For three days, shells and mortars “flown and hissed over our heads, exploding all around us,” Anton, a Russian soldier based south of Bakhmut, told CNN. “We were hopping like rabbits under mortar rounds and bombs.”
When everything calmed down, he and his partner Slava fell asleep. The sound of a roaring engine and gunfire soon woke them up, and the shelling eventually blew up the logs covering the trench in which they were hiding.
“There was a crater right at the entrance. And then there was silence. The silence was complete. And my friend told me: let’s run,” recalls Slava, now in the custody of Ukrainian soldiers.
They ran, leaping over craters and bodies torn apart by the incessant shelling, to another trench. They could hear a vehicle and the voice of Ukrainian soldiers moving above them, he says. Anton had a rifle and a grenade. He says he heard a click, and two grenades were thrown. The depth of the trench protected them from the explosion.
“There was silence for a while, then (the Ukrainians) came back. I thought it was the end,” says Anton. He believed that he would be executed or brutally tortured.
“I put the rifle in single shot mode and thought I was going to shoot myself. But I couldn’t, he says, bursting into tears. He sobs quietly and lights a cigarette a Ukrainian soldier offers him.
He is one of eight Russian soldiers being held by the Ukrainian 3rd Assault Brigade in a makeshift jail in eastern Ukraine. The men were kept in small cells without natural ventilation or sunlight but with access to food, water and cigarettes.
CNN interviewed three of them before their transfer to Ukrainian intelligence services, in rare access to prisoners of war at this stage of detention. CNN does not use their real names and has concealed their identities to avoid possible negative consequences upon their return to Russia, and in connection with guidance issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross on information regarding prisoners of war.
In the presence of two Ukrainian soldiers, the three men described the low morale in their trenches, the disorder and the apparent neglect of some Russian forces. It doesn’t look like they spoke under duress.
The men’s captors want to trade them for Ukrainian soldiers being held by the Russians, but they don’t have much hope. Most of the captured Russians are convicts, brought to the front lines under the command of Z Storm, a unit of the Russian Defense Ministry that grants amnesty to Russian convicts if they agree to a six-month deployment to Ukraine.
“To the Russian government, they’re not worth much,” a Ukrainian soldier nicknamed “Grandpa” tells us. He is in charge of the makeshift jail and says he has been receiving Russian convicts with similar stories for six months, unlike the fiery soldiers the Ukrainians used to capture in combat last year.
Hundreds of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war have been swapped since the war began in early 2022. The last significant swap, in April, mainly involved the Azov, the soldiers who fought the last battle for the city of Mariupol before Let Russia occupy it. The Azovs later formed the 3rd Assault Brigade, now fighting in Bakhmut.
Anton says he was serving his third sentence in Russia for drug possession, having been convicted of a similar offense and robbery in the past. He says he was promised a clean record if he enlisted to fight in Ukraine but didn’t know he was being sent to the front.
He and Slava had two weeks of basic training before their deployment.
“We had no morale,” Slava, another Russian soldier, told CNN. “We expected to maintain the line of defense, as we had been promised. We were told that the Wagner group (private military company) was the one participating in the active hostilities. And that we would be the outstanding ones in the liberated territories, as had been explained to us before.”
Capture in a trench.
They were captured together, hiding in the depths of the trench. On the ground above them, Ukrainian soldiers were firing through lines of withered trees, lobbing grenades into trenches as they advanced. In a video recorded and provided by the 3rd Assault Brigade, Ukrainian soldiers question the two Russians about their rank, position and documents.
Today, I have lost two close people. My master sergeant and a squad commander. They were my teammates; we went all the way together,” a Ukrainian is heard saying, addressing them off-camera.
There is tension in the darkness of the underground hole. The two Russian soldiers kneel on the ground. Anton puts his hands on his lowered head, and Slava raises his hands behind him. The two repeatedly explain that they did not shoot the armed Ukrainian soldiers in front of them. Slava says: “They brought us here and left.” Anton adds: “They’d better kill us.”
