May 22, 2024

They Want to Know


They Want to Know
Readiness check of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division. 
  Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Wikimedia Commons
 

According to official data from Ukraine, by the end of autumn 2023, there were more than 2,300 Ukrainian individuals in Russian captivity, while the Ukrainian project "Ya khochu zhit" ("I Want to Live") published lists of 600 prisoners of war from Russia in Ukraine at the end of 2023.

Yet large-scale exchanges of prisoners between the two countries are rare. And relatives of captured military personnel often have little or no information about the fate of their loved ones. getting information from the Russian Ministry of Defense or other authorities is more than challenging.

A typical scenario unfolded with Andrei, a relative of a 27-year-old Russian soldier who volunteered to fight in September 2022. Andrei recounted to journalists at Verstka that, after his relative ceased communication, the family discovered he was listed as missing. Despite attempts to seek additional information from the soldier's battalion commander, Andrei faced obstruction, including receiving obscene voice messages and being blocked from further communication. It was only after several months that Andrei received an official response from the Ministry of Defense confirming his relative's captivity in Ukraine.

Sergei Krivenko, Director of the human rights group "Grazhdanin. Armiya. Pravo." ("Citizen. Army. Right."), told Verstka that, in a time of conflict, military units hold basic information on the status of Russian personnel. While relatives may attempt to contact the Ministry of Defense via phone or its website, military authorities are often unable to provide information on prisoners of war unless they receive information from unit commanders.

The indifference of Russian authorities towards the fate of military personnel, coupled with the lack of information, has prompted relatives to rely on Telegram channels and Vkontakte communities, which have large memberships, some in the tens of thousands. Users exchange advice on ways to locate missing persons and strategies for securing their release from captivity.

Frequently, members are advised to contact State Duma Deputy Shamsail Saraliev and Z-blogger Anastasia Kashevarova. In June 2023, Kashevarova, along with three other individuals, established  "Zhenskiy Front" ("Women's Front") as a way to help Russian military personnel and their families. The organization advocates for financial support to prisoners' families via appeals to the military prosecutor's office and also alerts families to possible scams.

Several Telegram channels, through which relatives of Russian military personnel seek assistance, are administered by Ukrainian volunteers who compile information on Russian casualties. Noteworthy channels include "Plennye i pogibshie soldaty" ("Prisoners and Dead Soldiers"), which has 30,000 subscribers and "NE ZHDI Menya iz Ukrainy" ("Don't wait for me from Ukraine") with 205,000 subscribers, along with several clone channels. In their appeals, relatives provide detailed information, including date of birth, call sign, and unit number, in hopes of eliciting a response from the Ukrainian side.

Another prevalent method for locating captured relatives involves scouring videos produced by Ukrainian journalists and military personnel. Since the onset of Russians full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, numerous video interviews with captured Russians have surfaced online. Among these, the YouTube channel managed by Ukrainian journalist Vladimir Zolkin has over 1.8 million subscribers.

Yet public pleas to locate missing servicemen can attract scammers. In December 2022, Verstka detailed common deception schemes, including offers to ransom military personnel from Ukrainian captivity, to enlist the aid of tarot readers and spiritual mediums, to purchase spots on "exchange lists," and to arrange phone calls with military officials. Such frauds are often carried out by prisoners in Russian jails.

In January 2024, Ukraine initiated the Coordination Headquarters project for the treatment of prisoners of war, titled "Ya khochu nayti" ("I Want to Find"). Relatives of Russian military personnel can submit search requests via a chatbot, and the Ukrainian military checks their records to see if soldiers are listed as deceased or captured.

Additionally, Ukraine has invited relatives to visit their captive loved ones. Under the state project "Ya khochu zhit" ("I Want to Live"), two initiatives – "Vernyom syna matery" ("Let's Return the Son to the Mother") and "Vernyom zhene muzha" ("Let's Return the Husband to the Wife") – facilitate visits for wives and mothers of Russian prisoners of war.

In September 2023, Irina Krynina, who lives in Krasnoyarsk, took part in the "Vernyom zhene muzha" project. She traveled to Ukraine to reunite with her partner, Yevgeny Kovtkov, who was less than enthusiastic about her visit. Subsequently, Krynina said that her partner opted to await an exchange so as to return to Russia. Krynina chose to remain in Ukraine, and is now employed within the project "Ya khochu zhit".

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