Interview with Iryna Vereshchuk, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, TSN.
Ukraine is holding Russian prisoners of war, whom their country has not taken back since 2014.
How many Ukrainian soldiers have been captured by the occupiers? What do Ukraine’s Western partners offer to those Russian prisoners who agree to speak publicly about Putin’s crimes? The work of the Joint Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, future exchanges and the service that will collect information about missing Ukrainians are discussed in a frank interview with Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk by TSN special correspondent Stanislav Yasynsky.
– Ms. Iryna, why is this headquarters needed, is it just another bureaucratic branch?
– The Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War works every hour and every minute. It includes representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Defense, and other structures: all those who deal with prisoners of war. Everyone has their own registers: for example, there is a prisoner exchange center at the SSU. Justice has its own penitentiary system. There is a system for holding prisoners during hostilities in military units. There are rooms for them there, they are heated by boilers. All of this exists and is very complex, so it was decided to organize it all into one body. But yesterday the National Information Bureau was created. We faced the problem that there is information, but it is very fragmented, everyone gathers their own information and there is no generalized information. A person cannot call one number and provide or receive information: if it is a civilian who has been taken hostage, if they are truck drivers stuck at the Russian border in the Sumy direction. Or if they are prisoners of war. This is how we are now forming registers of all prisoners of war and civilians.
– How many prisoners of war do we have in this register?
– If we’re talking about Russian prisoners of war, we have 562 people. There is also the so-called cargo of 200. We also form and organize it, together with the Red Cross. If we are talking about Ukrainian prisoners of war, we have had a base since 2014. We have not yet managed to separate those who have been captured by us since 2014, there are several hundreds of them, and those who have been captured since February 24 inclusive. Therefore, it is somewhat larger than the base of Russian prisoners. But if we roughly separate it out, we know that there are about 270 of our prisoners. Those who are recorded, those who are in our register. In total (since 2014) there are about 650 people. But these registers are changing every hour, because we are only filling this database now.
– Are these Russian prisoners already in one place or are they in units?
– They are in units. And there is a legal basis for this. The Red Cross has access to them, we immediately ensured this. We send the Red Cross special cards for each of them. We do everything in accordance with international humanitarian law. This is not the case with Russia. Russia has not yet given an answer as to how many prisoners they have, and the Red Cross has no influence on this. It’s a terrible situation when international law is powerless in the face of a country that does not comply with the norms and rules of war.
– Is there any information on how they are being treated, or is there nothing?
– During the meeting in Kyiv, we demanded from Peter Maurer (President of the ICRC) that during his trip to Moscow, which is about to take place, just the other day, he visit our prisoners of war in Crimea. And he agreed to do so, because many prisoners of war are on the territory of the occupied Crimea. For example, Zmiinyi Island. We thought there were much fewer prisoners there. But 92 people were taken prisoner there, because it was not just border guards. There were also those who tried to rescue them. They are all in Sevastopol, we have this data. He should visit them and report to us on their condition and how they are being held.
– At what expense are Russian prisoners held?
– The Ukrainian budget. That’s why when they say to me, “Let’s not exchange them until the end of the war,” just imagine: we are taking it away from a Ukrainian soldier. This prisoner is provided with food and is fed in the same way as a Ukrainian soldier. We have to do this. There will be thousands of them, these prisoners. By the way, we conducted a survey. And the prisoners say they do not want to return from captivity to Russia. But this is also a mandatory requirement, the consent to exchange. And now these conscripts do not want to return to the country that sent them to kill Ukrainian women and children.
– How many prisoners do not want to return?
– We need the Red Cross to report this to us. They enter the cells on their own. There are no representatives of the Ukrainian authorities, humanitarian law requires this. And it’s going slowly, we spend hours talking to each of them. We are not in a hurry, we want everything to go according the letter and spirit of the law. In this case, something will have to be done because there are hundreds of them. And the number of them is increasing every day.
– How will decisions on exchanges be made?
– You know, there are a lot of civilians who are being taken hostage now. City mayors, for example. We will have to think about something. How we, as a state, will act in this case.
– Is there a possibility that these people will work to rebuild our homes, our factories, our economy? Or will they just be exchanged?
– I don’t know if they will only be exchanged, or how many of them will be exchanged. After all, we do not work to just exchange them. During the war, these should be exceptions, not the rule, the exchanges. Because the Russian Federation will have an incentive to take more civilians, even more mayors, to exchange them for their captured soldiers. And this will simply be terrorist blackmail. That is why we are demanding that local governments be released. Because they took an oath and are not armed. They fulfill their duties regardless of whether we are at war or not. But for some reason, the Red Cross is telling us that this is not an act of terrorism, but internment. I am surprised by this formulation. Because if they take a mayor hostage to put pressure on the Ukrainian authorities to exchange them for their prisoners of war, then this is blackmail or an act of terrorism.
– You started talking about a joint information center.
– With your permission, I would like to give you a short number – 1648 – please call if you have any questions or you’d like to report the capture of your relatives, if someone is missing or has information. Or the phone number 0442878165. Call and we will form registers together. Let’s hope that there will be fewer people in our registry.
– Is there a possibility that these prisoners will be granted citizenship of Ukraine or partner countries if they openly talk about the crimes?
– There is such a possibility. We have been approached by foreign states that they are ready to grant citizenship and political asylum to officers of the Russian army, as well as to the families of the officers if they speak openly about the crimes and criminal orders that Putin gave. This includes the United States and the United Kingdom. And I think this will work in the near future.
– So this primarily concerns the downed Russian pilots?