Russian mercenaries captured Ilia Mykhalchuk outside Bakhmut. They amputated his arms in a dark basement, he says, and subjected him to mind-bending psychological abuse.
August 13, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Mykhalchuk stumbled from the burning wreckage, fell to the frozen ground and, using his fractured teeth for leverage, tightened a tourniquet onto each of his mangled arms. Moments later, his attackers drew near, shooting him through the legs. They moved closer. Death, Mykhalchuk believed, was imminent.
“I was sure,” he recently recalled, “they wouldn’t capture me.”
Yet that is exactly what happened.
Mykhalchuk spent six weeks as a prisoner of the Wagner Group, Russia’s contract army whose savage campaign to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut cost thousands of lives over the winter and spring and left thousands more, including Mykhalchuk, grievously wounded. The months-long siege so disillusioned and enraged Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who personally oversaw the fighting, that in June he took the extraordinary step of staging a rebellion, marching on Moscow in a stunning — if fleeting — threat to President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power.
Mykhalchuk was freed in a prisoner exchange in April, having spent 46 days in captivity, during which he lost both arms to amputation by Wagner medics who, he said, neglected to suture his skin after the procedure. In interviews with The Washington Post, he gave a breathtaking account of his captors’ alleged barbarism and mind-bending efforts to break the will of Ukrainian soldiers they had taken off the battlefield.
Following corrective surgeries in Ukraine, Mykhalchuk was brought to the United States by a consortium of charitable groups for intensive rehabilitation. He’s now in the Washington area at a specialized facility outfitting him with arm prosthetics from a company with deep expertise treating American troops who lost limbs while at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mike Corcoran, the prosthetist heading the effort, marveled at Mykhalchuk’s resilience, saying, “He’s not a shrinking violet.”
Corcoran’s company, Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics, has provided services to 19 Ukrainians, and more of them are on the way. It’s a costly enterprise; Mykhalchuk’s arms alone are valued at $200,000. The work has been facilitated through donations from the Brother’s Brother Foundation and the aid group United Help Ukraine, which pays for housing, food, interpreters and other nonmedical needs.
It is vital for amputees to accept their limb loss and focus on rehabilitation, Corcoran said. Some of the Ukrainians he has helped have struggled, he said, and it’s clear from the look in Mykhalchuk’s eyes that his experience in Wagner captivity has taken a toll.
In his 20s, Mykhalchuk, who is from western Ukraine, was drawn to the outdoors, spending downtime with a fishing pole. For work, he did construction, painting, welding, bricklaying — anything with his hands.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, Mykhalchuk previously served small stints in the Ukrainian military under mobilization obligations in 2004 and in a volunteer unit in 2015 to 2017. He was drafted in December, he said, and stationed in the east with the 67th Mechanized Brigade.
In late February, the unit drew an important mission outside Bakhmut, then the epicenter of fighting. U.S. intelligence assessments at the time revealed that Ukrainian forces were desperate to hold vital supply routes, including those stretching back to Berkhivka.
The 67th was ordered to secure part of the village. The brigade, Mykhalchuk said, is loathed by Russian forces for its ties to the far-right nationalist group Right Sector, which formed a militia following the Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Right Sector was absorbed into the Ukrainian armed forces last year, but animosity between its members and Russian forces remains. That was top of mind, Mykhalchuk said, when Wagner fighters approached as he lay immobilized. They often “kill us right away,” he added.
Wagner’s guns for hire took on the brunt of fighting in and around Bakhmut, where a mix of criminals with little training and skilled operators fought Ukrainian soldiers for control of the city. Russian mercenaries are prevalent in other parts of the world as well, namely Africa and the Middle East, where they have traded muscle for Kremlin influence and access to natural resources. In Mali, Ukraine and elsewhere, they have been accused of numerous war crimes and human rights abuses.
Wagner was Moscow’s premier private military firm, powered by Prigozhin’s longtime relationship with Putin, until its failed uprising in June. Prigozhin and his mutineers were then given haven in Belarus, where their arrival has prompted Ukraine and Poland to tighten security.
The Wagner Group could not be reached for comment. Representatives for the Russian Defense Ministry did not reply to requests for comment.
The Wagner attack on Mykhalchuk’s unit was so fast and violent that it had to have been planned, he said. One other Ukrainian soldier was captured along with him, he said, with dozens of others either still missing or presumed dead. A spokesperson for the brigade could not provide an official account of the incident or Mykhalchuk’s time in captivity. Ukrainian prosecutors have announced war-crimes investigations into the Wagner Group.
Wagner soldiers slipped off his tourniquets and replaced them with crude rubber tubing, tying them in knots so tight they could not be loosened, he recalled. As Mykhalchuk was moved into Russian-held territory, he pleaded for his captors to amputate his right arm. They refused to help him, he said.
