Consider the sourcing on this CNN report, especially in a time of war. Captured combatants rarely feel great about the world and certainly aren’t going to be inclined to cheer against their captors when shoved in front of cameras. We’ll get to that point shortly, but if this really does give any insight into the current morale of the Russian forces invading and bombing Ukraine, Vladimir Putin might need to keep his entire military from coming home again.
At least two POWs told reporters that Putin’s going to be their next target:
At a different media briefing in the same venue, a reconnaissance officer called Vladimir who had been captured told a group of international reporters, “Our government told us we need to liberate the civilian population. I want to tell Russian servicemen: lay down your arms and leave your stations, don’t come here. Everyone wants peace here.”
Vladimir then went a big step further, saying: “I want to tell our commander-in-chief to stop terror acts in Ukraine because when we come back we’ll rise against him.”
Another reconnaissance officer at the same event echoed the sentiment, addressing Putin directly.
“You won’t hide this for long. There are many like us here. Sooner or later, we’ll come home.”
Other POWs didn’t go quite so far, but expressed bitterness and confusion over the order to invade. Unlike earlier testimony, these POWs understood that they were attacking Ukraine, but thought that their targets were specific neo-Nazi formations in the Donbas. It didn’t take long for disillusion to set in:
“I know in my unit, they are totally against it,” Maxim said. “They have many relatives and friends [in Ukraine], and they were told it was an operation localized to the DNR [the breakaway Russian-backed Donetsk area], and not an attack on the whole country. My division was totally against it.”
“If Ukraine wanted to become part of Russia, to strike up some cooperation — by all means. No one would be against that. But to force them is just not acceptable.”
Are those their true feelings, or do they feel pressured into taking that position? There’s a long and not particularly glorious history of using POWs for propaganda purposes, and skepticism probably should be our first impulse. But does that mean we should entirely avert our eyes from the testimony of POWs in deference to the Geneva Convention? CNN argues otherwise, perhaps in part for the scoop of getting captured Russians to talk about their mission and the lies behind it. They do sound a bit defensive on this point, with just a touch of the lady dost protest too much, methinks:
Their public appearances may be questionable under the Geneva Conventions, which forbid states from causing unnecessary humiliation to prisoners of war. And it is possible that they felt pressure to express views sympathetic to those of their captors.
But three captured Russian air force pilots who spoke to CNN did not suggest they were speaking under duress. … CNN were the only journalists in the room and at no time did Ukrainian Security Services, who were in the room throughout, interject or direct CNN or the prisoners to ask or answer specific questions. The interview was conducted in Russian.
We won’t know what the truth is until and unless these same POWs get back to Russia and clarify their testimony. Assuming Putin allows them to do so, though, which points up an even thornier issue of whether anyone can rely on political declarations in Russia. The re-Sovietization of the Russian state has made dissent a criminal offense, in a country where it had already been a health risk to oppose Putin for years before this. One can even wonder whether these POWs might be more free to offer their true thoughts as prisoners in Ukraine than they would be in Moscow once liberated. That still doesn’t eliminate the need for skepticism here, but instead spreads it across all of the places it belongs.
Regardless, Putin’s domestic political problems will keep multiplying exponentially as Russian soldiers return home from this war. They will know that Putin lied all along about neo-Nazis, and they will know that their orders targeted civilians rather than military targets using the crudest bombs rather than precision munitions. All of the FSB agents in Russia won’t keep that truth from spreading, even if the POWs might be laying it on thick now to curry favor with their very angry Ukrainian captors. A quick and “glorious” victory through capitulation might have avoided that, but now Putin’s looking at a situation where Russian institutions are massively destabilized and violence will only go so far against angry and battle-hardened veterans. That adds up to a very bleak future not just for Putin but also for the ruling oligarchical class that has propped him up.
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