The findings, first reported by German magazine Der Spiegel and confirmed by three people briefed on the information, further undermine Russia’s denials of their involvement in the carnage. Russia has repeatedly asserted that atrocities are only perpetrated after its soldiers have left occupied areas or scenes of civilian massacres are “staged”.
Images of Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital, have become symbols of the atrocities of war and have galvanized calls for investigations into possible war crimes. One person said the radio messages would likely give more insight into alleged atrocities in other towns north of kyiv that had been held by Russian soldiers.
In Bucha, the extent of Russian barbarism becomes clearer
Germany has satellite images that indicate Russian involvement in the killing of civilians in Bucha, the intelligence official said, but 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 video and satellite images to draw links to specific killings, two people said.
These people also said the radio traffic suggested that members of the Wagner Group, the private military unit closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies, had played a role in attacks on civilians. Another person briefed on the information said the Wagner Group or another private contractor may be involved.
German intelligence officials briefed members of at least two parliamentary committees on Wednesday on the findings, according to people familiar with the process.
“The cruelties reported affected members of the respective committees where they were reported very strongly,” said one of those briefed on the intelligence.
Another person said the agency had high confidence in the findings, although she did not specify how she obtained the radio communications. The third person said the information helped to understand attitudes within the Russian military but did little to represent “the final proof of who shot whom at what time”. This person said that the examples referred to by the BND testify to an atmosphere of panic, causing the 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 according to a plan or a executive management “.
“The mere fact that they were talking to each other about these killings would indicate this and refute any suggestion that these were spontaneous and random events,” he added.
Russian troops’ reliance on insecure communications devices, including smartphones and push-to-talk radios, has made their units vulnerable to targeting, according to Western defense and intelligence officials.
A BND spokesperson declined to comment. A government spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, made an elliptical reference on Wednesday to “credible indications” that Russian forces in Bucha were interrogating prisoners “who were later executed.” He only cited “the ideas we have”.
President Biden and others have called on Putin to stand trial for war crimes, and prosecutors in Ukraine and across Europe are collecting evidence of battlefield abuse. The International Criminal Court is investigating, as are national authorities.
Last month, the federal prosecutor’s office in Germany opened an investigation into alleged Russian war crimes, saying it was looking into attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. In its investigation, Germany relies on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives national courts the power to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by foreign nationals on foreign territory.
The principle, which enabled Israel to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice in 1961, has recently been used by Germany to prosecute crimes committed in Iraq and Syria, including by a former intelligence official in the regime of Syrian President Bashir al -Assad. The official, Anwar Raslan, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in the world’s first trial related to state-sponsored torture under the Assad regime. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.