The desperate effort to get Ukraine’s captured civilians back from Russia

Thousands of ordinary Ukrainians have been taken prisoner by Russian forces. Is there hope for them?

“A year and seven months today – on her birthday, 13 May.”

Elena Korniy is calculating the time that has passed since her family last saw her younger sister, Iryna Horobtsova. Two letters and a short note are all the information the family has received since Iryna was kidnapped by Russian security services in Kherson in May 2022.

Many years ago, before social media became ubiquitous, Iryna and I knew each other. We lived in neighbouring apartment blocks in Kherson, and every morning we would take the minibus that went from the northern outskirts of the city to the centre to get to university.

A stern girl with blue hair and a book, we studied on different floors at the university, but later we would meet several times a week at the computer science department. We started communicating in my senior years: both her friends and my school friends hung out in the nightclub where I worked. Eventually Ira, as I knew her, graduated and began a successful career in IT development; she married, divorced, and got her own apartment in the city centre.

She is one of thousands of Ukrainian civilians who are now held by Russia – without communication with lawyers, family, right to appeal or chance of exchange – and whose fate hangs in the balance as Moscow and Kyiv hold back-channel talks on exchanging them.

Stay behind

“War changes people a lot,” says Elena as she recalls the last days of February 2022, when the Russian army, advancing from Crimea, surrounded Kherson, and Ukrainian officials, police and security services quit the city in haste.

“Many of us did not understand what to do. But Ira got into the car and rushed to the pharmacies: she bought painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and syringes, and delivered everything to the hospitals,” Elena remembers.

The city’s hospitals were soon full: hundreds of volunteers, hastily armed the day before, unsuccessfully tried to hold back the advance of thousands of Russian soldiers on several approaches to Kherson. And victims of Russian shelling soon appeared in the emergency departments, too. Ira volunteered to take doctors and nurses home after long shifts; there was no public transport in the city any more.

The first spontaneous rally of Kherson residents took place on 5 March 2022, says Elena. “As soon as information appeared in chats and social networks that they were gathering on Freedom Square, Ira said: ‘Let’s go!’ And the whole family went – only me and my youngest stayed at home.”

For several hours, thousands of citizens with Ukrainian flags and homemade posters shouted at the confused Russian military, who were driving trucks with humanitarian aid to the central square: “Shame!” and “Kherson is Ukraine”. The next day, spontaneous rallies swept through other occupied towns and villages in the region. Kherson residents began to go to Freedom Square every Sunday.

But repression followed swiftly. Russia’s FSB had joined the military in the city, and the Russian National Guard started keeping order on the streets. Mass arrests began the next week: Russian security forces came to Kherson, as well as to other occupied regions, with ready-made (although not always accurate) lists of pro-Ukrainian politicians and civic activists, along with those who had fought on Ukraine’s side in the 2014 to 2022 war in Donbas. The first detainees were asked: who organises these regular rallies? The Russians simply did not believe that the resistance was spontaneous.

Elena’s recollections about the Russian occupation make me remember my own conversations with friends and relatives who remained in Kherson. My fellow countrymen seemed absolutely unprepared for war: over the phone I scolded a classmate who filmed a column of Russian armoured personnel carriers right from his balcony; I was barely able to dissuade my mother-in-law from “running and seeing” why Russians were shooting on the next street. Always carry documents with you, hide your phones, give bribes at checkpoints with cigarettes, not alcohol, and never argue with armed people – all these basic safety rules, familiar to me since 2014, I had to chew over once again.

And, of course, I tried to persuade everyone to leave. To remain under occupation means to put your life, health and freedom at risk, which is not worth your savings, your property, or your attachment to your home city. True, it was not easy to leave Kherson. There were battles on all the roads around the region, and it was not possible to agree on “green corridors” for evacuation with the Russian military.

The last rally in Kherson was dispersed by Russian security forces with stun grenades and machine gun fire on 27 April

“None of us had ever seen checkpoints before and didn’t know what they were, who these military men were and how to behave with them,” recalls Elena, who left Kherson in early April, when the first convoys of civilians began to pass through the front line in the neighbouring Mykolaiv region. Lack of work and fear of the tyranny of Russian forces, which only intensified after war crimes emerged around the liberated Kyiv region, forced Elena’s family to move to her husband’s homeland in western Ukraine.

Iryna remained in Kherson, moving to her parents’ apartment in the outskirts. They flatly refused to leave; Ira hoped to persuade them over time, but she herself hoped to finish a psychology course at Kherson University by the end of spring, says her sister. Her job as a software testing engineer allowed her to work remotely, collect donations for Kherson doctors and volunteers through social networks, and continue to go to Sunday rallies.

