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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

"And If We Must Kill Our Countrymen" — Meet The Russian Defectors Fighting For Ukraine

The Freedom of Russia Legion consists of Russian army defectors who are fighting against their homeland, outraged that Vladimir Putin has destroyed the moral standing of Russia by invading its neighbor. Still, it's a delicate "double-life" on the front line.

Image of a close up on a russian soldier's badge with a fist on it.

"The Freedom of Russia Legion consists of Russian army defectors who are fighting against their homeland."

Irina Dolinina

BAKHMUT — The Freedom of Russia Legion has existed for just over a year, but it already has the Kremlin's attention. It's a legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, fighting against Russia, made up entirely of Russian army defectors, as well as other Russian and Belarusian volunteers.

During that time, Russian media repeatedly questioned whether the Legion's fighters actually participated in combat operations, though it was confirmed in February by a a reporter from The New York Times.

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Then last month, Russian propaganda dubbed the Legion a "media project," and the Russian Supreme Court declared it a terrorist organization. And yet, the Legion's fighters are now fighting in Bakhmut, the sight of some of the fiercest battles since the start of the invasion.

Independent Russian news outlet Important Stories spoke to two of their members — Russian citizens each over-40 and each with a nom de guerre: Tikhiy and Caesar. The conversation covered their previous lives in Russia, what made them take up arms against their homeland, and their plans for the future.

Born in Sochi

Tikhiy: I was born in Tolyatti (in western Russia) From 18 to 20, I did two years of compulsory military service. In 1999, I had to go to the second Chechen campaign. They started training us. But I asked my coach to help me escape the draft. I was not knowledgeable about politics then, but I did not understand fighting against people who did not deserve it. I joined a sports unit and escaped that disgrace. Then I worked in construction.

In Tolyatti , I met my future wife, who was from Ukraine. At first, we lived in two countries. Then more work began to appear in Ukraine, so little by little, I moved here. We have two adult daughters: my eldest daughter lives in Ukraine now.

I had jobs in Berdyansk, Mykolaiv, and Donetsk, Crimea. In 2014 [Russia's annexation of Crimea], everything I had accumulated there came to zero. I had zero in my account. I grieved for a couple of days and went to Kyiv to work.

Caesar: I was born in Sochi and have lived there for over half my life. It's a beautiful, wonderful southern city that I love very much. If I'm lucky, I'll go back there. For the last few years, I have lived in St. Petersburg and worked as a fitness trainer and instructor in physical therapy. In 2005-2006, I understood clearly that the country was going in the wrong direction and that Putin's system... not only physically destroys people but also morally. It does not allow people to be themselves and have their civil rights. And this system, to hold on to power, is increasingly resorting to repression and leaves citizens with no possibility of legitimate change.

I am not ashamed that I am a Russian nationalist. I love my people.

Understanding all this, I became a supporter of the radical nationalist organization Russian Imperial Movement. [The Russian Imperial Movement has been added to the U.S. list of terrorists. According to the U.S. State Department on counterterrorism, individuals trained by the Russian Imperial Movement "carried out bombings and other violent acts in Europe". - Editor's note.]

I am not ashamed that I am a Russian nationalist. I love my people. So despite avoiding conscription in the army, I had military training and was a military training instructor. I trained people from right-wing nationalist organizations who could overthrow the current regime by force of arms.

Image of Russian soldiers walking on the strees holding blue and white flags of the Russian Legion "Freedom of Russia"

Soldiers of the Russian Legion ''Freedom of Russia'' walk on the streets before signing a declaration on cooperation and coordination of actions between Russian volunteer fighting for Ukraine against the Russian army.

Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images via Zuma

Lie detector tests

Tikhiy: When I talked to my relatives about the possibility of a full-scale invasion, I said: "Don't panic; one must be crazy to make such a mess. It's the 21st century, and there are no Neanderthals anymore. And then, on the morning of Feb. 24, I woke up because I heard explosions: we had a military unit next door.

