A Captured Russian Soldier’s Story: ‘They Just Sent Us to Die’


The Russian soldier was captured only days after arriving on the front line in eastern Ukraine. He had little training. But he knew how to disassemble and fire his rifle and where to put a tourniquet.

The soldier, who went by the call sign Merk, was lured into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut last month when he heard cries for help from a comrade, he said.

With permission from his Ukrainian captors, Merk, 45, agreed to an interview by New York Times journalists just hours after his capture. A Ukrainian soldier sat in the next room during the interview.

Over the course of an hour, the prisoner provided a rare account of the invasion of Ukraine from a Russian perspective, a viewpoint that rarely emerges in Western news media and that the Kremlin tries to define for the world in its effort to sway public opinion.

We met Merk on a bloodstained floor in an otherwise tidy and well-lit basement in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. He was mostly uninjured, and his eyes were covered by tape and gauze. His hands were bound. The restraints were removed by his captor upon our arrival.

For journalists, interviewing any prisoner of war takes place under a peculiar set of circumstances, even with the prisoner’s consent. Throughout the process — from deciding whether to participate in the interview to what he might say during it — he is most likely weighing the reaction of his captors, or the prospect of physical violence or other miseries.

The Times is identifying Merk by his call sign to protect his identity for security reasons, including the possibility that he could be harmed if he is returned to the Russians in a prisoner exchange. The Times verified his identity through court documents and social media accounts.

The United Nations has found ill-treatment of prisoners — including executions, beatings and torture — on both sides of the war, though Ukrainian accounts from Russian detention point to far more widespread and severe abuses by the Kremlin’s forces at every level.

Merk was an inmate-turned-soldier, he said, having joined the Russian Army’s newly formed Storm Z prisoner unit after serving two months of a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had previously spent several years in prison after killing someone unintentionally while intoxicated, he said.

The interview below is condensed and annotated with analysis of his comments by The New York Times. It takes into account the International Committee of the Red Cross’s guidance regarding publishing information about prisoners of war.

Before Merk was imprisoned, he worked in a machine factory, and then worked briefly as a handyman before his second term. After two months in prison, a man in a “green suit” from the Russian Ministry of Defense arrived, looking for recruits. Merk said that more than half his prison had already volunteered to fight with the Wagner private mercenary group before he returned to prison in March.

Merk explained that he had interpreted the offer as a way to become an army construction worker. He said his only understanding of the war had come from the television in prison. He said he did not realize early on that he would be sent to battle.

Merk had unknowingly joined a Storm Z company, a Russian military unit filled with inmates. It was created in recent months in the image of Wagner’s inmate program, which was used extensively in eastern Ukraine.

He guessed he was recruited with about 300 other prisoners. He was given no form of personal identification. But when he signed the six-month contract, with an option to extend, there was a photocopy of his passport so he could get a bank card and receive his salary. At the time of his capture, Merk said, he had yet to be paid.

Merk arrived somewhere in eastern Ukraine in late May and was stationed at a training camp. There, he learned how to use a rifle and received sparse medical training. His commanders were also former prisoners, and had gained their rank simply through longevity, he guessed.

When Merk was handed a rifle, he knew he would be going to the front line, unlike some of the other inmates who had been sent to work in the base’s mess hall.

Merk had spent only a few days digging and had no idea where he was on the front line when he was captured. Ukrainian soldiers said he had surrendered near Bakhmut. The city, captured by the Russians in May, sits mostly on low ground.

Merk said that when the Ukrainian attack began, there were nine soldiers digging alongside him. Four were captured. He does not know what happened to the others.

Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev, Riley Mellen, Dmitriy Khavin and Anatoly Kurmanaev.


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