Questionable Videos of Abuse of Russian Prisoners of War Surface but Ukraine Has an Obligation to Investigate

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

On Sunday, a series of videos emerged on Twitter that purports to document the abuse of some Russian prisoners of war by Ukrainian troops. The videos come from pro-invasion sources and other boosters of Putin’s Ukraine adventure. This doesn’t mean they aren’t true; it only means that without forensic analysis, we are in the “cool story, bruh” stage of the investigation. I’m not going to post the videos here because some of them are disturbing. Instead, links are provided below for those interested.

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Alleged PW abuse videos

Russians are shot in the legs as they get off a truck and beaten. Link.

More Russians shot in the legs. Link.

Wounded (alleged) Russians lying on the ground, no context in the video. Link.

More alleged leg shooting, no context in the video. Link.

Alleged Russian prisoners allegedly executed. Link.

More alleged Russian prisoners allegedly executed. Link.

The first thing to keep in mind is that none of these videos are conclusive in any way. In my view, the whole “shoot them in the leg” video series is probably bullsh**. It doesn’t make sense from a lot of standpoints. The biggest flaw is that a military rifle bullet going through the center of someone’s leg will likely rupture the femoral artery, and the person will bleed out. All of the people “shot in the leg” who don’t die will end up in a hospital competing for space and medicine with Ukrainian soldiers.

If one assumes the video is legitimate, you have a very small number of cases taking place in a brutal war in a very large country. One should not be surprised. The US Army committed several well-documented mass executions of German and Italian prisoners in World War II, most notably in Sicily and during the liberation of Dachau. We know war crimes were committed in Vietnam (My Lai, Hill 192 Incident), Iraq, and Afghanistan. It happens. That doesn’t make it acceptable, but it means that sane people don’t froth at the mouth.

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If you want to believe these document war crimes, you can, but there is no reason to accept them as legitimate and a great deal of reason, given their clustering, to believe they are part of an information operation.

That said, let’s approach the problem from a worst-case perspective. Let’s assume that these videos actually document the abuse, maltreatment, and summary execution of Russian prisoners of war in Ukrainian custody. Here are the key points as I see them.

  1. The maltreatment of prisoners is wrong. Period. All of the time. No exceptions.
  2. Maltreatment of prisoners is corrosive to discipline. Once you’ve allowed troops to execute prisoners summarily, you lose the ability to enforce military discipline because you are complicit in a war crime.
  3. The Ukrainian Armed Forces must investigate the videos and, if they are legitimate, see that the offenders are punished. That is their duty as a professional military force. One wouldn’t expect the Russian Army to do that, and the Ukrainian Army should not aspire to that abysmal example of military behavior.
  4. Abusing prisoners is not only wrong; it is against your own self-interests. An enemy who knows they will be treated fairly will surrender under pressure and desert to you when things are going bad for his army.
  5. The appropriate treatment of Russian prisoners is a potent weapon. For example, Ukraine has allowed prisoners to call home. This is good propaganda and inspired psychological operations. Zelensky should not let a few men with their fangs out spoil it.
  6. Ukraine is engaged in a struggle that is at least as political as it is military. Without international support, Ukraine will soon be out of supplies and weapons. A stupid own-goal like killing prisoners on video can potentially change the strategic picture in a moment. One picture did that for the Vietnam War even though the communist who had his brains blown over a Saigon street was a cold-blooded murderer fighting in violation of the Geneva Conventions and got exactly what he deserved.
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I don’t doubt that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. We know the Russians have committed them in abundance. Right now, Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and others have committed enough overt acts that were they tried under the Nuremberg rubric; they would end up on the gallows. Every day, the Russians carry out indiscriminate missile strikes on population centers. Several thousand Ukrainian citizens have been arrested by Russian security forces in Mariupol and deported to Russia. Russia issued an ultimatum to Mariupol’s defenders, promising to commit war crimes if they did not surrender Mariupol Defenders Reject Russian Demand for Surrender Setting up the Largest Siege of a City Since WWII. But just because the Russians commit war crimes does not excuse Ukraine if they fail to investigate the allegations of war crimes they receive.

UPDATE:

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