Ten hours later, they arrived at a compound where Mykhalchuk would spend the duration of his captivity. He was taken to the basement, which he described as dark and poorly ventilated.
His left arm was salvageable after the rocket attack, he said, but it had turned black from necrosis, starved of blood from the tight rubber tubing. He said his captors made clear there would be no medical attention rendered until he was interrogated — which he said went on for hours.
Eventually, Mykhalchuk was sedated, he recalled. When he awoke, both arms were gone above the elbow. The people who performed the procedure bandaged his stumps without first stitching them, he said.
The interrogations were unrelenting. When he would lose consciousness, he said, he was injected with an unknown substance to keep him awake so they could continue.
His captors did not appear interested in tactical information, such as Ukrainian troop locations or other potentially useful intelligence. There were higher-ranking prisoners whom Wagner could have pressed for such information, Mykhalchuk said. Instead, he surmises that his value to Wagner was merely to be tortured psychologically. His interrogators made light of his amputations, telling him, he said, that he would never fight again, and sadistically asking questions about his fondness for fishing.
Wagner’s strategy, he said, appeared designed to undermine the Ukrainians’ values and to make them question how their countrymen would view them after release from captivity. The Wagner fighters sought to splinter the soldiers’ solidarity and, alluding to their experiences fighting in other conflict zones, showed cunning proficiency when it came to manipulation.
“They tried to make us believe that we couldn’t trust each other, and that it was a kill-or-be-killed situation,” he said. “They were just playing with us, the way a cat plays with a mouse — when he catches it before he kills it.”
Wagner fighters are known to be a volatile mix of serious soldiers and unpredictable convicts drawn from the Russian prison population, Mykhalchuk said. But the Wagner soldiers in the basement of his makeshift prison were professional, he said. He didn’t know their names. Many appeared to exhibit greater respect for Ukrainians like him who were captured while fighting, but less for those who had surrendered — they were treated with derision.
Some prisoners were physically tortured, he said, but he did not witness it. The harshest abuse came in moments of capture, rather than in the basement. Some Ukrainians had their fingers cut off, he said. One man detained alongside him in the basement was set on fire with gasoline before being taken.
“When they’re capturing you,” Mykhalchuk said, “that is the fighting time.”
Mykhalchuk looked to other captives for help enduring his confinement. They bathed and fed him, he said, with tenderness and care he did not expect. They took shifts speaking with him when the pain was too great to sleep.
The basement air was suffocating, he said, and eventually Wagner soldiers cut a hole in one of the walls to improve circulation. The captives existed in a sort of timelessness, without any sight of the sun or clocks. The first week flew by for Mykhalchuk because of his disorientation. In the second week, a new prisoner brought in a watch that flashed the date and time. After that, he said, “time began to drag.”
A routine emerged. Late at night, the guards would announce who among the prisoners would be freed early the next morning. Mykhalchuk’s name was called on April 15 to leave in a prisoner swap. When he emerged from underground, his eyes stung and, he said, it was difficult to breathe in the fresh air after so many weeks in a stifling basement.
He was taken with other prisoners to an agreed-upon location, a straight road for both Ukrainian and Russian units to have a long line of sight. Several drones from each side hovered above, some just a few feet over their heads. The first thing Mykhalchuk asked for once back in Ukrainian custody was coffee and a cigarette.
He does not know what has become of the dozens of soldiers with him when Wagner forces attacked. Not knowing, he said, has been upsetting.
“The parents of those friends, they all want to talk to me,” he said. “I don’t even know how to talk to them, or what to tell them.”
Mykhalchuk spent weeks in a hospital recovering, time that included surgery to correct his hasty amputations. There are limited options for prosthetics in Ukraine, so he feels fortunate to be receiving such state-of-the-art care, he said, before heading back home. Construction could still be in his future, he said, though maybe this time as a foreman.
The artificial limbs he’s being outfitted with give him far greater dexterity than anything he would have been provided back home. They are equipped, for instance, with bionic sensors that will make it much easier to summon the necessary power from what remains of his arms.
At the clinic outside D.C., Mykhalchuk donned a suction cup holding the sensors that translate electrical signals from his biceps and triceps. One sequence of muscle twitched controls allowing him to bend the elbow. Another sequence commands wrist movement.
For the first time in five months, Mykhalchuk picked up an object. The rubber hand grasped a white bottle. He tightened his grip before letting it go. It felt unusual, he said.
“It’s an instrument,” Mykhalchuk observed. “I have to practice and take control of it.”
He practiced learning the most important motions right away: how to bring the artificial hand to his face to eat, drink and, importantly, smoke. One important goal is to tie his own shoes, he said.
Other possibilities have become clear, too. In one session, as he and the staff discussed precision touch, his interpreter offered a suggestion. “Can you show the finger to the Russians?” she asked.
Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and Serhiy Morgunov in Utrecht, Netherlands, contributed to this report.