‘I Was on Active Duty’: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov

June 26, 2015
Aleksandr Aleksandrov, captured GRU agent, in Ukrainian hospital, June 2015. Photo by Reuters

Pavel Kanygin, a war correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, was arrested by Russian-backed separatist forces on June 16, beaten and interrogated, and then deported the next day back to Russia. It was the second such detention he had suffered at the hands of militants from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” in a year.

He was accused of being “an agent of the US State Department and the Ukrainian government”; Kanygin recounted that when his jailer asked which side of the war he was on, and he said “I’m for peace,” the DNR guard punched him in the head. DNR militants claimed that Kanygin worked for the US government and was “paid in drugs.” Kanygin obtained a drug test immediately after his return and publicized the negative report to refute the claim.

The DNR’s detention of Kanygin was likely related to his critical coverage of the war in the Donbass. Earlier this month he published interviews with residents of Grabovo in southeast Ukraine, where new accounts of the firing of the Buk at MH17 were gathered, along with interviews of farmers in Zaporoshchenskoye, the town where Russian government analysts are now claiming was the site of the Buk launch. But the farmers said they never saw any Buks in their fields.

Right before his arrest, Kanygin was covering an anti-war demonstration of civilians in Donetsk who urged an end to the placement of heavy artillery in residential areas, and were later harassed by DNR militants.

But another sensitive interview he made June 14 with Aleksandr Aleksandrov, one of two captured Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers, likely angered Russian officials in particular — in it, the GRU officer denies the version of the story told by the Russian state media that he had resigned from the army in December 2014 to become a volunteer with the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” (LNR); in fact he was a contract soldier still on active duty in the Russian military at the time of his capture. Earlier, he made this statement in a videotaped interrogation by the Ukrainian SBU; now he was making it again to an independent Russian journalist, and asking that his lawyer obtain proof of this.

Kanygin has been the only journalist to get in-depth interviews with Aleksandrov.

In an effort to get his press credentials reinstated in the DNR, last week Kanygin met with Aleksandr Borovoy, the former DNR leader, who was encountered by accident by a fellow journalist who brought him to meet Kanygin in a bar. Kanygin then made a formal request to a DNR representative, but was told that all Novaya Gazeta correspondents “were rejected” for accreditation because it publishes “unfavorable articles.” He described a convoluted and opaque procedure for accreditation under which Russian state media reporters are given press passes without even appearing in person, but all others have to fill out forms and undergo an interview before they are given credentials. Accreditation is mandatory for all reporters on DNR-controlled territory.

Kanygin asked for a formal rejection in writing from the DNR, and asked who had made the decision to ban Novaya Gazeta; he was initially told it was DNR prime minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko himself. Another DNR representative told him that Novaya Gazeta covers events without objectivity” but that she still had the power to grant him accreditation despite Zakharchenko’s seeming ban. When Kanygin asked what law was being invoked and that he had the right to practice journalism under the laws of Russia and Ukraine, she said neither were recognized in the DNR and they had their own law.

After some bargaining and debate about what constituted censorship, she finally asked him why he wrote “DNR government building” without capital letters and he explained that the DNR is not a recognized government. She then promised to send him the accreditation on June 25 and the outcome remains to be seen.

In his most recent article about Aleksandrov, Kanygin said he couldn’t reach Aleksandrov’s relatives — they didn’t respond to him. A friend of Yerofeyev’s got in touch to say the following:

“The relatives have been isolated from the outside world…they’ve also worked on us. I can’t say more. I don’t regret anything. That’s it.”

The “they” referenced here is Russian intelligence and “worked on” means they have got anyone associated with these GRU agents to stop trying to contact them or talk about them.

The other GRU officer, Yevgeny Yerofeyev, was already discharged from the hospital last week and transferred to pre-trial detention, but Aleksandrov was still being treated and still unable to get up and walk. Yerofeyev’s lawyer hinted to Kanygin that her client was released too early from the hospital because he refused to cooperate with interrogators. The SBU denied the claims and said Yerofeyev’s physical condition was fine and his lawyer was “an agent of Moscow.”

“But Yerofeyev, of course, reached bottom,” the SBU hinted darkly. Meanwhile, Aleksandrov is said to be allowed to remain in the hospital because he has decided to cooperate.

A plainclothes agent was present during the interview, but at one point he left and Kanygin managed to have a private conversation with Aleksandrov.

The following is a translation by The Interpreter of Kanygin’s interview. — Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Kanygin: Sasha [Aleksandr], what is your lawyer’s and your plan now?

Aleksandrov: We plan to re-qualify the [charges under the criminal code] article with terrorism. I was not a terrorist, I was fulfilling orders. I am a military serviceman, my contract did not officially end yet.

Kanygin: What do you want the article changed to?

Aleksandrov: To diversionary actions, since I am a serviceman.

Kanygin: Did you hear about the decree signed by Putin on amendments to the law on state secrecy?

Aleksandrov: Where it concerns secret operations?

Kanygin: Yes, special operations.

Aleksandrov: I heard something, but I myself didn’t read it, I don’t know specifically.

Kanygin: There is a supposition that [the decree was published] due to your story.

Aleksandrov: I think so, most likely (smiles in embarrassment). Apparently, they [the Russian leadership] found it necessary.

Kanygin: Have you spoken with your wife?

Aleksandrov: My wife and I exchanged communications only once. Then she removed herself from VKontakte. She still wasn’t sure that it was me writing, she was doubtful. I haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone else. [My lawyers and I] called all our relatives on all their numbers, no one took the receiver.

Kanygin: They say that she was able to hint to you somehow that pressure has been put on her.

Aleksandrov: She only wrote that she can’t talk much. That if I [really do write her], then [she said] everything would be fine, she was waiting for me, and loves me.

