Russia says a battalion made up of Ukrainian prisoners of war is about to be sent to fight against their own country

  • Ukrainian prisoners of war will soon be fighting against their own country, Russian state media says.

  • Russia is likely deploying them under a formation in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, the ISW says.

  • The move could violate the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War.

Russia said a battalion of Ukrainian prisoners of war, or POWs, would soon be sent to the front lines to fight against their own country, state media reported.

State media said troops had taken an oath of allegiance, but the move could still be a violation of international laws concerning warfare. It also raises questions about the need to use POWs, in particular about the state and quality of Russia's forces as they suffer a high number of casualties on the battlefield.

On November 7, the Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti said Ukrainian POWs in the "Bogdan Khmelnitsky" battalion swore an oath of allegiance to Russia and would soon deploy into battle. The outlet had said in late October that Russian authorities were planning to send the group — described as a battalion including about 70 prisoners from various penal colonies — to the front lines and that they were conducting relevant training in preparation.

The Institute for the Study of War said the troops were likely to be sent into battle shortly, citing several Russian sources. It cited RIA Novosti's report that they would be operating under the larger Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) "Kaskad" formation and said this suggested the POWs would be fighting on the front lines along the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, where Kaskad was reported to be active.

Both areas have seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. Around Avdiivka on the border of occupied Donetsk, Russia has launched a renewed offensive that's resulted in significant Russian casualties, as well as severe vehicle losses. Zaporizhzhia has been the focus of Ukraine's counteroffensive, where troops hoped to push past fortified Russian defenses and break occupied territory down to the Sea of Azov, effectively cutting Russian territory in that area in half, but have struggled to do so.

Chechen special forces troops take up firing positions as they attend a training session at a "Russian University of Special Forces" training centre in the town of Gudermes in Chechnya on December 13, 2022.
Chechen special-forces troops at a "Russian University of Special Forces" training centre in the town of Gudermes in Chechnya in December of last year.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

The details surrounding the coming deployment of Ukrainian POWs are murky. The battalion of POWs has previously been called a "volunteer" group, and its commander said their contracts were "concluded on general terms," RIA Novosti reported. State media has previously said they were "recruited." The language used may indicate the troops will receive salaries and benefits for their service comparable to their Russian counterparts.

It remains unclear, though, whether the soldiers were coerced into joining or did so of their own accord, as Russia suggests.

The deployment of POWs in service of the side that captured them could be a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which says "no prisoner of war may at any time be sent to or detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone," nor shall they "be employed on labor which is of an unhealthy or dangerous nature."

Ukraine has a battalion of Russians fighting for it, but it says that they purposefully traveled to Ukraine to sign up with the armed forces and fight for it, a very different approach from Russia's penal-colony recruitment efforts.

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