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Detector Media analyzed almost 2,500 messages in pro-Russian Telegram channels and now summarizes how Russian propagandists manipulate the topic of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The main document that defines the rules for the treatment of prisoners of war is the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, adopted in 1949. The republics of the Soviet Union, which included Ukraine and Russia, the latter of which considers itself the successor of the USSR, ratified the convention in 1954. According to this convention, crimes, in particular, are physical, psychological, and sexual violence against prisoners of war; limiting access to medical care; removal of personal belongings; accommodation of prisoners of war in the zone affected by weapons; being forced to starve or using restricted access to food as punishment. Moreover, as per it, no other types of punishment can be applied to prisoners of war than those applied to the military personnel of the state that holds the prisoners of war.
According to Petro Yatsenko, a representative of the Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, more than 90% of Ukrainian prisoners are subjected to torture and inhumane treatment. In June 2023, the Media Initiative for Human Rights, after interviewing 50 service members who returned from Russian captivity, reported that the Russians interrogate prisoners of war with violence, do not take care of the proper conditions of detention of prisoners of war and do not provide medical assistance, transport them in overcrowded transport with tied hands and eyes. In November 2023, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that keeping prisoners of war in prisons and detention centers in Russia and Ukraine is also a violation of international law. They emphasized the fact that Russia, unlike Ukraine, prevents access to the representatives of international organizations in places where prisoners of war are detained.
In November 2023, the Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, posted on Telegram:
"I would like to hear the indisputable facts and arguments on which the mission's conclusions regarding alleged violations on the part of the Ukrainian side are based. I emphasize once again that Ukraine adheres to the Geneva Convention and international law and is open to international organizations. It is Russia that has criminally invaded our land, killed and kidnapped Ukrainian citizens, and still blocks access to our prisoners of war. The scale of inhumane treatment and torture is hidden."
According to Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, cruel treatment of prisoners of war and the population in the occupied territories is punishable by imprisonment for a term of eight to twelve years. And if cruel treatment leads to death, then it is subject to fifteen years or life imprisonment. In 2023, 60,944 criminal proceedings were opened under this article in Ukraine. Out of them, notices of suspicion were handed to 88 persons, and court verdicts were issued in 37 cases. Such data are published in the "Uniform Report on Criminal Offenses for January-December 2023" by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. The report does not contain data on which countries the participants in the proceedings are citizens of. Similarly, there is no information about citizenship in the database of persons hiding from the authorities. As of January 15, 2023, 380 people are wanted since April 2014 for crimes against prisoners of war. Of them, 173 people were added to the database in 2022 and 134 in 2023.
More than thirty thousand Ukrainians are in Russian captivity: 3,574 military personnel — according to the data of the Special Commission under the Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine as of November 17, 2023. According to Dmytro Lubinets (statement dated December 7), 28 thousand civilians are also held in Russian captivity.
There is currently no publicly available information for 2023 about the number of Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine, which official Ukrainian or Russian sources would announce. Andriy Yusov, a representative of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, explains the lack of this information as per the position of the Coordination Staff on treating prisoners of war. According to him, it is connected with the negotiations regarding the return of Ukrainian defenders and civilians. Instead, the Russians manipulate data on the number of Ukrainians in Russian captivity. In particular, in October 2023, terrorist Denis Pushylin stated on the air of the Russian propaganda TV program "Solovyov Live":
"The number of Ukrainian service members in Russian captivity amounts to thousands, and the Kiev regime [original transliteration from Russian] has about 500 of our men in their captivity. The numbers cannot be compared."
By claiming so, Russian propagandists try to emphasize the "unwillingness of Ukrainians to fight with Russia" and the misunderstanding of the cause of the war, which, according to their logic, results in voluntary surrender. They advanced these theses before the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
How the Russians use Ukrainian prisoners of war in propaganda
Russia is trying to use relatives of Ukrainian prisoners of war against Ukraine, Dmytro Lubinets said on December 31, 2023:
"We have systematic facts that Russians call their [prisoners’ of war] relatives and say: 'We are ready to bring them back, but Ukraine does not want to accept them.' It is not true. They suggest relatives go to rallies, block roads, and administrative buildings. Or, for example, we have facts when relatives are forced to take photos of the Armed Forces of Ukraine deployment, objects of critical infrastructure, and hand Russians this data."
Four days after, on January 3, 230 prisoners returned to Ukraine, of which 130 were military personnel, 55 were National Guard soldiers, 38 were border guards, 1 was a police officer, and 6 were civilians. Following this prisoner exchange, Russian propaganda resources spread a fake, saying that Ukraine refused to exchange 300 Ukrainians for 300 Russians. Allegedly, 300 people could have been exchanged, but only 173 were. However, the Russian media confirmed the figure of 230.
"The terrorist country is deliberately spreading fake news about the exchange to create the illusion that the Ukrainian authorities do not care about their citizens who are in captivity. The goal of the Rashists was to cause indignation within Ukrainian society and to discredit the government". The Center for Countering Disinformation at the Ukraine National Security and Defense Council responded to the fake.
For a detailed analysis of Russian propaganda claims about POWs, the Detector Media’s Research Center processed two waves of POW reports created between December 10 and January 9, 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively. The search tool in the TeleZip / Mantis Analytics" system contained only the root of the word "captivity" in Russian. The request focused on pro-Russian Telegram channels, which Detector Media analyzed in the "Kremlin Hydra" study at the beginning of January 2023. In the 2022–23 message compilation, 125 Telegram channels published 1,145 posts, and in 2023–24, 121 Telegram channels published 1,339 posts. In each data set, the topic of prisoners of war was present in 146 Telegram channels.
