‘We will find you:’ How Russia used torture and threats to hunt down influential Ukrainians

AP Photo

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.

WARNING: Readers may find some details in this story distressing

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 8am 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.'”

Andrii Kuprash had been quietly warned that he was a target for advancing Russian forces.(AP: Erika Kinetz)

Kuprash grabbed some camping kit and his warmest coat and headed for his hole in the woods.

Kuprash — and others The Associated Press (AP) 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.

Systematic targeting of Ukrainians

In a deliberate, widespread campaign, Russian forces systematically targeted influential Ukrainians to neutralise 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.

An office chair stands in the corridor of a basement in a building used, according to a war crimes prosecutor, by Russian forces as a place of torture in Kherson.(AP: Evgeniy Maloletka)

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 US 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.

Patterns of violence against civilians

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 February 24 invasion, according to leaked US intelligence and UK 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 categorised influential Ukrainians as either potential collaborators or unreliable elements to be intimidated or killed, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a prominent defence 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.

Those pre-war lists were just the beginning.

Russian leaders who had expected to sweep into Ukraine and seize control of a docile population quickly discovered they were wrong.

One list begat another as Russia expanded its dragnet to ever-wider swaths of Ukrainian society, incorporating additional names from collaborators and seized government records, and torturing captives into giving up other people.

AP obtained copies of five lists of 31 people Russians were hunting in Mykolaiv and Kherson regions.

They offer a highly localised accounting — eight soldiers, seven veterans, seven apparent civilians and nine people accused of helping the Ukrainian military or intelligence services.

One man accused of having anti-Russian views and carrying out anti-Russian propaganda was on the list. So was a man who helped his son evacuate to Ukrainian territory in a motorboat.

The lists, which were undated, included full names, as well as some nicknames, dates of birth and addresses.

The Kremlin declined to respond to AP’s requests for comment, though a spokesman earlier called leaked US intelligence about kill lists “absolute fiction.”

It is not currently possible to document the full scale of abductions.

The Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian NGO that won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, has amassed more than 770 cases of civilian captives since Russia’s February invasion.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the group, emphasises that these are the tip of the iceberg.

Matviichuk recorded similar targeting of local elites by Russian-backed forces in Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region dating back to 2014.

But this time, as she documented more cases, she realised something had changed. Suddenly and surprisingly, even people who weren’t influential leaders were being taken.

“Everybody can be a target. It shocked me,” she said.

“We were prepared for political persecution … We weren’t prepared for terror.”

‘We found you … you are dead’

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 his 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.

Kuprash kept insisting he was a civilian. He thought of his children.

“I said goodbye in my mind,” he said.

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 commander pointed at another man being beaten near a tree, who he said had pointed to Kuprash as the head of the local Territorial Defence, a volunteer military group. Kuprash denied it.

The Russians handed Kuprash a shovel. As he hunched over in his underwear, they ordered him to dig himself a grave in the frozen earth.

‘What’s more precious? Your phone or your mother’s life?’

Ukrainians hunted by Russia didn’t all stay in Ukraine, like Kuprash.

Some were sucked into an opaque network of filtration and detention centres that extended from occupied territories into Russia itself.

Oleksii Dibrovskyi’s journey began on March 25, when a Russian soldier pulled out his gun and held it to his mother’s head.

“What is more precious to you: Your phone or your mother’s life?” the soldier demanded.

Dibrovskyi, a deputy of the Polohy City Council, in Zaporizhzhia region, looked at his mother and handed over his phone and password.

On his phone was a screenshot of Google maps with a Russian checkpoint circled in red.

Dibrovskyi told AP that he had been sending information about Russian troop positions to the Ukrainian military.

The Russians wanted the names of other spotters. They told him their friends had died because of people like him.

Soldiers hauled Dibrovskyi to a basement, then to a garage, and then to a detention centre near a military airport.

They stuck a gun in his mouth and shot their rifles close to his ears. He said he was blindfolded and beaten so badly he urinated on himself.

Trapped in total darkness

One morning near the end of March, his captors led him to an old Soviet-style metal safe and told him to get in.

The space inside the safe was so small Dibrovskyi couldn’t sit. He curled his body into the shape of a question mark. The door swung shut.

Total blackness. Dibrovskyi struggled to breathe.

Inside the safe, Dibrovskyi began to sweat.

As the hours passed, condensation formed on the walls and he pressed his lips to the droplets, desperate with thirst.

Vivid pictures emerged from the darkness: Water. White light, like bright souls descending.

“I thought angels were taking me to the sky,” he said.

A few weeks later, he said, he was taken to a filtration centre in Olenivka, in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, where men curled their knees to their chests so they could squash in two to a bed.

The logic Russians used to sort people at the filtration centre was never fully clear to Dibrovskyi.

Those who made it through were searched, interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and allowed to leave.

Dibrovskyi didn’t make it.

On April 14, he was herded on a Russian KAMAZ truck with 90 other people who had failed filtration. They drove through the night. In the morning, they boarded an aircraft.

