces systematically targeted influential Ukrainians to neutralize resistance through detention, torture and executions, an Associated Press investigation has found. The strategy appears to violate the laws of war and could help build a case for genocide.
Russian troops hunted Ukrainians by name, using lists prepared with the help of their intelligence services. In the crosshairs were government officials, journalists, activists, veterans, religious leaders and lawyers.
The AP documented a sample of 61 cases across Ukraine, drawing on Russian lists of names obtained by Ukrainian authorities, photographic evidence of abuse, Russian media accounts and interviews with dozens of victims, family and friends, and Ukrainian officials and activists.
Some victims were held at detention sites, where they were interrogated, beaten and subjected to electric shocks, survivors said. Some ended up in Russia. Others died.
In three cases, Russians tortured people into informing on others. In three other cases, Russians seized family members, including a child, to exert pressure. The pattern was similar across the country, according to testimonies AP collected from occupied and formerly occupied territories around Kyiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Chernihiv and Donetsk regions.
“Clearly what you have here is the playbook of an authoritarian regime that wants to immediately decapitate the area and eliminate the leadership,” said Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who is advising Ukraine on prosecutions.
The lists are part of growing evidence that shows much of the violence in Ukraine was planned rather than random. Russia has used brutality as a strategy of war, conceived and implemented within the command structures of its military and intelligence services. The Associated Press has also documented patterns of violence against civilians, including lethal “cleansing operations” along a front of the war commanded by a Russian general implicated in war crimes in Syria.
Led by the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian intelligence spent months compiling hit lists before the Feb. 24 invasion, according to leaked U.S. intelligence and U.K. national security analysts. Ukrainian intelligence indicates that the division of Russia’s spy agency tasked with planning the subjugation and occupation of Ukraine — the Ninth Directorate of the FSB’s Fifth Service — scaled up sharply in the summer of 2021, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a prominent defense think tank in London.
“This political strategy of targeted killings was directed from a very high level within the Kremlin,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at RUSI.
The Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian NGO, has amassed more than 770 cases of civilian captives since Russia’s February invasion, but emphasizes that they are the tip of the iceberg.
This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine tracker and the documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” on PBS.
While Kuprash hid in his hole in the woods, more than a dozen Russian soldiers ransacked his house and held a knife to the throat of his 15-year-old son. They threatened to tear out his guts if he didn’t give up his dad.
Father and son had set up a code: Call me “Tato” — dad — if everything is OK. Call me “Andrii” if there is trouble.
Surrounded by soldiers, his son went out to the garden and hollered “Andrii! Andrii! Andrii!” as loud as his voice would carry.
Three weeks later, Russians again came for Kuprash at his home. A commander sat him down at his kitchen table and, at gunpoint, promised him “a great life” in exchange for information about Ukrainian positions, as well as names of Ukrainian veterans and patriots. Kuprash insisted he didn’t have access to that information.
Dozens of locals from Babyntsi village had gathered outside. Kuprash thought maybe the crowd had saved him.
Next time, he wouldn’t be so lucky.
On March 30, three Russian vehicles pulled up to the town hall.
“Who’s the village head?” the soldiers demanded.
“I am,” Kuprash said, stepping forward.
“Andrii?” they asked.
“We found you,” one soldier said. “You are dead.”
The soldiers hit Kuprash in the head with a rifle, threw him in the back of the car and drove towards a cemetery in the forest. One of the Russians pulled out a long knife and held it against Kuprash’s throat.
“This knife killed nine people. You’ll be the tenth,” he said.
They accused him of sending Russian troop positions to Ukrainian authorities, which Kuprash told AP he had been doing. Under the laws of war, Russians could detain spotters like Kuprash in humane conditions, but never disappear or torture them, human rights lawyers say.
When they got to the forest cemetery, dozens of Russian soldiers forced Kuprash to strip and shoved him around in a circle, jeering and insulting him, he said. The Russians handed Kuprash a shovel and ordered him to dig himself a grave in the frozen earth.
As Ukraine claws back more territory from Russia, the accounting of the disappeared grows. Finding them and bringing them home is not easy.
One of Kherson’s disappeared was Serhii Tsyhipa, a blogger, activist and military veteran. He vanished March 12 and reappeared six weeks later on pro-Russian television, thin and hollow-eyed, regurgitating Russian propaganda. Ukrainian police analyzed the video and told AP he was clearly under duress.
Tsyhipa’s family has spoken with lawyers, NGOs, international organizations, Ukrainian intelligence and journalists. Nothing has brought him home.
Kuprash was one of the lucky ones. After the grave he dug was about a foot deep, the commander threw his clothes back at him and told him to have a cigarette.
They headed back towards the village. The commander cursed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Kuprash kept his mouth shut and prayed.
They stopped in front of the town hall. Kuprash climbed off.
“Live,” the commander said. He turned and drove away.
Associated Press reporters Solomiia Hera, Adam Pemble and Zoya Shu contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine