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Germany intercepts Russian talk of indiscriminate killings in Ukraine

A man carries the lid of a coffin on April 6 as police officers investigate the killing of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

BERLIN — Germany’s foreign intelligence service claims to have intercepted radio communications in which Russian soldiers discuss carrying out indiscriminate killings in Ukraine.

In two separate communications, Russian soldiers described questioning Ukrainian soldiers as well as civilians and then shooting them, according to an intelligence official familiar with the findings who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The findings, first reported by the German magazine Der Spiegel and confirmed by three people briefed on the information, further undermine Russia’s denials of involvement in the carnage. Russia has claimed variously that atrocities are being carried out only after its soldiers leave occupied areas or that scenes of massacres of civilians are “staged.”

More grisly scenes are emerging from Bucha, Ukraine, where local authorities are beginning to examine hundreds of bodies. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Images from Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital, have become symbols of the war’s atrocities and galvanized calls for probes into possible war crimes. One person said the radio messages are likely to provide greater insight into suspected atrocities in other towns north of Kyiv that had been held by Russian soldiers.

In Bucha, the scope of Russian barbarity is coming into focus

Germany has satellite images that point to Russia’s involvement in the killing of civilians in Bucha, the intelligence official said, but the radio transmissions have not been linked to that location. The foreign intelligence agency, known as the BND, may be able to match signals intelligence with videos and satellite images to make connections to specific killings, two people said.

These people also said the radio traffic suggests that members of the Wagner Group, the private military unit with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies, have played a role in attacks on civilians. Another person briefed on the intelligence said the Wagner Group or another private contractor could be involved.

German intelligence officials on Wednesday briefed members of at least two parliamentary committees on the findings, according to people familiar with the process.

“The reported cruelties have affected the members of the respective committees where it was reported very strongly,” said one of the people briefed on the intelligence.

Another person said the agency has high confidence in the findings, although it was not specific about how it obtained the radio communications. The third person said the information contributes to understanding of attitudes inside the Russian military but hardly represents “final evidence of who shot whom at what time.” This person said the examples discussed by the BND point to an atmosphere of panic, leading soldiers to “cut corners.”

Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who previously coordinated investigations at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said the key question to discern from intercepted communications is whether soldiers were “acting pursuant to some plan or some general direction.”

“Just the fact that they would be talking to each other about these killings would indicate that and would disprove any suggestion that these were kind of spontaneous, random events,” he added.

The International Criminal Court said on Feb. 28 it is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. Experts tell The Post how the legal process works. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Reliance by Russian troops on unsecured communication devices, including smartphones and push-to-talk radios, has left their units vulnerable to targeting, Western defense and intelligence officials say.

A spokesperson for the BND declined to comment. A government spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, made an elliptical reference Wednesday to “credible indications” that Russian forces in Bucha were interrogating prisoners “who were subsequently executed.” He cited only “insights that we have.”

President Biden and others have called for Putin to stand trial for war crimes, and prosecutors in Ukraine and throughout Europe are gathering evidence of battlefield abuses. The International Criminal Court is investigating, as are national authorities.

Last month, the federal prosecutor’s office in Germany opened an investigation into suspected Russian war crimes, saying it was examining attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. In its probe, Germany is relying on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives national courts the authority to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by foreign nationals on foreign territory.

The principle, which allowed Israel to put Adolf Eichmann on trial in 1961, has recently been used by Germany to prosecute crimes committed in Iraq and Syria, including by a former intelligence official in Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s regime. The official, Anwar Raslan, was convicted of crimes against humanity in the world’s first trial related to state-sponsored torture under Assad’s rule. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.

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