In the first stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, stories of Russian soldiers turning themselves in and becoming prisoners of war surfaced. What motivated these Russian soldiers to surrender to the Ukrainian army, even initially, when there was still limited fighting between the two parties? And how could their behavior be interpreted when analyzed in the context of warfare?
Many Russian soldiers became prisoners of war (hereafter PoW) during the first months of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The Ukrainian officials have even announced that it has been necessary to build camps to accommodate the growing number of captured Russian soldiers. Out of the soldiers who were captured, many ‘voluntarily’ opted to speak out about the war, raising concerns that they may have been coerced to join.
Some Russian soldiers have even chosen to side with the opposing army by creating a ‘Russian legion’ within the Ukrainian army. Given these circumstances, there is reasonable ground to claim that some Russians genuinely condemn their government’s actions. However, the question remains: in such a conflict, what motivates a soldier’s decision to defect to the opposing side?
Why Surrender to the Opposing Side?
According to Reiter and Stam, there are specific factors that soldiers consider when deciding to ‘surrender’ to the opposing side such as the outcome of the conflict, treatment of enemy combatants and the type of governance regime (Reiter 1997). Soldiers’ motivation may change as the war unfolds based on their combat experience and the information they have or obtain. It is this decision-making process that the academic literature colloquially refers to as the ‘POW game’ or the ‘POW dilemma.’
In recent news, a few unverified sources have accused Ukrainian soldiers of killing wounded Russian POWs. Although to this day, there have been no confirmed sources indicating any abuse towards Russian POWs by the Ukrainian forces. Such information can obviously play a crucial role in influencing a soldier’s decision whether to or when to surrender.
Fear of the authoritarian regime and the unleashing of its repressive power if soldiers were to refuse to fight seems to also have motivated the soldiers to surrender. As one Russian POW explains:
“The fear of our state pushes us. The way it is set up, if we go against our own, we would either get shot by our own people or imprisoned for a very long time. That’s why we just kept on going…”
Profile of the Soldiers
There is little to no official data on the POWs provided by the Ukrainian authorities. Based on the videos released, one may conclude that many of the captured soldiers appear to be conscripted, instead of being fully trained military professionals. Moreover, many seem to lack ‘formal’ combat training or experience.
Also, many of the captured soldiers report not having been provided with clear goals for their military operations. Such conditions may understandably have resulted in the soldiers’ confusion and their lack of understanding of their own side’s objectives may have led to an unwillingness to fight, as another Russian POW describes:
“In the early hours of [February] 24th we were lined up by the battalion commander and told we had to march. We were not told where to. They took all our communication devices and papers beforehand. We all followed our battalion commander until we came under fire. …We did not even understand what had happened… Why? We started asking questions. Supposedly, we crossed the border at night without knowing it.”
In addition, the actions of the Ukrainian side have most likely also influenced soldiers, as individuals or as part of a larger unit, to decide to surrender. Among these actions, Ukrainian media released interviews with Russian POWs saying that they were well treated and cared for:
“As strange as it may seem, we are treated well in captivity. Everyone has received medical assistance and everything necessary. People who wore wet clothes received dry ones.”
The humane treatment of enemy combatants by the opposing side is key to understanding the ‘rational calculations’ made by Russian soldiers when not only deciding to surrender but to actively participate in the actions of the opposing side, especially as the political regime is perceived to be ‘liberal or more democratic’ (Axelrod 1984, Stam 1996, Reiter 1997). Such calculations play a pivotal role on the battlefield in the overall psychology of the opposition parties, especially when ‘defectors’ voluntarily participate in the propaganda of the “POW Game” (Taylor, 1995, Reiter 1997, Webb 2015).
In the first weeks of the war, the Russian army suffered major losses and its offensive was halted, which seemed to have affected the soldiers’ morale. Under such circumstances, the risk of retribution by Russian authorities combined with the Ukrainian government’s promotion of ‘democratic values’ and humane treatment of captured soldiers seem to have sufficiently appealed to Russian soldiers for them to surrender to the Ukrainian army.
Consequences of Speaking Out
Although the press conferences and interviews with Russian POWs have clearly been used as a tool for propaganda by the Ukrainian authorities. Some Russian soldiers may have seen in them an opportunity to avoid returning to Russia and having to face the repercussions of a failed mission. The prospect of staying in a democratic state could also be seen as enough of a ‘rational’ driving force behind their critical public appearances, even when these actions may negatively impact the image of the Russian army and authorities:
“We want to stay in Ukraine, because… at least as long as the Putinist regime is in place there [in Russia], we’re afraid to go back there. Because he, the President of Russia, has made us criminals. Something like that.”
Although there have been several exchanges of POWs between Ukraine and Russia, no additional information on the whereabouts of all the Russian POWs who participated in the press conferences is available. Videos of some of the interviewed men speaking at later dates have surfaced, which could indicate that some still remain in Ukraine.
Outcomes of the War
Many of the Russian soldiers were not ready to fight the real war and, as a result, tried to avoid fighting. In this situation, Ukraine has presented itself as a side prepared to treat those Russians, who surrender, humanely. Furthermore, Russian POWs emphasize that they fear authoritarian Russia, while democratic Ukraine promises them safety although in captivity. The hypotheses posed by Reiter and Stam are therefore confirmed, that is in a war, it is not just the ‘on the ground’ outcomes of the battlefield that matter, but also the ‘long-term strategy’ that most soldiers consider when deciding whether to surrender or not.
Leslie Ader is a doctoral student and researcher in migration and mobility at the University of Neuchâtel associated with the nccr – on the move in the project on “Historical Perspective on Mobility in Welfare States” and she focuses on the History of Welfare States, Discourse, Claims-Making, and Welfare Policies.
Iaroslav Kovalchuk is a doctoral student in history at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada). He focuses on World War Two and the post-war history of Western Ukraine and its integration into the Soviet Union.
– Axelrod, Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.Gaubatz, Kurt Taylor. 1996. “Democratic States and Commitment in International Relations.” International Organization 50 (Winter): 109-139.
– Reiter, Dan, Allan C. Stam III, Meihua Chen, and Saema Somalya. “The soldier’s decision to surrender: Prisoners of war and world politics.” In annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC. 1997.
– Webb, P. S., Isaac. (2015). Prisoners’ Dilemma in Ukraine. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/06/23/prisoners-dilemma-in-ukraine-pub-60477