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Originally published here
Exclusive interviews with two Russian prisoners of war conducted by Kyiv Post appear to confirm reports by Ukrainian intelligence and Western analysts that parts of the Russian army are poorly provisioned, badly motivated and generally treated as cannon fodder.
One of the prisoners of war, *Sergei, told Kyiv Post that his unit was brought to Ukraine and told to dig trenches – but the soldiers, some straight out of prison without their own cell phones or adequate clothing, had to buy their own shovels.
“We had to have something to dig with,” he said. “They didn’t give us anything.
“They just brought us in, threw us out in the woods and told us to dig and not to go anywhere from this strip because a bird [drone] might fly in and drop something on our heads.”
Sergei said that before being captured by the Ukrainians – who, he was told, would beat him and torture him – his command informed him that he should detonate a grenade, killing himself and anyone nearby instead of surrendering.
“Honestly, we’re fed, we bathe, we’re clean, we sleep. We’re all good,” Sergei said of his actual experience with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Sergei is one of the many Russian soldiers whom Moscow promised release from prison, a government pardon, as well as a salary of about $2,200 a month – nearly twice the country’s average.
“The whole 4th Military Company is prisoners,” Sergei said, who was two-and-a-half years into a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for murder before being recruited.
According to Sergei, some of his fellow captives have already finished their military contracts but haven’t been allowed to go home.
“It doesn’t mean anything. Until the war is over, you stay,” he said.
The captive was also critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the interview: “He’s got everybody around him. National Guard, militia, military. He’s our king!
“I don’t know what else to call him. He doesn’t change, nobody votes for him. His own people vote for him, as they should.
“He has to be removed, but how do you remove him? You think I’m the only one out there? There’s a lot of us out there.”
Sergei said that he fears what will happen to him if he returns to Russia: “They’ll shoot me. I don’t know what to do.”
*Viktor, another prisoner of war interviewed by Kyiv Post, was told that he would only be working as an army driver.
“I didn’t end up becoming a driver,” he said. “They made me a cook. I cooked lunches and dinners and then they sent me to the front.”
He described a scenario where everyone in his unit was out for themselves.
“Each man is responsible for his own life,” he said.
The interviews, which can be read in full below, chime with Western assessments of the grim conditions in which Russian troops live and fight. A recent report from the British Ministry of Defense said some had reported being “wet from head to toe” for weeks on end on the front line and could not even boil a mug of tea for fear of alerting their positions to Ukrainian forces.
The interview was conducted at a military facility. There was a Ukrainian soldier present in the room with the captives and the reporter. The captives were not required to answer any questions and could leave the interview at any time.
*The prisoners identified themselves by name, but Kyiv Post has used pseudonyms to keep their identities confidential, in accordance with the international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Specific dates and places have been generalized.
What was your occupation?
I used to plaster and whitewash walls in [western Russia].
How did you get to Ukraine?
Well, I was in prison. I signed a contract for a year, and I thought that with a year in the army, I would quickly – that I would be able to leave prison. You get released and a pardon after a year.
What were you in prison for?
How long have you been in prison?
How long was your sentence?
Seven-and-a-half years. I did two-and-a-half and they told me one year of military service and I’m out. I joined because I’ve got kids, and I needed to have a clean record.
How old are your kids?
23 and 17.
How did you end up in Ukrainian captivity?
We just came out and we were immediately shelled, I was knocked on the ground. I crawled. We were immediately taken prisoner. The Ukrainians came in and told us to come out or they would throw a grenade. That’s it. We came out (of hiding). I didn’t go to kill, I had to get out of [prison] somehow.
How did you plan to go to war and not kill anybody?
I don’t know. It just didn’t work it out. I had to.
When did you sign the contract?
And when were you captured?
[the end of October]
During this month, what were your tasks? What did you personally do?
We’d just been settling in at that point. We came to a forest clearing and we dug our dugouts to live in. We weren’t given any tasks yet, we just took turns going to the firing range and training there.
