14 November 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
The logic of the Ukrainian regime in returning a Wagner Group soldier who had surrendered is understandable. Isn’t the life of one failed mercenary worth the freedom of ten fighters? After all, not only does the Ukrainian regime think so, but many would privately agree. Russian supporters of the war would unhesitatingly surrender dozens of Ukrainians for the head of one traitor, so that other deserters don’t get any ideas. Russian opponents of the war aren’t going to shed tears of pity for the former employee of the Russian Ministry of the Interior who became a murderer, a prisoner, a mercenary, and, finally, a prisoner of war.
ATTEMPT TO FRIGHTEN DESERTERS
However Evgeny Nuzhin was returned to the Russian side, whether he was abducted or traded, the Ukrainian side was responsible for his safety. This is what is required by the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which Ukraine de facto adheres to, despite the fact that none of the conflicting sides has declared war. This is what is required by the laws, including international ones, forbidding the deportation of people to countries where they are threatened by brutal treatment or the death penalty. This is what is required by the word of President Zelenskyy, who guaranteed Russian deserters safety in Ukrainian captivity.
Of course, you might suppose (and conspirological versions like this have already been put forward) that all this is a painstakingly planned special op by that same “Wagner group,” intended to intimidate possible deserters. And that in fact Nuzhin returned to Russia voluntarily within the context of a prisoner exchange. However, more than two days have passed and no explanations have been forthcoming from the Ukrainian side. No proofs of his voluntary return have been presented.
GUARANTEES WILL NO LONGER BE BELIEVED
In Ukraine, at all levels, including the very highest, it has been declared multiple times that no captive will be returned to Russia against his will. In this way, desertion from the Russian army was stimulated, and, accordingly, Russia’s military potential was diminished. Today, apparently, this whole military-political construction turned to dust in the blink of an eye. You can spend a long time trying to convince the enemy’s soldiers to surrender and guaranteeing them good conditions of confinement, but a single instance like Nuzhin’s turnover is enough for no one to believe those guarantees anymore.
Does Ukraine gain from this? Hardly. One deserter from the Russian army is one minus for Russia and one plus for Ukraine. Now there will be fewer of those pluses. There may not be any again. That’s how this story looks from the pragmatic point of view.
A SCREEN FOR CRIMINALITY
Discussions about expedience often lose an understanding of legal justice. Everyone has long understood that the law is swiftly degrading in Russia and laws are a screen for criminality. However, the mob rule that hangmen call the death penalty inflicted on the deserter attests to the creation in the country of a quasi-judicial system, replacing the poorly functioning judicial one.
Law enforcement functions are gradually passing into the hands of criminal groups. This is exactly how illegal armed formations carrying out the Kremlin’s illegal orders were created and continue to operate. The creation of these kinds of parallel security structures leads almost inevitably to civil war as the final means for keeping the country from falling into the abyss of ungovernability and lawlessness.
We should talk about the triumph of law in Ukraine, too. If, in state practice, anti-legal decisions are going to be considered acceptable, then the value of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression shrinks multifold. Now the entire world is looking at the war between Ukraine and Russia as a standoff between modernity and barbarism, as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But the moment Ukraine stands on the same board with dictatorship, all that will be left of the epic battle will be a territorial dispute and polite sympathy from those around them. Ukraine will remain righteous in repelling the terrible encroachments of Russia, but it will be a completely different kind of righteousness and a completely different level of support.
Translated by Marian Schwartz