The last rally in Kherson was dispersed by Russian security forces with stun grenades and machine gun fire on 27 April. The day before, the Russian occupation authorities had removed the Ukrainian flag from the city hall and appointed their own administration. They installed the well-known local politician Vladimir Saldo as the head of both the city and region of Kherson – ex-KGB and security services officer Alexander Kobts. The elected mayor of Kherson, Igor Kolykhaev, moved into a building run by one of the utility companies and initially continued to manage some city services from there. After two months, however, he was arrested by the Russian National Guard.

People in Kherson started to feel despair and abandonment. Ukrainian television and radio had stopped in March; Russian TV was talking about an imminent victory over Ukraine. The liberation of Ukraine’s northern regions was not followed by an offensive in the south; rumours about an imminent “referendum” for a so-called “Kherson People’s Republic ” spread throughout the city.

Iryna was the first to notice the cars parked in her yard on the morning of 13 May, from the balcony. Her mother Tetiana Horobtsova would later recall in an interview: “The doorbell rings. She says: “Mum, it’s for me.” I open the door, and there are six people with machine guns, in camouflage uniforms, in masks.”

The Russian security forces were irritated by many things in the family’s apartment: books in Ukrainian, the Ukrainian state flag, a poster with the inscription “Putin go away” that they took to rallies. Without pressing any charges, Russian officials took computers, phones, flash drives and binoculars – and detained Iryna, who was not allowed to take any belongings except her passport.

“From the letters and stories, we understood they did not torture her, did not beat her” Elena Horobtsova

They said she would return in the evening. But the next day, the father did not find her in the occupation commandant’s office. Later it turned out she had been placed in the Kherson pre-trial detention centre before being taken to Crimea. Lyudmila Denisova, who at that time was Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, claimed that “the occupiers spent a week extorting a confession from [Iryna] that she was directing fire at the Chornobaevka airfield [outside Kherson city] from the windows of her parents’ apartment.”

The Horobtsovs could not confirm these accusations, and indeed the fate of their daughter, for a long time.

But through their endless requests to the Russian security forces, grains of information eventually broke through. The FSB reported that Ira had “opposed the special military operation... a decision regarding it will be made after the end of the SVO”, a reference to the so-called ‘special military operation’.

By the end of summer 2022, it became known that many Kherson residents were being held in a pre-trial detention centre in Simferopol, Crimea, isolated from other prisoners. Ira’s parents could neither get a meeting with nor deliver a parcel to their daughter. The lawyer they hired, Emil Kurbedinov, a well-known defender of Crimean Tatar activists, has been trying on their behalf for a year and a half.

In the autumn of 2022, Iryna’s friends gave her parents two letters, which they had received by email through the Russian prison system. The letters they sent in response, however did not arrive; this became clear when another Kherson girl was released, Iryna’s first cellmate after several months in solitary confinement.

“From the letters and stories, we understood they did not torture her, did not beat her,” says Elena. “During all this time there were only two or three interrogations. During one they simply put an iron in front of Ira. It seems that all they were trying to achieve was to break her morally, because she is so principled.”

By the end of 2022, Ukrainian prisoners in Simferopol had been collected in a second, newly built pre-trial detention centre. Yet Kurbedinov still could not confirm that his client was there, though other prisoners heard her name at roll call. Crimean human rights activists suggest that inside this prison there is yet another, secret facility with a strict isolation regime. People like Iryna are being held there “for resisting the SVO” without any criminal charges, and therefore deprived of any rights.

Illegal detentions

Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets claims that Russia has illegally detained around 28,000 civilian Ukrainian citizens since 2014.

Lubinets’ office explains that this number includes those arrested on “political” charges in Crimea and the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, deported prisoners and those missing since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Activists from the Media Initiative for Human Rights have managed to identify almost 1,350 Ukrainians detained by the Russian Federation. At the end of spring 2023, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 864 confirmed cases, though recognised that there were likely significantly more actual detentions.

In its report, OHCHR tried to determine the main motives for Russia’s detention of civilians. In the first weeks of the full-scale invasion, the targets for arrests were primarily those suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian armed forces: former police officers, war veterans, owners of firearms, and sometimes even just owners of camouflaged SUVs. Around 100 men and women were arrested this way in a single outlying district of Kyiv in March 2022, and 44 of them were transported to a jail in Bryansk, Russia.

“When they came to us, they immediately asked where the safe was,” recalls Anton Chirkov, whose father, funeral business owner Oleksandr Chirkov, was detained by the Russian National Guard outside Kyiv on 16 March 2022.

Another group of Ukrainian civilians subject to mass detentions are those who fail to pass Russian “filtration” while passing through areas where there is active fighting in the Donbas, the Kharkiv region, or Crimea.