And what were you trained to do there?
You know, walking in twos and threes, learning how to capture a trench.
Before this, did you serve in the conscripted service?
Did you have guys in your units who hadn’t served in the conscripted service before? Who came and had automatic rifles put into their hands?
Here? Yes! A lot of them.
And how did they get in?
They just signed a contract and went. They’re all convicts.
So your whole group is like that?
Yes, the whole 4th Military Company is prisoners.
What was your direction?
[In the Zaporizhzhia direction]
Do you want to be exchanged and go back home to Russia?
What will happen to me there? It’ll be the same there. They’ll shoot me. I don’t know what to do.
Shoot you for what?
For surrendering. We were taught to detonate a grenade.
Along with yourself?
Of course! You can’t be taken prisoner because you’ll be tortured, beaten and so on.
And are you tortured here in Ukraine?
No way. Honestly, we’re fed, we bathe, we’re clean, we sleep. We’re all good.
So would you like to go back or not?
Of course. I’d like to go back to my kids. But I know if we were to go back there now, they’d bring us back here again. Only in the middle [ of the hottest fighting]. So we’ll never go back. Well, I’m thinking about what [a person Sergei met who works with POWs] was saying. He said that there is such a thing as “I Want to Live” [a project that assists POWs]. Here I am thinking, ‘but I want to go to my children. I have a father who’s in his 70s who I also need to visit.’
You have a son, you said, and he’s 17. There’s a possibility that sooner or later he’ll get drafted.
We don’t take enlisted men. They don’t get sent to war.
Is that what you think? Are you sure?
One hundred percent. The only people sent here are those who signed a contract. Some from the outside. Some from prison. And the enlisted ones – they do a year and then they go home. But after that, they can be recruited, yes. I don’t think my son’s gonna get caught up in that though.
I don’t want this. This war is stupid. I only did it because I had to get out. I was in prison saying it’s stupid that Putin started such a war.
So why did Putin start the war?
What did he do? He started the war! We don’t need more wars. We’re living like paupers, and there’s a war.
So who’s to blame? Putin?
What can I do? I can’t do anything alone. And two people can’t do anything. They’ll just put us up against a wall somewhere and make us quiet. He’s got everybody around him. National Guard, militia, military. He’s our king! I don’t know what else to call him. He doesn’t change, nobody votes for him. His own people vote for him, as they should. He has to be removed, but how do you remove him? You think I’m the only one out there? There’s a lot of us out there.
Do most people in Russia realize what’s going on?
Of course they do! We have refugees from Ukraine in [western Russia]. They live there.
How do you know they’re from Ukraine?
What do you mean? We know everything! Because they were given temporary housing and a first payment (by the government). They brought your guys over. They were heavily bombed there, so they brought them to us in [western Russia]. By the way, your guys also applied to come here and fight. But no one takes them. They’re forbidden to do so. They’re afraid they’ll run away with the weapons.
If most of Russia understands what’s going on, why do people sign contracts?
So they can go home, not sit in prisons. And the ones on the outside, I don’t know. They’re probably in it for the money. They have freedom, so they only go for the money.
Do they pay good money?
Two-hundred-four-thousand rubles ($2,200). And that’s if you participate directly in combat, and if you dig trenches, I think it’s 40,000 rubles ($430).
And it’s good to get 204,000 rubles ($2,200) for going to war?
I had made good money. When I wasn’t in jail and I was working, I had a good paycheck. I didn’t have to go to war. I even bought my own house. Gave money to my children – because my wife and I separated.
If you met Putin, what would you say to him now?
Honestly? Stop it! Enough already. It’s people’s lives, what do they have to do with this? Well, these 2,000 deputies are sitting here. Why don’t they go? Let them take a machine gun. They’ll shit themselves. They won’t go, they have a lot of money. They’re not stupid. We’re in a desperate situation. They got people into mortgages and loans, and now they’re taking their cars and houses. And where can a person get money? And here comes 204,000 rubles ($2,200) a month. And people think they’ll go for a year-long stroll there. No way. Not just a year. And no money for you. Let your wife and kids pay for everything on their own.
