Since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and pro-Ukrainian forces, prisoners of war (POWs1) have been subjected to summary executions, torture, forced labor, public humiliation, and a variety of other physical and emotional cruelties. They are held in poor conditions without the protection of international or domestic institutions designed to safeguard their interests. Negotiations for the release of prisoners are being conducted in a haphazard manner, with no formal organizational structure empowered to negotiate with the other side. Evidence suggests that both sides have abused prisoners, though the most egregious abuses seem to have been perpetrated by the separatists, who, with Russian support, have declared the independence of Ukraine’s eastern regions, citing a host of grievances against the government in Kyiv.

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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POW exchanges were a cornerstone of the Minsk peace agreements of 2014 and 2015, which provide a framework for a settlement to the war in eastern Ukraine. Though the most recent agreement has been violated repeatedly since being signed in February, it still provides an important benchmark of stability. Yet, despite the Minsk accords and notwithstanding international pressure to release captive soldiers and citizens, the prisoner-exchange process has ground to a halt. Recent estimates suggest that between 270 and 400 Ukrainian soldiers remain in captivity, with more than 2,500 Ukrainian POWs already having been released by the separatists, according to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).

At the beginning of April 2015, the commissioner for human rights of the Donetsk People’s Republic—one of the two self-declared, separatist quasi-states in eastern Ukraine—claimed that more than 1,000 of its citizens remained in Ukrainian custody, although the Ukrainian government has not confirmed numbers anywhere near that high. In addition, Ukrainian government officials calculate that a further eleven Ukrainian POWs remain in captivity in the Russian Federation and are not covered under the Minsk agreements.

The POW issue has been overshadowed by other aspects of the conflict, such as troop movements, Russian weapons supplies to the separatists, sanctions, and economic troubles in both Russia and Ukraine. Yet, there is an urgent need for Ukraine, Russia, and the separatist republics to address the POW problem—both prisoners’ maltreatment in captivity and the barriers that prevent their release.

The West can contribute to this effort by expanding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) mandate to deal with POW issues and channeling more resources through humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has visited detainees and documented cases of abuse. International actors can also establish a commission to keep track of the number of prisoners held on all sides, and investigate and collect evidence of abuse to hold violators accountable after the resolution of the conflict.

Disorganization and Score-Settling in the Prisoner-Exchange Process

Long-standing problems in Ukraine—governmental disorganization, internal political rivalries, and corruption—complicate efforts to secure the release of prisoners held in both Ukrainian government–controlled areas and separatist-held territories.

Officially, the SBU’s Center for the Release of Hostages, led by Yuri Tandit, is the main governmental group negotiating prisoner exchanges, with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense also working on the issue. In reality, however, there is no single governmental body in Kyiv empowered to deal with the POW issue. Instead, disparate governmental, nongovernmental, and volunteer groups as well as private individuals have conducted negotiations with separatists, creating a bureaucratic mess when it comes to caring for prisoners and securing their release.

The lack of a centralized structure to deal with POWs reflects the Ukrainian government’s inability to fulfill certain essential functions of the state, something Ukraine has struggled with since the government of Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in early 2014 amid the Euromaidan protests. Since the start of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine a few months later, civil society and independent actors have done much of the work in defending Ukraine from Russian aggression, supplying simple drones, establishing militias to support the military, and collecting dead soldiers’ bodies and returning the fallen to their families. The same holds true for POW exchanges.

The Officers’ Corps (Офицерский корпус), a veterans’ group led by retired Lieutenant General Vladimir Ruban, has played a key role in prisoner exchanges since the summer of 2014, though its influence appears to be waning. The group has maintained a list of the names of Ukrainian POWs, helped to keep their families informed, pressured the Ukrainian government to do more to help captive soldiers, and negotiated swaps.

