‘We will find you:’ Russians hunt down Ukrainians on lists

The lists are part of growing evidence that shows much of the violence in Ukraine was planned rather than random.

By Associated Press

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 didn’t stop until he had carved out a shallow pit, big enough for a man like him. It was his just-in-case, a place to lie low if he needed.

He covered it with branches and went back home.

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. Something was amiss.

“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.

Kuprash — and others The Associated Press spoke with — had been quietly warned that they were targets for advancing Russian forces. Word went round in circles of influential Ukrainians: Don’t sleep in your own home. Get rid of your phone. Get out of Ukraine.

The hunt was on.

In a deliberate, widespread campaign, Russian forces systematically targeted influential Ukrainians, nationally and locally, 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.

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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.

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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. Agents categorized influential Ukrainians as either potential collaborators or unreliable elements to be intimidated or killed, 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.