The Story of Andrey Panasyuk, Ukrainian POW, Last Filmed by Killed Russian State Reporter

September 5, 2014
Panasyuk held as POW by Russian-backed separatists near Donetsk in July 2014. Photo by Andrei Stenin/RIA Novosti.

Andrey Panasyuk, a Ukrainian soldier taken prisoner by Russian-backed militants, was the last subject filmed by Andrei Stenin, a Russian state media war correspondent whose death near Donetsk while on assignment was confirmed today by RIA Novosti. Panasyuk appeared in a number of photographs Stenin took while embedded with Russian-backed fighters in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR), then later he was seen in several videos made by the pro-Russian separatist news site showing him being given food, water and medical treatment.

Stenin, 33, who was missing since early August, was reportedly detained by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), but then later Ukrainian authorities discounted this story and it is now conceded by RIA Novosti. Russian officials and state media continued to campaign for Stenin with a “Free Andrei” hashtag, although reporters from Komsomolskaya Pravda said they believed they had found his remains in a burnt-out car on 22 August.

During the time he was missing and his status unknown, controversy raged over Stenin’s work because he filmed POWs in agony, which is contrary to the norms of the Geneva Conventions. The original Conventions drafted in the 1940s, in an age nothing like the current one of ubiquitous media and social media, stipulated that prisoners should not be subject to humiliation, which was understood to mean that their mistreatment and suffering should not be filmed.

The Ukraine Warlog blog investigated the events and accused Stenin of complicity in torture along with DPR fighters in several posts. Debates on this and related topics were so heated that yesterday @RobPulseNews, the account of the blogger at Ukraine Warlog, was suspended on Twitter, apparently as a result of a deluge of abuse reports to the Twitter moderators by Russians and their sympathizers. Another blogger, Ukraine@War also investigated the photos and videos, and concluded that Panasyuk may have been killed, although in fact he survived. The context wasn’t clear at first: it wasn’t that he was tortured as a POW; he was wounded in battle, captured, and then taken to the hospital in a propaganda display of DPR “good will.”

On 31 July, the pro-separatist web site ran photos of Andrei Panasyuk taken by Andrei Stenin, indicating that he was from the 25th Air Mobile Brigade, and videos also by the DPR fighters with whom he was embedded, after Panasyuk was captured 31 July in a battle outside of Shakhtyorsk.

The Russian-backed fighters showed pictures and videos of Panasyuk wounded and bloody, pleading for mercy. As wrote (translation by The Interpreter)

Paratrooper Andrei Panasyuk is in a state of severe stress said that he was very sorry and repented. He said that he really wanted to go back to his mama, to live and work. Andrei told his fellow countrymen that they should live peacefully and happily and not kill anyone.

In the video produced by and labelled by
, a web site once said to be the approved outlet for Col. Igor Strelkov’s dispatches and other separatist news, shows a wounded and exhausted Panasyk and another POW. It has 1.7 million views.

Panasyuk answers questions from an unidentified narrator. “We were defending our homeland from…Chechens,” he says. “Did you ever meet even one Chechen?” asks his interrogator.

He then pushes him repeatedly to speak against his superiors — “What do you think of your bosses?” — but Panasyuk doesn’t answer.

“What do you want to convey to your fellow countrymen?,” asks the interrogator, finally.

“Don’t kill anyone.” Then Panasyuk cried in distress, “I want to live and work,” and pleaded for more painkillers. The DPR fighters tried to interrogate him, but he doesn’t know the answers to questions such as whether his unit had Howitzers or how many vehicles in his convoy. Even as he later lay on a hospital cot, the narrator was asking him military information, for example, what was his call name. (He said he didn’t have one.) Yet we’re to believe that this is an example of “humanity.”

On 1 August, videotaped Panasyuk’s plea to his mother to come get him.

RIA Novosti went to great lengths to exonerate Stenin, first by showing that Panasyuk had to be alive, because a picture showed him clutching a cigarette and then later getting up.

From these photos and videos, it’s clear that both Russian state media and the separatist outlets (which are believed to be run by ultranationalist groups in Moscow such as Sputnik & Pogrom), are trying to make a propaganda show out of Panasyuk’s plight. On the one hand, they are trying to convey that supposedly the rebels treat their POWs well — despite ample, documented proof that they do not do so in many other cases. But the DPR also makes an example of Panasyuk — the moral of the story is that if in abject fear, you agree to say what the DPR wants you to say on camera, and agree to adopt their views, you will be given medical care and allowed to survive. There’s no question that Panasyuk is in captivity in rebel-controlled territory in Donetsk, and that he cooperates in order to save his life and return to his family. The purpose of the propaganda is to deter other Ukrainians from joining the army and winding up like this 20-year-old man.