When they arrived at Pre-Trial Detention Centre Number One, in Kursk, Russia, Dibrovskyi and the others squatted down and folded their hands behind their heads.

They were videotaped, searched for tattoos, and stripped. Once naked, the beatings began.

“It was like a storm. It was endless. I was naked, beaten from left, right side, on back and my ears, legs — constant beatings,” he said.

“They kicked us. Many boys had their genitals hurt.”

Some men were unable to sit after the beatings, and others got broken ribs.

A man boxed Dibrovskyi’s ears so hard he fainted. He got a wound on his forehead from kneeling and pressing his head to the cold ground.

Every morning, they had to belt out the Russian national anthem.

“After torture, I was given paper and a pen. I was told to write down what they say,” Dibrovskyi said.

“I realised only later what I had signed.”

His captors had tried to trick him into being a Russian spy.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands in a basement which, according to Ukrainian authorities, was used as a torture cell during the Russian occupation.(AP: Leo Correa)

The future is history

Russia’s targeting of local leaders like Dibrovskyi and Kuprash is not new.

The security forces of the Soviet Union had a long history of drawing up lists of “subversives” in Russia and beyond to be detained, disappeared, sent to labour camps or executed.

Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and expert on Russian security services, said old techniques included kill lists that Stalin’s secret service used to pacify Western Ukraine during World War II.

“It’s the bloodiest example of pacifying a territory by Stalin’s secret service,” he said.

“It’s still taught at the academy of the secret service for how to pacify people when they are hostile.”

Excising the parts of society that shape and guide a nation can have long-term impacts.

When the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in World War II, they murdered or deported tens of thousands of people.

“The sort of people who were selected for this were those who were community leaders, teachers, clergymen — anyone with a political background,” Jānis Kažociņš, the national security advisor to the president of Latvia, told AP.

“Society doesn’t have any compass any longer. It’s been deprived of its leaders.”

Data suggests that Russia has been doing the same thing in Ukraine.

Local leaders targeted early on

Regional authorities in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson as well as the United Nations all found that local leaders were disproportionately targeted in the early months of the invasion.

For example, local authorities, activists, journalists and religious leaders accounted for 40 per cent of the 508 cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine recorded between February and early December.

In Kherson alone, nearly a third of the 230 civilian abductions regional authorities had registered by July involved local authorities and government employees.

Evidence of targeting could help prosecutors argue that Russia intends to destroy Ukrainian society in whole or in part.

“This is where the investigation of genocide should start,” said Wayne Jordash, director of Global Rights Compliance, a law firm and NGO, who helps lead the work of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, a multinational effort to support Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors.

“It’s how the Russians intended to take over and extinguish identity.”

On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Jordash got a call from a person with access to British intelligence who warned him that the Russians had lists of Ukrainian politicians and his wife — Svitlana Zalishchuk, a former member of parliament — was not safe.

They left.

As Ukraine claws back more territory from Russia, the accounting of the disappeared grows.

Russian forces set up at least nine detention centres in Kherson city, where people were tortured, said Jordash, who is now back in Ukraine.

Ukrainian prosecutors estimated from meticulous lists the Russians left behind that more than 800 people from the largest centre alone had been taken into Russian-held territory or killed, Jordash said.

Finding them and bringing them home is not easy.

Wife searches for disappeared husband

Activist Serhii Tsyhipa was last seen on a pro-Russian television reciting Russian propaganda.  

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 analysed the video and told AP he was clearly under duress.

Tsyhipa’s family has spoken with lawyers, NGOs, international organisations, Ukrainian intelligence and journalists. Nothing has brought him home.

His wife Olena takes herbal pills to manage the constant anxiety.

“I need strength,” she said.

“My brain is constantly working on how to help or free him.”

Olena, wife of Serhii Tsyhipa, has far not been able to find a way to get her husband back.(AP: Andrew Kravchenko)

Risking everything to escape

Some people who knew they were being hunted went into hiding, conjuring memories of World War II. Others risked everything to slip away.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Lidiia, an editor-in-chief, shut the small newspaper she ran and spent two weeks huddled with her two daughters in a basement outside Mariupol.

She read them the Russian version of The Wizard of Oz.

As they listened to the fury of artillery above, her children kept asking her to repeat the part when the wicked witch Gingema sends a hurricane to the city.

Lidiia did not want her full name or image published because family members in Russian-held territory remain at risk.

She managed to get a ride to her sister’s house in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been under de facto Russian control since 2014.

At the last checkpoint before her sister’s home, they were routed to a filtration point where their phones were searched.

They were fingerprinted, photographed and questioned for three hours. Lidiia was allowed through. Somehow, they hadn’t noticed she was a journalist.

‘Where to run?’

A few weeks later, she got a call from another journalist who told her the administration of the Donetsk People’s Republic — Russia’s name for a swath of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region — was looking for her.

That night at 6:30pm, Lidiia missed a call from an unknown number on the messaging app Viber.

