Can we believe the Russian phone calls intercepted and published by Ukrainian SBU and GUR?

Posted on 06 June 2022



In the three months I’ve been translating material from the war in Ukraine, no topic has been as consistently popular among my translations as various calls between Russian soldiers and their family members, intercepted and published online by Ukrainian SBU (Security) and GUR (Intelligence) services. These calls tell us an enormous amount of detail, often shocking, about the real state of affairs within the Russian invader army and more.


However, given how grotesque some of these calls are (many highlight the atrocious war crimes carried out by Russian troops in Ukraine in great detail), it is fair to question the legitimacy of the interceptions. The representation of the calls to the wider public in text form is particularly problematic as conveying emotion this way is extremely difficult, and frankly impossible. You have to believe that what you’re reading is true. So, can we believe these calls? What makes us think these calls are legit and not fakes made in the deep basements of Ukrainian secret services?


My personal opinion as someone who’s listened to (rather closely, each at least a couple of times as I translate and double check every line) dozens of calls is that the vast majority of them are very much real and not fake, for several reasons (okay, I’m 99% confident they are real – this is my way out in case pigs can indeed fly).


One thing to keep in mind. While both the Ukrainian security agencies released hundreds of calls to the public, the interceptions that we get to listen in the end are always just a part of what’s actually being intercepted. The majority of the interceptions have never been published – for instance, a few weeks ago in one of his daily livestreams the Adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Aleksey Arestovych mentioned the intercepted calls from the first days of war he was given to listen where apparently Russian soldiers were so brazen and confident in their upcoming victory they were calling restaurants in Kyiv booking tables for whole brigades and regiments – one call mentioned “reserving a table for 1,500 people” in one of Kyiv’s popular cafeterias. Obviously, it was a troll call from the Russians, but its existence lets us know there are calls that we never get to listen.


In my estimation, SBU and GUR combined have released around 300 calls to the public, in fact, most of the time they only release fairly short snippets of these calls, each between 1 and 3 minutes long with many cuts to remove irrelevancies (GUR sometimes publishes longer calls). It is safe to assume that the actual calls are much longer, while the majority of what’s said in them is unlikely to have any substantial interest to the public, and part of the information must remain confidential for strategic purposes. With this in mind, I presume we only get to hear a few percent (if that) of what’s actually been intercepted.


Point is, to assume these calls are fake (even if just a part of them) the Ukrainian intelligence must be involved not only with actual interceptions (which they surely must be very busy with – it’s war, after all), but there has to be a special department within these services whose sole purpose is staging hundreds of extremely believable recordings covering a whole range topics from looting to complaining about command, from deserting to reporting on major losses, all sounding extremely believable, to discredit the Russian Armed Forces. Considering how “elaborate” some of the call evidence is, I imagine it would take a lot of talent and resource to make them believable.


And believable they are. The majority of complaints as I noticed come from the Western audience who do not speak either Russian or Ukrainian, for whom the calls sounds like a bunch of gibberish, so they only get to read the text I’m providing and they have no way to sound-check them (which is why I HIGHLY RECOMMEND listening to the recording before reading the translation – you can still get a sense of the sentiment and tone even without understanding a single word). And that’s fair enough.


But for anyone who speaks Russian, these calls would sound very much realistic. Consider this – if those were fakes, they’ve been done really well with utmost attention paid to sound artefacts, tone of voice, topics covered…  In every single call (with extremely rare exceptions) you have different voices, different accents (in case of non-Russian callers such as Buryats). Faking these would require SBU to have hundreds if not thousands of experienced actors, ideally Russians who have no distinct Ukrainian accent or at least able to hide it (knowing personally some Ukrainians from border Russian cities like Kharkiv I can still hear them speaking slightly differently from muscovites), who can express themselves in the most believable way each single time without an option to be “re-used” for other calls.


I can only think of one or two calls that sounded fake to me – the voice recordings appeared suspiciously clear and the conversations reminded me of a theatrical play rather than a real conversation. I’d note that neither of these calls came from SBU or GUR – so far their reputation in my eyes has been crystal clear.


I’d also note that most of the time these calls are not telling us anything that we already didn’t know. We knew about Russians wanting to leave their ranks, about horrific losses they take, described by their own accounts such as during P.O.W. interviews. We knew about looting, rapes and mass murders from the actual evidence “in field”. These calls just give us a bit more of what we already know, with specific details in places. These calls are helpful additions but do not form the main evidence.


Also, in some cases the security services will point us to the exact people whom these calls belong to – this is mostly done by GUR which pinpoints who the person is, occasionally revealing their personal details, what their relationship to the person on the call is. Here’s one example of a very graphic and long call – GUR were able to precisely identify and name both callers, in this case mother and her soldier son.


Without having access to any inside information on how these calls are recorded, this is probably as far as my evidence base goes. I can only emphasise again that after listening to numerous intercepted calls I never found repeating voices, almost never felt they could have been staged (and if I did I would make sure to highlight that). Now, as a person striving for objectivity I will always leave 1% to a possibility that some or all of these calls are fake. But in my personal opinion, the vast majority of them are legit and I have no reasons to be suspicious.


I hope these calls keep coming – we’ve learned so much from them, and they act as a fantastic positive propaganda source that solidifies our condemnation of this illegal invasion, increasing morale and giving us a glimpse into how things stand in Russia, and more specifically in the Russian army.

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