Deserters or Victims?: The Mysterious Soldiers Captured in Ukraine
Last week, Ukrainian forces arrested two men in the Crimean peninsula, Ensign Maxim Evgenyevich Odintsov and Junior Sergeant Alexander Vyacheslavovich Baranov. According to Ukrainian leadership, the men are deserters who defected to the Russian military in 2014 but according to the Russian defense ministry, the pair are Russian servicemen who have been illegally detained. And no one is quite sure what’s going on.
According to a Russian Black Sea Fleets official, the two men were “lured” into Ukraine, incentivized by the promise of receiving higher education certificates. Ukraine’s Security Service has argued that it apprehended the men after they crossed the checkpoint into Ukrainian-controlled territory while Russia is claiming that the men were kidnapped and dragged back across the border. A video was released last week displaying the detentions at the checkpoint followed by the interrogations of the two men, during which one admits to having served in the Ukrainian military–although it is unclear whether that admission was made under duress. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused Ukraine of “illegal provocation” and added to the Russian narrative that the confession of the captured soldier was forced rather than genuine. As the Russian army mobilizes at an ever-increasing rate to control Crimea, Ukraine has sought to crack down on deserters. Of the estimated 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers who were in Crimea at the time of annexation, only approximately 6,010 have returned to the mainland to fight for Ukraine in the de facto war sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
It remains to be seen whether the two men in question will be detained in Ukraine for the long term or returned to Russia (or at least Russian controlled Crimea) by diplomatic means. If they are truly Ukrainian deserters, they will undergo criminal trials in Ukraine. However, if they are determined to be political prisoners or illegally detained, there may be an opportunity for a prisoner exchange–several Ukrainian citizens have been held illegally by Russian forces in occupied Crimea. Frantz Klintsevich, a Russian member of parliament, stated that he believes the two men were kidnapped expressly to serve as bargaining chips in a prisoner exchange. The last high profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine took place in May, when Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko (captured by rebels and taken to Russia as prisoner of war) was exchanged for two Russian soldiers captured while collecting intelligence in Eastern Ukraine.
Alternatively, the Russians may aim to retrieve the two men by force–which is the true concern that has cast an international spotlight over the capture of these individuals. Neither man appears to be an especially valuable intelligence asset but if Russian forces successfully frame this as a kidnapping, they may justify violent action in order to retrieve their soldiers. Although the evidence presented by the Ukrainian Security Service has so far verified the claim that these men were legally arrested at the checkpoint, Vladimir Putin has condemned the arrest. Putin has spent the past several months building out the narrative he created this summer, when he claimed that Ukraine was planning terrorist attacks against the Russian forces in Crimea, painting Ukraine as untrustworthy and threatening.