KIEV — Valentyna Tkachenko, a 35-year-old mother of two from Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, last saw her husband Serhii just before Russia invaded her country.
Serhii, a National Guard soldier, was captured on February 24 last year, the day Moscow launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. His unit was guarding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant when it was attacked by the Russians. When the Russian army withdrew from Chernobyl and the rest of the kyiv region in late March, they took Serhii and 167 other prisoners of war with them.
Since then, the captured soldiers’ wives have heard from them only once – a short handwritten note: “I’m alive, everything is fine,” sent more than six months after their arrest.
Like thousands of other relatives of Ukrainian prisoners of war, Tkachenko contacted Ukrainian authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and wrote four letters, but received no response until November 29. It was the day she received a video call on Viber messaging. application.
“It was Serhii. We only spoke for three minutes. I had no right to ask him questions. As soon as I tried, he shook his head and just said no. Instead, he kept saying, “Valya, go make things difficult for kyiv. kyiv doesn’t want to take us back,’” Tkachenko recalled. “Then he said he was sorry and ended the call, promising to call me back if he got the chance.”
Tkachenko did not go to demonstrate against the government, although family demonstrations took place in kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.
Petro Yatsenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s coordination staff for the treatment of prisoners of war, told POLITICO that other families had received similar calls from soldiers held by the Russians.
“A person hasn’t heard from a loved one for over a year, and here they call and say they are alive. The Russians are ready to trade him, but Ukraine does nothing. Recently, these calls have become massive. So we understood that this was a campaign to create distrust in the government,” Yatsenko said.
This is a radical change in policy from the first year of the war, when the two sides regularly exchanged prisoners. A total of 2,598 people returned from Russian captivity during 48 exchanges, according to the Ukrainian military. However, the last major exchange took place on August 7.
“It has really slowed down for reasons coming from the Russian Federation, but there are very specific reasons for that,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a news conference in kyiv this week.
Playing politics with prisoners of war
Russia’s refusal to exchange prisoners of war appears aimed at stoking tensions in Ukrainian society, where discontent with Zelensky is growing following this year’s disappointing counteroffensive, and the mood is turning dark as crucial aid to Ukraine stalls in the US Senate and Hungary blocks deal. EU efforts to strengthen civil and military aid to kyiv.
Tkachenko believes his family, along with other prisoners of war, have become tools in a political game.
“They started so well, exchanging so much. But suddenly everything stopped. I think the Russians want to discredit our government. People are exhausted and relatives of prisoners of war are losing their temper. They want to wreak havoc,” Tkachenko said bitterly.
A large number of Ukrainian prisoners of war were captured following the bloody siege of Mariupol, a coastal city where Ukrainian troops resisted fierce attacks for three months before surrendering the Azovstal steel plants in May 2022.
Anastasiia Bugera, 22, from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, has not spoken to her boyfriend, Kostyantyn Ivanov, 24, since March 2022. She was in Izyum, occupied by the Russians, when Ivanov was ordered to surrender alongside several thousand other Azovstal. defenders.
“One day I managed to call his mother from our neighbor’s outhouse. She told me he was trying to call me and it was unsuccessful. I cried so much standing in that toilet,” Bugera said. The toilet was the only place she could get a connection, as the Russians were trying to block mobile signals. Izyum was liberated by the Ukrainians in September 2022.
“We didn’t even get a chance to say hello. They were promised to remain in captivity only for three to four months. But Russia lied,” Bugera said.
Ukraine managed to exchange only a few dozen defenders of Azovstal, including the commanders of the Azov regiment, but thousands of regular soldiers, police and border guards captured in Mariupol remain detained. According to the Azovstal family association, Russia does not want to exchange them. Instead, families sometimes see them on videos from Russian courts, malnourished, exhausted and accused of war crimes. Russia continues to block all direct communication with them.
Life in prison
Currently, Russia is detaining more than 3,000 Ukrainian troops and some 28,000 civilians, Ukraine’s ombudsman’s office and the Reintegration Ministry said. However, the real figure could be even higher.
“For example, some of those in captivity have not yet been confirmed. These people are still considered ‘missing’, even though we have information that they may be in captivity,” Yatsenko said.
The Ukrainians have not said how many Russians they are holding, but they have so many that they are building a second prisoner of war camp to accommodate them. Russians are also detained in a special center in western Ukraine and housed in cells in pre-trial detention centers.
“I would say that during the counter-offensive, Ukraine managed to increase the prisoner of war exchange fund, which was already large due to the trade blockade,” Yatsenko said. “But we are ready to welcome all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, in case they decide to surrender.”
Ukraine claims to treat its prisoners of war in accordance with international rules, but accuses Russia of mistreating its prisoners.
“More than 90 percent of the prisoners of war we interview after their return say they were subjected to torture and deprived of sufficient food and sleep,” Yatsenko said. “People are forced to burn their tattoos or only consume Russian propaganda. They are not allowed to communicate with their loved ones.
Russia insists it treats its prisoners of war well.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova visited 119 Ukrainian prisoners of war on November 30 and said they were being held in conditions that meet international standards.
“Many of them reported that they were allowed to call their relatives by telephone by the relevant Russian authorities,” Moskalkova said in a statement released a day after Tkachenko received her husband’s video call.
Moskalkova said arrangements were being made with her Ukrainian counterpart to allow mutual visits.
The International Committee of the Red Cross visits prisoners of war on both sides of the front – so far, 2,300 of them – but Russia has not fully opened its facilities to outside inspections and the ICRC is institutionally limited in its ability to criticize countries out of fear. that his access will be cut off.
“We are unfortunately aware that there are prisoners of war who we have still not visited, and that is why we are constantly working to improve our access to the places where they are held. We also transmitted more than 3,800 personal messages between prisoners of war and their relatives, in addition to facilitating the exchange of more than 9,300 letters to and from prisoners of war,” said Achille Després, spokesperson for the ICRC in Ukraine.
He refused to reveal any information about the specific conditions in which prisoners of war are being held.
“Our aim is to work directly with detaining authorities, to influence the concrete improvement of burial conditions and to remind the States concerned of their legal obligations, in particular that prisoners of war must at all times be treated humanely and their rights respected, as well as their integrity, dignity and privacy are respected,” he said.
Hoping for release
With large prisoner exchanges frozen, the only way for captured soldiers to return to their own side is through informal battlefield exchanges between commanders.
“Unfortunately, such sporadic exchanges cannot replace those taking place at the state level,” Yatsenko said.
During his press conference, Zelensky said he hoped to see a policy change allowing for a resumption of prisoner exchanges.
“We’re working now to bring back a pretty decent number of our guys. God willing, we’ll be successful,” he said.
Ukraine hopes to encourage the Kremlin to restart trade with the growing number of Russian prisoners of war it holds.
“As soon as we accumulate, if you will allow me the language, the appropriate stocks of enemy resources, we exchange them for our Ukrainian defenders… I really hope that our path will be activated soon,” Zelensky said.