My wife came running in: "Are those missiles?"... I don't want to believe it. I said, "Something exploded, maybe a gas station." I still shook that thought away from me. Then we gathered the food and went down to the basement.

I asked people from the territorial defense and a friend of mine how I could help. They told me then: "With your Russian language... you will only make locals even angrier now. Plus, we'll need your passport data anyway. You'd better not make people nervous. Help them in any way you can."

A week later, my wife and I started volunteering. After the region of Kyiv was liberated, we went there to help the affected people. My wife brought food and clothes. The men there and I put up a military tent, took apart the battered roofs, and put in windows.

I was utterly shocked when we saw what the Russian military had done in the Kyiv region. We saw the corpses of peaceful people. I do not understand what kind of a complete idiot you can be, what sort of unsatisfied person you have to be to do such a thing — rape women, children... How could you even touch children? Especially you say that you came with "Russian peace." It felt like they let all the perverts out of prison who should have been in jail all their lives and sent them off.

Caesar: In recent years, I had become very disappointed in my fellow citizens and already thought they were incapable of revolt and fighting against the usurpers of power. But after Putin started the invasion, I had already run out of patience. As a Christian and someone who loves his homeland, surprising as it may sound, I fought against the Russian Federation out of love for my homeland, among other things.

I understood that Ukraine would win and was fighting for the right cause: the warriors of Ukraine defending their home. I understood that with this invasion, Putin had ended his system and opened a window of opportunity for a change of power in Russia.

I woke up at five on Feb. 24, 2022, to go to work, opened the news, drove in shock, and couldn't come to my senses all day. When I returned, my older children greeted me upset and asked, "Daddy, what's going to happen to Ukraine?"

"Kids, calm down. Ukraine will win. It's just a matter of time." My grandmother is Ukrainian. I know this spirit of freedom that lives in Ukrainians. And I understand very well that Ukraine will win in any case.

Tikhiy: When I was helping residents of the Kyiv region, the Security Service of Ukraine somehow found me. They examined me all over, talked to me, looked at my phone, and found out why I was here and had a Russian passport. They were polite. FSB would have driven me over the asphalt for a long time in Russia before they asked the first question. I asked them how to make it possible for me to serve. And they advised the Freedom of Russia Legion.

I wrote to the Legion on Telegram that I wanted to join. I filled out a questionnaire. Then we met and talked, and I took a lie detector. Then there were more tests, and I was told to prepare for the training course.

After that, I told my family that we had to talk in the evening when I came home from work. My daughter immediately realized that I had something on my mind. She asked, "What, are you going to war?"

"Yes," I said. Both my daughter and wife cried, but they supported me: "Bravo, it's your choice, and it's the right one."

My family agreed

Caesar: I decided right away to go to defend Ukraine. My older children and wife agreed with me. So my family accepted it with dignity. I am very grateful to them for that and for the fact that I have such support.

I contacted nine Ukrainian embassies in different countries, but they could not help me. The foreign legions, in which foreign citizens could fight on the side of Ukraine, refused to accept citizens of the aggressor country. And then, I got information about the Freedom of Russia. I filled out the forms and went through the necessary procedures. At the beginning of the summer, I came to Ukraine, passed all the required interviews, tests, and a polygraph, and joined the ranks of its defenders.

They understand that we have families and relatives in Russia.

A little later, my family came to visit me in Ukraine. My younger children, of course, didn't decide anything, but my wife and older children preferred to share the difficulties with me. And they have enough problems now. They can get a bomb on their head just like all the other Ukrainians. They were sitting there without electricity, cold.

It may sound cynical: a normal father would not want his child to sit in a bomb shelter. But, you see, I'm not a typical father. I'm primarily a Christian: to feel someone else's pain, you must experience it. And then you will understand the husband who went to defend these people. That's an entirely different way of looking at life. They believe in the rightness of my cause and support me.

Image of three armed and masked military men in uniform.

"I tried several times to give up my Russian citizenship. After the end of the war, I will go no further."

