Ukrainian families’ fury at silence over Russia-held POWs
Some 30 members of Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanised Brigade are thought to have been captured. But their families are in the dark
Relatives of captured soldiers from one of Ukraine’s most successful military units have criticised their government for not pushing for the soldiers to be included in prisoner exchanges with Russia – and for allegedly telling them to keep quiet about the subject.
Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanised Brigade has defended the key eastern town of Izium since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, and helped drive Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region. In late September, president Volodymyr Zelenskyi personally thanked the unit for its ongoing “heroic” defence of Bakhmut, currently one of the fiercest points on Ukraine’s eastern frontline.
But the 93rd’s battlefield successes have not translated into consideration for prisoner exchange with Russia, relatives of soldiers from the unit have told openDemocracy.
"We are constantly faced with the problem of the authorities shutting us up,” says Oleksandra Skrebets, whose husband, a soldier from the 93rd Brigade, is in Russian captivity. “They say we cannot speak for our POWs.”
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She claims the Ukrainian authorities have told her that campaigning publicly on behalf of her husband might jeopardise negotiations.
At the same time, families whose loved ones are in Russian captivity have seen recent, high-profile exchanges attract widespread media coverage, which makes them distrust the official advice.
What really works, they say, is to keep fighting.
“If we remain silent, they [the Ukrainian government] will leave our Ukrainian prisoners there,” says Angelika Kalashnikova, the sister of another captured soldier from the 93rd Brigade. “I don’t want our government to just forget and leave these guys to rot in captivity.”
Ukraine has a policy of not commenting on prisoner exchanges, and the defence intelligence service, which has partial oversight of the issue, did not respond to a request from openDemocracy.
A senior official recently told a Ukrainian news website that criticism was unfair, and that the government was working “quietly and calmly” to free all prisoners.
Relatives at the negotiating table
Families currently play a central role in ensuring that Ukrainian soldiers are granted prisoner of war (POW) status and eventually brought home from Russia. In many cases, it’s relatives who collect information about captives, gathering evidence from social media and testimonies from fellow soldiers to verify their whereabouts.
They then present this information to the Ukrainian authorities, as a way of making sure the soldiers are included in prisoner exchanges.
“If I didn’t call them [the Security Service of Ukraine] every day or visit them [to ask for updates], it’s unlikely that anyone would call me by themselves,” says Roman Tapemkha, whose stepson Yevhen Savchenko, a senior sergeant in the 93rd Brigade, has been considered missing since 28 April.
Although figures are not officially confirmed, relatives believe that Russia is holding 33 members of the brigade captive.
“The inclusion of a soldier on a POW list depends largely on how active the relatives are,” agrees Olha Reshetylova, a coordinator at the Media Initiative Group for Human Rights. “Currently there are a lot of captives, some are confirmed, some are not, and it is clear that some may get lost on these lists [of POWs].”
Reshetylova’s initiative provides relatives with legal advice and helps them develop a long-term campaigning strategy, as well as organising meetings with Ukrainian officials and international institutions such as the Red Cross or the UN.
Relatives spoken to by openDemocracy say poor communication from the authorities – Ukraine withholds most information about POWs until they are back on Ukrainian territory – makes them feel like they risk never seeing their loved ones again if they give up campaigning.
“I tell my friend who’s in the armed forces fighting on the Mykolaiv front line: take care of yourself, because if you get captured, you won’t be exchanged,” says Kalashnikova. “If a relative is stubborn like we are, and gets their way, you have a chance.”
A public campaign, usually involving social media posts, broadcast interviews and protests, is one of the few tools that relatives of POWs have for keeping cases in the spotlight. But the first difficulty is establishing what has happened to a missing soldier.
Skrebets’s husband, Serhiy Derko, and Kalashnikova’s brother, Artur Stoyanenko, both soldiers in the 93rd, went missing on 15 April from the village of Brashkivka, near Izium in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region.
At first, both men were officially listed as missing in action, but paratroopers who witnessed the scene through binoculars later told Skrebets and Kalashnikova that they had seen their relatives captured in an ambush.
While Derko has since been confirmed as a POW, Stoyanenko is still considered missing. Kalashnikova says she has managed to establish that her brother is being held alongside Derko, showing openDemocracy a video published by a Russian propaganda Telegram channel in which he appears.