It says something about the degradation of the Russian state media these days, that they fail to see that extracting confessions out of desperate, wounded soldiers fearing for their lives and making an object lesson of them isn’t humane treatment. They seem to have set the bar low, saying that if the DPR fighters didn’t physically torture Panasyuk, and ultimately brought him to the hospital and let him escape (after holding his mother prisoner for four days!), that this should be characterized as “humane.” It’s rather like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that the parading of the POWs on Ukraine’s Independence Day “wasn’t humiliating” in his view, merely because the POWs weren’t beaten on camera, but were forced to march with their hands behind their backs, and have street cleaners follow them as if they were filth. Of course, that is humiliation.

On 29 August, TV Rain’s Batanova interviewed Viktoriya Ivleva, a prominent Russian war photographer who has covered numerous conflicts from Abkhazia to Tajikistan to Africa and also disasters such as Chernobyl.

Viktoriya Ivleva on TV Rain speaking about Andrey Parasyuk.

Viktoriya Ivleva on TV Rain speaking about Andrey Parasyuk.

Viktoriya Ivleva interviewed Panasyuk in the hospital where he was recovering from severe wounds including amputation of his finger, shrapnel lacerations and burns on his legs. The Interpreter has provided a translation.

Ivleva: I looked for Andrei Panasyuk especially from the beginning since I am a war photographer, have gone through a number of wars, and I understand that my colleague Andrei Stenin had wound up in a very difficult situation, from which it was difficult to come out as a human being and remain a human being. I decided that the person who knew exactly how Andrei behaved, regardless of where Andrei was and what had happened to him, would be that soldier. I began to search for him.

Batanova: I will explain for the viewers that Andrei Panasyuk is that very same soldier due to whose photograph everything began, why Andrei Stenin was detained. He was accused of enabling terrorism.

Ivleva: No, we don’t know whether Andrei Stenin was detained.

Batanov: At least, the Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies reported that he was detained. There was such news.

Ivleva: We can speak only of the fact that due to that photograph, that both Andrei Stenin and Andrei Panasyuk became heroes with a ton of crap poured on both of them, on both sides of the Internet. That we can confirm exactly, but all the rest is not known. It must be said that I appealed to the Ukrainian Interior Minister [Aven] Avakov, with an open letter on Facebook. And his aide [Anton] Gerashchenko also answered me on Facebook that the Interior Minister had not detained Stenin, moreover, they had declared him wanted. After that, I decided that I must definitely find Andrei Panasyuk in order to understand what happened.

I looked for him for a long time, until accidentally my acquaintance, once again from Facebook, saw a notice in the little town where she lives that some kind of funds were being collected to help a soldier, and Andrei was in the photograph. thus, I found out through volunteers where Andrei was located. I went to visit him, and there I met his completely extraordinary mama. His mama is a child care worker, they are from a very, very poor family, and the five of them lived their whole lives in a dormitory, in two small rooms in a dorm. And every day Andrei, who was a contract soldier, and he had gone into the army as a contract soldier in October of last year, because that was his only opportunity.

Batanova: He earned money in this way.

Ivleva: Yes. The only opportunity to get a job normally where he lived, there was a nuclear station nearby, was to get a job as a guard at that station. He did boxing, and his trainer told him, “Go into the army for three years as a contractor, you will get out and then they will definitely take you as a guard. And everything will be fine.” In October he went into the army, before there were any events in Ukraine.

Every day, from the onset of combat actions, he called his mother, or she called him. One day, he stopped answering the telephone. Then she learned that the Ukrainian paratroopers were taken captive and destroyed. So this small little mouse, this little robin, got up, got dressed, left the house and went to the east to search for her son. She left without knowing anything. Along the way, she encountered the video taped by the DPR asking his mother to come get him.

She had a long adventure before she finally reached Donetsk. She went to the DPR headquarters where she was arrested, held for several days, and not told what was going on with her son or where her son was. But they treated her completely normally, she emphasized this many time in her conversation with me. She was not beaten or tortured, she was even left her mobile phone with the condition that she would not use it. But for four days she knew nothing about her child.

After four days, when Andrei was transferred from the ER to the ward, she was able to be with him. And for the rest of the days until he was exchanged they were together. When the exchange took place, fate once again protected them, because there was a shelling, they landed under shelling and sat in a sunflower field for half the night. Andrei was severely wounded, he was not ambulatory, he was carried on a stretcher, and he lay half the night on her lap. The next day, a helicopter evacuated them to a hospital. That’s what a Ukrainian mother does, as distinguished from a Kostroma mother, as I understand it, unfortunately. [The reference is to the Kostroma paratroopers taken prisoner by Ukrainians but ultimately returned–The Interpreter.] She gets up and goes.

Batanova: Let’s not judge, because we don’t know what Kostroma mothers do.

Ivleva: I’m not judging.

Batanova: They are in a difficult situation, they don’t know what their children are doing in general.

Ivleva: That mother didn’t know either. I spent several days with them, we spoke a fair amount. Andrey is trying to forget about everything that happened.

Batanova: Is he home now?

Ivleva: No, he is in the hospital now.

Batanova: In the sense that he can no longer take part in combat, he’s in the hospital, in safety.

