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“It was a game of roulette.” Reuters investigation sheds light on Russia's frantic retreat from Balakliya

Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

A recent investigative report by Reuters journalists Mari Saito, Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev, based on the overview of thousands of documents found in an abandoned Russian command post in Balakliya, revealed the inner workings of the Russian war machine in its retreat from Ukraine’s northeast in September.

The reporters also interviewed five soldiers who served in the Balakliya force, and cross-checked details found in the documents with a simultaneous account kept by one of the Russian servicemen.

Here is a summary of some of the report’s more interesting aspects, partially highlighted by Mari Saito herself:

  • The documents – some half burnt in a bunker furnace – show Russian troops anxious over the arrival of US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers and grappling with desertions and casualties. One soldier said it was like playing «roulette». Ukrainian strikes could land anywhere.
  • The journalists managed to piece together the Russian command structure in place in Balakliya at the time of the retreat. Colonel Ivan Popov headed the “Balakliya” military grouping, and has since been promoted to the rank of general after spending a month in hospital due to injuries sustained in Ukraine, according to his wife.
  • A spreadsheet revealed the difference in pay between Russian and Luhansk soldiers. A typical Russian sergeant was paid 202,084 roubles (approx. $3,300) a month in salary plus bonuses, while a sergeant in the separatist force received just 91,200 (approx. $1,500) – less than half.
  • Policing of the occupied population fell to soldiers from the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” – the Luhansk unit was described as “a rag-tag group with even fewer resources than their Russian counterparts.” One soldier was 64 years old, while another was treated for finger wounds when his Mosin rifle exploded. The Mosin-Nagant rifle was developed in 1891, and was widely used by the Russian Empire in WWI and USSR in WWII, before being officially withdrawn from service shortly after 1945.
  • Throughout July 2022, Russian officers in Balakliya were increasingly anxious about equipment shortages. They finally got 3 quadcopter drones on July 20 but they weren’t ready to fly due to a lack of installed software. The Russians also needed to train soldiers to operate them.
  • Russian military-electronics experts arrived in Balakliya at the end of July, according to a report – they wanted to see if Russia’s “Pole-21” system for jamming satellite navigation systems could be adapted to counter HIMARS missiles. The outcome of that study is not clear, but at least three Russian command posts in northeast Ukraine were hit by HIMARS missiles in the following weeks.

Both the discovered documents and locals' accounts suggest that the retreat of Russian forces from Balakliya was sudden and hectic, with soldiers fleeing in disorganized groups and leaving behind vehicles and equipment. The Kremlin and Russia’s Defence Ministry have not responded to questions about the events in Balakliya.

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