Book review: Putin’s Prisoner by Aiden Aslin

Ukraine and other war zones are seen as cash cows for the west’s publicity-seeking soldiers of fortune, who crave fame and adulation for their actions.

The following article is reproduced from Al Mayadeen, with thanks.


British mercenary Aiden Aslin, who was sentenced to death in the Donetsk People’s Republic but subsequently released as part of a prisoner exchange, was a secret intelligence asset who killed Russians in Ukraine.

The former Nottinghamshire careworker, who also fought alongside US occupying forces in Syria, made the candid, but ill-advised admission in his recently released book Putin’s Prisoner. (2023)

Written in cooperation with the anti-Putin, former BBC hack and ardent Ukrainiac John Sweeney, the poorly-written tome documents his account of the time he spent in captivity after surrendering at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in April 2022.

The book opens with the moment he was taken captive and how his family members had been stunned when they saw pictures of him released on social media while they were at an amusement park back in Britain.

Brief details of his Nottinghamshire childhood and family follow, including his youthful desire to become a police officer or a detective – which he says he would have excelled at owing to his “photographic memory”.

According to the book, after serving with US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria – remarkable only for an incident involving a friendly fire airstrike by the USA – he then went on to fight in Ukraine. He was drawn to both causes after reading about them on the internet – or so he says.

Aslin of course glosses over how he really ended up in Ukraine, so that the reader is led to believe that he had been following events there since 2014 and had admired the way Kiev’s forces had fought Russia to a standstill.

This, of course, is as nonsensical as the title of the book. At that time, fighting was between Ukrainian ultranationalists (fascists) and the people’s militias that had sprung up to defend the people of the Donbass region.

“I was still up for a challenge, so in February 2018 I rocked up in Ukraine, planning to join their army,” Aslin says, as if he was simply tackling The Times cryptic crossword rather than entering a foreign country to kill ethnic Russians.

But he was photographed soon after he entered the country with leading figures from the Georgian Legion, a unit that has been accused of war crimes, including the torture and execution of Russian prisoners of war.

Pictured alongside him is fellow prisoner Shaun Pinner, another mercenary with a book deal, who went on to join the neo-nazi Azov battalion, along with Tony Giddings and John Harding (also captured in Mariupol). All of them had also served in Syria with the US-backed Kurdish YPG.

Another picture shows Pinner, Giddings and Harding wearing Azov t-shirts alongside the notorious Chris ‘Swampy’ Garrett, another former British soldier with a Sonnenrad tattoo – a Nazi symbol – on his hand.

Garrett first went to Ukraine in 2014, joining the Azov forces as they fought against Russian-speakers in Donbass. During this eight-year war, 14,000 were killed and civilian areas were constantly terrorised by Ukraine’s official and unofficial military forces.

The former tree surgeon from the Isle of Man appears to be a bit of a lynchpin, one of the main contacts as an entry point both into Ukraine and the myriad of far-right forces now conveniently forgotten by western mainstream media.

How such people are able to leave and enter both Syria and Ukraine – two countries in which the west is waging proxy wars – with relative ease raises suspicions. Aslin provides a possible answer to this conundrum when he admits later on in the book that he was working with British army intelligence.

He says he lied to his interrogators in Donetsk, telling them that he had had no contact with spooks during his time in Ukraine. But it turns out that Aslin had in fact been passing on information to a contact – meaning that not only was he a mercenary, he was also an intelligence asset (a spy).

“I had been contacted by someone in the British army intelligence corps,” Aslin writes, adding: “They phoned me up from time to time and I told them exactly what I would tell anyone down the pub if I had been at home, that Ukrainian morale was good, the training was good, but we needed far more and far better anti-aircraft defence.”

He insists he told his handlers nothing that would have compromised Ukrainian operational security. Perhaps this is naivety on Aslin’s part rather than outright deception. He is hardly going to admit to the exact nature of his connection to British army spooks. But he was clearly a state intelligence asset operating in a foreign country.

This gives an indication of who is really pulling the strings of the many foreigners in Ukraine – and given their links to Kurdish/US forces, in Syria as well. It is already known that Macer Gifford (aka Harry Rowe) has connections to British and US intelligence services and the British government, and that this former Tory councillor and city banker has been playing a key role in recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.

Gifford is something of a Walter Mitty character, a massive self-publicist whose friends have issued threats against this author for daring to report on the shelling of civilian areas in Donetsk. He issues regular appeals and updates on social media, but his love of the limelight means he unwittingly gives away a treasure trove of detailed information.

Like many of his comrades, Gifford also served in the YPG, and like them was able to move freely in and out of Syria, and more latterly in and out of Ukraine. Many of his former comrades suspected he was a state intelligence asset.

Initially, he claimed he was in Ukraine to provide humanitarian support. His aim was, he claimed, to set up an NGO based on the model of the pseudo-humanitarian organisation, the White Helmets, which operates in Syria alongside jihadist forces and was founded by former British army intelligence officer James Le Mesurier and bankrolled by western governments.

