Russian soldier accused of war crimes in absentia after audio files intercepted

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Izium, Ukraine
CNN
 — 

A Russian soldier who allegedly shot a civilian in an extraordinary attack caught on camera by a Ukrainian drone is being accused of war crimes in absentia by the Ukrainian police.

The dossier of evidence against him includes phone calls between the soldier and his wife and friend intercepted during a months-long investigation into the Russian attack near the city of Izium last June.

The audio files were shared exclusively with CNN in advance of a news conference in Kharkiv to announce the charges on Tuesday.

Police identified the soldier as Klim Kerzhaev – a 25-year-old commander from Moscow, who served in the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Tank Army in the Western Military District. He is accused of the attempted murder of a civilian – a war crime under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.

The attack was also captured on aerial footage by Ukrainian soldiers, who launched a unique rescue mission by attaching a piece of paper with the words “follow me” to a small drone – an operation which featured in a recent documentary by Ukrainian filmmaker Lyubomyr Levytsky.

“We are watching this as if it’s on TV, like a soap opera. A horror movie where Russians kill civilians,” the head of the investigation department for Kharkiv Police, Serhii Bolvinov, told CNN.

In addition to the drone footage, Bolvinov said their investigation included forensic examinations of the vehicle and the scene – conducted after Izium was liberated by Ukrainian troops in September – along with evidence gathered by cyber police who tracked down the soldier’s social media accounts and phone calls.

CNN requested comment on the case from the Russian Ministry of Defense at the time of publication on Tuesday, after the embargo on the information was lifted.

Bolvinov said this is just one of hundreds of alleged Russian war crimes that his team are currently investigating in the Kharkiv region alone, including the discovery of hundreds of bodies in mass graves in Izium. He has more thant 900 investigators on his team, and most of their current work is focused on war crimes cases.

On Friday, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova – on the charge of illegally deporting thousands of Ukrainian children into Russia.

Last summer, married couple Valeria Ponomarova and Andrii Bohomaz were driving to Izium in Ukraine to help Bohomaz’s sick, elderly parents escape the Russian-held city.

The couple took a wrong turn and inadvertently strayed close to the frontlines where Russian troops were based, and their car was hit by incoming fire.

Ukrainian soldiers based nearby had spotted the incident from afar using a reconnaissance drone – which they dispatched closer to the scene to capture the extraordinary footage of the couple attempting to flee.

The video shows the couple abandoning the car to run to safety, but turning around when explosions landed too close to them. They were fired upon again, leaving Bohomaz badly injured. Ponomarova tried to move her husband behind the car and wrap towels around his wounds to stem the bleeding.

Russian soldiers were based around 30 meters (98 feet) away from the couple’s car, according to police, so it was too dangerous for Ukrainian troops to extract the couple.

So they sent the drone back after recharging it and attaching a white piece of paper to it with the words “follow me” – to guide Ponomarova to safer territory.

She saw a drone overhead, but wasn’t sure whose side it was on. “I turned and just fell on my knees and I just screamed with the most agonizing cry,” said Valeria Ponomarova. “I didn’t know [whose drone] it was. Our forces, or the enemy,” she later said during the documentary.

Ponomarova said she eventually followed the drone, thinking it was the only way to get help to her injured husband.

But soon after she left, a team of Russian soldiers approached the car on foot, and picked up the injured Bohomaz and threw him in a nearby ditch.

Miraculously, he survived.

The drone footage showed that Ponomarova didn’t see this happening behind her, as she continued on foot down the battle-scarred road, even stepping around lines of anti-tank mines.

When the soldiers successfully got Ponomarova to safety, they told her it wasn’t possible to return for her husband, as Russian troops were at the scene.

So far, one Russian soldier has been accused. In addition to the drone footage, the evidence compiled by Ukrainian investigators against him includes recordings of intercepted phone calls with his wife and a friend.

In one of the expletive-laden conversations, the soldier told his wife that he “f***ing killed a man today,” after firing on a car from his Soviet-era infantry fighting vehicle. Immediately after this, the soldier reverts back to casual conversation, asking his wife to “put some money on my phone today, okay?”

In a call to a friend a day later, he repeated the confession of killing a man, and when his friend asked how it felt, he replied, “the f***ing car got shot up. I don’t give a f***.” CNN has translated the raw audio intercepts provided by police, but cannot independently verify the files.

Bohomaz managed to pull himself out of the trench to seek help despite serious injuries.

“I heard that it was starting to rain and I began to shiver,” Bohomaz said in the “Follow Me” documentary. “After a night in the trench I came to my senses from the rain.”

“I understood that I had to get out somehow,” he added.

Bohomaz managed to limp to safety towards the Ukrainian position.

“It took about 30 or 40 minutes,” he said. “But I walked with stops, because I felt a lot of pain.”

Nine months since surviving the attack, Bohomaz is still in treatment for multiple shrapnel wounds to his brain, chest and spine.

CNN reached out to the couple for comment on the legal process which is starting against the Russian soldier, but did not receive a response.

“It’s a terrible crime,” Bolvinov said. “Their lives could have ended at this crossroads, but luckily they managed to survive.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Klim Kerzhaev’s age. He is 25



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