From these data, we can conclude that Russian agitational propaganda has a stable set of approaches to presenting topics related to prisoners of war. It regularly addresses the issue of prisoners of war, which illustrates the dynamics of these messages. In the data set from December 10 to January 9, 2022–23, there were an average of 38 messages per day. Meanwhile, in the compilation for the same period of 2023–2024, there were almost 45 messages.
"Join the crowd" and go into captivity. In both data compilations, most posts aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian state and spreading the offer to join those who have already surrendered. In 2022–23, Russians used the arguments of Ukrainian military personnel who remained in Russia.
"A hard worker from the LNR, a territory which was occupied by the "Kiev [original transliteration from Russian] regime" for a long time. He served as a refueler, was "sent" to the frontline and surrendered in the first battle. Captured by the fighters of the "O" group during the assault on the regular support of Ukraine’s Armed Forces near Kreminna. Now, after his release, he wants to follow the example of his wife to get a Russian passport," stated one of the Telegram posts created on December 26, 2022.
Sometimes, such reports added particular details that aimed at convincing the rationality of surrendering to the mercy of the Russians. On December 10, 2022, for example, the story of an allegedly captured Ukrainian soldier about the decision to surrender due to poor weapons was made public. He said, "Instead of the promised equipment, his unit received only machine guns from the times of the Great Patriotic War [WWII]."
Between December 2023 and the beginning of January 2024, Russian propagandists began to use the topic of mobilization in calls to "join the prisoners ":
"What is mobilization, and how should one fight it? Well, there's only one piece of advice we can give. However, it works not only when you are already mobilized but after you've also been pushed to the frontline as a "grinding meat". What is the advice? It's still the same — lay down your arms."
Same as the year before, Russians presented the capture as a rescue. The calls to surrender to Russians were used by "third parties" and pushed onto Ukrainian prisoners who "confessed", saying: "Russia cannot be defeated, do not fight with the Russians, simply surrender".
To add weight to the arguments, the Telegram channels also added details about the short-term training of Ukrainian service members. For example, on December 15, 2022, a little more than a month after the liberation of Kherson, a pro-Russian Telegram channel reported about "about 600 mobilized Kherson citizens, sent over by the "Ukrainian Nazis" to Maryinka to "wash away the guilt with blood." Without any combat training." In this and similar cases, propagandists cultivated a "false dilemma." According to them, Ukraine does not value its people and sends the unprepared ones to the frontline. Therefore, in order not to obey "the command that leaves people in positions "like grinding meat", it is better to surrender and "get a chance to survive".
"Multiple repetition". At the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, there were more reports than in the data set of the previous interval, with extra layers of the classic theses of Russian propaganda onto the reports about the captures, such as:
- Foreigners in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, through the distribution of a video illustrating the alleged capture of a Polish man;
- Mobilization of sick people due to the "story" about a captured Ukrainian who was allegedly mobilized with a stomach ulcer. According to the "Regulations on military medical examination in the Armed Forces of Ukraine", people with stomach ulcers can be recognized as having limited fitness or unfit for military service. Yet, every situation should be considered by a medical expert;
- War "to the last Ukrainian" due to "Russian Ministry of Defense interview with a Ukrainian prisoner", in which the prisoner claims that Russia's war with Ukraine is "the disposal of the Ukrainian people, and shortly — there will be no Ukrainians left".
By repeating similar messages, in which different theses of Russian propaganda are interwoven, agitational propaganda tries to fixate them in the audience’s memory so that they become perceived as evident and not cause rejection or desire to assess them.
Pro-Russian Telegram channels condone crimes against prisoners of war
In the analyzed messages, there were three cases when the authors of publications in Telegram channels disseminated information about Russian crimes against prisoners of war. Periodically, they appear implicitly through video captions such as: "Donetsk people do not take prisoners" or "Mykola got lucky that we are still good people." However, on December 19, 2023, when the pro-Russian Telegram channel "Lysychansk — the cradle of Donbass" [original transliteration from Russian] (Лисичанск — колыбель Донбасса) showed a video with the caption: "Severe tricks of the war near Klishchiivka. Our fighter searches the recently killed soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and detonates one of the killed. In this video, the Russian military searches the dead, takes their belongings and weapons, and then places a streamer with a grenade on one of the bodies.
Another case related to Russians making fun of those who discuss sexual violence in Russian captivity. Such messages appeared in pro-Russian Telegram channels after the exchange of prisoners on January 3, 2024. We recorded three such messages. All of them related to the interview of a Ukrainian servicewoman who returned from captivity. In two publications, a woman who testified that men were raped in Russian captivity was accused of lying to the Russian army because prisoners can allegedly be raped only in Ukraine. In the third message — Russians advised her to return to captivity so this time, she could be the one being raped.
The Russian authorities also use captives for material benefits. For example, in early January, the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, offered to return Ukrainian prisoners of war in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions on him, his relatives, and his property:
"We have prisoners that we took in Donetsk and Luhansk. I will provide this list to our guests... If they remove the sanctions from my mother, my daughters, and innocent people, horses... Everyone except me. Moreover, if they add more sanctions against me, I will hand these people over," said Kadyrov.
Authors of posts in Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels spread this proposal without criticizing Kadyrov, as it should be. One can assume that in Russian society, the use of prisoners of war for propaganda or extracting benefits for oneself is a practice that is not condemned but is a position of the state.
The governments of other states and international organizations must be more persistent in bringing war criminals to justice and preventing the continuation of Russian war crimes. Killings of prisoners of war on camera, as happened in March 2023 when the Russians killed Oleksandr Matsievskyy, are not just isolated horrific incidents that are widely reported in the news and then forgotten but systematic crimes that continue. They must be stopped, and the guilty must be punished.