Ruslana Lyzhychko, a Ukrainian pop star, has also been active on POW issues. She has both helped to publicize the plight of Ukrainian fighters held by the separatists and worked to negotiate POW exchanges. Her involvement highlights the extent to which individual private citizens with connections—particularly prominent ones—can play a role in prisoner releases. In an interview with Ukrainskaya Pravda, she described how Donetsk People’s Republic leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko wanted to meet her and indicated his desire to have her present at POW negotiations. She met him and returned home with sixteen Ukrainian prisoners.

Less well-connected people, including parents of captive soldiers, have had some success in negotiating prisoner releases alone, or by enlisting more powerful middlemen to do so on their behalf. Many of these middlemen and separatists have ties to criminal organizations, so bribery and corruption, problems that have historically infected the Ukrainian political system and that helped fuel the Euromaidan revolution, have become a cornerstone of many release efforts. In particular, the pay-for-freedom model of prisoner release seems to have become widespread—and this model is rife with opportunities for graft. Relatives of prisoners of war face extortion, with the organizers of and negotiators in the exchanges benefiting monetarily. Paying to secure the life of a prisoner raises moral issues and is financially burdensome—and sometimes impossible—for families that struggle economically; it also erodes the principle of reciprocity that underpins international POW conventions and exchanges.

In October 2014, for example, the SBU arrested a man from Mariupol who admitted to demanding ransom from the relatives of soldiers held in captivity in separatist territory to secure the prisoners’ release. Similarly, the founder of Patriot, a group that works closely with the Ministry of Defense on prisoner exchanges, accused the Officers’ Corps’ Ruban, the SBU’s Center for the Release of Hostages’ Tandit, and another facilitator of soliciting money from desperate families wanting help to broker the release of their sons from separatist captivity. A source in the SBU pushed back at the accusation, labeling it “inaccurate.” Despite its ties to the Ministry of Defense, Patriot was recalled from the frontline city of Sloviansk shortly after this incident, an indication that Ruban and Tandit have some clout in the bureaucratic struggle over POW releases.

In another sign of bureaucratic infighting, some of those negotiating exchanges at the highest levels on behalf of Ukraine have been blamed for misconduct. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, Ruban accused oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk of commandeering the POW exchange negotiations and “deliberately dragging out the process.” Medvedchuk has close ties to Russia and serves as Ukraine’s representative to the humanitarian issues subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group, which is composed of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE. Pop star Ruslana also suggested that Medvedchuk is playing a “central role” in the exchange process and is preventing her and Ruban from being involved, thereby slowing down release efforts.

In the parts of eastern Ukraine under separatist control, the situation concerning POWs and their release remains equally murky. The Donetsk People’s Republic has established a committee on prisoner exchanges. Amnesty International believes the operation is more organized than in the other self-declared separatist statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic. But, even in Donetsk, it is unclear to what extent the rebel government controls the treatment or exchange of prisoners.

The separatists have been less inclined in recent months to talk about POW exchanges—a problem since there are signs that separatists are mistreating their prisoners. In an interview with Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske International, a Ukrainian POW said that he and other soldiers had been interrogated at separatist leader Zakharchenko’s request, revealing that his captors beat him and other prisoners with shovels, pipes, and guns. One of the men was reportedly beaten so severely that the notoriously brutal rebel commander Arseniy Pavlov (aka Motorola) shot him twice in the head, claiming he would not “make it” anyway. This does not appear to be an isolated incident. Motorola reportedly confessed during a tape-recorded conversation to killing fifteen Ukrainian POWs.

On balance, it is not only the separatists who are responsible for mistreating their prisoners. An Amnesty International report chronicles multiple instances of abuse by pro-Kyiv forces of separatist fighters and civilians they have detained on suspicion of collaborating with separatists or holding pro-separatist sympathies. Indeed, allegations of abuse on both sides must be investigated and documented so that all suspected POW abusers can be held accountable at a later date.

When POW releases or exchanges do happen, they are usually carried out in an ad hoc manner, with negotiations conducted by individual separatist leaders, often for money. The lack of an organizational structure for negotiating POW releases on the separatist side complicates the Ukrainian government’s dysfunctional efforts. Furthermore, given a lack of real organizational structure in the separatist territories to handle POW issues, no one in Kyiv is ultimately responsible for the release of prisoners—a problem that stokes corruption, mistreatment of prisoners, and outright brutality.  

