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‘Anybody would be scared’ Russian state news aired a refugee’s testimony about ‘atrocities’ committed by Ukraine’s Azov battalion. The video came from the FSB.
A video making the rounds on Russian state media of a refugee from Mariupol recounting the alleged “crimes” of soldiers from Ukraine’s ultranationalist Azov regiment was distributed by the FSB’s Public Relations Center. This was reported to Mediazona by two sources who received the press release.
RIA Novosti and other state media outlets first published and/or referenced the video of the refugee — a Mariupol resident named Lyubov Ustinova — on March 23–24. Most of these outlets, however, did not reveal how they obtained the video or Ustinova’s comments. RT labeled the clip “exclusive.”
In the video, Ustinova says that she knows two Azov fighters named Pyotr and David. “They would often show videos of themselves using a grenade to blow up a person who couldn’t escape, and of them victimizing children, hiding in schools, shielding themselves with civilians… the Azov fighters were proud of the way they victimized people,” she says in the video, among other things.
According to screenshots of the e-mail one of the sources provided to Mediazona, the FSB’s press service ordered media outlets not reveal the source of the information.
The e-mail included links to a Yandex.Disk folder where a user called “pressafbs” had uploaded photographs and screenshots with data from Ustinova’s phone (these screenshots were shown on the television network NTV), three videos of interviews with her, and a document with timestamps of the conversation.
Mediazona gathered all of the clips in one video. Journalists were able to determined from an analysis of the metadata that the recording was made on the evening of March 22.
At the beginning of the video, Ustinova says she’s currently “at customs in Russia,” expresses thanks for the evacuation, and begins talking about the “situation in Mariupol.” According to her, the city’s mayor immediately left residents “to fend for themselves.” After that, she mentions her acquaintances in the Azov battalion, but she soon starts stuttering and the first part of the video cuts out.
The second video was filmed about six minutes later, according to the metadata. It begins with an unseen man’s voice requesting that she talk about the soldiers in more detail. After that, the woman continues her story, this time without stuttering. Ustinova says the Azov fighters also showed her a video of them bombing a “drama theater from the inside” and a maternity hospital “at the same time there was a surgery taking place.” Parts of this second video were published by Russia media outlets.
In the third video, Ustinova says the Ukrainian soldiers “shielded themselves with” civilians, then repeats that they bombed a maternity hospital.
In the screenshot of Ustinova’s messages that the FSB distributed, the press service notes that it’s significant that Ustinova was communicating with Ukrainian soldiers — specifically, that she mentioned her acquaintance, who the Russian authorities assume is an Azov fighter, on social media several times. The person in the messages advised her several times to leave Mariupol and to delete “all photos and all contact with soldiers” from her phone.
Sources close to Ustinova told Mediazona that she evacuated from Mariupol on March 20 and disappeared after that. Three days later, she wrote to her grandmother that she was fine; her family didn’t manage to speak with her again until March 28.
“At first, of course, we didn’t understand anything; she wasn’t contacting us and they were checking her phone, her messages, her photographs, and they thought she was a saboteur,” Ustinova’s sister told Mediazona. According to her, Ustinova “was really frightened and cried constantly,” and the Russian authorities asked her a lot of questions.
“I think anybody would be scared, especially a girl like her, who just came out of a basement. She didn’t understand why they suspected her of anything. But they didn’t hurt her, and they fed her well,” Ustinova’s sister added.
Mediazona’s source who received the press release from the FSB said he’s received several similar messages about refugees, though he could not provide any evidence. The FSB has not responded to Mediazona’s request for comment.
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