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Russia is already holding many Ukrainian POWs without any declaration of war

15.02.2022
Halya Coynash

From left, clockwise Ihor Hordiychuk, Pavlo Korsun, Ihor Myronchuk, Yury Diachenko, Serhiy Khotienov, Roman Onishchuk, Stanislav Panchenko, Vitaly Chmil, Andriy Kachynsky

Those western media asking “if” Russia is planning to invade Ukraine would be well advised to talk to the families of a large number of Ukrainian soldiers held prisoner by the Russian proxy ‘republics’ for up to seven years.  While these POWs are formally imprisoned by the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [‘D-LPR’], nobody is in any doubt that decisions on their release, like that of up to 300 civilian hostages, are made in Moscow.  When the latter bellows that Ukraine is purportedly failing to implement the Minsk Accords, journalists might ask why Russia and its proxies have repeatedly ignored the Minsk commitment for the release of prisoners on an all-for-all basis.

The following is, almost certainly, not a comprehensive list of those soldiers held prisoner in ‘D-LPR’. Russia’s use of hybrid warfare does not change the fact that these men were seized while defending their country within the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and any ‘criminal charges’ and ‘prison sentences’ are in flagrant violation of the Third Geneva Convention and other documents of international law.

Yury Hordiychuk and Pavlo Korsun  POWs ‘sentenced’ to 17 years

Yury Hordiychuk (b. 25.09.1982) is a solo father, with a small son (Maksym).  He and his slightly younger comrade, Pavlo Korsun, were taken prisoner by ‘DPR’ militants on 22 May 2019, together with six other soldiers from the 53rd Mechanized Brigade, when they mistakenly crossed into militant-controlled territory. It is not clear when one of the men, Roman Bespaly, was killed.  The militants initially tried to hide his body, and only handed it over near the end of 2019.  The other POWs were released in stages, however the militants staged a ‘trial’ of Hordiychuk and Korsun on 30 October 2019, with the puppet ‘court’ of an unrecognized ‘republic’ sentencing both men to 17 years’ imprisonment.   Both men are believed to be imprisoned at Makiyivka prison colony No. 32, where the militants are also holding many civilian hostages accused of ‘spying’. 

Ihor Myronchuk   POW ‘sentenced’ to 12 years

Since 2014, Russia and its proxy ‘republics’ have been violating international law, both by staging ‘trials’ of prisoners of war, and by forcing them to take part in propaganda stunts, including for Russian television.

One of their victims has been Ihor Myronchuk, a professional soldier from the Uzhhorod-based 128th Mountain Assault Brigade,, who has been defending Ukraine in Donbas since early 2014. He took part in the battles for the Luhansk Airport and Debaltseve, and has received several state honours.

Myronchuk was seized by militants in the Donetsk oblast on 9 February 2019, and clearly tortured into repeating Moscow’s line about the war for the Russian and Russian-controlled militant propaganda media. Myronchuk’s brigade reacted swiftly and appropriately to the propaganda video, stating that it had been taped and edited for propaganda purposes, and that any comments made in it were clearly due to the pressure placed on him.  His entire ‘interrogation’ was full of lines that could have been, or were, written by Moscow’s propagandists.  

Myronchuk is also now held at Colony No. 32 in occupied Makiyivka, following a farcical ‘trial’ and 12-year ‘sentence’.

Yuri Diachenko   POW ‘sentenced’ to 13 years

The only information about Diachenko was posted by the Media Initiative for Human Rights in January 2020, when the servicemen from the 24th Mechanized Brigade was 30.  He was captured by ‘DPR’ militants near occupied Maryinka in the Donetsk oblast on 28 July 2018, with the first information about him coming from a former hostage, released in December 2019.  Diachenko had explained to him that he had been abducted during the night from 27 to 28 July 2018; that he had lost consciousness and that, when he came to, he was wet and covered in dirt, as though he’d been dragged through the mud.   He said that he had been held separately and tortured for a month before being moved to the SIZO.  

It was later learned that a so-called ‘DPR court’ had sentenced him to 13 years’ imprisonment.  His whereabouts now are, however, unknown.

