Russian prisoners and Ukrainian soldiers describe two sides of the conflict
By Andrew E. Kramer
With hands still dirty from the battlefield, a dozen Russian prisoners of war sat, stony-faced, in a conference room of a Ukrainian news agency Saturday and described being captured after their armored columns were ambushed.
Lt. Dmitry Kovalensky, who had fought in a Russian tank unit and spoke at the behest of his Ukrainian captors, said he recently came under fire from an armed drone and shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles on a road near Sumy in northeastern Ukraine. “The whole column burned,” he said.
Around the same time and a few miles away, at a makeshift Ukrainian military base in an abandoned building on the western edge of Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers prepared for the same sort of ambushes that took out Kovalensky’s unit.
Lt. Yevgeny Yarantsev of Ukraine said his country’s soldiers fight differently than the Russians. The troops under his command organize in small, nimble units that can sneak up on and ambush the lumbering columns of Russian tanks.
“They have a lot of tanks, we have a lot of anti-tank weapons,” said Yarantsev, who previously fought with a volunteer group against Russia in eastern Ukraine. “In the open field, it will be even. It’s easier to fight in the city.”
The two young officers — the same rank, but each representing a different country — gave some of the few firsthand accounts of the fighting that have emerged in the 10-day war. The Russian was a prisoner of war speaking under the watchful eye of heavily armed Ukrainian security officials. The Ukrainian spoke as he displayed newly obtained, sophisticated weapons from the United States.
The accounts of soldiers from both sides give a small glimpse of how the war is being fought around Kyiv in the north. There, relying largely on ambush tactics, Ukrainian forces have slowed the Russian campaign to encircle and capture the capital, even as Russian troops barrel across the south.
Kovalensky and the other Russian prisoners were presented at a news conference intended to support Ukraine’s claim that it had captured a significant number of Russian soldiers. In their statements, the prisoners blended woodenly phrased condemnations of their own country’s leadership with genuine-sounding details of the conflict’s early firefights.
According to the rules governing treatment of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, governments are supposed to protect a prisoner of war from being made into a “public curiosity,” a concept that is sometimes interpreted as not presenting them in any public setting. The Russian soldiers looked exhausted but showed no outward signs of having been mistreated.
The prisoners’ comments and the fact of their capture supported descriptions by Western military analysts and governments of a Russian offensive that has suffered grave setbacks. The Russian army’s superior numbers and equipment, however, could well reverse that trend.
“Near the end of the day’s movement on Feb. 27, our column was attacked,” Pvt. Dmitry Gagarin of the Russian army told reporters. “My commander burned and died. I ran into the forest and later surrendered to local people.”
Kovalensky said he learned Russia would invade Ukraine only the evening before the tank columns began moving, and that soldiers at the rank of sergeant and lower were not told where they were driving until after crossing the border.
All the prisoners described being captured after their armored columns were ambushed on roads, accounts that supported Ukraine’s assertions that its military had made good use of Western-supplied anti-tank weaponry, such as the U.S.-made Javelin missile. But independent analysts have also described more mundane problems for the Russian army, including logistical snarls and a lack of fuel.
Yarantsev commands what he described as a mobile group of about 500 soldiers who are skirmishing with the Russians on the western approach to Kyiv. He said the group’s prospects were bolstered three days ago when they received Barrett 50-caliber sniper rifles in a shipment from the United States.
Sleek and black, with barrels so long they look almost like spears, the rifles were being unpacked and inspected. One sniper, who declined to offer his name, said he had fired one in combat on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Yarantsev said the troops were more comfortable being able to garrison in buildings than in fields or forests. “I’ve noticed something about war,” he said. “Soldiers want to be somewhere where cellphones work and where there is internet.”
The building where the soldiers were garrisoned, in a leafy residential area of the city, was cluttered with ammunition boxes. Two hand grenades sat on the floor beside a sofa. The soldiers had an electric kettle and offered coffee. In a hallway, a soldier oiled his Kalashnikov rifle.
The fighting has been inching closer to the capital. Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said in a statement Saturday that the Russian forces’ primary objective is to encircle Kyiv, following the tactic they have pursued with smaller cities such as Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which is now surrounded with its heat and electricity cut off.
The fighting around Kyiv is mostly in Irpin and Bucha, two outlying towns to the northwest, where conditions are grim. A central street in Bucha is clogged with the burned husks of Russian armored personnel carriers, destroyed in an ambush.
Stanislav Bobrytsky, a computer programmer reached by phone in Irpin, said he had not left his apartment since Tuesday. “All the windows are shaking” from blasts, he said. “It’s very scary.”
In the center of Kyiv, at the news conference with captured Russian soldiers, the Ukrainian security officials present refused to speak. A moderator passed around a microphone, offering reporters an opportunity to question the prisoners.
Kovalensky said he was appealing to the Russian people to rise up and overthrow President Vladimir Putin because the Russian leadership had deceived the army’s officers about the aims of the war and had used the guise of a military exercise to prepare for an invasion.
The prisoners said they did not know what would happen to them after the news conference. While they said they were treated well, days after their capture it was unclear if they had showered or been offered clean clothes.