The Ukrainian army has a very symbolic legion of Russian fighters
Their exact numbers are strictly confidential, their positions inaccessible and their discourse well rehearsed. Russians are fighting Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region (in the east) as part of the highly symbolic “Freedom of Russia” legion.
When their spokesman “Caesar” meets with journalists, he usually takes them to the territory captured by the Ukrainian army in the fall, to the ruins of the Orthodox monastery in Dolina.
A crumbling golden dome, a stucco lion among the ruins, and scattered religious symbols provide the perfect backdrop to “show the world what Putin’s values are.”
“Caesar”, a handsome face with steely blue eyes, pronounces sentences that hit home in Russian and sometimes in English. “I am not fighting against the motherland, but against Putin’s regime and tyranny.” “I am not a traitor. I am a true Russian patriot,” he repeats.
Created at the beginning of the war, the Legion of Russian Fighters, whose emblem is a fist covered with the words “Freedom” and “Russia”, is part of the international volunteer corps in the Ukrainian army.
According to Caesar, there are “several hundred” Russians who have been deployed in the Donbass, a mining region in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has been trying to completely conquer since May, after two months of training.
His men are particularly stationed in Bakhmut, one of the eastern front’s hot spots, the scene of months of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
Mainly engaged in artillery, they are under the command of Ukrainian officers.
“They are motivated and professional fighters, they do their job perfectly,” said the Ukrainian officer on condition of anonymity. Recruits were subjected to multiple interviews, psychological tests and even a lie detector test to avoid the risk of leaks, he explains.
– Political significance –
On social networks – Telegram, Twitter, Instagram… – the “Freedom of Russia” legion mainly posts propaganda videos and claims to have received thousands of appeals.
Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov said, “They participate in the war, but due to their small number, they do not have a serious impact.” “Their importance is more political. It is good for Ukraine that it can show that there are Russians who support democracy and freedom and fight on the right side,” he concludes.
It is difficult to know exactly who the “Russian patriots” who make up the Legion are and their motivation. For Tikhiy, a worker from Togliatti, Russia’s automotive capital, 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow, they seem more personal than political.
This round-faced forty-year-old man comes from a mixed family. His wife, whom he met in Russia, is Ukrainian.
“He wouldn’t understand that we stayed in Russia,” said the father of two children who visited his family in Kiev during the occupation. They never returned to Russia, and he joined the Ukrainian army as part of the legion.
He has almost no contact with his family in Russia, who do not understand his choice. “They are a little brainwashed. But I know they are worried about me.”
And he left his friends. “They are sitting on their couch in Russia and saying: we will liberate Ukraine,” he jokes.
Without regret or hesitation, he says that he considers Russian soldiers “enemies” and that he would “be blown up with a grenade rather than captured” by Moscow forces.
Tikhiy applied for Ukrainian citizenship, but won’t be able to get it until the end of the war. “I still have the passport of the enemy.”
– “Right nationalist” –
Spokesman “Caesar” is from St. Petersburg, where he is a physiotherapist. Claiming that he has political motives, he presents himself as a “right nationalist” who believes that Vladimir Putin’s regime can only be overthrown by force.
He does not trust his opponents – “all puppets”, and believes that his countrymen “do not want to see or hear anything”.
The man suddenly revives: “Russia is dying. Go to the villages, you will see drunkards, drug addicts, criminals. The people are suffering,” he says.
“This is the result of Putin’s 20-year activity. His system, his government, his deputies, this is bad. They are losers, corrupt, thieves, they only think of living in money and pleasure. It is impossible to manage the country.” he said.
On February 24, prompted by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, he took his wife and four children to Kiev. “Caesar” who speaks openly because his family is now “safe” in Ukraine, says: “They also live in fear of bombings and in the cold, but they agree with my choice.”