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Top investigative stories
Investigation reveals Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children with disabilities
An investigation by Hromadske, a Ukrainian media outlet, details how Russian officials rely on Ukrainian collaborators to forcefully transfer children from occupied territories to Russia.
The journalist investigation follows the story of nine-year-old Mykyta Bilanchuk, abducted by Russian authorities in October 2022 and forcefully held for almost a year.
Bilanchuk was undergoing treatment in a center for children and young adults with disabilities in Oleshky, Kherson Oblast, when Russian forces occupied the city in February 2022.
According to the Hromadske investigation, the director of the center refused to collaborate, so the Russian occupiers replaced him with someone they could control. This proxy reportedly signed documents authorizing the transfer of the center residents.
Bilanchuk briefly stayed in facilities in occupied Crimea and Russia before ending up in a boarding school in his native Kherson Oblast, 60 kilometers from home, according to the journalist investigation.
To retrieve Mykyta, his grandmother, Polina Kindra, who lives in Poland, went on a perilous journey through Belarus and Russia and had to stay in occupied Crimea for two months. Hromadske media outlet and Save Ukraine, a charity that helps to return abducted Ukrainian children from Russia, helped Kindra with organizing and paying for the trip.
According to Kindra and a Hromadske anonymous source, residents of the facility in Kherson Oblast, where Mykyta was held, were mistreated by Russian authorities and collaborators, and two of them died.
Ukrainian authorities have identified almost 20,000 children illegally deported to Russia since the full-scale invasion, although the actual number is believed to be much higher.
The Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Investigations Unit previously documented Russia’s abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, the crime that forms the basis for the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Watch the full investigation in Ukrainian with English subtitles here.
Ukrainian MP has allegedly run a business under Russian occupation for a decade
Oleksandr Hereha, a lawmaker with For the Future parliamentary group and co-owner of the Epicenter chain of stores, may have kept running his family business in the Donetsk Oblast after the 2014 Russian occupation, according to an investigation by Schemes, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project.
Epicenter is the largest chain of home improvement stores in Ukraine, owned by Hereha and his wife, Halyna. According to Forbes, jointly, the couple had the 6th highest net worth in Ukraine, at $1.2 billion, as of December 2022.
When the war first broke out in 2014, Hereha said that Russian proxies seized from him his Epicenter stores in the occupied territory and rebranded them as Galaktika, the name under which they operate to this day. The renamed Galaktika stores collaborate openly with Russian occupation authorities, according to RFE/RL.
The Herehas could have preserved control over their Epicenter stores located in the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast for the past decade through an intermediary whom they allegedly kept on the payroll, RFE/RL reported.
Hennadii Halchuk, who had managed an Epicenter store in Donetsk Oblast before its partial occupation in 2014, became the head of the rebranded Galaktika chain in occupation. Halchuk kept receiving payments from Kyiv-headquartered Epicenter and a connected business up until at least July 2022, according to the journalist investigation.
In 2016, almost two years into the Russian war in the Donbas, Halchuk contributed financially to the For Tangible Solutions party founded by the Herehas. This political force is primarily active in local politics in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
A previous investigation by Schemes showed that Hereha still owned stores in Russian-occupied Crimea, where they had also been renamed.
Watch the full investigation in the Ukrainian language here.
Charged with treason, ex-Ukrainian lawmaker flees to Moscow, resides in elite properties there
Oleksandr Yefremov, a notorious Ukrainian politician with a vocal pro-Russian stance, charged with treason, fled to Moscow, where he owns elite properties, according to an investigation by Schemes, an RFE/RL project.
Yefremov headed the ruling pro-Russian Party of Regions faction in parliament between 2010 and 2014. Two years after the EuroMaidan Revolution that had ousted corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Yefremov was caught trying to escape the country.
He then spent three years in a pre-trial detention center between 2016 and 2019, accused of treason, among other charges.
