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Why Russians Go To Fight In Ukraine

Troops believed to be from Russia on the march in Crimea.
Troops believed to be from Russia on the march in Crimea.
Ilya Barabanov

MOSCOW — The funeral for the two young men was held on June 7 in a church in Kubinka, near Moscow. Aleksander Efremov and Alekei Yurin had gone to Donbas in the midst of the battle over the Donetsk airport in the eastern Ukrainian city. Neither came home alive.

It was May 22 when 20-year-old Yurin made his first, unsuccessful, attempt to cross the border into Ukraine. At that point, it was three days since he had left his home near Moscow, telling his parents and girlfriend that he was being sent on a business trip. Yurin only told two friends the real reason for his trip, and they promised not to tell anyone.

Two days later he and Efremov, with whom he'd done military service, managed to cross into Ukraine.

After finishing military service in 2012, Yurin worked as a manager and tried to start his own business. In May, he quit his job.

“I don’t understand what motivated him. Nobody understands why he did this,” said Yurin's girlfriend, Violetta.

We met with Roman, who also served with Efremov and Yurin in the Russian military, in Moscow. He explained that Efremov had decided to go to Ukraine after seeing the fire in Odessa’s Trade Unions House that killed dozens of pro-Russian locals.

Yurin, however, had gone for other reasons. Roman said that Yurin had always wanted to participate in a real military action, and often showed up to meet friends in camouflage. It was in the same green and orange fatigues that he was pictured, with other victims, in the Donetsk morgue.

Efremov and Yurin’s friends say that the road the two friends used to cross the border into Ukraine has since been closed by law enforcement. “None of the guys who served with them had any desire to take revenge on the Ukrainians, but rather to find the people who sent them there,” explained one friend.

No war, no status

On June 7, President Vladimir Putin directed security services to take all necessary measures to strengthen border controls between Russia and Ukraine and to prevent illegal border crossing. Nonetheless, social networks are still being used to recruit volunteer fighters to cross the border into Ukraine, the same way Efremov and Yurin were recruited. There are also special groups on social media where future volunteer fighters discuss the best ways to cross the border into Ukraine.

Andrei, a systems administrator from Rostov, was one of the many volunteers who have crossed into Ukraine since Yurin and Efremov’s death.

“I never did military service, but I decided to go there after Odessa,” he says.

After trying unsuccessfully to connect with more established activists in one of Russia’s neo-Nazi parties, he decided to cross the border on his own. “I had no trouble crossing. I took a taxi to the border. Then I crossed the Russian Customs as usual. The Ukrainian side was manned by militias. Then I took a taxi to Antratsyt. I crossed through several roadblocks, where my passport worked like a magic ticket to get me through.”

Andrei signed up for the militia, and has now been patroling a blockade for several days. He says he came without expecting any kind of monetary reward.

Not everyone is willing to pay their own way. Stanislav, a student in Moscow, said he'd considered signing up for the right price. “I want to buy a car or an apartment. I’ve spoken with a couple of coordinators who are recruiting for the militias to ask how much I could make, but they say that only enthusiasts are fighting.”

I wrote an e-mail to one of the addresses for potential militia volunteers someone had given me, to see what the process was like. The following day I got a response, asking me to fill out a form. In addition to the usual questions like my name and age, I was asked to indicate my “skills,” “experience,” and “how long did you serve in the army (if at all).”

Most of the Russian volunteers I'd encountered in Ukraine, in contrast to Yurin and Efremev, were middle-aged, and had fought before, in places like Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya. After each conflict, there are always those who can’t find a place in a civilian life and are ready to take off for the next battle.

Veronika Marchenko, a representative from the “Mother’s Right” foundation that helps families whose children die while serving in the military, says programs that can help veterans adapt to civilian life are implemented on the local level — which means unevenly.

Even if Efremov and Yurin had survived, they wouldn’t have been eligible for any such programs. “They aren’t veterans of armed conflict, and their families won’t get anything," said Marchenko. "From a Ukrainian point of view, they are criminals. From Russia’s point of view, their status is no different than a tourist who dies on the beach in Turkey.”

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