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Russian POW Video Raises War Crime Questions For Ukraine

Ukrainian journalists and a serviceman look at a video of Russian soldiers allegedly captured by Ukrainian troops before a news conference in Kyiv on May 18.
Ukrainian journalists and a serviceman look at a video of Russian soldiers allegedly captured by Ukrainian troops before a news conference in Kyiv on May 18.

The treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) in the Ukraine conflict has repeatedly sparked concerns ever since fighting erupted last year in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists.

The rebels have paraded Ukrainian POWs before an angry crowd, Ukraine has released videos showing apparent forced confessions of captured Russian paratroopers, and several videos posted on the Internet appeared to show brutal treatment of Ukrainian soldiers at the hands of their separatist captors.

This week, Kyiv's capture of two alleged Russian servicemen fighting alongside rebel forces has again raised questions about whether Ukraine is abiding by the Geneva Conventions in its handling of the two POWs.

A video that emerged on the Internet depicted an interrogation of one of the Russians as he lay looking up at the camera in what appears to be a hospital bed, a blanket pulled up to his neck.

In the video, a prisoner who identifies himself as Russian serviceman Aleksandr Aleksandrov says he was part of a special forces group hailing from the Russian city of Tolyatti. "We were discovered. I was wounded in the leg as I tried to get away.... We've been here four to five days," he tells his interrogators.

At times he looks frightened and mumbles, eliciting demands from his questioners that he speak louder.

The Aleksandrov video was posted on May 18 on the Facebook page of Ukrainian lawmaker and Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko, generating criticism that release of the footage constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The conventions ban exposing POWs to "public curiosity," though violating this provision is not considered a "grave breach" on par with crimes such as "willful killing" and "torture and inhumane treatment."

"It's in violation of Geneva rules on treatment of POWs," Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said on his Twitter feed of the video. "Ukraine does not need more trouble than it already has."


At the heart of the debate over whether the release of the video constitutes a violation of international law is whether Ukraine is in fact at war with Russia.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments say there is incontrovertible evidence that Moscow is backing the rebels with personnel, weapons, and training, allegations that the Kremlin has repeatedly rejected while conceding that Russian "volunteers" and its deactivated soldiers have fought together with the separatists.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 18 that Aleksandrov and the other captured Russian, Yevgeny Yerofeyev, indeed served in the Russian military but were not active servicemen at the time they were detained.

The Geneva Conventions' ban on subjecting POWs to "insults and public curiosity" applies specifically to armed conflicts between states, which Russia steadfastly insists the Ukraine conflict is not, portraying it instead as a civil war.

"Either these are POWs and Russia is involved, or they are illegal trespassers, and Geneva Conventions do not apply. You decide. Regardless, they are treated humanely by all account," the Ukrainian Embassy in the Netherlands said in a May 18 Twitter discussion about the ethics of releasing the video.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, has called the war in Ukraine a "noninternational armed conflict." This status sets a higher bar than "public curiosity" for the kind of POW treatment considered a war crime, namely "outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment."

In showing the two captured Russians to the public, Ukraine is clearly trying to prove that Moscow is indeed involved militarily in the conflict despite its denials. "For us, it is very important to present to the entire world Russian soldiers who supposedly do not exist on our land," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov was quoted by AFP as saying.

But this presents an interesting Catch-22: By gaining recognition from the world community --and the Red Cross -- that it is at war with Russia, Kyiv would actually bind itself to the Geneva Conventions' ban on subjecting POWs to "public curiosity" -- language that covers international conflicts but not civil wars.

'Proof To The World'

Speaking to RFE/RL, two experts on international law differ on whether the release of the Aleksandrov video constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Gary Solis, a former U.S. military judge who teaches the law of armed conflict at Georgetown University in Washington, says that even if the Red Cross has not classified the Ukraine conflict as a war between states, "that doesn't mean that you can do anything you want."

"There are still rules and there's still customary international law that applies," Solis says. He adds that under the Geneva Conventions' criteria for international conflicts, the video "absolutely" violates the statute barring "insults and public curiosity."

"You don't show someone in any circumstance, whether they're in a hospital bed or standing upright, for purposes of satisfying public curiosity," Solis says.

David Glazier, a career surface-warfare officer in the U.S. Navy who now teaches national international law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, disagrees. He says that the Aleksandrov video is the "sort of the minimal and respectful amount of exposure necessary for them to make the case to the world that there are in fact Russian soldiers involved in hostilities in their conflict."

"Russia is essentially forcing denying its involvement in the conflict to provide proof to the world that there are in fact Russian military personnel directly involved in the conflict," Glazier says. "So it would seem to me that as a practical matter Ukraine should be entitled to a fair bit of latitude in presenting that proof to the world."

As AFP reported, the Ukrainian Army's chief of staff, Viktor Muzhenko, had vowed to put the two prisoners on display for the international media, a move that Glazier says "probably would cross the line."

Muzhenko, however, did not appear to make good on his promise, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland praised Kyiv for its handling of the two men and allowing the Red Cross access to the POWs. "We welcome the Ukraine government's public statements that they are being well taken care of," Nuland said on May 18 during her visit to Moscow.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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