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Russians Fighting Against Their Homeland - Here’s Why!! - The New York Times - 12.02.23

Michael Schwirtz and Lynsey Addario reported from eastern Ukraine on the activities of a unit comprising Russians fighting for Ukraine.

The soldier knelt in the snow, aimed a rocket launcher and fired in the direction of Russian troops positioned about a mile away. He was set up at a Ukrainian firing position, and looked just like the other Ukrainian troops fighting south of the city of Bakhmut in one of the most brutal theaters of the war.

But he and his comrades are not Ukrainian. They are soldiers in a Ukrainian military unit made up entirely of Russians who are fighting and killing their own countrymen.

They have taken up arms against Russia for a variety of reasons: a sense of moral outrage at their country’s invasion, a desire to defend their adopted homeland of Ukraine or because of a visceral dislike of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. And they have earned enough trust from Ukrainian commanders to take their place among the forces viciously fighting the Russian military.

“A real Russian man doesn’t engage in such an aggressive war, won’t rape children, kill women and elderly people,” said one Russian fighter with the military call sign Caesar, ticking off atrocities committed by Russian soldiers that motivated him to leave his native St. Petersburg and fight for Ukraine. “That’s why I don’t have remorse. I do my job and I’ve killed a lot of them.”

Nearly a year into the war, the Free Russia Legion, as the unit is called, has received little attention — in part to protect the soldiers from reprisals by Russia, but also because of reluctance within the Ukrainian military to highlight the efforts of soldiers whose home country has done so much harm to Ukraine. Several hundred of them are concentrated in the area around Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, officials said; they are always grouped with their own but are overseen by Ukrainian officers.

In interviews, some Russian soldiers said they were already living in Ukraine when Russian forces invaded last year, and felt an obligation to defend their adopted country. Others, often with no military experience, crossed into Ukraine from Russia after the war began, moved by a sense that the Kremlin’s invasion was profoundly unjust.

“We haven’t come here to prove anything,” said one soldier with the call sign Zaza. “We’ve come here to help Ukraine achieve the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory and the future de-Putinization of Russia.”

Fearing retaliation against relatives and themselves, none of the soldiers interviewed agreed to be identified by name or to provide specific details about their biographies. Last week, the Russian prosecutor general’s office filed a suit with the country’s supreme court to have the Legion declared a terrorist organization.

The State of the War

  • Free Russia Legion: Russian soldiers repelled by President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have taken arms against their home country — and they're engaged in some of the war’s most heated fighting.

  • In the East: The Wagner private military company said its fighters had seized a village outside Bakhmut, as Moscow’s forces continue a brutal campaign that has nearly encircled the strategic city.

  • Wagner’s Founder: Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the once secretive tycoon who has Mr. Putin’s support, is confounding Moscow’s Kremlin-allied elite by starting to dabble in politics alongside waging war in Ukraine.

  • Russian Aerial Barrage: Ukrainian utility crews were working to repair new and significant damage to the country’s energy grid, officials said, after Russia unleashed a major wave of missiles and attack drones.

Zaza, a skinny blond who looks barely out of high school, would not even give his age, saying only that he was under 20. After Russian forces invaded, he said, he could not keep his mouth shut. His outspokenness and antiwar posts on social media got him in trouble with his university’s administration, then with the police. When officers from Russia’s security service showed up at his front 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 is a little early for me to talk about my political opinions and worldview, because these are just forming now,” he said. “But when your country has been taken over by one bad man, you need to take things into your own hands.”

At the start of the war, Ukrainian law prevented Russian citizens from joining the armed forces. It took until August to finalize legislation that would allow the Legion to legally join the fight, Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said in a statement.

For the full nine page article in pdf with several images, please click here or click on the link below:

Russians Fighting Against Their Homeland - Here’s Why - article by Michael Schwirtz for th
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Michael Schwirtz is an investigative reporter with the International desk. With The Times since 2006, he previously covered the countries of the former Soviet Union from Moscow and was a lead reporter on a team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for articles about Russian intelligence operations. @mschwirtzFacebook

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 13, 2023, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Russian Legion Fights Against Its Homeland. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Soldiers with the Free Russia Legion training this month in Ukraine’s Kyiv region. Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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