In a detention center in Ukraine, the second floor is reserved for Russian prisoners of war. They are kept separate from others “for their own protection”, it is said.
Following a journalistic request to the Ukrainian National Criminal Service, DW was granted permission to speak with the detainees, as the first representative of the media, on the condition that it not reveal their exact location or show their faces, for security reasons.
Filming on location was exclusive and it was only possible to speak with Russians who are not accused of war crimes and are not answerable for any legal action. To interview them, additional authorization from the investigators or the Public Prosecutor’s Office would be required.
In one of the cells are seven men of different ages. The visit of journalists does not surprise them: according to them, representatives of the United Nations or the Red Cross stop by every week.
Hypersonic missile being tested by Russia in the Barents Sea — Photo: Russian Defense Ministry/via REUTERS
During the interview, prison officials accompanied the reporting team, who were able to choose their interlocutors. The four prisoners who agreed to be interviewed claimed to be professional soldiers and had nothing to hide.
“Honestly: we were tricked,” comments Roman, from the city of Vyborg. “At first we were told that we were going to take care of humanitarian things. But I was immediately thrown at the front.” In fighting in the Kharkiv region he was wounded, the Ukrainian army took him with them and provided him with medical care.
Artyom, on the other hand, stresses that he participated willingly in the “special military operation” – in the terminology officially adopted by Vladimir Putin – against Ukraine. Responding to an online advertisement, he was deployed to Donetsk province, under the control of pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian troops fire on Russians in Severodonetsk, eastern Ukraine
In a few days he learned to drive a T-72 armored tank and was then sent to Zaporijia. However, his vehicle was destroyed and he was captured by the Ukrainian Azov Battalion. There he received food and cigarettes, “Fascists, I didn’t see any”, he comments.
Asked why he went to Ukraine, Artyom explains: “On television they say that we are supposed to fight for a good cause, but in fact it is nothing like that. My eyes were only opened here.” He considers the Russian army “looters and murderers”.
Russian tanks advance over the area near Mariupol, focus of the new phase of the Ukrainian war, along with the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine (Photo: Alexei Alexandrov/AP)
The Russians’ cell is equipped with antique furniture, it is narrow but clean. Plastic plates are on the common table, everyone has their own. The spoons and forks, however, are made of metal. According to the guards, for normal prisoners, the cutlery is also made of plastic, but with war ones it is easier, they are not aggressive and are just waiting for a prisoner exchange.
A Ukrainian inmate serves lunch, under the observation of a watchman. Borscht and buckwheat mush are served through openings in the doors of each cell. Breakfast was cornmeal with meat. According to the menu hanging in the hallway, three meals are served a day. In addition, inmates can walk around and shower daily.
In another cell are three young people, around 20 years old. On the table beside the beds is a pile of books. They say they enjoy reading detective stories and novels. Dmitri, 20, says he did not know that on February 24 he would leave Belgorod, Russia, for Ukraine.
“No one told us where we were going. It was only when we were in Ukrainian territory and we saw signs and flags that we understood. I asked the commander what we were doing there, and the answer was that it was not to ask useless questions. ” When, on February 27, his tank was bombed near Pryluky, in the Chernihiv region, Dmitri surrendered to the Ukrainians.
“You have nothing to do here!”
During the interview with him and two others, a guard, a psychologist from the penal institution and other prisoners of war were present. The journalists’ personal impression was that the presence of the employees did not influence the interviewees’ narrative, nor their willingness to speak. The lookouts didn’t listen: they kept their distance and didn’t apply any pressure.
With Oleg, from Karelia, DW talked together, in a separate room. He said that in March he had extended his contract with the Russian Armed Forces. “I believed the news on TV that we would come to help, that here there were nationalists killing and torturing their own people.”
Ukrainians try to repair a tank in Kharkiv on May 1, 2022 – Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters
But when Russian troops entered the Kharkiv region, he did not see a single nationalist: “When we arrived in the villages, people were saying to us, quite directly: ‘Go away! You have nothing to do here!'”
When Oleg signed the contract, he was promised training, but also that he would not be deployed to the forward front. After three days, however, he was sent to the siege of the metropolis of Kharkiv.
His squadron tried to return to Russia, he says, but the commanders forbade it. However, contact with the command was broken, and shortly afterwards the unit was captured by the Ukrainian army.
Can prisoners of war be trusted?
All Russian prisoners that DW was able to speak to say they regretted having taken part in the invasion, and that they did not shoot peaceful residents of towns and cities. So far Ukrainian investigators have not provided evidence that they have committed war crimes, and they have already undergone a lie detector test.
Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin on the day he received his life sentence (Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/REUTERS)
Prison officials say that only in front of the lie detector did Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin, who was also detained at the scene, confess to shooting and killing a civilian in the Sumy region. On May 23, a Ukrainian court sentenced him to life in prison, in the first case against a Russian prisoner of war in the country.
In conversation with DW, none of the detainees complained of poor prison conditions or inhumane treatment. “Every day we are asked if we need anything. If possible, we are given it. The food is balanced,” says Roman.
Protesters display a sign reading “Ukraine is our home” in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vienna, Austria. — Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, each prisoner costs about 3,000 hryvnia (95 euros or R$517) a month in food, clothing, hygiene items, as well as water and electricity. To these are added medicines and medical equipment, as well as personnel costs.
Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska assured DW that these expenses are justified, as prison conditions must comply with the Geneva Convention. In addition, alive and healthy prisoners of war are needed to exchange with Ukrainians captured by Russia.
Mistreatment of Ukrainian and Russian military
According to the director of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, in general prison conditions for Russian observers prisoners of war are satisfactory. However, UN observers received information that soldiers were mistreated and tortured after their capture.
There are also indications that Ukrainian servicemen imprisoned in Russia and territories under Russian control would be tortured shortly after their capture. “Food and hygiene are lacking, the treatment by the guards is rough”, explains Bogner. The UN urges both sides to treat their prisoners of war humanely and to promptly and effectively investigate all alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment.
There is no official data on how many Russian soldiers are detained in Ukraine: their number changes constantly, due to regular exchanges. “Hope is the last to die”, consoles Dmitri, who also hopes to be changed. After three months, the 20-year-old just wants to go home and never wants to serve in the Army again.