They are fighting against the Putin regime and their own fatherland: Russian legionnaires on the Ukrainian war front. Anyone who wants to defect from the Kremlin troops has to take a lie detector test. The reasons for fighting for Ukraine are partly very personal.
Exactly how many there are and where they are is a top secret. Their motivations are very different. And if you want to be one of them, you have to endure a lie detector test. But they exist: Russians fighting on the side of Ukraine against Russian troops united in the “Freedom of Russia” legion under Ukrainian command.
“I’m not a traitor. I am a true Russian patriot,” says the Legion spokesman, who calls himself Caesar. He likes to take journalists to the ruins of an Orthodox monastery in Dolina, an area that was recaptured by the Ukrainian army in the fall. The shattered golden dome, a guardian lion amidst the rubble and shattered icons are the ideal backdrop to “show the world what Putin’s values are,” as the man with the steel-blue eyes explains.
He chooses his words – sometimes Russian, sometimes English – carefully. “I’m not fighting against the motherland, I’m fighting against the Putin regime, against tyranny,” says Caesar. The legion consists of “several hundred” Russians who, after two months of training, have been deployed in the Donbass since May.
The fighters are part of the international volunteer corps within the Ukrainian army, their emblem is a punching fist with the words “Freedom” and “Russia” written above it. Caesar explains that his men have been deployed, among other things, in Bachmut on the Eastern Front, which has been hard-fought for months. There they fought under Ukrainian command mainly in artillery.
“They are motivated and professional fighters who do their job perfectly,” says a Ukrainian officer who wishes to remain anonymous. Recruits are carefully screened before admission, through interviews and a lie detector test, to eliminate the risk of infiltration. The “Freedom of Russia” legion mainly publishes propaganda videos on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram and claims to have received thousands of applications.
According to Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov, the legion has above all political significance: “It’s good for Ukraine if it can show that Russians also support democracy and freedom and are fighting on the right side,” he says. However, the Russian fighters “due to their small numbers do not have much influence” on the course of the war.
The legionnaires have different motivations to fight against Russia. For Tichiy, a worker from the Russian industrial city of Togliatti, 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow, they are more personal than political: his wife – whom he met in Russia – is Ukrainian. “She wouldn’t have understood if we had stayed in Russia,” says the 40-year-old father of two, who was visiting Kyiv with his family at the time of the invasion.
From there the family never returned to Russia, instead Tichiy joined the Legion. His relatives in Russia could not understand his decision, he had hardly any contact with them. He broke up with his friends. They were sitting on the sofa in Russia and stubbornly repeated: “We will liberate Ukraine,” he quotes them as saying. Tichiy sees Russian soldiers as “enemies”: he would rather blow himself up with a grenade than be captured by them.
Caesar, on the other hand, has political motives. The former physiotherapist from St. Petersburg describes himself as a “right-wing nationalist” and is convinced that the only way to overthrow Vladimir Putin’s government is by force. His compatriots didn’t want to “see or hear anything”, criticizes Caesar and suddenly becomes emotional: “Russia is dying,” he says. “Go into the villages – you will see drunks, drug addicts and criminals.” That is the result of 20 years of Putin. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 finally made Caesar go to Kyiv with his wife and four children.