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“Ethnicity is irrelevant, it's the aggressor's identity that matters”: Confessions of Russian Volunteer Corps fighters

In early March, the Russian Volunteer Corps fighters infiltrated the Bryansk region from Ukraine and released a new video urging Russians to join their fight against Putin's regime. The video shows that the fighters did not harm civilians. The Russian media previously labeled the unit's actions as a terrorist attack and made confusing reports on civilian casualties and hostages. The Insider interviewed the fighters of the unit, who support Ukraine, to understand how they joined the Ukrainian forces, why Russians have been queuing up to join the battalion and how they have been dealing with the need to kill their own countrymen. 

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  • Dmitry: “Our only way to fight against the detested authorities is fighting against the Russian army”

  • Max: “I don't want to see children and women being killed, and it is the reason why I am here”

  • Vladislav: “I find it remarkable that here, unlike in the Russian Army, every fighter has a say in decision-making”

Dmitry: “Our only way to fight against the detested authorities is fighting against the Russian army”

Since 2019, I have been residing in Ukraine due to criminal prosecution related reasons. My friend and I were essentially avoiding a court sentence, as he was charged with two articles, and I was charged with four, including the serious charges of creating an extremist community <article 282.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation - The Insider> and participating in its activities <article 282 part 2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation - The Insider>. Anticipating imprisonment, we made the decision to escape, as my friend had a prior conviction and I faced charges as an extremist.

On August 10, 2019, four days before the verdict, we left for Moscow and then took a circuitous route across the border into Ukraine, where we settled in nearby villages. When we decided to participate in the hostilities on the side of Ukraine and set out for the Joint Forces Operation zone, we had two options: either join the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (UVC) or the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UVA). However, since the active phase of combat operations had already passed, it was difficult to join either group. As a result, we joined one of the factions associated with the Azov movement, where we remained until 2022.

We knew in advance about Russia's attack. So, we were prepared - we knew what to do and where to go, and there was no question of whether we should fight for Ukraine or not.

“Our only way to fight against the detested authorities is fighting against the Russian army,” said one of us. This statement brings to mind Raskolnikov's analogy: “Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right?” You have certain views, they try to suppress them, and you either become a spineless creature or you resist. Ukrainians accepted us as their own, and when their country was in turmoil, there were only two options: to act like a “trembling creature” and flee or to stand with them in defense of their homeland, which had become our second home. For me, home is not where I was born, lived, and grew up, but rather the people with whom I have strong connections.

As refugees, we sought shelter in Ukraine and were welcomed with open arms. These people became my friends, who always showed me empathy and referred to me as “their Ukrainian,” despite my self-identification as Russian. The founders of the Azov movement hailed from Kharkiv and its neighboring areas, and they had no issues with the Russian language or Russian people in general. They frequently traveled to Russia and fought together with guys from CSKA. Azov comprises members from Luhansk, Donetsk, and even Russia, hence there is no discrimination based on nationality. Being Russian does not imply being unwelcome in Azov.

They referred to me as “their Ukrainian,” despite my self-identification as Russian

After spending a few days in an Azov Kyiv territorial defense company at the start of the war, I was told to sit in the headquarters without being given any orders. I wasn't even given a weapon, but this had nothing to do with my Russian citizenship; it was just how things worked out. As a result, I decided to join the “Botsman” unit instead. <Sergey Korotkikh - one of the founders of the “Azov” regiment - The Insider> They provided me with an AKM and four magazines.

Initially, “The Russian Volunteer Corps” consisted only of a handful of Russian guys. The only group we managed to establish a relationship with was the “Bosman” unit. We were then provided with Territorial Defense IDs to avoid issues with our Russian citizenship. When on “their” territory, the Azovs fighters would know who we were, but if you ended up at an unfamiliar checkpoint with trigger-happy Ukrainians, things could get complicated. These IDs made it easier for us to move around, and we began gradually preparing for travel.

At first, we joined the 98th Azov-Dnieper territorial defense battalion as part of a “Russian handful”. We joined one of their groups and started taking shifts at the front lines, with two-day rotations. We did this for about three or four months until they were replaced by fighters from the 111th Battalion, with whom we worked for about a month and a half.

Soldiers of the Russian Volunteer Corps
Soldiers of the Russian Volunteer Corps

At this point, the majority of the guys had already seen action, except for the newly arrived recruits. I myself began participating in combat operations in March, when we were deployed to the Chernihiv region. I had an acquaintance from the Ivano-Frankivsk region who was searching for his sons, who were serving in the 58th Brigade at that time, so we went to assist him.