Kanygin: What’s going on with your parents? I tried to phone them and they don’t answer.

Aleksandrov: I don’t know, but I hope that everything is fine. I don’t know what’s going on. Likely they came to them, instructed them, and gave them some kind of directives.

Kanygin: And what kind of circumstances are you in here? Yerofeyev’s lawyer says they [the Ukrainians] are pressuring you and proposing political asylum…

Aleksandrov: Well, really, this is the first time I’ve heard of any political asylum. During the time until they transferred Yerofeyev, nothing like this was offered to him in my presence. Perhaps they offered that to him, but I deeply doubt this.

Kanygin: His lawyer is saying this. She is describing how they put pressure on him: they say that in Russia, he faces [prosecution under] the article on state treason, that here, too, there will be nothing good, yes he does not cooperate [with the investigation].

Aleksandrov: Well, it’s not clear there who the lawyer is working for. For Yerofeyev or some other interests.

Kanygin: Yes?

Aleksandrov: She communicates very closely with the Russian consul [Aleksey Gruby], and sees him frequently. So it may very well be…

Kanygin: And he doesn’t visit you anymore [since his first visit on May 26]?

Aleksandrov: No. They say he isn’t being let in any more.

Kanygin: Would you like to see him?

Aleksandrov: Well, if he has answers to my questions, if he can organize communication with my relatives, then of course I would like to see him. The last time, he wasn’t able to organize this, he said he couldn’t reach my wife. I don’t think that it is really a problem for the Russian Federation to get in touch with my relatives. But it turns out it’s a problem.

Kanygin: What about the human rights activists?

Aleksandrov: They also tried to call, but no one picks up the phone.

Kanygin: Who comes to visit you besides us?

Aleksandrov: Well, the investigator comes with the lawyer, with the prosecutor. Foreign journalists come.

Kanygin: How do you feel, what’s your mood? You have been here two weeks now, if not more.

Aleksandrov: I try to hope for the best, even so. But mentally everything is very difficult, because they have rejected me as a serviceman, and there is an unpleasant aftertaste that remains from that.

Kanygin: Russian lawyers propose with your consent and on your behalf to file a civil suit with the Ministry of Defense about your unlawful dismissal, if it took place.

Aleksandrov: I would not be opposed. I do not think it is hard to prove that I am a serviceman. Inquiries can be sent and the confirming documents be obtained…

Kanygin: How long do you have to remain in bed with that leg?

Aleksandrov: I still have to go through a few operations. I don’t know when they will take place, I have to ask the doctor in charge of my case.

Here [at the hospital] there are a lot of people in wheel chairs and on crutches. It shows once against the senselessness of this armed conflict. When they sent troops into Afghanistan although it was an official invasion of forces, it turned out to be just as senseless. It’s the same thing now, our troops were brought in [even] if unofficially…How many of our soldiers died, Ukrainian soldiers, what is the point of this really? I have no been on the other side of the conflict and I realize that it is not all as it has been shown on the main [Russian TV] channels, even profoundly unlike it. There is no persecution of the Russian language, there are normal guys here…

Kanygin: Listen, but you didn’t commit any crimes, after all? You didn’t shoot anything?

Aleksandrov: I did not commit any criminal acts, except to illegally cross the border. Seemingly my conscience is clear…But the whole conflict is senseless. Our guys have been killed, and who will replace children, fathers, husbands and brothers for relatives? The Ukrainians treat their POWs and those killed with dignity. But in Russia, they don’t even talk about it in the news. And if something happens, then they reject them, like me, for example. I don’t know, of course, perhaps I could be considered a traitor, but I didn’t betray my country…

Kanygin: Zhenya (Yevgeny) went another route, he didn’t admit anything and they sent him to pre-trial detention.

Aleksandrov: They sent him to pre-trial prison, physically, because his health allowed for it. His legs are whole, he walks on his own.

[In the next part of the conversation, Kanygin and Aleksandrov are alone, without the guard.]

Kanygin: Tell me really, what’s new?

Aleksandrov: Well, you can see for yourself. Better you tell me: what’s going on there in the Motherland, what’s the room?

Kanygin: Nothing good. You know yourself.

Aleksandrov: I understand…

[Here Kanygin cuts some of the text.]

Kanygin: But I can’t help but asking. You have so radically changed your point of view in these few weeks, or are your words dictated to some extent by the awkward situation in which you have found yourself?

Aleksandrov: Of course my world view changed, you see what isn’t shown to you on the news. When you have been on the other side, when you feel all this yourself. In part the situation itself influenced me, of course. I don’t think my world view would change on its own if I hadn’t ended up in captivity. It would have remained the same — like black and white.

Kanygin: Do you feel as if you are in captivity?

Aleksandrov: I feel as if I am in the hospital. I would like to have the status of POW, and not terrorist, mercenary. Still and all, I fulfilled an order.

Kanygin: You wanted to convey something to your relatives.

Aleksandrov: Yes, to my relatives. Perhaps someone from among my acquaintances and friends will send it, drop a link. Tell my parents that everything is normal, I’m getting better, that they shouldn’t worry. So that Mama doesn’t worry too much, that’s the main thing. Tell my wife that I really love her. That I miss her. That I’m really sorry that all these problems have come down from above on her. On her fragile shoulders. It is hard for her psychologically, I can’t help or support her in some way. I hope that she sees this video or someone tells her from my acquaintances and friends, and someone sends a link. Perhaps she’ll watch it herself. So that she doesn’t lose faith, hope. I love her.

Kanygin: Will you convey something to the consul? He’ll see it for sure.

Aleksandrov: To Consul Gruby. In order to organize communication with my wife or relatives. I don’t want anything else.