Roman Onishchuk

Onishchuk is part Polish and was living only around 50 kilometres from the Ukrainian-Polish border when he was called up in 2014.  His mother told a Polish journalist in 2020 that her son had dismissed any suggestion of moving to Poland to avoid mobilization and accepted that it was his duty to serve.  

He was seized by ‘LPR’ militants on 15 June 2015, while travelling by taxi to his military unit.  They let the taxi driver go and it was the latter who informed the police of the abduction.  Whether or not, as Onishchuk’s comrades reportedly said, the young soldier was, in fact, seized while carried out a military task, he was a serving soldier and should, undoubtedly, have been treated as a POW, in accordance with international law. Instead, his elderly mother has been put through unbearable anguish with the militants twice confirming that they were holding him, only to then withdraw such confirmation.  Perhaps the most hopeful indication was from a former hostage, released in December 2017, who confirmed that Halyna Onishchuk’s son was alive.  If, as hoped, that remains the case, it is unclear why the militants are so secretive about Roman’s whereabouts.

Serhiy Khotienov

Khotienov disappeared in February 2015, during the retreat from Debaltseve, which the ‘DPR’ militants gained control of due to the significant involvement of Russian troops.  He is officially classified both as a POW, and as missing without trace, however his family are convinced that he is being held prisoner in ‘DPR’.

Vitaly Chmil

The 35-year-old is from the Mykolaiv 36th Naval Infantry Brigade and disappeared on 2 May 2018 near frontline Shyrokyne.  The Armed Forces immediately concluded that Chmil had decided to change sides.  Then on 23 May, the ‘DPR news agency’ produced a video during which Chmil says that he was declared a deserter after he was taken prisoner and that the militant command and the Kyiv authorities couldn’t care less about them. He then went on to repeat the same propaganda lines which POWs have been forced to repeat, such as that there are no mercenaries in Donbas, etc.  Such videos are produced while men are under the total control of militants who know how to apply torture without leaving evident marks.  There is no proof that this was the case here, but in most cases where POWs or civilian hostages have been released, they have confirmed that any such ‘confessions’ were not given voluntarily.

Chmil’s wife, Oksana, and his mother are both adamant that he could not have betrayed his country and defected to ‘DPR’. 

Andriy Kachynsky

Kachynsky, a soldier from the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, was seized by militants during the night from 28 to 29 December 2019. It is unclear how he came to be in militant custody, however by 3 January 2020, ‘DPR’ militants had posted a video in which Kachynsky was, purportedly, admitting to having taken part in an unsuccessful ‘act of provocation’ and then been abandoned by his unit.

With respect to this video, Kachynsky’s sister, Tamara, has noted that her brother does not speak so much and so coherently as on the video and she would guess that he was repeating the words to a prompt.  She adds that her brother had wanted to join the army and had signed a three-year contract eight months earlier. Up till and including 27 December, he rang the family every day, asking about his mother who was bedridden and had lost her sight following a stroke.

Stanislav Panchenko

Panchenko, then a 20-year-old solder of the 58th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade, disappeared during the night from 17-18 January 2019.  He was on duty when all contact with him was lost.  As with Kachynsky, a video was posted after Panchenko had been held prisoner by the ‘DPR’ militants for around three days.  In it, Panchenko supposedly admitted to having voluntarily gone over to the militants’ side.  In confirming that Panchenko was indeed a prisoner, his brigade pointed out that these three days would have been sufficient to force the captured soldier into ‘admitting’ to whatever was demanded of him.

Having doubtless tortured this supposed admission out of Panchenko, the ‘DPR’ militants then went on to stage a ‘trial’ and 17-year sentence against the young soldier.  He too is imprisoned in Makiyivka Prison Colony No. 32.

Valentina Panchenko later told Donbas Realities that in the conversations she has been able to have with her son, he has not told her any details about what he endured so as not to worry her.  He did, however, say that “you have no idea what torture we go through here. I never imagined that such things take place in our times.”

There are known to be at least 300 Ukrainian hostages and prisoners of war in occupied Donbas, although the real figure is likely to be much higher.

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