Then how would you end it?
Well, we have guys here in captivity who finished their contracts, but they wouldn’t let them go. Their contracts expired back when they weren’t in captivity yet. The Ministry of Defense wouldn’t let them go.
Why is that?
It doesn’t mean anything. Until the war is over, you stay.
So is there a war or a special operation going on in Ukraine?
Well, I think it’s a war. If there’s killing on both sides, it’s war. People are being killed. Children are being killed.
And it’s a war for what?
I don’t know for what. It’s a war for land. Somebody needs land very urgently. I don’t know why Donbas and Luhansk joined Russia. I don’t understand this. They were living well, what were they missing? But then they joined Russia and war broke out. Or as they call it, “a special military operation.”
Donbas joined where?
Well, they joined Russia. And now they have to take away the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. I don’t know what they’re doing.
Only Luhansk and Donetsk territories?
No, they’re already moving on. Why do you (Russia) need it? It’s never been yours and it won’t be. No one will give it to you.
Whose is it?
Well, not the Russian Federation’s. It used to be Kyivan Rus. We had the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. We had the Russian Empire. That’s all. But Kyivan Rus was separate.
Only it was at different times – Kyivan Rus and the Russian Empire.
Well, the tsar was here and the tsar was there.
Do you know which brigade took you prisoner?
No, I don’t. I know the call-sign was “Hawk.” Same as mine. They didn’t identify themselves.
I’ve already done what I’ve done. I don’t want to go to war with anyone. I didn’t want to before. Even if there’s an exchange and I’m brought to Russia, the FSB (Russia’s security service – successor to the KGB) will take me to prison. I’m a prisoner. And then we’ll be questioned about what we’ve said. We can’t be trusted with weapons. Suddenly we’re recruited here in Ukraine. Maybe we’re on our way to blow up all of Russia.
So what would you choose? Stay in prison or go on contract?
Well, to fight in Ukraine.
Fight for Ukraine?
I’m asking questions and I don’t know who you’re going to fight for.
I don’t want to fight at all! It’s not war, it’s just killing. Shells on shells. I never fired a shot! How am I gonna shoot if I get killed by a shell?
So what were you doing all day? You’d been digging trenches and getting shot at?
We arrived here [at the end of September] – in the Donetsk or Luhansk region, I’m not sure. We trained there for two weeks. And then they brought us to the forest and told us to dig trenches. It took us a long time to get there.
Who told you that?
Our superiors. Also, prisoners like us. That’s all. We bought shovels and brought them. We bought shovels at our own expense, bought military uniforms and everything we could. We were given 195,000 rubles ($2,100) as soon as we arrived. So that we could buy a bulletproof vest. A shovel. A good helmet.
And where did you buy it all?
In [a town in the Zaporizhzhia region].
I don’t know. It’s [repeats the name of the town in the Zaporizhzhia region]. It’s a village or a town. We were told they’re collecting money to buy what people want. There’s a market there, a military store.
So you bought these military uniforms and all the shovels on Ukrainian territory?
Yeah! We had to have something to dig with. They didn’t give us anything. They just brought us in, threw us out in the woods and told us to dig. And not to go anywhere from this strip because a bird [drone] might fly in and drop something on our heads.
So initially you were in civilian clothes?
No, this is what we were issued [gestured to the uniform he’s wearing].
So why did you buy new clothes?
I don’t like these clothes. I need warm clothes. Like this one [points to the Ukrainian soldier in the room wearing a regular seasonal Ukrainian military uniform]. And the rest of the money was spent on food. On chocolates. We are prisoners and we are hungry, and here you have a lot of money. That’s how I spent it all. Some bought cell phones.
What kind of weapons did they give you?
AK-74s, that’s all.
What was your occupation?
“Before the war I was a construction worker. I was conscripted [in mid-July].”
So you came to Ukraine under contract and of your own free will?