Of course, we maintain communication with the command when we go to the frontline positions, avoiding any amateurism. Each section of the front has its own commander, and we follow the plans of the Ukrainian units. Sometimes we operate jointly, while other times we perform our own tasks. Getting accustomed to combat happens quickly, but overly emotional people should avoid it. Personally, I haven't participated in any major assault operations, and I haven't had to kill anyone at a dozen meters. However, there was a time when we had to take out someone who was close enough, and I just walked past without feeling much emotion.

I didn't get to kill anyone at a dozen meters, but when it happened at close range I just walked past without feeling much emotion

My comrade and I had an incident while waiting for reinforcements before a joint mission. Suddenly, a mine flew towards us. I was lying on my back, and it hit my leg, while my friend was sitting beside me. A piece of shrapnel went through his helmet and into his head. At first, I did not realize what had happened, as I only felt a small prick. When I looked down, I noticed that my pant leg was torn, and I knew I was wounded. There was no blood, so I used my tourniquet to bandage the wound. However, the shelling resumed. My friend tried to stand up, but he fell back down, and I saw that his head and right shoulder were covered in blood. The mortar shelling continued, and our third friend was shell-shocked as he had not been wearing his headgear. Somehow, we managed to get ourselves together and run. We then drove to the hospital where I received a lidocaine injection, and the wound on my leg was stitched up after the skin was cut off.

Currently, our tasks don't involve general combat. Before, we had to sit in trenches with two-day rotations, making sleep impossible. But now, our “mode of operation” is more focused on moving out, accomplishing the task, and getting back.

For those who wish to join us, the process is pretty straightforward. Firstly, leave Russia and fill out a questionnaire, which should then be sent to the Civic Council for review. Due to the large number of volunteers, there is a waiting list, and individuals with military experience or prior combat involvement are given priority. Furthermore, those who have conducted partisan activities and can provide evidence are also fast-tracked without waiting in line.

Max: “I don't want to see children and women being killed, and it is the reason why I am here”

My decision to fight against Russia's aggression in Ukraine was never in doubt. Having witnessed the conflict firsthand during my time in Ukraine, I was acutely aware of the situation. Years ago, as a protest against the regime, I even changed my name and surname to a more Americanized version.

At the outset of the conflict, I was in Italy, actively participating in protests alongside Ukrainians and assisting with humanitarian aid. Throughout this period, I sought opportunities to join a military organization and waited for the right moment to do so.

During one of the demonstrations, I publicly expressed my support for Ukraine, and my position became well-known. Following the event, a man approached me and informed me about a Russian movement that was fighting in Ukraine. He provided me with a link to their Telegram group, which led to my communication with the Civic Council. Eventually, a meeting was arranged with them in Europe, and after some physical and mental training, I was dispatched to Ukraine.

Throughout my four years in Europe, I frequently encountered Ukrainians and never had any issues with them. The same was true during the war - I received only positive reactions and was not discriminated against due to my passport. Although there were occasional incidents at checkpoints, these were resolved through friendly and straightforward discussions. I never encountered any Ukrainian servicemen or civilians who had a negative attitude towards me. Most understood that I was a newcomer to the conflict and had not previously participated in hostilities. They appreciated that I did not support the aggression and were grateful for any help I could offer.

There is no discrimination in war due to a passport: Ukrainians are grateful for any help that might be offered

Each day in Ukraine is unlike any other. My daily routine varies depending on what I need to do - whether it's exercising, studying, or taking care of household tasks. While I haven't had many opportunities to interact with Ukrainian soldiers, the encounters I've had have been positive and supportive. On one occasion, I ran out of water and a Ukrainian soldier generously offered to share his supply with me. The Ukrainian people are incredibly resilient and have a strong sense of national pride. Witnessing their unity and determination can be both inspiring and humbling.

Fighters of the RVC
Fighters of the RVC

The emotions that I experienced when I first set out on a mission were likely similar to those of everyone else, but what stood out the most was the overwhelming sense of responsibility that I felt. I felt responsible not only for myself but also for my comrades and for the mission we were undertaking. This sense of responsibility has stayed with me even to this day. As soon as I joined the fight, I understood that it was a war, and I knew that fear would follow me. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the innocent civilians who have suffered at the hands of Russian aggressors, and it made me realize the gravity of what we were doing. This realization was a humbling experience. To me, the ethnicity of the person I am pointing my gun at is irrelevant. We are all human beings, and that is what matters. The only thing that matters in this situation is that we are fighting against the aggressor, and we must stop them. I believe that it is essential for anyone who comes to conquer this land to understand that they do not belong here.