Skrebets and Kalashnikova say Ukrainian officials asked them to maintain public silence about their relatives, because increased publicity for individual POWs significantly raises the ‘price’ of a prisoner when it comes to an exchange. This complicates Ukraine’s position in negotiations with Russia, who might ask for more prisoners, or prisoners of a higher rank, during exchange talks.
Reshetylova disputes the claim that publicity will harm an individual’s case.
“In our opinion, publicity for one person among 9,000 POWs can’t do harm. Also, we have seen that those who are talked about the most really are the first to be freed,” she says.
The issue is complicated by the fact that a number of Ukrainian state bodies are responsible for documenting and investigating the capture of POWs.
“Initially the recruitment office that drafted the serviceman must inform the family [that a soldier has been captured], but often they fail [to do so]. They don’t give them any information, tell them to get lost, and this turns into a nightmare that can last for months,” Reshetylova says.
In March, the Ukrainian government established a Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (CHTPW), which includes representatives from defence intelligence, the security service, national police and other bodies. Relatives often have to contact each agency separately for information about missing soldiers, and often receive no answer from any of them.
Since its establishment, the CHTPW has processed about 6,000 requests. According to the Red Cross, Russia holds some 2,500 POWs, with another thousand having been returned in prisoner exchanges so far.
Reshetylova believes the true number of POWs to be higher. But Ukraine doesn’t share figures on Ukrainians in Russian captivity – partly, say officials, because Russia doesn’t give data on captives and often claims captured civilians are POWs.
Ukraine has a policy of not sharing information on individual POWs with relatives and journalists until the prisoners return to Ukraine.
Instead, the CHTPW recommends that relatives should appeal to international humanitarian organisations, criticise Russia for non-compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and emphasise that Ukraine is constantly working to free captives.
Skrebets didn’t receive confirmation from the CHTPW that her husband had been taken prisoner until 13 June, two months after his capture.
“They told me they couldn’t tell me where my husband was held and what his condition was so as ‘not to harm the boys,’” she says.
Later, Skrebets says, she discovered that her husband’s POW status had been confirmed more than a month earlier by the Red Cross. She is frustrated at having been kept in a state of uncertainty for so long.
It's easier together
Since they began campaigning, Skrebets and Kalashnikova have become friends. After six months, they are growing resentful at the way the Ukrainian government is handling prisoner exchanges.
In September, more than a hundred members of the Azov regiment who took part in the defence of Mariupol last spring returned to Ukraine in a prisoner swap, after a high-profile public campaign for their release.
“So you could roar publicly and internationally about Azov soldiers, it didn’t disrupt the exchange. And we can’t because we disrupt it?” Skrebets says.
It’s hard for relatives of POWs to deal with the authorities on their own, says Reshetylova, so groups formed around particular divisions or incidents can be more effective.
“Together it is easier to achieve certain meetings and conduct joint campaigns for the release of their relatives,” she says.
Relatives of POWs from the 93rd Brigade have formed their own group, which has since been joined by relatives of soldiers from other divisions. Now with almost a thousand members, the group campaigns for the release of all Ukrainian POWs.
Women of Azovstal, formed of relatives of captured Azov regiment soldiers, is another large – and more influential – group.
Skrebets and Kalashnikova say they have faced criticism and abuse on social media due to their campaigning, with people telling them they shouldn’t criticise the Ukrainian state during wartime. Some outlets have refused to publicise their cause, they say – either through lack of interest compared with the Azov regiment story, or because the outlets don’t want to undermine state censorship.
In a recent interview with Ukrinform, Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said that he thinks criticism from relatives of how the state handles prisoner exchanges is unfair.
“After each exchange, as far as I know, criticism of us only increases,” Lubinets said. “Generally I accept criticism quite well, but I do not accept criticism that the Ukrainian government has forgotten about everyone, that it does not work to free anyone. Sorry, that's exactly what we do. But we definitely do it as quietly and calmly as possible, so that there is a result.”
Reshetylova says that the Ukrainian government has recently begun to shift its approach, and to accept that relatives need to raise at least some awareness of POWs.
“During our last discussion with the CHTPW, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it is really not worth emphasising a particular name of a POW, but to highlight groups instead,” she says.
Reshetylova adds that the CHTPW has got better at communicating with relatives, and now even organises meetings with family members. In September, freed members of the Azov regiment ignored instructions from the security services not to speak publicly about their time in Russian custody and gave interviews about their experiences of captivity and torture.
“If they [the state] tried so hard for Azov POWs – who are considered terrorists in Russia – then it means that it’s possible to find ways to get our relatives back,” Kalashnikova says.
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