Ukrainian border guards who insulted Russian forces this week in a recorded exchange that went viral may not have been killed, Ukrainian officials said Saturday, contradicting an earlier claim by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said in a statement posted to its Facebook page that the guards may be alive, after Russian media reported that they were taken as prisoners from their base on Snake Island in the Black Sea to Sevastopol, a port city that Russia controls on the Crimean Peninsula.
Zelensky cited the guards’ story Thursday while highlighting Ukrainian resistance to a Russian invasion, saying that 13 guards had “died heroically.” He said he would recognize each with the title Hero of Ukraine.
“May the memory of those who gave their lives for Ukraine live forever,” Zelensky said.
The guards’ actions drew international attention after an audio recording of their encounter with the Russians was published on the website of the Ukrainian news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda. A Ukrainian official confirmed its authenticity to The Washington Post on Thursday.
In the clip, a Russian voice warns the border guards that they will be attacked if they do not give up.
“I am a Russian warship,” a voice from the invaders says. “I ask you to lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”
The Ukrainians responded boldly before they were attacked.
“Russian warship,” came the reply, “go f--- yourself.”
Ukrainian officials said in the Facebook post Saturday that the border guards were attacked by both Russian aircraft and weapons from the ship, and that Ukrainian officials lost communication with the guards after infrastructure was destroyed. It now appears it was assumed the guards were killed.
Ukrainian officials on Saturday said they were working to determine what happened to the guards and praised them for digging in. It was not clear how many guards were on the island when the attack began or if any were killed.
The border guards’ message for the Russians spread rapidly, with many comparing it to famous rallying cries from earlier wars. Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan, an Australian military officer, compared it to “NUTS!” a response that then-U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe sent to Nazi forces who sought an American surrender during the Battle of Bastogne in World War II.
“Today, none of us will ever forgot what these servants of their nation did there,” Ryan tweeted.
The Kyiv Post reported Saturday that the message for the Russian ship appeared on a digital road sign hanging over a Ukrainian highway.
The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne contributed to this report.