“We receive all our information from released cellmates”

Brovary resident Karina Malakhova-Dyachuk told openDemocracy that her father, 52-year-old Vyacheslav Zavalnyi, was detained by Russian forces this way in March 2022 while trying to pick up his wife and son from besieged Mariupol. In the summer of 2022, Malakhova-Dyachuk, together with other relatives of those arrested from all over Ukraine, united into a public organisation called Civilians in Captivity. It now represents 264 arrested people.

Working together helps relatives at least find prisoners. “We receive all our information from released cellmates,” says Malakhova-Dyachuk. “Someone saw someone, someone heard them at roll call. Letters arrive in some isolated cases.” She is still active in the group even after her father was released in January 2023 in a prisoner-of-war exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

The price of exchange

Prisoner exchanges, where the Russian side releases Ukrainian civilian detainees, are very rare. In the 22 months since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, fewer than 200 Ukrainian civilians have been freed as a result of exchanges.

“In the early months, when only the [Ukrainian] ombudsman’s office dealt with prisoners, civilians were regularly included in the exchange lists,” says Chirkov.

But in May 2022, a special unit on the Ukrainian side took control of negotiations with Russia on prisoner exchange: the Coordination Headquarters under the control of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence. Their priority, the coordination headquarters claims, is the release of Ukrainian military personnel, not civilians.

The Fourth Geneva Convention spells out a number of rules and restrictions for detention and internment of civilians: they must have access to a lawyer and family members, as well as the right to appeal the grounds for detention. But Ukrainian civilians detained by Russia are currently deprived of these basic rights.

At the beginning of 2023, Russia began categorising Ukrainian civilians as prisoners of war. Then Chirkov’s father Oleksandr and other men detained in the Kyiv region appeared in POW lists from the International Red Cross, published in Ukraine by the country’s National Information Bureau. The Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters, however, still refuses to consider detained civilians as prisoners of war and include them in the exchange lists.

“If we agree to exchange [Ukrainian civilians] for Russian military personnel, this will become a precedent that will encourage Russia to take more and more Ukrainian civilians hostage,” reasons Stanyslav Miroshnichenko, head of the information department of the Media Initiative for Human Rights.

No procedure

“We are constantly told: in international humanitarian law there is no procedure for the exchange of civilians,” complains Karina Malakhova- Dyachuk. “But there is no such procedure for prisoners of war, either. The Geneva Conventions say only that all of them must be released at the end of the war. This means that exchanges [happening now] are the result of political agreements, but there are no agreements on civilians.”

Over the past two years, the topic of Ukrainian civilian prisoners has been raised at the international security organisation the OSCE, the UN Human Rights Council, the European Parliament and other international organisations. But the pressure on the Russian Federation has not been sufficient, admits Oleksandr Kononenko, a representative of the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman.

“Now we understand that there will be no unconditional release of civilians – we’ll need to give the Russians someone in exchange,” Kononenko told openDemocracy in a phone interview.

At the end of December 2022, the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters added civilian captives to its priorities. What’s more, a cautious dialogue has begun between Kyiv and Moscow, which may make it possible to develop mutual rules for the release of non-combatants, explains Kononenko.

Yet since the summer, Kyiv and Moscow have not made much progress on the release of civilians, though each side has at least agreed to let the other visit its own civilians in jail. One issue is whether Russia wants to exchange civilians at all: for example, Russia Today’s executive director Kirill Vyshinsky, a powerful figure in Russian public opinion, has suggested that, from Russia’s perspective, doing so may be too legally complicated.

Another issue on the Russian side, says Russian MP Dmitry Kuznetsov, is the lack of a focused institution dealing with civilian captives – unlike Ukraine. Kuznetsov is negotiating the conditions of detention of prisoners of war with the office of the Ukrainian ombudsman. “I hope this institution will be set up at the international level,” he said.

Still, Kuznetsov says, Russia is “forming lists of political prisoners based on requests from relatives” – people who could be exchanged. These are, he says, mostly people in Ukraine who have been accused or convicted of collaboration with Russia.

Indeed, Moscow is already attempting to use the topic of “political repression” in Ukraine for a possible exchange of civilians, says Kononenko, from the office of the Ukrainian ombudsman.

“[Russia] would probably like to use Ukrainian citizens convicted of collaboration for exchange,” Kononenko suggests. “We cannot allow this – otherwise the whole point of criminal punishment, [which is] the search for reasons why citizens betray their homeland, will be lost.”

Kononenko believes that for “mutual release” of prisoners, Ukraine should instead offer Russian citizens arrested or convicted of crimes related to the military conflict.

“It is difficult to talk about mutual trust in humanitarian issues during military operations, but I really hope that the issue of civilian prisoners will be resolved sooner or later,” says Dmitry Kuznetsov.