World

They Are Russians Fighting Against Their Homeland. Here’s Why.


The soldier knelt in the snow, aimed a rocket launcher, and fired at Russian troops stationed about a mile away. He was stationed in a Ukrainian firing position, and looked like other Ukrainian soldiers fighting south of Bakhmut in one of the war’s deadliest battlefields.

But he and his teammates are not Ukrainian. They are soldiers in a Ukrainian military unit made up of all Russians who are fighting and killing their compatriots.

They took up arms against Russia for a variety of reasons: a sense of moral outrage at the invasion of their country, a desire to protect the homeland Ukraine adopted them, or because of their natural dislike of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. And they have won enough trust from Ukrainian commanders to take their place in the forces that are fighting fiercely with the Russian army.

“A real Russian man would not participate in such a war of aggression, would not rape children, kill women and the elderly,” said a Russian fighter wearing the Caesar badge, pointing out the Russian soldiers’ atrocities prompted him to act. leaving his hometown of St. Petersburg and fought for Ukraine. “That’s why I have no regrets. I did my job and I killed a lot of them.”

Almost a year after the war, the Free Russian Legion, as the unit was called, received little attention — partly to protect soldiers from Russian retaliation, but also because of reluctance in the Ukrainian military. in highlighting the efforts of soldiers from their homeland that have caused so much harm to Ukraine. Several hundred of them gathered in the area around Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, officials said; they are always grouped separately but supervised by Ukrainian officers.

In interviews, several Russian soldiers said they lived in Ukraine when Russian forces invaded last year and felt an obligation to defend the country that adopted them. Others, often with no military experience, crossed into Ukraine from Russia after the war began, feeling that the Kremlin’s invasion was deeply unjust.

“We’re not here to prove anything,” said a soldier wearing a Zaza sign. “We are here to help Ukraine completely withdraw Russian forces from Ukrainian territory and liberate Putin in Russia’s future.”

Fearing reprisal from loved ones and themselves, none of the soldiers interviewed agreed to reveal their identities or provide specific details about their biographies. Last week, the office of the prosecutor general of Russia file a lawsuit with the country’s supreme court to declare Legion a terrorist organization.

Zaza, a skinny blond guy who looks like he’s just graduated from high school, doesn’t even give his age, only saying he’s under 20. After the Russian forces invaded, he said, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. His outspokenness and anti-war posts on social media got him in trouble with his university’s administration, then the police. When officers from Russia’s security service showed up at his door in the fall, he said, he decided it was time to leave.

He said he walked across the border into Ukraine and signed up to fight.

“At such a young age, it’s a little early for me to talk about my political views and worldview, because these things are just taking shape now,” he said. “But when your country is taken over by a bad guy, you need to take care of things yourself.”

At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian law forbade Russian citizens to join the armed forces. Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said it took until August to finalize the law allowing the Legion to legally participate in the war.

“There is a large number of Russians who because of their moral principles cannot be indifferent and are looking to join the ranks of the defenders of Ukraine,” Yusov said, explaining the army’s motive for creating the unit. . “All the legionnaires have come with a great desire to stop Putin’s clique and liberate Russia from dictatorship.”

The group operates under the auspices of the Ukraine International Corps, a combat force consisting of units of American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others.

Russian soldiers said it was not easy to get involved. They must submit an application and undergo an extensive background check that includes lie tests. Only then can they enter basic training. As Russian passport holders, they are bound to encounter mistrust. Yusov said there have been several attempts by Russian spies to infiltrate the Legion.

In a pine forest in the Kyiv region last week, a group of Russian recruits nearing the end of a three-month basic training course practiced tactical retreat, mortar fire and basic combat medicine. They exemplify the international chaos that has defined much of the Ukrainian war effort: Russian soldiers are trained to use French-made 155mm mortars and carry American-made M16 rifles. .

“It’s better than Kalashnikov,” one of the soldiers said of the M16. “I’ve fired about 1,000 rounds and haven’t had any problems.”

The sound of small arms and heavy artillery fire echoed throughout the forest, and an instructor threw a fake grenade near a small group of soldiers to see how they would react. Most troops will occupy positions from the front lines, working in artillery or aerial reconnaissance units using drones.

Although the instructors are all Ukrainian, they all speak in Russian. In interviews, some recruits managed to speak a few words of Ukrainian, but quickly switched to their native language.

“After about a month or two when they were settled, they started using small phrases like ‘thank you’ or ‘hi fire,’” said one of the instructors, who declined to be named.

The soldiers said they struggled to explain their decision to their families in Russia. Reports of Russian military atrocities, including the massacre of civilians in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, are seen as foreign propaganda in their homeland.

“They don’t understand the whole truth,” said a 32-year-old soldier with a Miami sign, who said his parents urged him to fight for the Russians. “They say there are bad people living here, and they believe it. They don’t believe that the second largest army in the world can kill ordinary people.”

Back on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, the shelling never stopped for long. Russian forces have been pounding Ukrainian positions, trying to dislodge them around Bakhmut before an expected assault to capture the entire eastern region known as the Donbas.

On a recent visit to a firing position, the exact position The New York Times was keeping for security, the ground shook and shells shot across the clear sky. That day, Russian forces launched a salvo of grad missiles that covered the area, injuring some civilians but no soldiers.

“They are attacking everywhere,” said a gasping Russian soldier as he hid in a bunker in a neighborhood of small snow-covered houses.

Soldiers in the Legion say they are continuing to hold the line, but some have begun to think beyond the battle ahead, and even beyond the war in Ukraine, of what will happen. next.

“My duty is not only to protect the Ukrainian people,” said Caesar, 50. “If I am still alive after this period and the entire territory of Ukraine is liberated, I will certainly continue to fight, with arms in hand, to overthrow this regime. the Kremlin regime.”

Caesar, who was known as an eccentric sage in the legion, said he was a Russian nationalist. However, he still believes that modern Russia has gone astray, especially when it comes to invading Ukraine, he said.

He was once a member of the Russian Imperial Movement, which the US has declared a violent extremist group, but says he abandoned the movement in part because he supported Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. in 2014.

A senior Ukrainian military official involved in overseeing the Legion said that Caesar “spent a long time searching for the path that he felt was ideologically right”, adding that Ukrainian officials found no reason to doubt him.

Caesar, who moved his wife and four children to Ukraine over the summer, said he did not believe he was fighting against his Russian compatriots, but “scoundrels and murderers” with no nationality. president.

“I am sitting in front of you, an example of a Russian man, and an example of a man that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky wrote about,” he said. “I am that kind of person. Do not they. They are not Russian.”

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