Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev, the deputy commander of 40 Battalion, was captured by Russian “kazacks” from the Rostov region, who, on 9 February, cut our Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR [major supply route] at the village of Lohvynove. He spent seventy-eight days in captivity, returning home on 29 April 2015, after long and tortuous negotiations for his release.
Sarychev is a professional army officer with over twenty years’ military experience. He started his career in the Soviet army and served in several detachments across the former Soviet Union. Before his draft on August 2014 he was a military pensioner in Ukraine, but the newly created reservist battalions urgently needed such qualified high-ranking officers – so he returned to serve, leaving his teaching job at the Dnipropetrovsk Honchar University.
At the beginning of February, Lt. Colonel was planning his next trip from our base at Debaltseve to the city of Artemivsk, about 40km to the north. He was going to deliver some documents and call his wife and son (cell-phone communications at our location had been cut by the enemy), but also to pick up a postal package containing night-vision equipment sent by volunteers. For several days the lt. colonel had been asking me to go with him to Artemivsk, where we could check the Internet, read the latest news, and grab a decent cup of coffee. I liked this suggestion but refused, suspecting that any excursion via the Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR would be unsafe – especially in an unarmoured vehicle. Indeed, I advised the colonel not to go, and abandon altogether this “trip to Artemivsk” idea.
But Sarychev dashed to Artemivsk on the morning of Monday, 9 February, joining a group of three battalion Intelligence soldiers in our commander’s UAZ-Patriot jeep. They left our main base around 10.30am, unaware that several hours earlier the Russian-backed Separatist forces had effectively cut the major supply route. We received this news from C Sector, after a lengthy delay, just ten minutes after the colonel’s party sped off.
We heard nothing about them for two consecutive days, when someone called our battalion commander with the news that four of our servicemen had been captured by Russian “kazacks” at the village of Lohvynove. The incident was also reported by Russian LifeNews TV, though I only found this video report on YouTube after our withdrawal from Debaltseve on 18 February.
Our POWs – being under severe duress with threats against their lives – were obliged to say on TV what their Russian captors demanded: false and critical statements regarding 40 Battalion and Ukraine’s military as a whole. After his release from captivity in April, Lt. Colonel Sarychev told me in private talks that the “kazacks” threatened to shoot his comrades in the legs if he did not say what they wanted on camera.
I always believed that Lt. Colonel Sarychev did not betray the Ukrainian Army – either before the ill-fated trip to Artemivsk or afterwards, during his seventy-eight days in captivity. But following his capture, my fellow-officers and I investigated this case, as there were some strange factors – for example, why did all three of our battalion’s “Intel” guys decide to go to Artemivsk, leaving their living room completely empty? However, after my talks with the lt. colonel, it became clear that the whole incident was just an unfortunate war-zone fluke.
Sarychev said that he and four other captives from our battalion – soldiers Lazarenko, Makukh, Gerasimenko, and captain Parkhomenko – had been kept in basements in Luhansk and later in Donetsk. Representatives of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” sometimes beat and humiliated them during interrogations. The soldier Gerasymenko was stabbed in the legs with a knife. On one occasion the captives miraculously avoided being burned alive in their tiny basement room, when a fire broke out in the corridor during the night.
Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev was released on 29 April 2015, thanks to the efforts of the “Officers’ Corps” – a Ukrainian volunteer organization comprised of former military officers. The four other POWs from 40 Battalion are still in captivity, without any immediate hope of release.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)