Is this a violation of the Geneva Convention? Perhaps, but then again, so is shelling civilian population centers and conducting military attacks on nuclear power plants. Ukrainian forces captured a mid-ranking officer in the Russian invasion forces and made him available to reporters yesterday, and he made no bones about what Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine:
A Russian commander captured by Ukraine condemned Moscow’s “genocide” invasion – saying in a remarkable televised statement that the troops were duped into believing Kyiv had been overthrown by Nazis and needed liberating.
National Guard Lt. Col. Astakhov Dmitry Mikhailovich, who was captured along with two other soldiers, said that he had been told they were being sent to help Ukraine because it was “dominated by a fascist regime” and that “nationalists and Nazis had seized power.”
“Obviously, this information was unilateral information,” Mikhailovich told reporters in a video that emerged Monday.
Mikhailovich told reporters that he was speaking freely, and it certainly doesn’t appear that he’s talking under duress. Here’s the video, entirely in Russian with English subtitles. Judge for yourselves:
This, out of #Ukraine, is 100% one of the most incredible videos I have ever seen.
This Russian POW has the heart of a lion 🦁 pic.twitter.com/KIx1rsN0CZ
— Jackie Singh 🇺🇦 🇺🇸 (@hackingbutlegal) March 6, 2022
“I cannot find the words to say sorry to the Ukrainian people,” Mikhailovich said, adding he would understand if Russia was never forgiven. …
“Many of them are just embarrassed. They do not want war,” the downcast man said.
“I just sincerely hope for your mercy toward those people who come to you with their hands up, or those who are wounded. We should not sow death — it’s better to sow life,” he said.
Mikhailovich urged his troops to “be brave” and oppose their commanders.
Let’s start with the legal question first. Does this in fact violate the Geneva Conventions? Jonathan Turley says yes, and even if Russia deserves it, such violations should concern us — because they have concerned us before:
Vladimir Putin and his government now stands as not just a pariah among nations but criminal actors who have shattered the most basic principles of international law and the Law of War. In that context, it is difficult to raise questions about the response of Ukraine, which is facing annihilation at the hands of a tyrant. However, Ukraine is reportedly showing videotapes of Russian POWs. While it pales in comparison to what is being done by the Russians, the practice may violate Article 13 of the Geneva Conventions. Despite my strong and ongoing support for Ukraine in this struggle, it is important to flag such potential violations when they occur. It also has bearing on the media in using such images.
The Ukrainians are showing weeping Russian prisoners of war who denounce Russia and declare that they were used like ‘cannon fodder’ by Russian commanders. The video airing on the networks show “Security Service of Ukraine” across the top of the images.
As civil libertarians, we are often compelled to raise concerns despite our revulsion with the conduct or views of a party. These soldiers are combatants protected by the Geneva Conventions and other treaties. Ukrainian POWs are protected under the same status.
The issue of filming POWs has long been contrary to the Geneva Conventions.
The US has complained when our troops have been used for propaganda purposes, including in asymmetrical conflicts. It therefore behooves us to demand enforcement of these principles, even when our friends step over the line. However, it also behooves us to recognize the risible nature of a request to play by the rules when the Ukrainians’ enemy conducts an outright invasion of a sovereign nation. Furthermore, this takes place in the context of deliberate nuclear extortion in Zaporizhzhia. Giving a captured POW a press conference seems more like an infraction by comparison — and since reciprocity is the key to the Geneva Conventions, a reliance on comparison is apt.
Aside from the legalities, what else does this tell us? It depends on whether these POWs got pressured into this appearance. If they did, it’s meaningless. Even if the officer participated of his own free will, it might not make a lot of difference in Russia, considering the clampdown on the media imposed by Putin. However, if this is an accurate look at the morale of the Russians’ officer corps as well as its enlisted ranks, then Putin has a yuuuuuuuge problem on his hands. The longer the Ukrainians resist, the lower that morale will sink among Russians who were misled into thinking that they were only fighting against a clique of neo-Nazis in Kyiv.
I’d bet that this is a more accurate look at the morale of the Russian invaders than one might expect. It would tend to explain why lines of communication have stalled, why soldiers are hesitating in the streets when challenged by Ukrainians, and why the overall military operation is performing disastrously against expectations. If the Ukrainians can mount a counteroffensive at some point, the Russians could crack and Putin’s dreams of empire could turn into a rout. The odds on that may still be long, but they were a lot longer a week ago.