The Messy Politics of Amnesty Complicates the POW Problem

The political will to resolve the prisoner of war crisis has waned in the main cities of the separatist regions and in Kyiv since the signing of the first Minsk agreement on September 5, 2014, as daily fighting has eroded trust between the two sides. In April, former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who represents Kyiv at the Trilateral Contact Group, noted that separatists are increasingly conditioning their willingness to engage in prisoner exchanges on the Ukrainian government’s passage of an amnesty law. This presents a problem because continued violence in eastern Ukraine and continual ceasefire violations along the line of contact are hardening the opposition of the Ukrainian public to the idea of offering amnesty to some or all of the separatists and their supporters.

Support for amnesty peaked last fall when the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a bill that would have exonerated Ukrainian citizens who participated in separatist activity from the start of the conflict on February 22, 2014. This amnesty bill was rushed through parliament without much debate on September 16, when 278 Rada deputies voted in favor of the legislation in a closed session. However, some members of parliament publically opposed it, including former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who called it a “surrender of Ukraine’s national interests.”

The bill provided the legal grounds to release those detained by Ukrainian authorities on suspicion of being separatists or of collaborating with them. The EU and United States lauded the legislation, calling it an important step toward the implementation of the Minsk I peace agreement. The bill also indicated an awareness among many Rada deputies that some sort of societal reconciliation was needed after months of Russian-inspired conflict in the east.

That awareness, however, seems to have dimmed as events on the ground after the Minsk agreement—increased separatist fighting with Russian support—ended all prospects for the bill to become law. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko never signed it, and members of Ukraine’s new parliament (elected in October 2014) called for it to be annulled after the separatists held their own elections in November, which Kyiv and the West consider illegal.

In December, the amnesty issue arose again, when the speaker of the National Security and Defense Council announced that Ukraine was preparing to grant amnesty to those who were forced to join separatist ranks and were not associated with violence against Ukrainian troops. This proposed amnesty was less encompassing than the September bill, but it was a clear recognition that people living in the separatist regions had to make difficult decisions under occupation and that many were coerced into cooperating with the separatists, often under threat of illegal appropriation of their assets or physical violence against their families or themselves.

Nonetheless, no such amnesty was ever granted, and some residents from territories liberated by Ukrainian forces have remained in indeterminate detention under suspicion of treason for months.

Some of those detentions seem to contradict an October law signed by Poroshenko on “special status” for the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, as stipulated by the Minsk agreements. Although not an amnesty, this law, which was amended in March, obliquely guarantees “the avoidance of criminal prosecution, criminal and administrative responsibility, and punishment to those involved in the events in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” Despite its passage, it has not led to the release of most of those detained on suspicion of treason.

Calls for amnesty were revived after the Minsk II agreement was signed in February 2015. Deputies, largely from the eastern regions still under government control, have urged the government to put forward a new and comprehensive amnesty bill.

Still, it is unclear what a passable bill might look like, particularly given calls by some Ukrainian nationalists for vengeance and retribution against the separatists and those who back them—both Russian and Ukrainian. Ukraine’s foreign minister has excluded the possibility of granting amnesty to separatist leaders, though the Minsk II agreement is not exclusionary. It explicitly mandates that the signatories “pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular departments of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine” and calls for an exchange of prisoners on an “all for all” basis within five days after the removal of heavy weaponry from the conflict zone.

Pressure to pass an amnesty bill now principally comes from separatists—for whom a general amnesty has become a requirement for any large-scale POW releases—and politicians in Ukraine who sympathize with their cause. Members of the Opposition Bloc—made up mostly of former members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, whose power base was in Donetsk and Luhansk—proposed an amnesty bill in March, but it is still lingering in parliament and seems likely to die there.

