Ukraine’s Telegram channel of dead Russians may violate Geneva Conventions

In many of the images, soldiers’ corpses can be seen burned, ripped apart, mangled in wreckage or abandoned in snow; in some, their faces are featured in bloody close-ups, frozen in pain.

In others, prisoners are interrogated by captors about the invasion as they shake with emotion. Some of the men sit crumpled, hands bound, eyes blindfolded with tape.

The images are viewable by anyone with a Web browser or a smartphone and have been shared widely across the Internet. The Telegram channel where they are displayed now has more than 620,000 subscribers.

While not unprecedented — North Vietnam shared photos and film of imprisoned U.S. service members, including the late Sen. John McCain, in hopes of inflaming antiwar sentiment in the United States — the Ukrainian effort, thanks to the Internet, is playing to an audience rarely available in the annals of war.

Anyone can scroll through hundreds of faces of people the government says were killed just hours earlier or who remain captive, their darkest moments immortalized in video for the world to watch. And because it’s on Telegram, viewers can get a notification and react, with emoji, any time a new video is added.

Ukrainian officials have argued that the chilling images will alert Russians to a devastating war effort the Kremlin has sought to conceal. In videos they’ve shared of the phone calls they’ve allowed prisoners to make to their families, Ukrainians can be heard urging the soldiers to ask their parents to rally against Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the bloodshed.

But the tactic also could be interpreted as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which say governments must “at all times” protect prisoners of war from “insults and public curiosity.”

Such violations might seem minor compared with evidence suggesting Russian military forces have killed civilians and indiscriminately bombed residential neighborhoods, said Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School who has studied war crimes. But they could chip away at Ukraine’s ability to hold Russia accountable for violating international law.

“The law doesn’t allow for, ‘They’re doing bad things, so we can, too,’” VanLandingham said. “They don’t want to turn the international community against them. They’ve got to be on the straight and narrow here. It’s really dangerous for them in desperation to do things that are clearly prohibited.”

The campaign shows the extent to which Ukraine is seeking to exploit all technological options to undermine Russia’s military onslaught. Officials have created an online form where the parents of Russian soldiers can enter their children’s personal information to help identify or confirm the young men’s fates.

They’ve also told parents they can send in their own DNA to help determine whether their son has been killed in combat. There is a fee for the service, according to a YouTube video outlining it.

The online form includes a government estimate of Russian losses. As of Wednesday, it claimed 5,840 Russian soldiers had been killed and more than 200 were held captive. The numbers cannot be confirmed.

Spokespeople for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The authenticity of the campaign’s photos and videos cannot be independently verified. Ukrainian officials say all of the dead and captured are Russian soldiers, but that also cannot be confirmed.

The Kremlin has banned discussion of an invasion they have falsely described in state propaganda as a limited military operation. Some Russian soldiers’ family members contacted by the Ukrainians told The Guardian that they hadn’t even realized the men had gone to war.

The treatment of soldiers has been a flash point in Russia since the brutality of wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya helped fuel a parent-led movement advocating for more visibility into military conditions.

The Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, a human rights group, has said young conscripts were forced into signing contracts and taken to fight in the assault on Ukraine.

“Eight out of 10 calls that we get are about the same question: ‘Is my child alive? Where is he?’” Andrey Kurochkin, the organization’s deputy chief, told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

Ukrainian officials said Russia has blocked the campaign’s website, but some people inside the country could still access it Wednesday. Russia has restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and other sites as part of a crackdown on what it calls disinformation.

The Ukrainians’ online campaign is called, roughly, “Look for Your Own.” Its website domain name, 200rf.com, probably refers to Cargo 200, a Soviet military term for how soldiers’ bodies are shuttled back from war.

In addition to the Telegram channel, some of the recordings have been posted to a Twitter account and a YouTube channel, where the videos — some of which have been edited into short, TikTok-like clips — have been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

The Ukrainians have also launched a phone hotline and Telegram channel with information on how Russian mothers could free their sons from imprisonment by traveling to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The Defense Ministry said in an announcement Wednesday that “Ukrainians, unlike Putin’s fascists, do not fight mothers and their captive children.”

In a YouTube video directly addressing Russian viewers, a man identified as an adviser in Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said the captives are treated humanely, that most could not otherwise call home because they had no phones and that the Ukrainian government could help get soldiers’ bodies back to their families.

In another video, a Ukrainian official holding a rifle says some of the dead Russian soldiers cannot be easily identified from the photos due to “the horrors of war that your president caused,” but that they have posted them anyway in case viewers could recognize their loved ones through other means. The family members, he said, should do everything they can so that their husbands and sons no longer die in Ukraine.

The government’s top law enforcement agency, the Security Service of Ukraine, has also posted videos of captured soldiers to its Facebook page, some of which showed men explaining that they had not realized they were going into battle.

The video captions say the men have been given medical care but will be held responsible for their actions. It could not be independently determined whether the soldiers were speaking under duress.

Russia has mandatory year-long military service for all men under age 27, and Russian regulations say conscripts can be sent to a combat zone no earlier than four months into their training. But the soldiers’ mothers group says it has received a barrage of calls from Russian parents saying some conscripts were coerced or misled into signing up for service, or that they had barely served two months before being sent unprepared onto the battlefield.

Some conscripts told their mothers, according to Kurochkin, that they believed they were heading toward the Ukrainian border for drills, which is how Russia for weeks explained its massive buildup.

“Then they are being told: ‘Now you are contractors’,” he said. “And everyone’s phones are being taken away, while moms are crying and in panic.”

The use of conscripts had already become an issue before Russian troops surged into Ukraine when a local news outlet in the Russian region of Belgorod circulated photos of more than 100 soldiers sleeping on the floor of a small train station 40 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied that it sent conscripts to war zones.

Thousands of antiwar protesters have been arrested in the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in the past week. Russian military officials on Sunday, for the first time since launching the invasion, acknowledged that some of their soldiers were dead or wounded.

On social media, unverified videos showing what appear to be surrendering Russian soldiers have gone viral in recent days. One video shows a man drinking tea and talking through a video call to someone identified as his mother. Off camera, someone can be heard saying, “Get up, woman, and take the whole world on foot with you.”

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine for years has tested the boundaries of international law. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists paraded captured Ukrainian prisoners through Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which human rights activists said violated Geneva Conventions against “humiliating and degrading treatment.”

The “public curiosity” rule was cited in 2019 after Pakistan’s Information Ministry posted, and later deleted, video of a captured Indian pilot whose fighter jet had been shot down on Pakistani-controlled land.

The United States officially protested when captured soldiers were shown on TV days after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a U.S. military commission convicted a German lieutenant general in 1946 for marching American prisoners through the streets of Rome during World War II.

More recently, the United States has been accused of violating the law of war by showing photos of prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

Alex Horton and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.

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