After his release, Yefremov regularly traveled to Russia, including just days before the full-scale invasion, and finally fled Ukraine on March 18, 2022, through Slovakia, according to RFE/RL.
Yefremov’s reported registered places of residence are two Moscow apartments worth $4 million combined, owned by his son Ihor.
Journalists also found that the former Ukrainian lawmaker has Russian tax and insurance numbers, meaning he could be paying taxes and receiving a pension in Russia.
Schemes journalists reached Yefremov on his Russian phone number, but he declined to speak with them.
Read the full investigation in the Ukrainian language here.
Russian oil may be flowing to Germany despite sanctions
The Schwedt refinery, a major German plant, may still be receiving Russian crude oil in breach of sanctions, according to a joint investigation by German media outlets, including Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR, and WDR.
Schwedt is primarily owned by Rosneft Germany, the German subsidiary of sanctioned Russian oil giant Rosneft, which has been managed by the German government since September 2022 due to sanctions on Russian oil.
On Sept. 8, 2023, Germany’s highest customs authorities ordered stopping checks on oil purchased by Rosneft Germany, according to a letter seen by journalists, in a move insiders described as “extraordinary.”
Before the imposition of sanctions, Rosneft Germany received all its oil from Russia but now gets supplies from Kazakhstan. This raises a “high risk” that Russian oil is circumventing sanctions through its ally, Kazakhstan, if proper checks are not in place, according to German officials cited in the journalist investigation.
The Kazakh oil field supplying Schwedt is reportedly partly owned by Russian state company Lukoil.
German authorities told journalists that in September, they were worried about a “possible supply gap.” And thus, authorities may have instructed customs officials to reduce checks and expedite imports, according to the journalist investigation.
Read the full story in German here.
Kazakhstan flip-flops on its move to end exports to Russia following journalist investigation
Following a journalist investigation picturing Kazakhstan as a major back door for Western electronics to enter Russia, circumventing sanctions, a Kazakh official announced a ban on the export of 106 dual-use goods that Russia can use for military purposes. On the next day, he walked back on his claims.
An investigation by Schemes, an RFE/RL project published in June 2023, revealed that Kazakh companies were acting as intermediaries for Western electronics, selling parts to sanctioned Russian arms companies. Exports of dual-use goods to Kazakhstan have skyrocketed sevenfold since the full-scale invasion.
Sanctions loopholes have been a persistent headache for the West, which has sought to stop the flow of goods supporting Russia’s war effort.
Western parts have been found throughout Russian military hardware in Ukraine, including Kalibr missiles that have been used in deadly attacks against civilians.
The RFE/RL investigation also named several Kyrgyz firms as those helping Russia evade sanctions, but the government of Kyrgyzstan has yet to comment on their country’s involvement.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have strong relations with Russia and take a neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in Russia
Investigation reveals members of Russia’s most infamous military intelligence unit
An investigation by the independent Russian media outlet The Insider identified members of a unit within Russia’s military intelligence, known under its Russian acronym GRU, allegedly responsible for carrying out attacks in Europe.
The infamous Unit 29155 allegedly carried out several operations in NATO territory. Among them, the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergey Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, in the U.K., which caused international outrage.
According to the journalist investigation, the mastermind and commander of the unit is General Andrey Averyanov, who rose to be the GRU’s deputy head and Putin’s right-hand man in Africa. According to The Insider, Averyanov took control over much of the Wagner Group following the death of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a mysterious plane crash.
Through leaked emails, border crossing data, and phone metadata, The Insider also learned the agents involved, entry routes taken, and device used in the GRU unit’s 2011 bombing attack in Bulgaria – the group’s maiden international sabotage operation.
According to the journalist investigation, the GRU unit could also be responsible for six more explosions in Bulgaria, including two that happened since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Insider identified most of the unit’s members who were given fake passports printed in consecutive order.
Like Averyanov, four of the unit’s members reportedly got promoted to high-profile government roles for their service as saboteurs.
Read the full investigation in English here.