Exclusive: Russian officer reveals why he risked everything to stop Putin’s war in Ukraine

“We were dirty and tired. People around us were dying. I didn’t want to feel like I was part of it, but I was part of it,” the officer told CNN.

He said he went to his commanding officer and resigned his commission on the spot.

CNN does not name the officer or include any personal details that would help identify him for his safety.

His story is remarkable, but it could also be one of many, according to war opponents in both Russia and Ukraine who say they have heard of many cases of soldiers – both professional and conscripted – refusing to fight. .

Russian troops are struggling with low morale and heavy casualties in Ukraine, according to assessments by Western officials, including the Pentagon.

Britain’s Intelligence, Cybersecurity and Security Agency says some even refused to carry out orders.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

An unknown mission

The officer who spoke to CNN said he was part of the massive troop buildup in western Russia that has sparked global fears for Ukraine. But he said he didn’t give it much thought, even on February 22 this year, when he and the rest of his battalion were told to hand over their cellphones while stationed in Krasnodar, in the southern Russia, without any explanation.

That night, they spent hours painting white stripes on their military vehicles. Then they were told to wash them, he said. “The order has changed, draw the letter Z, like in Zorro,” he remembers being told.

“The next day we were taken to Crimea. To be honest, I thought we weren’t going to Ukraine. I didn’t think it would come to this at all,” the man said.

As his unit assembled in Crimea – the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014 – President Vladimir Putin launched his new invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

But the officer said he and his comrades were unaware as no news had reached them and they were cut off from the outside world without their phones.

Two days later, they themselves were ordered into Ukraine, the officer told CNN.

“Some guys flat out refused. They wrote a report and left. I don’t know what happened to them. I stayed. I don’t know why. The next day we went,” he said. declared.

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The officer said he did not know the purpose of the mission; that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombastic claims that Ukraine was part of Russia and needed to be “denazified” were not conveyed to the men called upon to fight.

“We weren’t hammered by some kind of ‘Ukrainian Nazi’ rhetoric. Many didn’t understand what it was for and what we were doing here,” he said.

He told CNN he hoped for a diplomatic solution and felt guilty for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he added that he was unfamiliar with politics.

In conflict

The first thing a soldier remembers after his unit crosses the border in a long column of vehicles is seeing boxes of Russian dry rations strewn everywhere and piles of destroyed equipment.

“I was sitting in the KAMAZ [truck], holding a gun firmly against me. I had a pistol and two grenades with me,” he said.

The force drove northwest, towards Kherson. As they approached a village, a man with a whip jumped up and started whipping the convoy and shouting, “You’re all screwed!” reminds the officer.

“He almost got into the cabin where we were. His eyes were watery from crying. It made a big impression on me,” he added. “Usually when we saw the locals, we were tense. Some of them were hiding weapons under their clothes, and when they approached, they fired.”

He said he would hide his face out of shame as well as safety because he felt embarrassed to be seen by Ukrainians there. On their land.

He said the Russians also came under heavier attack, with mortars directed at them on the second or third day they were in Ukraine.

“For about the first week, I was in a state of aftershock. I didn’t think of anything,” he told CNN. “I just went to bed thinking, ‘Today is March 1. Tomorrow I will wake up, it will be March 2, the main thing is to live another day.’ Several times the shells fell very close. It’s a miracle none of us died,” he said.

Reactions in the ranks

The officer told CNN he was not the only soldier worried or confused about why they were sent to invade Ukraine.

But he also remembers some cheering up when they learned that fight bonuses would soon be paid.

“Someone had a reaction, ‘Oh, 15 more days here and I’ll close the loan,'” he said.

After a few weeks, the officer was deployed closer to the rear, accompanying equipment that needed repair, he said.

There he said he also became more aware of what was going on and had more time and energy to think.

“We had a radio receiver and we could listen to the news,” he told CNN. “That’s how I learned that stores were closing in Russia and the economy was collapsing. I felt guilty about that. But I felt even guiltier because we came to Ukraine.”

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He said his resolve had hardened to the point that he could only do one thing.

“In the end, I gathered my strength and went to the commander to write a letter of resignation,” he told CNN.

At first, the commander rejected the approach and told him that it was impossible to refuse to serve.

“He told me there might be a criminal case. This rejection is treason. But I held on. He gave me a piece of paper and a pen,” the officer told CNN , adding that he had written his resignation on the spot.

Report of more ‘refuseniks’

There were other reports in the tightly controlled Russian media environment of soldiers refusing to fight.

Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, said many complaints and concerns were heard when the first units left Ukraine to rest.

“Soldiers and officers wrote resignation reports, indicating that they could not successfully return,” she told CNN. “The main reasons are, first, moral and psychological state. And the second reason is moral beliefs. They wrote reports then and are writing reports now.”

Melnikova, whose organization was established in 1989, said all troops had the right to file reports while acknowledging that some commanders might refuse them or try to intimidate soldiers.

His organization often advises soldiers on how to write these reports and provides legal advice.

The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate reported that in several Russian units, in particular the 150th Motorized Rifle Division of the 8th Army of the Southern Military District, up to 60%-70% of soldiers refused to serve.

CNN cannot verify this number.

In Russia, Melnikova told CNN there were “numerous” cases of soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine, but declined to elaborate, citing legal and security concerns.

Aleksei Tabalov, a human rights activist and director of a Russian conscript aid organization, told CNN he personally consulted with two soldiers who had resigned from the army.

“The same guys who refused to fight and turned to us, there were two of them, but from the brigade they left, another 30 people refused to fight,” Tabalov told CNN.

Tabalov said that when applying for the resignation, the soldiers indicated that they had not agreed to participate in a special operation against Ukraine when signing the contract.

Absence without permission from the Russian army is an offense punishable by imprisonment. However, those serving under contract have the legal right to resign within 10 days of leaving with an explanation of the reason for leaving.

“I can’t say it’s a mass phenomenon, but this phenomenon is quite strong. If you estimate for all cases other organizations plus indirect information, the number exceeds 1,000,” said Tabalov told CNN.

He said recruitment is still ongoing in the country and new soldiers often come from poorer areas with fewer prospects.

Thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war. The Ukrainian Armed Forces estimate Russian casualties at more than 22,000. The last time the Russian Defense Ministry reported casualties was on March 25, reporting the death of 1,351 servicemen.

The department did not respond to CNN’s request for an update.

The officer who spoke to CNN is now with his family.

“What will happen next – I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m glad to be back home.”


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