'This is not my war': Russian officer sent to Ukraine gives candid interview to CNN
It took a Russian junior officer several weeks, sleeping on crates of grenades instead of a bed and hiding his eyes from the Ukrainians amid growing guilt, to come to the conclusion: this is not his war, reports CNN.
“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 said.
He said that he went in search of his commander and immediately resigned.
CNN does not name the officer or include personal information that would help identify him for his safety.
His story is notable, but it could also be one of many, according to opponents of the war in Russia and Ukraine, who say they have heard of many cases of soldiers - both professional and conscripts - refusing to fight.
Western officials, including the Pentagon, estimate that Russian troops are struggling with low morale and heavy casualties in Ukraine. The UK Intelligence and Cybersecurity Agency reports that some of them even refused to follow orders.
The officer who spoke to CNN says he was involved in a massive troop buildup in western Russia that has sparked global fears for Ukraine. But he said he didn't think much about it, not even on February 22 this year, when he and the rest of his battalion were asked, without any explanation, to surrender their mobile phones while stationed in Krasnodar, in southern Russia.
That night they painted white stripes on their military vehicles for hours. Then they were told to wash them off. “The order has changed, draw the letter Z, as in Zorro,” he recalled.
“The next day we were taken to the Crimea. To be honest, I thought that we would not go to Ukraine. I didn’t think it would come to this at all,” the man said.
As his unit gathered in Crimea, a Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014, President Vladimir Putin launched his new invasion of Ukraine on February 24. But the officer said that he and his comrades did not know anything, since they were not given news, and they were without communication with the outside world without their phones.
Two days later, they themselves were ordered to arrive in Ukraine, as the officer said.
“Some guys refused outright. They wrote a report and left. I don't know what happened to them. I stayed. I do not know why. We left the next day,” he said.
The officer said he did not know the purpose of the mission; that Russian President Vladimir Putin's pompous statements that Ukraine is part of Russia and should be "denazified" did not reach the people who were called to fight.
“We were not brainwashed with some kind of “Ukrainian-Nazi” rhetoric. Many did not understand what all this was for and what we were doing here,” he said. He said he hoped for a diplomatic solution and felt guilty about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But he added that he was not well versed in politics.
The first thing a soldier remembers after his unit in a long column of vehicles crossed the border is boxes of Russian dry rations scattered everywhere and piles of destroyed equipment.
“I was sitting in KAMAZ, holding a pistol tightly to me. I had a pistol and two grenades with me,” he said.
The detachment moved to the northwest, towards Kherson. At the entrance to some village, a man with a whip jumped out and began to whip the column with obscene cries, as the officer recalls.
“He almost climbed into the cockpit where we were. His eyes were full of tears. It made a big impression on me,” he added. - In general, when we saw the locals, we tensed up. Some of them hid weapons under their clothes, and when they got closer, they fired.”
He said that he hid his face not only for security reasons, but also out of shame, because he was embarrassed when Ukrainians saw him there. On their land. He said the Russians also came under heavier attack and were targeted with mortars on the second or third day of their stay in Ukraine.
“For the first week or so, I was in a state of shock. I didn’t think about anything,” he said. - I just went to bed with the thought: “Today is March 1st. Tomorrow I will wake up, it will be March 2 - the main thing is to live one more day. Several times the shells fell very close. It's a miracle none of us died."
Reaction in the ranks
The officer said he was not the only soldier worried or confused about why they were sent to invade Ukraine. But he also remembers how some perked up when they learned that combat bonuses would soon be paid out.
"Someone had the reaction, 'Oh, 15 more days here and I'll close the loan,'" he said.
According to him, after a couple of weeks he was transferred closer to the rear to accompany equipment in need of repair. THe said he also had a better understanding of what was going on and had more time and energy to think.
“We had a radio and we could listen to the news,” he said. – That's how I learned that shops are closing in Russia and the economy is collapsing. I felt guilty about this. But I felt even more guilty because we came to Ukraine.”
He said that his resolve had strengthened to the point where 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 said.
At first, the commander rejected him and said that it was impossible to refuse service. “He told me that a criminal case could be initiated. This refusal is a betrayal. But I stood my ground. He gave me a sheet of paper and a pen,” the officer said, adding that he immediately wrote a letter of resignation.
Report on new "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 there were many complaints and concerns when the first units went on holiday from Ukraine.
“Soldiers and officers have written resignations that they cannot go back,” she said. - The main reasons are, firstly, the moral and psychological state. And the second reason is moral beliefs. Reports were written then and they are being written now.”
Melnikova, whose organization was formed in 1989, said all troops have the right to file reports, while acknowledging that some commanders may refuse them or try to intimidate soldiers.
Her organization often advises soldiers on the writing of these reports and provides legal advice.
The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate reported that in a number of Russian units, in particular in the 150th motorized rifle division of the 8th Army of the Southern Military District, from 60% to 70% of the soldiers refused to serve. In Russia, Melnikova said there were "many" cases of soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine, but declined to give details, citing legal and security concerns.
Alexey Tabalov, a human rights activist and director of an organization that helps Russian conscripts, said he personally advised two soldiers who had retired from the army.
“We were approached by the same guys who refused to fight, there were two of them, but from the brigade they left, another 30 people refused to fight,” Tabalov said.
Tabalov said that when applying for resignation, the servicemen referred to the fact that they did not give consent to participate in a special operation against Ukraine when signing the contract.
Unauthorized absence from service in the Russian army is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. However, those who serve under contract have the legal right to resign within 10 days of leaving the service, with an explanation of the motive for their departure.
“I can’t say that this is a mass phenomenon, but this phenomenon is quite strong. If we count all the cases from other organizations plus indirect information, then the number exceeds 1000,” Tabalov said. He said that recruitment in the country is still going on, and new soldiers often come from poorer regions with less prospects.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, thousands of Russian soldiers have died. The Armed Forces of Ukraine estimate Russia's losses at more than 22 people. The last time the Russian Ministry of Defense reported on losses was on March 25, reporting the death of 1351 servicemen.
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The officer who spoke to CNN is now with his family.
“What happens next, I don’t know,” he said. "But I'm glad I came home."
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