Russia is allegedly trying to use Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) in its captivity to encourage protests at home and put pressure on Kyiv, Politico reported on Dec. 27, citing interviews with the families of POWs.
Ukrainian officials said in December that Russia currently holds at least 3,500 Ukrainian POWs, although the number is thought to be higher. Russia and Ukraine held numerous prisoner exchanges in 2022, but the number has decreased in 2023, with the last instance occurring in August.
Ukrainian authorities said that Russia had decided on a freeze on prisoner swaps, possibly to try to destabilize Ukrainian society.
Families of POWs told Politico that after months of silence, they suddenly received calls from their family members in Russian custody, in which the POWs encouraged their families to protest against the government, claiming that "Kyiv does not want to take us back."
Petro Yatsenko, spokesperson of Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, told Politico that many POWs' families had received similar calls, which indicated that it was likely a "campaign to cause distrust in the government."
"I think Russians want to discredit our government," the wife of a Ukrainian POW said. "They want to cause havoc." She said she did not go to protest.
Throughout the war, Russia's military has been repeatedly accused of mistreating Ukrainian POWs and violating international humanitarian law.
Yatsenko said to Politico that as many as 90% of returned Ukrainian POWs experienced torture or the deprivation of food and sleep. Communication with their families was almost impossible.
Recent reports indicate that Russia has conscripted tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied regions of Ukraine, forcing them to fight against their own country.
Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office reported on Dec. 14 that it had opened a criminal case into Russia's alleged use of POWs as human shields after a video surfaced depicting what appeared to be unarmed Ukrainian POWs being forced to walk at gunpoint toward Ukrainian lines.