Trading With Terrorists, Ukraine-Style

He doesn’t work for the government. He doesn’t wear a uniform. Meet the mysterious deal broker who’s freeing Ukraine’s prisoners of war.

Photo by Alec Luhn
Photo by Alec Luhn

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — Vladimir Ruban faced a choice: Of the 40 sun-baked, haggard, dirty Ukrainian soldiers being held captive in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in early September, the pro-Russian rebels were only willing to release eight.

"I was supposed to point my finger and choose who would stay and possibly die, and who would go home to their families," said Ruban, a mysterious former lieutenant general, likely in Ukraine’s security service, although he wouldn’t say. An entourage of armed men in light blue baseball caps stood guard as he smoked a cigarette outside the regional administration building in Dnipropetrovsk, his expression unreadable under his sandy beard.

Over the past four months, Ruban has negotiated the release of at least 200 government soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine, traveling deep into rebel territory and winning concessions from even the most feared rebel commanders. Thanks to his exploits, he’s become something of a celebrity, and the pro-Kiev television channel Hromadske.tv recently followed him into Donetsk for a documentary film that was shot with the dramatic lighting and suspenseful music of a crime drama.

Luckily for Ruban, the officers in the Donetsk group made the decision for him, saying the eight soldiers with the most children would go home. The rebels threw two extra captives into the bargain: One was released because he was only 19, the other because the Eurovision-winning Ukrainian pop singer Ruslana, who was traveling with Ruban, successfully appealed on behalf of his mother to take him.

After a fraught cease-fire that began on Sept. 5, the liberation of captives has become the next step in the peace process to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Besides the oft-violated truce, it was the only other section of the 12-point peace plan that the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics unequivocally agreed to. This month, Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine said each side is holding more than 1,000 prisoners, both soldiers and civilians, a number that Ruban confirmed to me.

The prisoner exchange has proceeded in fits and starts. After previous handovers were delayed repeatedly, 36 captive Ukrainian soldiers were traded for 31 rebel fighters on Sept. 12, and each side handed over 73 prisoners on Sept. 14. But many fighters remain in captivity, including about three dozen government soldiers I saw being forced to clean up debris from shelling five days a week in Snizhne, a city near the Russian border.

Ruban, the only professional prisoner-exchange negotiator in Ukraine, continues to quietly negotiate with field commanders on the ground to release captive soldiers. The former lieutenant general is arguably one of the most effective peacemakers in a conflict where government officials still refuse to meet directly with "terrorists" from the unrecognized republics in the east. He argues that soldiers fighting each other on the ground are sick of fighting and able to come to an agreement when needed: Ruban told me about an incident when rebels agreed to delay their artillery strike a half hour so a group of Ukrainian soldiers near Donetsk could finish cooking a pot of oatmeal. His work to improve treatment of prisoners and "change the face of this war to a more humane one" will improve dialogue between the fighting sides and help the peace process, he said. Although the veterans’ group he heads, Officer Corps, is not formally affiliated with the government or the military, Ruban is reportedly on good terms with important officials in Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk.

"It’s not our war, but [the Officers’ Corps] can help people fight correctly and hopefully end the war," Ruban told me after a press conference with the 10 freed prisoners in Dnipropetrovsk, a city 160 miles west of Donetsk that has served as a basing point for Ukrainian troops. "Our mission is to the end this brother-killing war."

One woman briefly interrupted the conference when she came running into the room and threw herself on her returning husband, sobbing with relief. The husband, Sergei Litvinin, is a father of three and a member of the local volunteer battalion Dnipro-1. He was captured near Ilovaisk during the bloodiest engagement of the war so far, when volunteer fighters said they were abandoned and surrounded by Russian soldiers.

"At least someone didn’t forget about us," Litvinin said of Ruban, looking haggard but calm in his new freedom as he dragged on a cigarette outside the regional administration building in Dnipropetrovsk.

Ruban is a silent, calculating man whose true emotions remain constantly hidden behind his unsmiling exterior, and he is tight-lipped about his past. In an interview, Ruban once mentioned an affiliation with the academy run by the security council, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, but when I asked him if he had served in the agency, he replied, "I won’t tell you that."

Ruban began working to free prisoners in May when he negotiated the release of Nikolai Yakubovich, a pro-Kiev activist in Donetsk and security council advisor taken prisoner and reportedly beaten in captivity by a rebel group called the Russian Orthodox Army. His office now receives some 300 phone calls a day. His group also compiles lists of imprisoned and missing soldiers so they can ask for them by name, a key moment in many successful prisoner exchanges.

He has been able to crack the toughest rebel leaders, managing to negotiate the release of 17 prisoners from Igor "Devil" Bezler, the then-commander of the city of Gorlovka who is renowned for his cruelty and is rumored to have once skinned a prisoner alive. Besides the 10 men freed and brought to Dnipropetrovsk in early September, he has negotiated the release of groups of 15, 16, and 20 prisoners in Donetsk in recent weeks.

Ruban doesn’t trade prisoners for money. He usually exchanges captured rebels for the government fighters whose names are on his list. The deals hinge on mutual respect, trust, and his "officer’s promise," he said.

Boris Litvinov, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said Ruban’s "experience" — the negotiator has also said in prior interviews that he has connections in Russian intelligence — and the fact that he’s not an active general allow him to successfully negotiate releases. "He’s well-received in the Ukrainian presidential cabinet, so he can resolve issues on the Ukrainian side. They listen to him. And thanks to his experience he finds a way to approach our field commanders," Litvinov said.

Ruban’s growing stature has attracted important allies and supporters, including the singer Ruslana. A celebrity in Ukraine and Europe since she won the Eurovision 2004 contest with her song "Wild Dances," the pop star became one of the voices of the Euromaidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych this winter. The movement’s drive for European integration sparked the uprising in the east that was amplified by men and arms from Russia, but Ruslana’s popularity and charm have nonetheless allowed her to find common ground with the rebels as she’s traveled with Ruban to negotiate releases over the past three weeks. Ruban said the rebels "respect her courage" for coming to enemy territory.

During her first visit to Donetsk at the end of August, Donetsk People’s Republic Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko took Ruslana and Ruban for a ride around the city, during which a sniper wounded the rebel prime minister’s bodyguard in the neck. Upon her return, Ruslana began calling for an end to the war in the east. "My message is that these people are not to blame, they’re the same as us, they don’t love to fight," she told me when I met her in Dnipropetrovsk.

Human rights groups have accused both sides in the conflict of abducting and torturing civilians and public servants, and Ruban said that many prisoners of war were also subjected to poor conditions and torture. In August, rebels in Donetsk paraded several dozen captured soldiers through the streets as onlookers jeered, spat, and threw garbage at them in what Human Rights Watch said was a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

But according to Ruban, conditions for soldiers have gradually been improving along with the pace of prisoner exchanges. Earlier this month, he announced that Zakharchenko had agreed to end conditions for returning the bodies of those killed in action and agreed not torture prisoners. "I promise we will treat prisoners adequately here, and they promise the same thing there," Ruban said. "They see that this kind of relationship is better, it’s correct. And the captives come out alive."

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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