At a pretrial detention facility in Ukraine, the second floor is reserved for Russian prisoners of wars. DW is not naming the exact location of the building for security reasons.
The Russians are held separately from the other prisoners. We’re told it is “for their own protection.”
Following a request by journalists to the State Penitentiary Service of Ukraine, DW became the first media outlet to speak with Russian prisoners as well film in the prison.
Permission was granted on the condition that DW would not report the exact whereabouts of the prisoners or show their faces.
We were also only allowed to talk to prisoners who were not charged with war crimes and who faced no other criminal charges: Interviewing such individuals would require additional authorization from the investigators or prosecutor.
‘It was only here that I realized what was actually going on’
Seven men of different ages are sitting in one of the cells. They are not surprised by the visit of journalists. They say representatives of the United Nations or the Red Cross come by every week.
During the interviews, DW journalists were accompanied by prison staff who allowed them to choose the men they wanted to interview.
DW interviewed four prisoners after they gave their consent; they were all professional soldiers and had nothing to hide, they said.
“Honestly, we were deceived,” Roman, who is from Vyborg in Russia, tell us. “In the beginning, we were told it was about humanitarian things. But I was immediately sent to the front lines.” Roman was injured during fighting in the Kharkiv region. The Ukrainian military, he says, took him along and provided medical care.
DW was authorized to film in the prison on the condtion that the faces of the Russian detainees were not shown
On the other hand, Artyom, another prisoner, says he made a conscious decision to take part in the “special military operation” against Ukraine. (Editor’s note: This is the official Kremlin term for Russia’s war against Ukraine.)
He responded to an online advertisement he came across and was sent to Donetsk, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. There he learned to drive a T-72 tank in just a few days. Then, he says, he was sent in the direction of Zaporizhzhya, but his battle tank was destroyed and he himself was captured by the Ukrainian Azov regiment. The Russian prisoner says he was given food and cigarettes, adding: “I didn’t see any fascists.”
Asked why he went to Ukraine, Artyom says: “On television they tell us that we are supposedly fighting for a good cause but in reality that is not the case at all. It was only here that I realized that.”
Artyom calls the Russian army “looters and murderers” when speaking with DW.
What is everyday life like for Russian prisoners of war?
The cells are furnished with old furniture. It’s cramped but clean. There’s a common table for all, with plastic dishes, spoons and forks for each prisoner. The cutlery is made of metal.
According to the guards, plastic cutlery is normally used in prison for safety reasons. But with the prisoners of war, they say, things are easier. They are not aggressive and are usually just waiting for a prisoner exchange.
Lunch is distributed to the Russians by a Ukrainian prisoner under the supervision of a guard. Borscht, a soup made with beetroot, and a porridge of buckwheat are passed through a hatch in the doors of each cell.
A Ukrainian prisoner serves lunch to Russian detainees though a hatch in the door of their prison cell
For breakfast, there was corn porridge with meat, the prisoners say. According to the meal plan posted in the hallway, food is served three times a day. In addition, the prisoners of war are allowed to go for walks and bathe daily.
‘Get out of here! You have no business being here!’
In another cell, there are three young men in their 20s. On the table next to their beds is a stack of books. The prisoners say they like to read detective stories and novels.
One of them is Dmitry. He says he didn’t know his unit was going to Ukraine from Belgorod in Russia on Feb. 24. “We were not told where we were going. Only when we were already on Ukrainian territory and saw the signs and flags did we realize where we were,” he says. “I asked the commander what we were doing here and the answer I got is that I should not ask unnecessary questions,” Dmitry remembers.
When his tank was fired upon near Pryluky in the Chernihiv region on February 27, he surrendered to the Ukrainians.
During interviews with he and two other POWs, a guard, a psychologist from the pre-trial detention center, and other prisoners were present. The DW journalists personally had the impression that the presence of detention facility staff had no impact on the prisoners’ narratives or their willingness to speak.
The guards did not listen to the conversation. They kept their distance and did not put pressure on the DW journalists.
DW spoke with prisoner Oleg from Karelia in private in a separate room. He renewed his contract with the Russian forces in March, he says. “I believed the news on television that we were going to travel to Ukraine to help, that there were nationalists here who would kill and torture their own people,” he says.
But, when he arrived in the Kharkiv region, he says, he didn’t see a single nationalist. “When we came to the villages, people told us bluntly: ‘Get out! You have no business being here!'”
When he signed his contract, Oleg says, he was promised training and that he would not be deployed on the front lines. But after just three days, he was ordered to encircle Kharkiv, a city of over a million people. His unit tried to return to Russia, but the commander forbade it. They then lost contact with the commander and his unit was captured by the Ukrainian army soon after.
Can the prisoners of war be trusted?
All the prisoners DW was able to speak with assure us that they regret their participation in the invasion of Ukraine and that they did not shoot at peaceful civilians in villages and towns. Ukrainian investigators have so far also failed to produce evidence of any war crimes they may have committed. The prisoners are also said to have been examined by lie detector.
Prison staff say that Russian soldier Vadim S., who was also imprisoned along with the prisoners here, allegedly only confessed to shooting and killing a civilian in the Sumy region during a lie detector test.
On May 23, a Ukrainian court sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first verdict in a trial of a Russian prisoner of war in Ukraine.
Keeping detainees in good health for prisoner exchanges
None of the prisoners DW spoke with complained about poor prison conditions or inhumane treatment. “We are asked every day if we need anything. If possible, we get it. The food is balanced,” says Roman.
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, around 3,000 hryvnia (the equivalent of 95 euros) are needed each month for a prisoner of war — to provide for food, clothing, hygiene items, as well as water and electricity. In addition, there are expenses for medical equipment and medicine, as well as staffing costs.
Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysozka told DW that the expenses are justified because the detention conditions for prisoners of war have to comply with the Geneva Convention. In addition, Russian prisoners need to be healthy and in good shape for exchanges with Ukrainians captured by the Russians, she said.
Treatment of prisoners in Ukraine and Russia
In an interview with DW, the head of the UN Mission for Human Rights in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said that the conditions of detention for Russian prisoners of war were satisfactory overall. According to Bogner, however, UN observers had also received information that Russian soldiers were allegedly mistreated and tortured after their capture.
There is also evidence that Ukrainian POWs in Russia and in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine are being tortured immediately after their capture, Bogner said: “There is a lack of food and hygiene, and the treatment on the part of the guards is rough.”
The UN has called on both sides to treat POWs humanely and to promptly and effectively investigate all alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment.
There are no official figures on how many Russian soldiers are detained in Ukraine. Their number is constantly changing due to regular exchanges.
“Hope never dies,” says 20-year-old Dmitry, who is still waiting for a prisoner exchange. After three months in captivity, all he wants is to go back home.
And, he adds, he never wants to serve in the army again.
This article was originally written in Russian