Andrei was in prison for murder in Russia’s Ivanovo region, northeast of Moscow, when army recruiters stopped by and offered him a good salary and a clean record in return for six months’ service. Two weeks after arriving at the front, he stepped on a mine, lost his foot and was rescued by Ukrainian troops.
“If I had known what the consequences of joining the army would be, I wouldn’t have done it,” he says dryly. Now he is reading a thriller in a POW camp near Lemberg and hopes that he will be released soon.
Number of prisoners of war varies
Andrej’s chances are good. When Russian soldiers are captured, they go through a series of prison camps before being brought to this POW camp. Visitors are asked not to reveal the exact location. Arriving here means an exchange is likely unless interrogation by Ukrainian intelligence reveals the POWs were involved in a war crime.
Some prisoners are asking the Ukrainian authorities to postpone their exchange until their military service contract expires so they are not forced to fight again. A few ask not to be returned at all; but then they must remain in detention until the end of the war unless they volunteer to fight in Ukraine-funded Russian anti-Putin militias.
The number of prisoners of war varies and no official figures are given. Achille Despres, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which strives to visit as many POWs as possible, says the organization has visited 1,500 on both sides but knows there are “thousands more to whom we didn’t get access”. However, the ICRC refuses to say whether one side or the other has granted more access.
Ordinary soldiers are put to work
The camp in Lemberg is a model camp. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war are not locked up in cells. Krzysztof Janowski of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says that conditions in the camp “have not caused any major problems in the past” and are “steadily improving over time”.
As stipulated in the conventions, the enlisted men are put to work. In one room, men are sitting around a table gluing shopping bags together. They also make patio furniture. Officers aren’t forced to work, but they’re “rare birds here,” says Petro Yatsenko, a writer-turned-spokesman for Ukraine’s Prisoner-of-War Coordination Unit.
Also read: Article from our partner portal “Economist” – Western armies are learning four lessons from the Ukraine war – one of which is bitter
According to Yatsenko, different types of prisoners were brought to the camp. At the beginning of the invasion in 2022, soldiers came mainly from Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Ukrainian regions that came under Russian control in 2014. Many mercenaries from the Wagner group came in the second wave. Today, about a third of POWs are prison inmates like Andrei, who were recruited into so-called Storm-Z punishment units, a third are mobilized men, and a third are regular soldiers.
Ukrainian and Russian prisoners suffer abuse and torture
In the Lviv camp, many of the Russian POWs look much older than they are. Many of those recruited from the prisons were sick and weak, and “it’s very hard to believe that they could have been useful for anything other than cannon fodder,” says Yatsenko. The Russian army began prison recruitment earlier in the year as its relations with the Wagner group deteriorated.
However, it seems that Wagner had already selected the fittest prisoners. He says most Russian POWs spend “months” in Ukraine on average, but many Ukrainians returning from Russia have been there for more than a year. Up to a third of Ukrainians returning are reported missing as Russia does not share information about its prisoners with Ukraine.
In March, OHCHR published a harrowing report on prisoners of war. His associates had unrestricted access to prison camps in Ukraine, but none in Russia or the occupied territories. Information about the conditions of prisoners in Russian hands comes from released prisoners. Based on several hundred interviews, she found that 92 percent of those held by the Russians said they had been ill-treated or tortured, while that figure was 49 percent for POWs held by Ukraine (which is still alarmingly high). .
According to Mr Despres, the risk of ill-treatment is “greatest in the first few hours after capture”. According to Mr. Janowski, “the ill-treatment on the Russian side continues throughout the detention period.” This appears to be far less the case for Russian POWs in Ukraine.
Prisoners are humiliated on social media
At the Lviv camp, most of the POWs interviewed said they had not been mistreated – but Ukrainian officials were present at every interview, if not directly involved. Some men looked down and said they didn’t want to talk about it. The treatment by both countries of some POWs after their capture, including the reported execution of 15 Ukrainian and 25 Russian POWs, “could constitute a war crime,” the UN report said.
Russian officials “essentially deny our findings,” Yanovsky said, while the Ukrainian side “responded to us and recognized our role as independent observers.” Nonetheless, the report notes a depressing level of abuse by Ukrainians. “Most of the tortured and ill-treated POWs complained of being beaten with rifle butts, wooden clubs, sticks and fists … and being forced to kneel for hours while being interrogated,” the report reads.
He also noted a “widespread pattern” of prisoners being forced to shout and chant slogans on camera, and videos of abuse and humiliation “circulating on social media.”
“War is pointless”: Putin soldier confesses
In Ukraine, prisoners of war are occasionally allowed to call home, although this is not done confidentially. If they call, they can ask their family to send them money to buy candy, coffee, and toiletries at the prison store. “I’m alive. I’m doing well. I am in Ukraine. I’m in prison, but they treat me well,” said Aleksei from Lipetsk in south-west Russia, who had arrived at the camp a few hours earlier. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” reported his mother.
According to Yatsenko, many of the prisoners of war believe the Russian propaganda that they are fighting a just war against “Nazis”. But at least some of these bent-over and shaven-headed men have been wondering the why that brought them here. “I think this war is pointless,” says Kiril from Russia’s Tula region. “I want to return home.”