2023 Excellence in Audio Digital Storytelling, Current Affairs finalist

Putin Is a Fool: Intercepted Calls Reveal Russian Army in Disarray

About the Project

When Russian forces abandoned the Ukrainian town of Bucha in early April, journalists with The New York Times were among the first on the scene. What they discovered, and revealed to the world, was a slaughterhouse — a man dead beside his bicycle, a woman half-buried in a garden, dozens of bodies strewn along a residential street like tossed litter.

The Kremlin said that Russian soldiers were not present when the bodies appeared and President Vladimir Putin dismissed the horrific images as “another hoax.”

This kicked off an airtight documentation like none other of what many experts describe as Russia’s most gruesome war crime, a horrific symbol of the depravity of the occupation of Ukraine.

Over nine months, reporters Yousur Al-Hlou and Masha Froliak conducted scores of interviews and cultivated dozens of sources among Ukrainian government agencies. Their persistence landed exclusive recordings of more than 4,000 phone calls made by Russian soldiers and intercepted by Ukrainian authorities. These became the basis for the Sept. 24 interactive investigation, “Putin Is a Fool: Intercepted Calls Reveal Russian Army in Disarray” Unlike reporting through witnesses and survivors after the withdrawal of Russian forces from Bucha, the intercepts offered raw and unfiltered accounts given by rank-and-file soldiers as they occupied the town. They describe battlefield failures and an incohesive military strategy. They admit to executing civilians in Bucha, who they feared would give away their positions. They speak with contempt about Putin and his generals. They admit to looting supermarkets and homes, and decry commanders who hoarded supplies for themselves.

The team used innovative reporting methods to authenticate the calls. They cross-referenced outgoing and incoming Russian phone numbers with cell phone messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, and Russian social media accounts like VKontakte and OK. These enabled the reporters to confirm the soldiers’ identities. One soldier spoke at length with the team when they phoned him.

A team of three native Russian speakers spent almost two months transcribing and translating the calls, and reporters drew out common themes repeated by soldiers. As we produced the piece, Masha cast a keen ear over the translated files. Some quotes were colorful and alarming, but in some cases the audio quality was too poor to include them.

Traumatized by what he had witnessed, one soldier said he needed psychological help. One ran his auto parts business from the front lines along with his wife back in Russia. Another told loved ones he had seen “a sea” of dead civilians. Yet another told his girlfriend that he had stolen so much cash from a resident’s house that he had the price of an apartment.

The audio was rendered through After Effects to make waveform visualizations, so that even when muted the story has distinctive visual hallmarks. The transcriptions were input into a spreadsheet along with timing cues, which editors, designers, and engineers used collaboratively to finesse and make precise each instance of audio. This was all in turn optimized for mobile devices.