A former senior Russian army officer says he saw his comrades torturing prisoners of war in Ukraine, in a rare eyewitness account from within Moscow’s ranks to address widespread allegations of Russian war crimes.
Speaking to CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday, former Lt. Konstantin Yefremov said he witnessed a deputy commander torturing prisoners of war and threatening them with sexual violence, adding that no one dared to speak out against the officer for fear he would attack them too.
“He could have easily shot me or anyone else who said that they didn’t agree with this,” Yefremov said, adding that he personally witnessed the interrogations of three Ukrainian prisoners of war.
“Besides, he was drunk nonstop, and he was driving around the nearby villages where there were other prisoners of war. As far as I know, there were about 20 others, Ukrainian prisoners of war,” he said.
Yefremov is the most senior Russian officer to speak openly about what he saw in Ukraine.
He is now hoping the United States will grant him asylum after he fled Russia last month following his dismissal from the military for refusing to return to Ukraine.
“I ask the Ukrainian people for forgiveness that I came to their land with a gun in my hand,” he said.
Yefremov’s account follows the admission earlier this week by a former Wagner mercenary that the brutality he witnessed in Ukraine ultimately pushed him to defect.
In an exclusive CNN interview, Andrei Medvedev, who is seeking asylum after crossing from Russia into Norway, alleged that reluctant recruits and prisoners were shot in front of Wagner newcomers.
The allegations of the former Russian fighters also come amid growing calls from Ukraine and the international community to hold Moscow accountable for alleged war crimes committed during its nearly year-long invasion of its neighbor.
On Thursday, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen announced that an international center for the prosecution of the “crime of aggression” in Ukraine would be set up in The Hague.
Russia has repeatedly denied accusations its forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.
In November, Russian officials said a target of 300,000 recruits had been met under a mobilization drive announced by President Vladimir Putin in late September following a series of major setbacks for Moscow in the war.
Yefremov outlined what he described as “dire” circumstances for those drafted into the Russian army to fight in Ukraine, saying many were unprepared for what awaits them on the battlefield.
“They have not been trained and they are not even aware of what kind of horror is awaiting them there,” said Yefremov, describing the soldiers as handymen, not servicemen.
Yefremov said that “nearly everyone” in the Russian forces knows the mission is wrong.
“They truly do not believe Putin’s fables about Ukraine’s threat of invasion,” he said.
Instead, they are in Ukraine because they have no choice, he said. “It’s either their family and children end up on the streets or they have to be in the trenches,” he said.
And because the troops were drafted, many cannot resign or they will face imprisonment, he said. “So, basically, there is no choice. They either have to remain there or find ways to flee. So, like I have already said, the circumstances are dire,” he said.