«We do not kill; we do not cut balls; we do not cutthroats in front of the camera as (you do) in your videos. Have you seen the videos?” she continues, referring to two videos circulating on social media in which Russian soldiers are allegedly seen killing and maiming captured Ukrainians. CNN cannot independently verify these two videos.
The trench fighting, in which the Ukrainians try to break through heavily fortified Russian defense lines along a 1,000 km front line, has left countless victims. Every kilometer costs lives, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently declared.
Soldiers fire at close range by walking through the narrow forked trenches, shooting at first sight, according to several videos released by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in recent weeks. Corpses cover the battlefield.
Russian soldier Sergei, another of the captives, tells CNN he was yelling “surrender” when two grenades landed nearby, killing soldiers next to him in the trench. His commander had already fled.
“I hid in the trenches. She recalls that machine guns and tanks shot down those who wanted to run from one position to another”. When he saw the Ukrainian soldiers, he crawled in fright and huddled with two soldiers. One of them was asking for cover from the Russian artillery through a walkie-talkie before he was killed by shrapnel.
«Our artillery, as usual, did not work. Then we tried the Grad rocket launchers, but they failed. Then I heard that (the Ukrainians) were approaching us; I started yelling, ‘We surrender,’ and then they threw a grenade at us”, he says.
“I felt like my hand was being cut. They asked me who he was, and I told them that he was Russian and that I had given up. I started to get up, and a second grenade came. I managed to drag myself halfway down the trench in a second,” he told CNN. The grenade killed the Russian soldier behind him, and Sergei felt a cut on his leg.
A Ukrainian soldier later explains that it is difficult to hear what Russian soldiers are saying during firefights.
According to accounts on both sides, Wagner’s mercenaries seized control of Bakhmut in a 10-month battle that cost thousands of lives. Their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, withdrew them to the rear in May, weeks before their short-lived mutiny, and marched on Moscow on June 24. Since then, Ukrainian forces have been trying to retake the ruined city by encircling Russian troops to the north and south.
Slava was already in prison when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, serving a decade-long sentence for drug trafficking. Like Anton, he was promised that his criminal record would be expunged if he joined Storm Z. Both say their only source of information about the war before deployment was Russian state media.
“I was lucky, twice, that (the grenade didn’t kill me) and that I surrendered as a prisoner,” says Sergei. Ukrainian soldiers gave him first aid and took him to a field hospital. Sergei had his hand and leg bandaged when they took him out of his cell, jumping on one leg.
Unlike the rest, he is a contract soldier, not a convict. He says he served the time he signed up for last year in Kherson. When he returned home, the military prosecutor threatened to jail him for desertion if he did not return to the battlefield.
The young father says that his previous military experience did not prepare him for what both sides call the “meat grinder” of Bakhmut.
“It was very different from what I saw on television. A parallel reality. I felt fear, pain and disappointment from my commanders,” she says.
The other two POWs interviewed by CNN recounted similar stories. Their only access to food and water was a 5-kilometer walk through minefields. Anton says that his immediate commander was also a convict. Slava remembers that his commanders took drugs with the reserves of painkillers they had.
Under his influence, these commanders sent soldiers under mortar fire, “giving meaningless orders,” says Slava.
Their accounts cannot be independently verified, but they are consistent with videos posted by Russian recruits who claim to have been deployed to the front lines with little support. Russian artillery, aircraft, long-range precision missiles, and their heavily fortified trenches have slowed down the Ukrainian counter-offensive that began last month.
Sergei believes his injuries will keep him out of future deployments and jail once he is exchanged with Ukrainian POWs. Slava and Anton aren’t so sure. Russia toughened its penalties for voluntary surrender last September, imposing up to 10 years in prison.
When asked about possible reprisals when he returns home, Anton replies: “I don’t know. It is difficult to answer this question, but knowing the history of our country, things like this have happened before.
She wants to go home, put her life in order, and reunite with her son. But she may end up back in jail.
Sarah El Sirgany , Ben Wedeman and Kostyantin Gak, CNN