RSF has new evidence about identity of Russian soldiers in area where Ukrainian journalist was killed

In the latest phase of its investigation into the execution-style killing of Ukrainian journalist Maks Levin and a friend in a forest near Kyiv in March 2022, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has identified all of the Russian military units that were in the area at the time, and several dozen Russian soldiers whose phones connected with mobile phone antennae in the immediate area.

“While the official investigation has struggled to progress for several months, RSF has obtained more complete information about the Russian presence in the forest where this journalist and his companion were killed. Help from the Ukrainian authorities, both civilian and military, in terms of investigation and intelligence is essential if we are to hope to identify the perpetrators of this double murder with precision.

Arnaud Froger
Head of RSF’s investigation bureau

The Ukrainian police found the bodies of Maks Levin, a respected Ukrainian photo-journalist, and his friend, Oleksiy Chernyshov, in a forest just to the north of Kyiv on 1 April 2022. Levin had been shot and Chernyshov, a soldier with Ukraine’s territorial forces, had probably been burned alive. They had disappeared two weeks before, at a time when fighting had been raging in the area. Levin had been covering the hostilities as close as he could to the front line since the Russians invaded on 24 February. When the bodies were discovered at the start of April, the Russians had begun their withdrawal from northern Ukraine but shooting and artillery bombardments could still be heard near the scene of the crime. The bodies were taken to the morgue while no more than a summary investigation was conducted at the scene.

Since then, RSF has travelled to Ukraine four times to investigate this journalist’s death. The investigation carried out in the forest by the head of the RSF investigation bureau, Arnaud Froger, and French photo-journalist Patrick Chauvel a few weeks after the events established that the two men had been executed in cold blood. Several pieces of evidence, including three bullets and items that belonged to the Russian forces, were handed over by RSF to the Ukrainian authorities. On 22 June 2022, RSF published a report presenting the evidence of this execution.

But who killed Levin and his friend? They were almost certainly Russian soldiers whose identity is still not known. However, new evidence could result in progress in the coming months. On a confidential basis, RSF has obtained the numbers of 72 mobile phones belonging to Russian soldiers that connected to the same antennae as Levin’s did on the day of his murder. This list is currently being researched in an attempt to identify these soldiers more precisely. The killers could be among them.

Thanks to information obtained from other sources, including security sources, RSF has been able to compile a complete list of Russian military units known or strongly suspected to have been near the place where Levin was executed. They include several elite units. They are the Pacific Fleet’s 155th Marine Infantry Brigade, the 234th Airborne Assault Regiment from the 76th Airborne Assault Division, the 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade, the 106th Airborne Division, the 98th Airborne Division, in particular, its 215th Reconnaissance Battalion, and the 217th and 331st Guards Airborne Regiments.

According to the information from our sources, almost no reliable information concerning persons killed by Russian soldiers, either civilian or military, was passed up the chain of command of Vladimir Putin’s army in the first weeks after the invasion began. “Every single report about casualties was rubbish,” RSF was told in Paris in January by Pavel Filatiev, a Russian paratrooper who deserted. “We had absolutely no idea of our own losses or our enemy’s losses."

RSF is therefore concentrating its efforts in Ukraine, where the presence of the Pacific Fleet's 155th Marine Infantry Brigade in the forest where Levin and Chernyshov were killed has been confirmed by Ukrainian intelligence and drone images. This elite Russian army unit subsequently suffered very heavy losses and was 90% destroyed, Ukrainian authorities say. At the start of February 2023, a few days before our arrival, several thousand of its men were killed or wounded and 130 of its armoured vehicles, including 36 tanks, were destroyed near the small mining town of Vuhledar in the southeastern Donetsk region.

During its latest visit to Ukraine, from 12 to 22 February, RSF interviewed 13 members of this brigade who were taken prisoner by the Ukrainian army. During the interviews, conducted in a building in the Ukrainian capital, the Russian soldiers were free to answer or not to answer our questions about what they knew. No photos were taken. They were almost all very young recruits with little military experience – a long way from the seasoned “Black Beret” image associated with this elite unit. All claimed to have been deployed after Levin’s murder. One of them, mobilised a month after his murder, provided information about the unit’s weapons and chain of command that could prove useful for the investigation. He said only three soldiers in his brigade had a gun with bullets that could match some of those found at the crime scene.

This information could contribute to the official investigation, which has made little progress since last summer. The results of the DNA and ballistics analyses of the evidence collected by RSF at the crime scene in May and June 2022 are still awaited. Ukrainian soldiers who took part in the battle of Moshchun, a village on the edge of the forest where the two men were killed, and Ukraine’s military intelligence agencies may also have very useful information that would help to advance the investigation.

The video report that RSF made about this case, entitled Ukraine: the Maks Levin affair, has been available in France and Germany on the website of the Franco-German TV channel Arte since February and in Ukraine on the public TV channel Suspilne.

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