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Ukraine puts captured Russians on stage. It’s a powerful propaganda tool, but is it a violation of POW rights?

Russian prisoners of war attend a news conference at the office of Ukraine's State Security Service in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 9. The Washington Post has altered this photo to protect the prisoners’ identities. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
7 min

ODESSA, Ukraine — Three prisoners of war were ushered into the room by an armed guard. The first wore a gray sweater and jeans. He walked with his hands behind his back and stared at the floor. He took a seat at the long table in front, looking like a scared teenager.

“Good Lord, he can’t be older than 18, can he?” one journalist in the audience whispered.

His two comrades took their places beside him. One wore slippers over his socks. The other was in a collared shirt. They each said their name, birth date, place of birth and their Russian military unit. They gave statements of contrition — one said he was ashamed to look into the eyes of Ukrainians.

Then their captors opened the floor for questions from journalists.

Ukraine’s POW news conferences have become an unconventional and ethically — and potentially legally — questionable fixture of its war with Russia, representative of the two countries’ battle over information. While Moscow prohibits even the use of the words “war” or “invasion” — Russian state media calls this a “special operation” and does not acknowledge that its military has shelled civilian areas — Ukraine is parading around captured Russian soldiers to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda with its own.

At a news conference Wednesday at the Odessa headquarters of the SBU, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, the three men who were presented as captured Russian soldiers all told similar stories. It was unclear if their comments were coerced or scripted. They spoke without any written statements. One looked down at the table as he talked, while the other two appeared more at ease. None of the men had any visible bruises or signs that they had been beaten or mistreated.

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The gist of what they said matched similar news conferences that have now taken place across the country in the two weeks since Russia’s invasion started. They all said they disagreed with Russia’s war, they regretted their part in it and they had not known they would be stepping onto Ukrainian territory until they received orders on Feb. 23 — hours before Russia’s first missile strikes.

The first question set the tone: “Not just Ukraine but the whole world sees that your army is clearly killing civilians, and this is confirmed by your comrades who have surrendered in batches to our army. … What were your orders about the killing of civilians?” a reporter from a Ukrainian TV channel asked.

The news conferences have been an effective tool for gaining international attention: One video that went viral on social media tallied more than 100,000 retweets and 200,000 likes on Twitter. But international organizations and observers have said they could violate the Geneva Conventions, which have extensive rules covering treatment of prisoners of war.

Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention states that “prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated.” The article specifically bans acts causing death or “seriously endangering” a prisoner’s health. It says no prisoner of war should be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments, adding, “Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

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It is a topic Ukrainian officials addressed at the start of Wednesday’s news conference. Reading a statement, Yuri Dobrov, the head of the legal department for the Ministry of Defense in the Odessa region, said Ukraine “strictly adheres to the rules and regulations of the Geneva Convention.”

Dobrov said Ukraine now has “quite a large number of detained persons,” so it is creating a POW camp. He offered no further details about the size or location of the camp.

The organized news conferences follow a trend that started with grass roots civilian efforts. After the invasion began, unverified videos of captured Russian soldiers being questioned were shared to social media by ordinary citizens, who were sometimes the very people asking the questions. That prompted Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich to call for the “humane treatment of prisoners” in an online video. He reminded viewers that Ukraine’s Western partners were watching closely.

But on Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has also posted gory videos and photos purporting to show dead bodies of Russian soldiers — another potential violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Some observers have cheered on the videos and media briefings, arguing that the prisoners of war seem sincere or that such evidence is needed to break through Russia’s media censorship wall.

Russia, in a rare release of military death figures, said on March 2 that 498 of its soldiers had died. But on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told House lawmakers that the best estimate is between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian fatalities. Ukrainian officials claim the number is far higher.

“Awful and disgusting things happen in any war,” said Konstantin Batozky, a Ukrainian political analyst. “We have to tackle Russian lies. The world should make Russia acknowledge that they have military losses.”

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Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School, argued in a Feb. 27 blog post that Article 3 “does not prohibit, per se, the release of photos or videos of prisoners of war.” Sometimes photos or videos constitute “insults or public curiosity,” he wrote, but not always. Instead, the “ ‘intent’ behind a given video or photo release” should be evaluated.

“Still, the bottom line is that prisoners of war should not be propaganda tools,” Dunlap wrote.

Andrew Stroehlein, European media director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that “although it may seem in some videos that POWs are free to speak as they wish, they are held captive by another military force, and it’s almost impossible to judge from one video the conditions they face.”

Gregory S. Gordon, an international criminal law scholar, said protections for prisoners of war have shifted as the nature of wars has changed.

The period after World War II, when the Third Geneva Convention was revised, was “a time when prisoners of war could be taken out into public and paraded, ridiculed, abused, harassed,” he said. “The idea was that the detaining power could do this for propaganda value — or as a way to allow the public to vent their frustrations against the enemy.”

International POW protections were meant to end that kind of abuse.

Gordon said Ukraine may have a strategic interest “in strictly complying with the laws of war — taking the high ground.” He said it was in the best interest of both sides to treat captured soldiers as they would like their own POWs to be treated.

Asked if they knew what would happen to them after the news conference, the Russian soldiers said they assumed they would eventually be sent back to their country as part of a prisoner exchange. But even appearing at the POW news conference could endanger them, Gordon said.

If a POW criticizes his own government, even if those comments were coerced, he said, “the regime back home could still view that as aiding the enemy.”

Westfall reported from Hyannis, Mass.