It is essential for anyone who comes to conquer this land to understand that they do not belong here

It's been months since I watched any news related to civilian deaths. It's hard for me to see, I don't want to see children and women being killed, and it is the reason why I am here. When I lived in Russia, I stopped communicating with many of my relatives, and when the war began, I cut off contact with my friends. As a result, my closest friends now are from Ukraine and the comrades who are fighting with me. I made a decision to choose my way, and I have no regrets about it. I am steadfast in my position although I'm aware that not everyone shares the same perspective as I do.

During my time living in Russia, I came to realize that everything was being done to benefit the “top people,” rather than the common citizens. It became clear to me that Putin had groomed a whole generation of his “clones,” and it was terrifying to witness the extent of his influence and control over the country.

My conviction in the victory of Ukraine and its people is based on personal experience rather than hearsay. I have witnessed how Ukrainians work abroad, how they help their relatives and friends who live there. Their resilience and strength are undeniable, and it is my fervent desire to remain in Ukraine after the war to contribute to the rebuilding of the country that has been ravaged by the destructive influence of the “Russian world.”

Vladislav: “I find it remarkable that here, unlike in the Russian Army, every fighter has a say in decision-making”

I chose to fight alongside Ukraine because it is the natural choice for anyone with empathy towards victims of aggression and a moral compass. Any sane person should be on the side of Ukraine today.

During the early stages of the war, I helped organize an anti-war movement with my fellow countrymen in Yakutia, and even then, I understood that armed resistance was necessary for Ukraine's independence. My goal upon arriving in Ukraine was to establish a Yakut unit, and I am currently a member of the Russian Volunteer Corps, but I am also working towards forming a separate battalion for “non-Russian nationalities” because they simply have nowhere else to go. Currently, there is a battalion for Tatars, Chechens, and Russians, but no unit exists for such nationalities as Yakuts, Kalmyks, Caucasians, and others.

I am also working towards forming a separate battalion for Yakuts because they simply have nowhere else to go, and they also want to defend Ukraine

During my time in Yakutia, I was involved in various organizations that advocated for the dissolution of Russia. Through my connections within these groups, I learned about the Civic Council, which was the only organization that could facilitate the recruitment and deployment of volunteers to Ukraine; before that it was quite a challenging task. Thus, I joined the Russian Volunteer Corps through the Civic Council. I believe that this opportunity will provide thousands of people with peace of mind as it is a challenging experience to sit back and watch one's fellow citizens kill innocent people in a neighboring country.

Ukrainians have shown us a welcoming and positive attitude. I have received nothing but friendly hugs and admiration for our bravery. The RVC evaluates the level of motivation of volunteers, and it's evident that the first wave includes the most determined individuals. Some even crossed two or three borders to reach Ukraine, sacrificing their comfort, homes, and families because they recognized the importance of their presence here.

As a former officer in the Russian Armed Forces, I have had the chance to compare the training of Russian and Ukrainian military personnel. All of us here have undergone medical training at the instructor level, ensuring that we can save a wounded person and be confident in our own survival. While the Russian army does provide similar training, it pales in comparison. Here, individuals are valued, and no one is viewed as expendable. There are no “at any cost” orders given.

Here, individuals are valued, and no one is viewed as expendable

Our typical day is like a day in a regular army, it involves the usual routine of waking up, exercising, having breakfast, attending training sessions, and heading to the firing range. Usually everyone trains separately depending on their specialty, e.g., drivers, snipers or machine gunners train at different locations.

In-depth training is currently taking place due to the high-tech nature of the war, requiring proficiency in handling sophisticated equipment rather than just wielding a machine gun on the battlefield. The instructors are well-educated and highly motivated individuals whose primary goal is to equip the soldiers with the skills necessary to inflict maximum damage on the enemy.

As a military man I find it remarkable that every fighter here has a say in decision-making. This is very different from the Russian army, where orders come from the top and personnel are expected to obey without question, often leading to unnecessary loss of life. The system here is different. The RVC operates as a separate military unit under the command of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. This means that there is no “self-serving” behavior and the command sets tasks for us just as they do for the Ukrainian army.

Having served in the Russian Armed Forces, I was aware that a war was inevitable. Russia was gearing up for it, but nobody knew when or where it would break out. The hysteria around military uniforms on May Day, drills in kindergartens and schools, and the overall militarization had to bear fruit. I genuinely hope that this war will result in the collapse of the “Russian Empire” and that my people will gain their independence.

I am convinced that Ukraine will emerge victorious in this war, and this is not a matter of belief, but a matter of timing. The war has reached a point where it turned into a “war of attrition”, and Russia is following the same path that Germany did in the past. There are too many similarities for this to be a mere coincidence.

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