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The Russian soldier was captured just days after arriving on the front line in eastern Ukraine. He had little training. But he knew how to disassemble and fire his rifle and where to put a tourniquet.

The soldier, who followed the call sign Merk, was lured into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut last month when he heard cries for help from a comrade, he said.

With permission from his Ukrainian captors, Merk, 45, agreed to an interview with New York Times reporters just hours after his capture. A Ukrainian soldier sat in the next room during the interview.

For an hour, the prisoner provided a rare account of the invasion of Ukraine from a Russian perspective, a view that rarely appears in Western news media and which the Kremlin is trying to define for the world in its effort to sway public opinion.

We met Merk on a bloodstained floor in an otherwise tidy and well-lit basement in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. He was mostly unharmed, and his eyes were covered with tape and gauze. His hands were tied. The restraints were removed by his captor upon our arrival.

For journalists, interviewing any prisoner of war occurs under a peculiar set of circumstances, even with the prisoner’s consent. During the process – from deciding whether to participate in the interview to what he might say during it – he is most likely weighing the reaction of his captors, or the prospect of physical violence or other miseries.

The Times identifies Merk by his call sign to protect his identity for security reasons, including the possibility that he could be harmed if he is returned to the Russians in a prisoner exchange. The Times verified his identity through court documents and social media.

The United Nations found ill-treatment of prisoners – including executions, beatings and torture – on both sides of the war, although Ukrainian reports of Russian detention point to far more widespread and severe abuses by Kremlin forces at every level.

Merk was an inmate-turned-soldier, he said, having joined the Russian Army’s newly formed Storm Z prisoner unit after serving two months of a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had previously spent several years in prison after accidentally killing someone while drunk, he said.

The interview below is condensed and annotated with analysis of his comments from The New York Times. The International Committee of the Red Cross is considered leadership regarding the release of information about prisoners of war.

Before Merk was imprisoned, he worked in a machine factory, and then worked briefly as a manual laborer before his second term. After two months in prison, a man in a “green suit” from the Russian Ministry of Defense arrived, looking for recruits. Merk said more than half of his prison population had already volunteered to fight with the private mercenary group Wagner before he returned to prison in March.

Merk explained that he interpreted the offer as a way to become a military construction worker. He said his only understanding of the war came from the television in prison. He said he didn’t realize early on that he would be sent to battle.

Merk unwittingly joined Storm Z company, a Russian military unit filled with inmates. It was created in recent months in the image of the Wagner inmate program, which was widely used in eastern Ukraine.

He assumed he was recruited with about 300 other prisoners. He was given no form of personal identification. But when he signed the six-month contract, with the option of an extension, there was a photocopy of his passport so he could get a bank card and receive his salary. At the time of his capture, Merk said, he had yet to be paid.

Merk arrived somewhere in eastern Ukraine in late May and was stationed at a training camp. There, he learned how to use a rifle and received scant medical training. His commanders were also former prisoners, and gained their rank simply by longevity, he guessed.

When Merk got a rifle, he knew he was going to the front line, unlike some of the other inmates who were sent to work in the base’s mess hall.

Merk spent only a few days digging and had no idea where he was on the front line when he was captured. Ukrainian soldiers said he surrendered near Bakhmut. The town, captured by the Russians in May, sits mostly on low ground.

Merk said that when the Ukrainian attack began, there were nine soldiers digging along with him. Four were captured. He doesn’t know what happened to the others.

Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev, Riley Mellen, Dmitry Khavin and Anatoly Kurmanaev.

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