Guest commentary by Thomas Clowes-Pritchard, writing in a personal capacity
Shaun Pinner (picture), a former British soldier, has an extraordinary story to tell. Starting out as a soldier in the Royal Anglian regiment of the British army in which he served with great distinction, Pinner moved to Ukraine in 2018 where he then married before enlisting in the Ukrainian National Guard and later the Ukrainian Marines. Upon Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, he leapt into action; keen to serve the people of Ukraine whom he had come to know well in their country’s hour of need.
Prior to becoming a contracted soldier in the Ukrainian army and marines, Pinner was a trainer and instructor for new recruits in the Ukrainian army. Latterly, rules were changed which allowed him to serve in combat on the front lines himself.
It was not until his involvement in the defence of Mariupol in the late spring of 2022 when the events which unfolded would lead to his capture and subsequent torture in a prisoner of war camp in Donetsk. Pinner and his comrades had found themselves behind enemy lines; finding it almost impossible to get out of Mariupol to reach friendly lines. During an attempt to vacate Mariupol to find another platoon, Shaun ensued to help a group of injured Ukrainian soldiers. It was shortly after this when he was detected by hostile enemy forces. He was subsequently captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Donetsk. This also happens to be the only time Pinner had stepped foot in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. His captors were Donetsk nationalists fighting for the establishment of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and to be separate from both Ukraine and Russia. Pinner recalls that the worst day of his capture was his first day of capture as this is by far the most violent and bloody. He was barbarically beaten and electrocuted as part of an interrogation. Later, he was sentenced to death at a sham trial where injustice was served without mercy.
'We were on hand-to-hand combat, my brigade commander put out an appeal as we ran out of water and ammo.'
"Being British. I didn’t want to surrender."
— Sky News (@SkyNews) February 23, 2023
While in prison, he was starved, beaten and forbidden to move, even inside his cell. Pinner and his comrades were forced to participate in propaganda which was distributed by fake news outlets sponsored by Russian proxies. These propaganda films would depict imprisoned soldiers being fed burgers to give off the illusion that they were being treated fairly. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Although burgers were given to soldiers participating in the propaganda in the moment, it was only stale bread which was given on a regular basis, although Shaun Pinner advises that taking an opportunity to eat any kind of meat or nutrients could be the difference between life and death. Earlier in his career Pinner had mercifully received training on conduct after capture which prepared him as best as it could for this most brutal of experiences. Given that conduct after capture training proved vital in Shaun Pinner’s survival, I would therefore recommend that greater emphasis be placed on it in British military training and that the militaries of nations allied with the United Kingdom also give this training if they are not doing so already. By the Autumn of 2022, Shaun Pinner was saved from the death sentence in a prisoner exchange overseen by Roman Abramovic. He had also received assistance from former British Prime Minister Liz Truss in both her roles as Prime Minister and previously as Foreign Secretary.
Shaun Pinner has worked with respected think tanks including the Pinsker Centre in the UK, in addition to the Centre for the Advancement of Security and Politics in Euro-Atlantic Relations (CASPER) initiative in the International Republican Institute in the promotion of his story and it is the job of those of us on the staff of these think tanks to base our policy discussions and recommendations on Shaun Pinner’s experience and the experiences of his comrades. His story, for example, reminds us all what is at stake if the crimes of the Russian government and military are allowed to continue in Ukraine and what could be in store for surrounding countries such as Hungary, Poland or Estonia if the West and the Ukrainian people do not stop Russian forces in their tracks.
It also serves as a reminder of what happens when the West shows weakness. Russian incursions in Georgia and Crimea were met with little resistance in the West. This sent a message to the enemies of the rules-based international order that there might not be serious consequences to hostile actions. This message was heard clearly in China, Iran and Venezuela in addition to being heard in Russia. Indeed with China wishing to take over Taiwan, assert control in Hong Kong and the South China Sea; Iran seeking to dominate the Middle east; and Guyana facing threats of invasion from Venezuela, it is crucial that democracies across the world stand up to Russia and is seen by other rogue states to be doing so.
Thirdly, Shaun Pinner can serve as a credible source of information as to what is being experienced by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in Ukraine on the ground and on the front lines. This is crucial information to policymakers and will likely prove useful to those who work in the field who have significant knowledge and experience but lack the understanding and intelligence of day-to-day life and movements on the battlefields and of civilian centres in Ukraine. Armed with this knowledge, those who work in the field will continue to write speak and advise on how Western governments should act in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Copyright picture: By Ukrainian Ministry of Defense – Military ID, https://t.me/RVvoenkor/5575, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=120125943