Gifford was exposed after he was caught raising funds for killer drones that he said would wipe out thousands of “Orcs” – a racist term used by Ukrainian nazis to describe Russians. He was stopped in his tracks when his fundraiser was shut down, but it wasn’t long before he picked up a gun. Like Aslin, it appears that he too has killed ethnic Russians.

Neither could exactly be described as the sharpest tools in the box, and both would be obvious candidates for British intelligence services to manipulate and exploit. Gifford in particular is a craven servant of imperialism, batting hard for the United States and Britain in both Ukraine and Syria, and an ardent opponent of progressive movements.

Both men are killers on behalf of reactionary forces endorsed by Britain. Along with neo-nazi fighter Shaun Pinner, both have been paraded on national television since their release, rewarded for their service to imperialism with book deals and lauded as heroes.

Like the western media, Aslin avoids the thorny issue of the nature of the Ukrainian forces and, of course, outright denies the glaring and overwhelming evidence of far-right and neo-nazi ideology that is so prevalent in the country.

Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera is dismissed as someone “who fought both the Nazis and the communists”, a shocking deception, which co-author John Sweeney at least will be well aware of. Similarly, criticism of the neo-Nazi Azov battalion is brushed off because they have never invaded another country – a statement so stunningly stupid it’s hard to fathom.

But, of course, Aslin can’t admit the truth because these are the very people he fought alongside, the units his mercenary friends joined. He has even gone as far as to use the distinctive Banderite colours on patches he sells as part of fundraising efforts alongside the antisemitic Nafo (North Atlantic Fella Organisation) online troll factory.

In a desperate bid to justify support for Ukraine, Aslin gives an incredibly superficial and inaccurate history of the country. The few paragraphs that cover this are the kind of unhinged anti-Russian and anticommunist tropes that it is very likely have been at least in part written by Sweeney.

Nonetheless, judging by his online activities and actions, Aslin undoubtedly shares those views, despite describing himself as a “libertarian anarchist” – something he says he also discovered on the internet and which seems to play an unhealthily large part in his life.

After briefly describing how he signed up for the Ukrainian armed forces, somehow joining the Marines, which indicates Kiev is so desperate it isn’t fussy about who it lets in, he gets into the nitty gritty; his service in the fight against “the evil Russians”.

After being posted close to Mariupol, Aslin describes excitement at being asked to fire an RPG at what he describes as “Russian positions”. He explains that a Ukrainian who was in the observation post told him that his rocket had struck the bunker dead centre.

“I don’t know if I killed anyone, but I am quietly confident that I had made my presence felt,” the newly-blooded Ukrainian marine writes hopefully.

Not long after this, he was not left wondering. He describes the moment when intelligence brought him some “good news” – that at least one Russian soldier had been killed in a mortar attack.

“Truth to tell, I didn’t feel much when I learned about killing the Russian. I felt pretty numb about killing and/or being killed,” he coldly writes, before explaining how he boasted to a Croatian friend Prebeg about the kill.

“That was us: the hammer of God,” he told his comrade, who was also later to be captured by Russian forces, adding that it was “a bit of a brag, about the first kill of this deployment”.

He blames “the madness of war” for his callousness and claims that “this kind of banter is absolutely normal in wartime military culture”.

Aslin insists throughout the book that he is not a mercenary because of his status as a Ukrainian marine. This, he argues, gives him protection under the Geneva convention and means he should have been treated as a prisoner of war and offered protections under the terms of the international treaty.

He may well be right on the legal status. Many others have since signed up to the Ukrainian army to get around the legalities. But even if he was technically not a mercenary in the eyes of the law, his motivations most certainly were.

Let’s not forget that Aslin was not in Ukraine on holiday, or for some romantic love story. He went with the sole intention of killing Russians, something he admits to having done and, judging by his social media profile, would do again.

While writing this review, news came through of the death of 22-year-old student Sam Newey from Birmingham. He was killed in a mortar attack on the frontline where the fiercest fighting has taken place.

Sam was the younger brother of Dan Newey, another former YPG fighter who travelled to Ukraine to fight as part of the Dark Angels unit, founded by former British paratrooper Daniel Burke, who was missing and presumed killed at the time of writing.

According to Sun reporter Jerome Starkey, who has previously embedded with the Dark Angels in Ukraine, the last time they spoke, Sam had said he was attached to the Ukrainian military intelligence in Kramatorsk.

The Dark Angels also consisted of a host of former YPG fighters and first came to prominence after the group fired a javelin missile at a Russian tank somewhere in the Kherson region – an action filmed by Sam and posted on social media.

Burke’s family has called for the British police to investigate his disappearance, with his father suggesting he may have fallen out with his fellow mercenaries in a row over access to money.

Aslin, meanwhile, wants to become a conflict journalist. “I fancied myself as the new Ross Kemp, but with more hair,” he says, a reference to the former Eastenders actor who hosted a series of populist documentaries in global hotspots.

It seems that Ukraine, Syria and other war zones are seen as cash cows for publicity-seeking soldiers of fortune such as Aslin, who crave fame, notoriety, and even adulation for their actions.

But for all the bravado and book deals, the sad truth is that young men like Sam have died in vain, encouraged to take up arms and commit crimes by those who should know better, for a cause that was not theirs, and for a country that doesn’t care.