Four minutes later, a message popped up, written in formal Russian, from a woman named Nataliya: “Good evening … I’m an employee of the head of the administration of the Republic. I need to talk to you about resuming the publication of the newspaper. I’d be very grateful if you call me back.”

“My first thought was: ‘Where to run?'” Lidiia said.

Lidiia called Nataliya back and told her that she couldn’t work because she had to take care of her kids.

“If you need work, we will always help you,” Nataliya assured Lidiia.

A week later, Lidiia’s husband, who had stayed behind, called.

“Tomorrow they will come talk to you,” he said in an odd voice.

Later, she learned that armed state security officials from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic had come to their home looking for her and forced him to call her.

“I understood it was dangerous,” she said.

“I was getting ready for the worst — for arrest, or to be forced psychologically because of my children … I was afraid I’d be forced to collaborate.”

Lidiia scrambled to gather the paperwork she needed to leave: a certificate that she’d cleared filtration, new identity papers for her children.

Each day, she waited for a knock on the door.

The frontline of the war lay to the west, cutting her off from Kyiv. She realised there was only one route out: east, through Russia.

She booked tickets — 350 euros ($550) for her, 125 euros for each child — on a bus that would take them on a three-day journey through Russia, across Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and finally to Kyiv.

Separated from children at Russian border

On May 24, Lidiia and her girls crammed on a bus with 50 people. When they reached the Russian border, her children passed through passport control first.

Then it was Lidiia’s turn.

The man who checked her documents saw that she had worked for a newspaper in Ukraine.

“You have to wait here,” he told her. “Someone will come for you.”

Now Lidiia’s children were in Russia, and she was in Ukraine.

Another busload of people arrived, and she was afraid she’d lose her girls in the chaos.

She strained to keep her eyes on her children as they sat, alone, in enemy territory.

“I was waving at them so they wouldn’t be afraid, to let them know I was still there,” she said.

Her children kept trying to call her, but they couldn’t get a connection with their Ukrainian SIM card. Her younger daughter began to cry.

They sent messages: “Please come, mummy.”

“Mum, where you are? She is crying.”

The messages were never delivered.

Lidiia’s head buzzed with panic. “What will happen to my kids if I am detained and cannot leave?” she asked herself.

“Should I look for an orphanage for my kids?”

Lidiia was escorted to a room by a man she said worked for the FSB.

“He asked if she wanted to smoke. She told him she didn’t want cigarettes, she wanted her kids.

They walked her children back from the other side of passport control.

She put her bags and her daughters on a bench in a waiting room filled with strangers and followed him into an interrogation room.

He asked her who she worked for. A newspaper, she said.

“Ah,” the man said, stretching his arms wide. “One day and one night won’t be enough for us to talk to you.”

The ones who got away

Kuprash, Dibrovskyi and Lidiia are among the lucky: They survived.

Kuprash can’t be sure why the commander changed his mind about life and death.

What he does know is that 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.

On the morning of April 18, Dibrovskyi was taken from his cell. He said his retinas were scanned and his skull measured with a device he didn’t recognise. Samples were taken of his nails, hair and blood.

His wounds were photographed, and he was forced to make a video saying that he had been treated well and his injuries were from a fall.

Dibrovskyi and other prisoners were flown from Kursk to a detention centre in Russian-held Crimea, stopping in Belgorod, Voronezh, Rostov and Taganrog to collect more prisoners along the way, he said.

Early the next morning, Dibrovskyi waited as 59 names were called out. His was last, the 60th name. They all climbed onto KAMAZ trucks and headed north.

Around 3pm, Dibrovskyi saw a Ukrainian flag. He began to cry. One by one, Russian prisoners were exchanged for Ukrainians.

Dibrovskyi spent ten days in the hospital. His wrists, arms and head bore signs of torture, medical records show. He couldn’t sleep.

Dibrovskyi called his wife from his hospital bed. She didn’t recognise him.

“Alosha, is it you?” she said.

They sat together in silence on the phone, unable to speak.

‘Anything could happen to me’

Still stuck at the Russian border, Lidiia went through two rounds of interrogation.

When she finally explained – falsely but in excruciating detail — that she was headed for her aunt’s house in Moscow, the man handed back her passport and said, “OK, that’s it.”

“Am I free?” Lidiia asked. She couldn’t believe it. She walked out of the room and whisked her waiting children back to the bus.

For an hour, things seemed fine. Then Lidiia realised with a shock of dread that she’d left her documents back at the border.

Lidiia began to weep. “My stress resistance ended there,” she said. “I realised at that moment anything could happen to me.”

The driver called her a taxi. She left her girls on the bus with a woman who promised to look after them. Lidiia left one of her phones behind, stocked with contact numbers of relatives to call in case she didn’t make it back.

She headed back to the border.

When Lidiia returned, documents in hand, the bus erupted with applause.

“As we crossed the border to Europe – that’s it,” Lidiia said. “The spirit of freedom.”

Lidiia left just in time. In July, Russians conducted another purge of her city and arrested people, she said.

“I was also on their lists. They asked other people about me,” she said.

“The fact that I left earlier probably saved me.”

Source : ABC