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Georgian Convict In Russia Claims He Went To Ukraine Not To Fight, But To Surrender And Go Home 

Georgian-born Nodar Bakhturidze is a former Russian convict who is now a prisoner of war in Ukraine. (file photo)
Georgian-born Nodar Bakhturidze is a former Russian convict who is now a prisoner of war in Ukraine. (file photo)

Nodar Bakhturidze, born in Georgia but a citizen of Russia, was one of the estimated thousands of convicts who were conscripted into Russia’s military to take part in its unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Now a prisoner of war in Ukraine, Bakhturidze, said he never had any intention of fighting. His plan all along, he has claimed, was to surrender to Ukrainian forces as soon as circumstances allowed.

“[I wanted] to surrender and ask for asylum in my homeland, Georgia,” Bakhturidze told Ukrainian media on June 21, shortly after giving himself up.

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Bakhturidze said he and several other conscripted Russian convicts were captured by Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that was pulverized by Russian forces in a monthslong assault to seize it.

He said he voluntarily gave himself up and “didn’t fire a single bullet at the Ukrainians,” although some Ukrainians doubt those claims.

Friends and family are now pleading with Ukrainian officials not to include Bakhturidze in any potential prisoner swap, fearing he will be killed if he is returned to Russia.

They say that before surrendering, Bakhturidze was involved in a purported explosive attack on a Russian command bunker that killed an unspecified number of Russian servicemen. His supporters believe the Kremlin is aware of his role and will kill Bakhturidze should he be returned to Russia.

His family is asking Ukraine to investigate his case and let him remain there, at least for now.

“Everyone is being thrown into the same pot. No one cares about Nodar,” Davit Merebashvili, a niece, said in comments to RFE/RL. “If he was really in combat and shooting at Ukrainians, then he should be punished as necessary. But if he is not guilty, then there isn’t any sin, right? But I understand that it’s hard to believe all of this and who really cares about him. Probably no one will raise their voice for the sake of one man.”

Born in the village of Nukriani, Bakthuridze, 50, immigrated to Russia in the 1990s after fighting for Georgia in its separatist wars with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Four years ago, a Russian court convicted him of murder and sentenced him to 10 years in prison despite his pleas of innocence. He was serving his sentence in a prison colony in the far eastern Amur region of Russia when he was conscripted.

Thousands of Russian conscripts have been sent to fight in Ukraine, many with the Wagner mercenary group, whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed on August 23 in a mysterious plane crash in Russia, exactly two months after he led an aborted rebellion.

Prigozhin, a former catering entrepreneur who served nine years in a Soviet prison for robbery and other crimes, had offered convicts a pardon if they survived six months fighting in Ukraine. On February 9, Wagner said it had stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine. After that, reports emerged that the Russian Defense Minister had assumed the task.

Hundreds of ethnic Georgians are believed to be fighting in Ukraine alongside Kyiv's forces, most notably with the Georgian Legion, a force that has been active for years in Ukraine and comprises not only ethnic Georgians but other foreigners, as well.

The Georgian Legion was formed in 2014 after Russia began fomenting armed unrest in the eastern, industrial Donbas region, shortly after the Kremlin illegally annexed Crimea. The Georgia Legion was ultimately integrated into the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Planning To Surrender

Zviad Nadirashvili, a friend of Bakhturidze, told RFE/RL that another convict who had served alongside him and was also now a POW had told him that before Bakhturidze surrendered he and two other ex-con conscripts had blown up a Russian command bunker on the front line where they were deployed.

According to Nadirashvili, Bakhturidze had tossed an explosive device into a vent in the bunker.

“There were two cellmates with him. They were taken from Russia together to Ukraine, and one of the cellmates admitted all this during an interrogation [in Ukrainian custody]," Nadirashvili claimed. “Nodar is experienced and knew what he was doing. If they return him to Russia, exchange him for Ukrainian prisoners, he will surely die there.”

However, long before that moment, Bakhturidze had been scheming and planning to surrender even before being sent to Ukraine, Nadirashvili claimed.

“I talked to Nodar at the beginning of May” -- in 2022, while he was still imprisoned – “and wished him a happy birthday. We discussed the situation and told him that if they come to the [penal] colony and his name is on the list to be taken away, that he should go over to the Ukrainian side at the first chance and that they would look after him.”

“At first, Wagner recruited prisoners in prison, and going to war was voluntary. However, later this process was taken over by the [Defense] Ministry and they took anyone who could hold a weapon. And that was the case with Nodar. I talked to Georgians fighting in Ukraine and asked for help,” Nadirashvili recounted.

Merebashvili said she texted Vano Nadiradze, a Georgian fighting for Ukraine, on May 26 to inform him of her uncle’s predicament.

“He is my uncle, he was caught in Russia. He was sentenced to 10 years, served five, and yesterday he decided to go to war. ‘I can’t last another five years here, and I will die here or there, so what’s the point,’ he told me. He fought in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has seen all the wars,” Merebashvili wrote.

The response she got was not what she had hoped for.

“I already know who he is. He is a Wagnerite. No one forced him. He himself wanted to go [to Ukraine] to kill us,” Nadiradze responded.

Vano Nadiradze (file photo)
Vano Nadiradze (file photo)

Less than three weeks later, however, Nadiradze's stance appeared to have softened and he even seemed to vouch for Bakhturidze when writing to Volodymyr Zolkin, a Ukrainian blogger who has interviewed many Russian POWs and has questioned the Georgian prisoner's account.

Nadiradze told Volkin that Bakhturidze had "kept his word and most importantly, he didn't shoot at us."

In his June interview with Ukrainian media, Bakhturidze did not specify whether he was in the ranks of Wagner or the regular Russian military forces. He only said he had joined the “Russian Army” to escape what he considers his unjust imprisonment by surrendering to Ukrainian forces and winning extradition back to Georgia.

Volkin is skeptical of these claims, however, saying that, if Bakhturidze was really intent on surrendering, he should have notified Ukrainian officials in advance.

Thousands of Russian military personnel have sought to surrender, many taking advantage of Kyiv’s “I want to live hotline,” which offers step-by-step information on how to abandon the ranks, the blogger noted.

Ukrainian Blogger Volodymyr Zolkin (file photo)
Ukrainian Blogger Volodymyr Zolkin (file photo)

Initially run by Ukrainian police, the program has had a ramped-up, military-operated version in place since last September.

"Well, if neither he nor his family could inform us that he wanted to surrender, he should at least do everything he could to surrender to us: leave his trench, lay down his arms, come out wearing some white cloth, with raised hands -- that is, surrender voluntarily and not be captured in battle, as happened in this case," Zolkin told RFE/RL.

For now, Bakhturidze remains in POW limbo, with no clarity on whether he will ultimately be returned home to Georgia or repatriated to Russia.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service’s Nino Tarkhnishvili
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    Nino Tarkhnishvili

    Nino Tarkhnishvili has worked in the Tbilisi bureau of RFE/RL's Georgian Service since 2009. Her work focuses on health, human rights, education, minorities, and other social issues.  

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