Well, yes. It turned out that the army recruited drivers. I’m old, so I can’t run and jump.
How old are you?
Fifty-six. So I agreed to be a driver. They said it was only a contract, so I agreed.
What were your tasks at the front line?
I didn’t end up becoming a driver. They made me a cook. I cooked lunches and dinners and then they sent me to the front. We were defending a wooded area and led an attack. And then I was captured.
How did you get captured?
Well, your Ukrainian soldiers suddenly came in from all sides and that’s it. Two grenades flew into my dugout, I was stunned, a little concussed and the entrance to the dugout was filled up. And then I couldn’t get out. Well, half an hour passed, maybe more, and I heard Ukrainian speech and I realized that I was hit. Well, and then they went into the dugout, I didn’t resist.
Where were you?
[In the Zaporizhzhia direction]
Would you like to be exchanged in a prisoner swap?
What would you do after being exchanged?
Just go home. No more war.
I saw what’s been going on here.
And what’s going on here?
On our side and all… It’s crazy. I don’t know how to put it into words.
Then tell me, do you think there’s a war or a special military operation in Ukraine?
You see, for you, it’s a war.
And for you?
Well, we have a completely different picture on the other side.
Well, you already know the picture of this side and the inside, so I’m asking for your opinion.
I honestly don’t know. For you, I understand it’s a war, but for us, I don’t know yet. Maybe for some, it’s a war, and for others, it’s a special operation. Those who are military, they live this war, and I’m just a peasant.
I wouldn’t have come here now, and with these brains, what I’ve seen here, I wouldn’t come here for anything.
And if a summons came?
Well, I wouldn’t get a summons. I’m old, and they don’t draft after 55.
Do you have sons?
And if he got a summons? Or already has one?
My son is sick. He’s not in the draft. He’s not fit to serve.
What’s he sick with?
A lot of things. Lots of things. Kidneys, this and that. Flu complications.
Who took you prisoner?
182nd Air Assault Brigade. Paratroopers, too.
What did they do to you when you were captured?
Well, those guys were alright. I was surprised. Normal guys. We got pinned down at first, [end of October]. Copters, shells, mobile artillery, grenades in the dugout, all from drones. Then I got picked up (captured) the next day. We were in the same dugout with Ukrainians. We spent the night together and then they brought me out in the morning. They told me that three more men were taken prisoner, but I didn’t see them. I was taken prisoner down there alone. And the others ran away. Or I don’t know…
What were the main objectives of your commanders? Offensive? Defense?
There were 15 of us. There was no offensive. Just defense and observation.
And who’s tasked with preserving life?
Each man is responsible for his own life.
Do your family know where you are now?
And how do you think they’re feeling right now?
They must be feeling bad. I just said when I left that I couldn’t be in touch for a week or two because I was going to the front line, and there’s been no communication since then.
If you had the opportunity to meet Vladimir Putin, what would you say to him?
Such interesting questions [laughs]. Well, what I would say to him, I don’t know. I don’t know much about politics. And he wouldn’t listen to me.
While on the territory of Ukraine, did you hear sirens and explosions? What feelings and thoughts do you have when you hear explosions in a peaceful city from domestic Russian missiles?
I’ve been here [in captivity] for five days. I haven’t been here long. I was already discouraging friends and acquaintances from entering the service when I was still there [on the front]. We were on the phone and someone would say they’re thinking of going to war, and I’d tell them: “Don’t even think about it.”
And what did they say to you?
Well, they’re zombies on the other side [in Russia]. And I said it’s all a painting [propaganda].
Weren’t you zombified?
In a way, yes. A little bit, yes.
It was beautiful on paper. Why not “a little?” On the one hand, yes. I also realized where this war was going. You might never come back.
So what were you fighting for when you came here?
I wasn’t going to fight. I just wanted to be a driver. Help our military guys.
Help your guys in what? You can just be a bus driver in a peaceful town…
That’s why I say I’m a little zombified. And I didn’t really know where I was going.