Ivleva: He can’t take part in combat because he is very ill. Whether or not he will remain disabled or not is not for me to judge. He is in the hospital, and he will be there for a very long time. His mama is with him on sufferance, like all mamas in hospitals, and helps him and devotedly takes care of him.

I wanted to say that all accusations of his cowardice which have resounded on the other side of the Internet, they are absolutely not true. He was very severely wounded and for 15 hours he lay, shedding blood, until the DPR fighters ran into him, who were combing that forest, or I don’t remember, some sort of place where they were. Andrei Stenin was with those DPR fighters.

Batanova: Andrei photographed what was going on.

Ivleva: Andrei photographed. Andrey Panasyuk immediately was removed, he was immediately taken to Donetsk to a hospital where he was operated on for 5.5 hours. He was saved, but he had very severe peritonitis, and part of his gut was cut out. He was very severely burned, he was all in shrapnel. They had to amputate one finger, his leg was burned up to here, so it works badly, he is walking on crutches for now, and with difficulty. That’s the result.

Batanova: You spoke about Andrei Stenin, about how they communicated, what kind of relationship did they have?

Ivleva: Yes, we talked. There could not be much of a relationship in such a situation when he was severely wounded, and he was in and out of consciousness, he was on the verge of losing consciousness the entire time due to such a heavy loss of blood. But I said to him, “You know, it seems to me, that it would be the Christian thing to do, if you write a letter to the mama of Andrei Stenin, who knows nothing about him at all.”

Batanova: And he did know that Andrei Stenin had gone missing, and that he was one of the last people to talk with him?

Ivleva: He knew. They learned later, although with such a number of victims as there are in Ukraine, both among the military and the civilian population, the story of Andrei Stenin for Ukraine is not so important as for Russia. That’s understandable, he’s not their citizen. Although I think that the story of any person seared and affected by the war must be important, and it should not be passed by. Andrey Panasyuk wrote a letter to Andrei Stenin’s mama. I met Vera Nikolayevna today and gave her that letter. The letter was written in Ukrainian.

Batanova: What did Andrey write to Andrei Stenin’s mama?

Ivleva: “To the mama of Andrei Stenin from the soldier Andrei Panasyuk. I want to tell you that your son, when I was wounded, I remember poorly, but your son did not beat me, did not torture me, he simply did his job as a photographer. I’m sorry it turned out that way. I think that there will be peace someday.” There’s the letter. I saw by the reaction of Vera Nikolayevna that it was very important for her.

I would like to emphasize once again that absolutely all people, whom fate brought to this point in this conflict in one way or another, in this concrete situation, turned out to be human beings — both Andrei Stenin and Andrey Panasyuk and the people I don’t know from the DPR who saved Andrey Panasyuk’s life, taking him to the hospital, and his completely great mama Mariya, who went through God knows what, in order to get her son out of there, and did get her son out. And I’m glad that I took a minimal part in this.

What we have to conclude from this material is that Panasyuk did not write the letter to Stenin of his own volition, and it wasn’t his own idea — that wasn’t clear in initial reports of this letter which contained no details about how it came about. As Ivleva herself notes, she gave him the idea, saying it was “the Christian thing to do.”

While it may have been “Christian,” in fact, Panasyuk, severely injured, and as she noted, in and out of consciousness, was already in a situation where he had been terrorized by DPR fighters — and was still in a hospital in Donetsk, controlled by the DPR rebels. It’s clear that in order to get through this situation, he will do what he thinks is necessary — as will his mother.

Ultimately, none of this sad tale exonerates Stenin — whatever the nature of his death — from taking part in a brutal propaganda exercise by Russian state media designed to cover the humiliation of Ukrainian POWs and serve as an object lesson to other young Ukrainian soldiers in a war. It is war propaganda, as much as certain Moscow intellectuals might like to portray it as a “nuanced human story” and as much as even the liberal TV Rain has taken advantage of it. That Stenin didn’t physically torture any men or that the DPR took Panasyuk to the hospital shouldn’t distract from the ultimate issue here, which that it is state war propaganda, although likely these issues will continue to be strenuously debated by all sides in the conflict for some time to come.

Stenin may have been fired on by Ukrainian forces, but we cannot take Russian state media’s word for this alone. There’s a reason why Ukrainian forces even needed to be present in the first place — Russian-backed insurgents took over towns in the southeast of Ukraine by force, kidnapping and killing people, then ultimately fighting along Russian Federation troops, because the Kremlin did not want Ukraine to leave the Russian orbit.

Russian media and their supporters abroad are likely to go on focusing on the narrow slice of the story that involves possible Ukrainian shelling, while overlooking Stenin’s role: he was embedded with Russian-backed combatants who were trying to make war propaganda to humiliate Ukrainians defending their sovereignty.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said today she was “appalled” to learn about Stenin’s death, and she urged the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the circumstances of his death. All well and good, but the wider context of how Russian state correspondents are helping the Kremlin to make war propaganda, humiliate POWs, and incite hatred of Ukrainians, must also be examined.