The Russians Fighting Vladimir Putin in Ukraine

In Ukraine, war within war is now brewing. A month and a half after President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian army to invade Ukraine, more Russian citizens are joining the fight for the Ukrainian cause.

The fighting men, which appear to be in the hundreds, call Putin the enemy while they are taking up arms against their fellow countrymen. The range of them is from Russian soldiers captured to political dissidents such as Yan, the 30-year-old Russian, who asked to be referred to Yan. Yan is an IT worker who now spends most of his day scouting and finding potential artillery targets. He also brings medical supplies to the Ukrainian soldiers fighting at the front.

“No Russian should have crossed the border with a weapon in his hand,” Yan tells TIME from a district near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where he has served in the country’s territorial defense forces since the war started at the end of February. “I am here to oppose Russian aggression and also defend Ukraine.” He produced a valid Russian passport but requested the pseudonym out of fear for the safety of his family in Russia. He said he moved to Kyiv from Russia’s Ural mountains three years ago, fearful of imprisonment after his office was raided. A self-described anarchist, Yan had taken part in demonstrations against Putin’s rule.

“Vitya” is the nom de guerre chosen by a 25-year-old Russian political science student who said he also joined the Ukrainian territorial defense forces to continue his fight against the Russian government, having attended anti-government protests in his native Moscow since his early teens. “I love my motherland,” Vitya says from Kyiv, where he is stationed. “Hopefully this war will break the political regime. I would like to return home one day.” He said his parents, who are in the Russian capital, know their son is in Ukraine but think he is donating blood and helping the Ukrainian war effort in other ways.

But if some Russians fighting beside Ukrainians were challenging Putin well before the invasion, the conduct of the war has brought in others–deepening existing fissures in Russian society and likely further demoralizing the country’s military. The first week of the war saw the Russian military being criticized for their battlefield performance. They were unable to move on the capital or to keep supply lines open. As it retreated from the suburbs of Kyiv, evident atrocities against Ukrainian civilians were revealed on the ground it had held, and Russia’s military now also faces allegations of war crimes.

Ukraine’s government, which has cast the war as a contest between the forces of darkness and light, is leveraging Russian disunity. On April 5, three men wearing military fatigues and black balaclavas faced reporters in Kyiv, where they announced a new battalion called “Freedom for Russia,” composed entirely of Russian citizens, including former POWs. 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 had tricked them into going to a sovereign country to carry out what he described as “genocide.” After he was taken prisoner – and later 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 lawless Putin regime so people can speak and breathe freely.”

Indignantly, he claimed that he saw firsthand the Russian military’s crimes in Kharkiv and Irpin. Images and reports from Bucha (a suburban town close to Kyiv) that showed mass graves and roads littered with civilian bodies prompted President Joe Biden’s call to bring charges against Putin for war crimes.

The second speaker described himself to be a sergeant of the Russian Special Forces. Condemning the widespread looting of Ukrainian civilians’ homes by marauding soldiers, he urged other Russian forces “to lay down your arms and fight for your future.”

The sign, which was placed on the table gave instructions to donors for cryptocurrency donations. 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 (“sign up at a Ukrainian embassy in a nearby European country”). On their camouflage sleeves the men wore the white-blue-white flag that has become symbolic of Russia’s anti-war movement.

Russian defectors also are welcome to Kyiv. A new Ukrainian law was passed by parliament on April 2. It provides that any Russian soldier surrendering with a warship, jet or aircraft will receive $1 million. For smaller equipment, they will receive $10,000 and $100,000 for any tank captured. The first vice-speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Oleksandr Kornienko, said the rewards would motivate the “demoralized occupying army”. This law follows a Kyiv offer of $10,000 for any Russian soldier surrendering. Ukrainian officials claimed that hundreds of Russian soldiers deserted the army in March.

The extent of Russia’s support for the war can be difficult to gauge. Russians face heavy consequences for protesting or vocally opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though recent public opinion polls show over 80 percent of Russians view Putin favorably, many may be fearful of expressing their true opinion when new censorship laws can send people to jail for up to 15 years for “fake” news about the war, including using the very word “war” to describe what is officially known as a “special military operation.”

Foreigners have been welcomed to the Ukrainian army by their government. Since President Volodymyr Zelensky established an “international legion” to defend Ukraine at the start of the war, an estimated 20,000 people from 52 countries, from the United States to Denmark, have signed up. The “Freedom for Russia” members declined to say how many men belonged to their battalion, except to describe it as “large” and claim they had received over 300 applications to join in a single day.

Yan, the IT professional, said his platoon of around 40 men in Ukraine’s territorial defense forces contains several other Russians, and he knows of more in other parts of the country. “There is a reasonable number of us across Ukraine,” he says, adding that, while Russians in the Ukrainian armed forces are generally well tolerated, there are also a lot of jokes told at their expense.

“And why not, you know? It is understandable that many Ukrainians suffer from severe psychological trauma. I am not offended.”

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