At a May 25 United Nations Security Council meeting, Russian representative Vasili Nebenzya defended his country’s treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs).
“In turn, humane treatment of prisoners of war is the norm for the Russian armed forces,” Nebenzya said.
The claim is misleading based on evidence brought to light from at least one Ukrainian rights group and a report by French investigative journalists.
Their work established evidence of abuse, based on interviews with ex-POWs and open-source sleuthing into social media videos posted by a pro-Russian soldier.
To be sure, there are allegations of war crimes against Ukrainian and Russian forces after 100 days of brutal fighting in which tens of thousands of troops are estimated to have perished.
Ukraine’s chief prosecutor has vowed to pursue investigations into 600 suspected war crimes by Russian or pro-Russian forces, including alleged executions of civilians and ill treatment of prisoners. Rights groups have also alleged atrocities against Russian soldiers by Ukrainian troops, which Ukraine pledged to investigate. Meantime, the United Nations cited “credible” evidence of violations of Geneva Conventions by each side.
Telegram is the Dubai-based social messaging platform favored by Russian government agencies, news media, military and troops. It also has emerged as the gruesome go-to place for channels that show the most graphic photos and videos of the war, some recorded by participants, including brutal handling of prisoners and other acts that could amount to war crimes.
Some of the public channels promote links to “uncensored” private groups where even more graphic content can be seen.
Polygraph.info shared links to some of these channels with The Media Initiative for Human Rights, a Ukrainian non-governmental group that has been monitoring social media. The group says its researchers have been able to verify individual POWs using the channels and has identified some 2,800 so far.
“Identification takes time as there are so many Ukrainian troops captured by the Russians, but we already have a large database of Ukrainian POWs identified by their families from the pictures and videos we collected from those Telegram channels,” Olha Reshetylova, director of the initiative, told Polgraph.info.
Reshetylova showed part of a spreadsheet listing POWs. The group’s data is sorted by the dates of last contact, the locations, the sources of photos and video, and the relationship with a family member who identified the individual soldier. It also includes the numbers and names of Ukrainian military units in which the POWs served before being captured.
Reshetylova said that neither her group nor the Ukrainian government authorities know exactly how many POWs Russia is holding, given that Russian officials and agencies are not open to cooperation on the matter. “All we know is that there are several thousands and that they are kept mostly in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea,” she said.
Based on the group’s research, Reshetylova called Nebenzya’s claim of humane POW treatment “absolutely false.”
“Ukraine’s security service allowed us to interview seven former Ukrainian prisoners of war. Every one of them told us about being humiliated, threatened and tortured,” she said.
In May, the group published a story about one former POW who described how he hid in a village occupied by Russian troops, with no food or water, after being wounded in one arm and both legs. Russian troops found him, he said, then blindfolded and took him to another village. Over the next three days, he said he received no medical help except for a bandage on his arm.
“Later they brought me to one of their headquarters. There were a lot of Russian special forces there,” the 32-year-old recounts. “The interrogations began. I had a penetrating wound on my arm, and they pushed an iron rod into it. They would hit with the buttstocks (of their rifles) everywhere they could reach.”
The soldier said he and other POWs were beaten, mocked and forbidden from using the toilet. Abuse and humiliation continued after they were transferred to a “filtration” camp near the Ukrainian border, then to a prison in Russia’s Kursk region. He said they were held along with civilians and forced to learn patriotic Russian songs and sing the Russian national anthem.
Eventually, he was handed over to Ukrainian authorities in a prisoner swap. But he said that while in detention he witnessed Russian interrogators cutting off prisoners’ fingers, severely beating them and torturing two of them to death. He was hospitalized at one point, but only after his arm became infected.
The Ukrainian POWs also were used for propaganda videos, the soldier said in his interview.
“The way we were treated was checked by their own prosecutor, allegedly in charge of human rights. Before he came, we were told how we should behave, what to say,” he said, according to the rights group’s account.
“When he came, he asked: ‘Are you okay with everything?’ ‘Are you well cared for?’ ‘Do they provide proper medical care?’ And we always had to say: ‘Yes, exactly.’ If anyone tried to say something else, they would hit him with a stun gun later.”
Similar videos are regularly broadcast on Russian state media and shared on Telegram. They show Ukrainian POWs confessing and accusing their fellow servicemen and commanders of war crimes, denouncing the Ukrainian government and praising Russia for humane treatment.
Article III of the Geneva Conventions states that POWs “shall in all conditions be treated humanely without any adverse distinction,” and that “the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.” Violence is prohibited, “in particular, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” and “outrages upon personal dignity, humiliating and degrading treatment.”
On May 27, Vrai Ou Fake, a team at the Franceinfo.fr news agency, published an investigation into a mocking social media video of dead men wearing Ukrainian uniforms and a member of a separatist military unit operating under Russian command who the Franceinfo.fr team determined, based on a voice-matching analysis, had recorded the video.
A U.K.-based investigative journalist, Robert Schultz, assisted in the Franceinfo.fr investigation.
Schultz told Polygraph.info that he spent about two months verifying and geolocating events in the video to identify the soldier who recorded it and where in Russian separatist-controlled territory it was recorded. In the Franceinfo.fr report, a forensic expert asked to review the video said the positions of dead soldiers’ bodies and other details might be evidence of war crimes. The Franceinfo.fr report said some evidence pointed to possible sexual abuse.
Schultz said his investigation continues and that Russians have posted other potential evidence of war crimes on social media.
During a news conference on May 30, the families of Ukrainian POWs captured from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol demanded that Russia treat their loved ones in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The Russian Defense Ministry said more than 1,700 Ukrainian defenders were captured at Azovstal.
“We haven’t received any information from them since they have been registered as POWs by the Red Cross and don’t know whether they are alive or dead,” the two women who spoke on behalf of the families said.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the United Nations and other international institutions and leaders have accused Russian forces of thousands of war crimes, in part from indiscriminate bombardments of residential areas and mass civilian casualties.
Nebenzya’s claim that Russia is treating POWs humanely came in response to the U.N. representatives of the United States, Estonia, and Ukraine, who criticized Russia, respectively, for reported mass graves, war crimes, executions and torture; for indifference to civilian casualties; and for “Nazi-style” warfare.
According to the United Nations’ database of verified casualties, more than 4,900 civilians have been killed during the three months of war. Ukrainian authorities cite far higher numbers.