‘We knew what we were doing’: captured Russian soldiers recount how they invaded Ukraine
Inside a detention centre in Kyiv, a whole floor has been set aside for Russian prisoners of war. There are 16 cells, each one holding between two to four detainees. On the day of our visit, 17 captured Russians were waiting for their fate to be determined. The number of people on the floor keeps changing. Prisoners come and go every time there is an exchange between Ukraine and Russia.
In one of the cells, three out of the four prisoners were willing to talk to Geneva Solutions about the fateful moments that landed them in captivity and their hopes to return home one day.
Anything but a military drill
At 37, Sergei Galkin is a senior sergeant and a unit commander under contract. His formation was stationed in the Russian city of Samara, about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow. On 31 January, Galkin and his troops were sent west for a military drill in Belarus. They were waiting for their turn in the forests of the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine when they learnt about their actual destination.
“On 23 February, after midday, we learnt that we would be crossing the border into Ukraine. Everybody was told this,” Galkin recalled. “At first, we couldn’t believe that that was what happened and where it was all going. We talked about this among ourselves, but no one understood and believed it.”
A day later, around midday, Galkin’s convoy entered Ukraine’s Chernihiv region from Russia’s Kursk region. His unit was to escort a number of trucks. Galkin didn’t know where they were headed and what for, he said. While in transit, one of the trucks broke down. Galkin and eight soldiers travelling in it stayed behind to fix it, but it wouldn’t budge. The men decided to go back and find another truck to jump on, but it also malfunctioned and got stuck in the mud. The men burnt it down and set to continue on foot.
“We were sleeping in the forest, avoiding populated areas so that we wouldn’t be noticed,” Galkin recalled. “On 1 March, we entered a village. We were surrounded by the territorial defence forces, who stopped us by firing into the air. We had a wounded sniper with us, so the commander of the battalion decided to surrender and her received medical help.”
That’s how Galkin and his men ended up in captivity. The conditions are good, Galkin said. They get three meals a day, showers, and walks. When the Red Cross representatives visit, the prisoners of war can write to their families and receive letters in return.
Asked whether they had a choice on 23 and 24 February, Galkin said: “We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t a choice.” Galkin and his three cellmates are now awaiting a prisoner exchange. He said: “We hope that God will give us a second chance, and we will be exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners on our territory and can come back home.”
‘Because it’s an order’
Andrey Chebotarevskiy is 20 years old. His military unit was based in the Moscow region. He signed a contract with the Russian army after serving in a tank regiment. Chebotarevskiy’s devotion to the military is unwavering.
“I will stay [in the armed forces] if I manage to return [to Russia]. But I won’t return [to Ukraine] again,” he said.
Ahead of the invasion, Chebotarevskiy and his fellow soldiers had a hunch that they would cross over to Ukraine. “We were so close anyway,” he said. It wasn’t until 23 February that the suspicions were confirmed.
“We didn’t believe it at first but said among ourselves: ‘it’s an order, therefore, we have to comply’,” Chebotarevskiy explained. “When we were signing the contract, we all knew what we were doing. We had the chance to say ‘no’, but none of us did.”
Asked why, Chebotarevskiy answered sharply: “Because it’s an order.” Asked if he would obey any order, even if it went against his values and views, his reply is more nuanced.
“It depends. If we were ordered to kill civilians and destroy houses, nobody would comply… Well, most of us wouldn’t, at least. But crossing the border is in the interest of my country. I, as a military man, must obey. I don’t know what interests my country has. But if things are the way they are, then there are some interests,” he said.
On 24 February, around 6 a.m., Chebotarevskiy’s division crossed the border from the Russian Belgorod region. Three days later, the tank convoys came under heavy shelling.
“There was a settlement about five kilometres away from us. We were at the crossroads waiting for the guys on a reconnaissance mission to return. A missile struck our tank, and the gunners were killed. I managed to escape on my own. I saw our division commander – his head was injured, but he was alive. I carried him towards another vehicle and left him there. I promised that I’d come back,” he recalled.
Chebotarevskiy explained that he then hid in a forest. The next day he went back to check on the commander.
“They were waiting for me, sitting in an ambush. The shootout left me wounded in the leg. I began to retreat through the swamps and forests. On 1 March, I realised that I would not make it to my unit. There was nothing to eat, and snow instead of water. I didn't want to die in the forest,” he said.
That’s when Chebotarevskiy noticed a repair company with some tractors near it.
“I thought ‘well, if they kill me, at least my body will be returned home’. I went there and said that I was a Russian soldier and needed help because of an injury. They gave me water and bandaged my leg. Then, the territorial defence force came and took me away,” he said.
Chebotarevskiy spent the next four months in a building of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). From there, he was taken into the detention centre in Kyiv, where he’s now hoping to be exchanged.
He says he knows what happened in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and other towns and villages of the Kyiv region, but he isn’t sure it was Russians’ doing. Asked if he believes Ukrainians did it to their own people, the Russian young prisoner isn’t so sure either.
“I don’t know. If it was our people… no decent human would agree to this, even if there was an order. I just don’t believe it. We feel that it’s savage and therefore don’t believe in it,” he said.
Life back in Russia
At 36, Nikolay Matveyev is a senior sergeant. His military unit was based in Novosibirsk, over 3,000 kilometres east of Moscow. Speaking to Geneva Solutions, he tells of how on 20 January, his formation was sent to the border with Ukraine, convoy-by-convoy. They were due to have drills, they were told.
“We did not know that this would happen. Maybe our commanders did, but the regular soldiers didn’t even dare to bring this up in their conversations. We spent 10 days on the road and then set up a camp. No smartphones are allowed on the territory of Russian military bases, so we had to use old-fashioned phones with buttons,” Matveyev said.
He remembers calling his wife on 23 February to say that he would be coming back soon. But later that day, at lunchtime, the order to get equipped and armed came through.
“Our detachment of 60 people specialises in reconnaissance. I, as the head of comms, was in charge of communication with the leadership,” Matveyev said.
He didn’t know exactly at which point his convoy crossed the border into Ukraine, he said. The battle started before lunchtime, and the vehicle that carried Matveyev was shelled.
“I didn't even get to see the enemy. I was in an unarmoured vehicle,” he said.
All the soldiers were unharmed, except for Matveyev, who fractured his leg.
“The lads pulled a tourniquet on my leg. I asked to be seen by doctors,” he said.
But no one came to help. The man decided to get out of the car with his charged gun. He saw Ukrainian tanks and, unseen, retreated to a forest. Later, he climbed about five kilometres with a wounded leg, fainting from time to time.
“I hoped that I would eventually come across my own units. Then I saw an electrical substation: I knocked and said I was a Russian soldier. They put me on a mattress, gave me some water, and made a call. Then, I was taken to a police station in Chernihiv. They interrogated me on camera and took me to a hospital. The doctor said that they couldn’t save my leg and amputated it,” Matveyev recalled.
Matveyev stayed in the hospital until early March, when he was sent to the detention centre in Kyiv. He is already thinking about his future “I will go back home and then see,” he said. “My wife and two children are waiting for me. Life in Russia isn’t so bad, despite what they say here. We don’t know why we invaded and what interests the state has.”