Russian intelligence officials attempted to recruit captured members of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment to join a large-scale fight planned against Western Europe and the U.S., a senior leader of the unit said after being released.
Azov Regiment Chief of Staff, Maj. Bohdan Krotevych was among the more than 2,000 Ukrainian service members captured in May when Russia overwhelmed the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol after a bitter, bloody siege. He recalled in an interview how his captors attempted to chip away at his loyalty to Ukraine as part of a psychological pressure campaign spanning his four months as a POW near Moscow.
“They asked why I’m fighting,” Maj. Krotevych told The Washington Times in an interview this week. “They asked what is Ukraine for me. And they asked, ‘Why don’t you join us and fight against Europe and the USA?’”
The grillings were the only interruptions to otherwise endless spans of isolation. In total, Maj. Krotevych says he spent 120 days in a 4-by-2 meter cell cut off from the outside world.
“It was hard psychological pressure,” he said. “We weren’t able to speak with people, to see people, to even see the skies, because the windows were totally closed.”
He said a camera hung in his cell to record his every move. The overhead light stayed on around the clock.
“It’s quite a philosophic adventure,” he said. “I planned to not lose my mind, and I guess I managed to do that.”
In addition to pressuring battle-hardened Azov fighters to switch sides, Maj. Krotevych said his handlers, who he thinks was part of either Russia’s federal security service or military intelligence, pressed him for information about other Ukrainian units still resisting a Russian invasion now nearly eight months old.
But he said turning against his country or its Western allies was never an option.
“I told them that I’m not going to say anything and that if they want to try to torture me to get me talking, try,” he said. “After that, they never spoke to me again.”
The eight-year-old Azov Regiment was founded as a volunteer paramilitary militia to fight in the frozen conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and was later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. The regiment has been a special target of criticism from President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, who cite it as what they say is a clear illustration of the “far-right elements” that dominate the Kyiv government.
The prison ordeal was not the first time Maj. Krotevych’s determination had been put to the test.
His unit was outnumbered and under siege for months before Russia was able to overtake the Azovstal steel plants sprawling network of bunkers used to defend the key port city. Their lengthy resistance became a rallying point for Ukrainians across the country.
The regiment remained concealed in the plant in a last-ditch effort to defend the key port city — sleeping underground as Russian forces launched barrages from the air and sea, emerging amid the onslaught to man a network of firing positions on the surface.
The steel mill had served as the Azov Regiment’s command post for the region since the start of the war. Azov fighters gathered food and supplies from other bases, planning to use the sprawling fortress for a strategic fallback as Russian forces advanced from the east and south.
By late spring, the unit had been cut off from supply lines and left to fend for themselves without support from other Ukrainian units.
Fighters relied on the food they brought into the factory at the beginning of the war, and the industrial water that was still being supplied to the plant, which the fighters boiled before they drank.
Maj. Krotevych, who joined the Azov Regiment after Russia annexed his hometown in Crimea in 2014, told The Times in an interview that, despite the circumstances, Russia stood no chance of breaking his resolve to defend Ukraine.
“For me, every man must go defend his homeland,” he said. “I would like the world to understand that Russia is a terrorist country. Terrorists must be neutralized.”
Most of those captured after Mariupol fell were held within Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. Maj. Krotevych was among nine Azov leaders taken to a different facility inside Russia. He said he did not know his whereabouts until released last month as part of a prisoner swap that freed 108 Azov fighters.
Several of the unit’s top commanders are required to remain in Turkey until the war ends as part of the deal.
Maj. Krotevych, who spoke to The Times by phone from Kyiv, was careful in sharing details from his time in captivity. He said that if he were to disclose certain details, it could complicate efforts to release thousands who remain imprisoned.
He said he and others who were recently released have been debriefed by Ukrainian officials and are aiding in efforts to free other prisoners.
And he said he is not done fighting for Ukraine.
“We’re going to bring everybody back,” he said. “Everybody has to understand that the full-scale war is ongoing, but Ukrainian armed forces are liberating Russian-controlled territories every day. And we are going to continue to go forward.”
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