But separatists are not the only ones worried about being prosecuted. Some Ukrainian prisoners, having been subjected to forced labor that has benefited the separatist republics, worry that they will face reprisals from their government upon being released. Those who come home are often not hailed as heroes, and some have been labeled as deserters. In a May 29 Radio Svoboda interview, Vladimir Ruban said “several prisoners of war don’t want to return to Ukraine because they fear criminal charges of treason or assisting terrorists and separatists. . . . Two prisoners of war whom I freed and brought back have been charged with aiding separatists in Horlovka and are being held in custody by the SBU.”

Such treatment of returning POWs by Ukrainian law enforcement is a troubling sign. It highlights the need for both dialogue in Ukraine on the treatment of returnees as well as guarantees from prosecution that amnesty could provide.

Overcoming the Roadblocks

The POW problem is becoming more intractable by the day. It is fueled by the criminal nature of many of the separatist leaders and commanders, and systemic failures of the Ukrainian state. It exacerbates one of Ukraine’s most pressing problems—corruption. It likewise exposes internal power struggles in the new Ukraine, which closely resemble those of the old Ukraine. In many ways, Ukraine’s handling of the POW problem is representative of the post-Euromaidan government’s approach to governance as a whole: early, enthusiastic promises remain unfulfilled, and the gap between rhetoric and reality grows.

Though there is no easy solution to the POW problem, to close this gap, Ukraine should establish clear lines of authority for handling POW issues—both the care and well-being of prisoners held by Ukrainian forces and processes for negotiating for the release of Ukrainian captives held by the separatists.

It should also adopt a tailored amnesty bill. It would need to focus on those who cooperated (or are accused of cooperating) with the separatists—under coercion during occupation, under coercion as POWs, or even under their own free will, depending on the circumstances. Such an amnesty by the Ukrainian government would remove one of the roadblocks the separatists have erected to prisoner exchanges, forcing them to either begin releasing POWs in larger numbers or show their true colors.

After more than a year of a war that has radicalized people on both sides of the front lines, an amnesty by Kyiv would show a willingness to start a societal dialogue on reconciliation in Ukraine, would extend a hand to POWs and others in eastern Ukraine who are nervous about their future in the country, and could jump-start the exchange process, perhaps paving the way for greater trust and more stability. The West should pressure the government in Kyiv to adopt such a bill, and impress upon both sides the necessity of upholding their Minsk commitments to release prisoners. Similarly, Russia should use its leverage with the separatists to urge the release of prisoners held on separatist territory, as well as free those Ukrainian POWs it holds on Russian soil.

The West can indeed play a role in protecting prisoners of war, facilitating their release, and holding rights violators accountable. The OSCE has already done an impressive job documenting ceasefire violations and the presence of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone, and facilitating negotiations through the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine—including through the subgroup on humanitarian issues. If its mandate were expanded to include monitoring prisoner exchanges, the OSCE would be poised to draw more attention to the issue, promote exchanges, and contribute to efforts to ultimately hold abusers responsible. An expanded role for the ICRC and other humanitarian groups would likewise contribute to documentation efforts, and improve the lots of captives during and after their release.

Finally, the West should consider establishing a commission to gather evidence on crimes committed against combatants, prisoners, and civilians alike. This would be the first step toward the creation of a tribunal or other mechanism that could be used to hold accountable all those who committed grave crimes during the Ukraine conflict.

Isaac Webb is a junior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

1 As both sides have termed captives “POWs,” and the term has become ubiquitous in mainstream media and in Amnesty International’s lengthy report on the subject, we refer to imprisoned servicemen held by all sides in the conflict as POWs in this article. Technically, captive soldiers are only given the official status of “prisoner of war” in international armed conflict. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross has called the war in Ukraine a non-international armed conflict, imprisoned soldiers are still entitled to protections under international humanitarian law: article 3 common to the Geneva Convention of 1949 stipulates that “persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ‘ hors de combat ’ by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” See “Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949,” available online at https://www.icrc.org/ihl/WebART/375-590006.