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After weeks of setbacks in Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, the Kremlin has now seized on a chance to use prisoners of war as part of new propaganda efforts, while Ukrainian authorities warn many of them are actually being held in a “concentration camp.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Thursday said a total of 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers from Mariupol’s decimated Azovstal steel plant had surrendered this week alone, with 771 fighters supposedly laying down their weapons over the past 24 hours. Ukrainian authorities have been reluctant to divulge too many details, warning that it could derail the “rescue operation,” but confirmed Tuesday that 53 severely wounded troops had been taken to a hospital in the occupied Donetsk region, and another 211 had been evacuated to the occupied village of Olenivka.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister cautioned against buying into Russian claims, however.
“Russia has its own political processes, their own political groupings… which is why we must take their [claims] as political declarations aimed at a propagandistic effect and propagandistic goals for internal Russian consumption,” Anna Malyar told reporters on Thursday.
The warning was a timely one, as Russia’s Defense Ministry has begun to release snippets of footage of Ukrainian prisoners praising the conditions their captors are keeping them in.
Though Russia’s state-controlled media emphasized that one of the prisoners said conditions were “better than expected,” the handful of Ukrainians shown in one of the videos seemed clearly reluctant to be giving such glowing assessments.
In another video said to be shot at a medical facility in the occupied city of Olenivka, about a dozen Ukrainian prisoners were seen crowded in a room with bunk beds, some of them injured.
It wasn’t immediately clear which facility they were being held at, but Reuters cited witnesses to report on Tuesday that many prisoners were taken to a former prison colony.
Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol, said many ordinary Mariupol residents were also being held at the same site after being deemed “disloyal” to Russia.
“The situation there is fairly critical. The information we get from there is minimal. There are certain people who escaped from there. They are in terrible condition, telling [us] what went on there. It’s a real concentration camp: torture, [a chance to use] the toilet once a day, no walks,” Andryushchenko told Current Time.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, confirmed that it has registered “hundreds” of Ukrainian prisoners of war from Mariupol’s Azovstal plant.
The registration process “allows the ICRC to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families,” the organization said in a statement.
Since Ukraine confirmed Tuesday that hundreds of Ukrainian forces at Azovstal had surrendered after spending weeks under heavy Russian bombardment fighting to save Mariupol, fears have grown that they will be used as pawns in Moscow’s twisted efforts to sell the bogus narrative that the Russian invasion was launched to stop “Nazis.”
Immediately after reports broke of the Ukrainian troops falling into the hands of Russia’s military, Russian lawmakers proposed banning a prisoner exchange for the “Nazi criminals” and lifting a moratorium on the death penalty “to show the whole world that Ukrainian nationalists are worthy of only the maximum punishment.”
Perhaps even more alarming, there are signs the POWs could be used by the Kremlin as part of a demented campaign to pin Russia’s myriad alleged war crimes in Mariupol on Ukrainian forces.
Andryushchenko, the adviser to the Mariupol mayor, revealed on Telegram earlier this week that residents who stayed behind in the war-ravaged city had spoken of being offered financial compensation from Russian authorities in exchange for written declarations that the city was “destroyed by Ukrainian forces” and residents “killed by the Ukrainian army.”
Mariupol residents have also reportedly been offered payment—in rubles—for help clearing away dead bodies from the site of a theater bombing where an estimated 600 civilians were killed in a Russian airstrike in mid-March. On Thursday morning, locals took to Telegram to report that Russian authorities were still visible at the site packing the bodies up into trucks to be transported to an unknown location, presumably to hide evidence of Russian war crimes.