Russians fighting Vladimir Putin in Ukraine

A the war in the war appeared in Ukraine. More than a month after the invasion of the Russian army on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, more and more Russian nationals are fighting alongside the Ukrainians.

The fighters, who appear to number at least in the hundreds, portray Putin as the enemy, even as they take up arms against their compatriots. They range from captured Russian soldiers to political dissidents like the 30-year-old Russian who asked to be called Yan, a computer scientist who now spends his days scouting, identifying potential artillery targets and bringing in medical supplies to the Ukrainian soldiers on the front.

“No Russian should have crossed the border with a gun in his hand,” Yan told TIME from a district near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where he served in the country’s territorial defense forces since the start of the war at the end of February. “I am here to oppose Russian aggression and also to defend Ukraine.” He produced a valid Russian passport but requested the pseudonym out of fear for his family’s safety in Russia. He said he moved to Kyiv from the Urals roller coaster three years ago, fearing he could be jailed after his office was raided. A self-proclaimed anarchist, Yan had participated in protests against Putin’s regime.

‘Vitya’ is the nom de guerre chosen by a 25-year-old Russian political science student who said he also joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces to continue his fight against the Russian government, after witnessing anti-government protests in his Moscow native since his early teens. “I love my homeland,” Vitya says from Kyiv, where he is stationed. “Let’s hope that this war will break the political regime. I would like to go home one day. He said his parents, who are in the Russian capital, know their son is in Ukraine but believe he is donating blood and helping the Ukrainian war effort in other ways.

But while some Russians fighting alongside the Ukrainians were challenging Putin long before the invasion, the conduct of the war brought in others, deepening existing cracks in Russian society and likely further demoralizing the country’s military. During the first weeks of the war, the force was criticized for its performance on the battlefield, struggling to advance on the capital and even to maintain supply lines. As it retreated from the outskirts of kyiv, obvious atrocities against Ukrainian civilians came to light on the land it occupied, and the Russian military now also faces allegations of war crimes.

The Ukrainian government, which has presented the war as a competition between the forces of darkness and light, is taking advantage of Russian disunity. On April 5, three men wearing military fatigues and black balaclavas confronted reporters in kyiv, where they announced a new battalion called “Freedom for Russia”, staffed entirely by Russian citizens, including former prisoners of war. Addressing their fellow Russians, they said they were morally outraged by Moscow’s lack of discipline and apparent disregard for human life.

One of the unnamed men said the Russian government tricked them into traveling to a sovereign country to commit what he described as “genocide”. After being taken prisoner – then released – by Ukrainian forces, he switched sides to fight for Ukraine. “We were told propaganda. But there are no fascists here, no Nazis, but a civilian population,” he said. “I want to fight this anarchic Putin regime so that people can speak and breathe freely.”

Seeming outraged, he said he witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed by the Russian military in Bucha, Irpin and Kharkiv. It was images and reports emerging from Bucha, a suburban town near kyiv, showing mass graves and streets littered with dead civilians that prompted President Joe Biden to call for war crimes charges against Putin. .

A second speaker described himself as a Russian special forces sergeant. Condemning the widespread looting of the homes of Ukrainian civilians by marauding soldiers, he urged other Russian forces “to lay down their arms and fight for their future”.

As the masked men spoke, a sign on the table offered instructions for donating to the battalion using cryptocurrency. The unit also has a Telegram channel, which urges Muscovites to attend anti-war protests and includes instructions for Russians wishing to join their legion (“register at a Ukrainian embassy in a neighboring European country”). On their camouflaged sleeves, the men wore the white-blue-white flag that has become the symbol of the Russian anti-war movement.

Russian defectors are also welcome in Kyiv. On April 2, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new law stipulating that any Russian soldier who surrenders with a warship or jet will receive $1 million. A captured tank will bring them $100,000 and there is $10,000 for smaller military hardware. The first deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Oleksandr Kornienko, said the awards would motivate “the demoralized occupation army”. The law comes after a previous kyiv offer of $10,000 to any Russian soldier who surrenders. In late March, Ukrainian authorities said hundreds of Russian soldiers had deserted their army.

Inside Russia, the extent of support for the war is difficult to determine. Russians face severe consequences for protesting or verbally opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although recent public opinion polls show that more than 80% of Russians view Putin favorably, many may be afraid to speak their true minds when new censorship laws can send people to prison for up to 15 years for “fake” news about the war, including using the word “war” to describe what is officially known as a “special military operation”.

The Ukrainian government has openly welcomed foreigners into its fight. Since President Volodymyr Zelensky created an “international legion” to defend Ukraine at the start of the war, around 20,000 people from 52 countries, from the United States to Denmark, have signed up. Members of “Freedom for Russia” declined to say how many men were in their battalion, except to describe it as “large” and say they had received more than 300 applications for membership in a single day.

Yan, the IT professional, said his platoon of about 40 men in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces contains several other Russians, and he knows more in other parts of the country. “We are a reasonable number across Ukraine,” he says, adding that while Russians in the Ukrainian Armed Forces are generally well tolerated, there are also plenty of jokes told at their expense.

“And why not, you know? Ukrainians are going through enormous psychological trauma, so it’s completely understandable. I’m not offended.

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