Freedom of Russia Legion

Morally more difficult

Tikhiy: The Ukrainian military trained us, and as soon as they met us, they told us, "Thank you for being there, for having brains and a heart, for being ready to defend." After that, they already started torturing us (laughs). The instructors went all out on us. And we realized that they love us. I thought I would be killed in the first fight when I decided to go to war. But they trained us well; we had two full months of training, and I became a mortar operator.

Caesar: The attitude toward us is respectful and fair. There are Ukrainian officers and enlisted men in our unit as well. They understand that for Russians, the choice to take up arms to defend Ukraine is, frankly speaking, morally more difficult than for Ukrainian citizens who are protecting their homes. They understand that we have families and relatives in Russia but crossed it out and came to defend Ukraine.

But when you perform a combat task not to please your superiors, but to save the lives of your brothers-in-arms, this determines the high efficiency of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Small groups of the Legion were already involved in combat operations in the Kharkiv direction in the spring: Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, and the Marinka area.

After training, we went to the south and the Donetsk region. At first, I took part in battles for Toretsk and Mayorsk. I remember one assault on Mayorsk, from four in the morning till four in the afternoon. We received the coordinates where our guys were breaking through. We immediately killed them. And I also remember it because there was so much joy among the officers. They were shouting "Well done!" but with foul language, riding on the emotion. But at first, we babbled like crazy for half a day after the battle. And now it's all like... well, like work. After Mayorsk, we went to Bakhmut.

In the middle of January, there was one incredibly crazy day. The fight was going on non-stop for 24 hours. We were already falling. The fighters from the Russian side seemed to be drugged, wave after wave, trying to break through to Bakhmut. We were taking them down, but they weren't even picking up corpses. Their task was to crawl into Bakhmut at any cost.

Caesar: They've been beating their heads against the wall like sheep for seven months. But it's a senseless operation for them, disproportionate to the cost of their losses. I understand that Russian generals have no compassion for the infantrymen. But they are running out of shells, artillery pieces, and equipment. After all, Bakhmut is one of the 10-15 remaining cities of the same scale in the Donetsk region. By what year are they going to take them all? By 2030?

If I survive, I'll go back home

Tikhiy: My childhood friend was taken away by mobilization. He texted me from Belgorod: "Bro, what should I do?" I answered him, "Run away, because here in Ukraine, we're going to kill you." He was very peaceful and didn't understand how you could attack your neighbors. When the full-scale invasion started, he was worried about us. We didn't communicate anymore; for safety reasons, I blocked him.

I have no emotions about shooting my compatriots, even if most of my compatriots are normal, not insane. When I was offered to talk to prisoners, I also refused. It was like talking to a wall. I am not interested in that. My task is to throw them out of Ukraine and free Crimea. If they were up to the task, they would overturn the Kremlin, kick out all the scum, and live normally.

Or maybe it's also my fault that I distanced myself from Russian politics and just went about my life. Work, family, leisure, friends, and that's it. I realized in 2002 that I didn't want to live in Russia because I didn't see any prospects. If I had been drinking, maybe everything would have been fine. But I am a non-drinker and probably, sensible: I did not want to survive on some handouts from these princes and czars.

Caesar: Honestly, I don't want to get Ukrainian citizenship, and I don't want to stay here. I like it here, and I feel good here. My soul is at peace here because I'm serving Christian military duty. I defend the people of Ukraine. But at the first opportunity, I will return home — if I stay alive, of course. I will return to Russia with a weapon to free it from tyranny. I want to live and die in my land.

Those who committed war crimes should be brought to justice.

If we consider the hypothetical scenario that my brothers and I have some influence over the future power in Russia, all those who committed war crimes should be brought to justice, and all the propagandists who fooled the people and pushed them into war should also be held accountable.

Tikhiy: I tried several times to give up my Russian citizenship. After the end of the war, I will go no further. I will help liberate the territories of Ukraine and then let the young people do what they want to do. I have a family. I want to give them time. I haven't seen them for a long time, and I miss them.

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Facing Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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