'Not against Ukraine': Russian deserters tell their story
Hundreds of Russian soldiers have deserted, but many do not have passports and are trying to get to safety in the West for fear of extradition. DW spoke to three of them.
Munich's Oktoberfest was in full swing when we met Vasiliy, which is not his real name, in a calm park on the outskirts of the Bavarian city in southern Germany. He had been in Germany barely a month, one of the few Russian deserters to be able to enter the country legally.
He said that he felt safe in Germany, but he was worried about his family at home, which is why he did not give DW his name.
The young man, who trained as a gunner at the military academy and had signed up for several years' service, said that he had long been disappointed by the army and had tried to leave it before, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 marked a turning point.
He was given the order to go the front. "They said: 'Get ready, we're running out of people already,'" he recalled. He refused to go, telling his superiors that he had Ukrainian origins. "My father is Ukrainian. I'm not going to fight against my own people," he said.
Despite various threats, he did not go nor was he dismissed. But whereas it had already been hard for Russian soldiers to leave the army before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin's "partial" mobilization announcement it became nigh on impossible. Leaving the barracks without permission became punishable by 10 years in jail; desertion by 15.
"There was no way out," said Vasiliy. "I got a call from the commander telling me that either I went to war or legal proceedings would be opened against me and I would be put behind bars and sent to war anyway."
That's when he decided to leave.
Armenia or Kazakhstan
"Go by the Forest," an NGO that helps Russians to avoid conscription, said that they knew of at least 500 Russian soldiers who had deserted and left the country after the mobilization announcement. They added that the number was probably much higher because not all deserters had turned to them.
Most have gone to Armenia or Kazakhstan, such as communications officer Viktor, which is also not his real name. In contrast to Vasiliy, Viktor did fight in Ukraine. Talking from the Kazakh capital Astana, he told DW that he had tried unsuccessfully to leave the army previously and in February 2022 he was sent to participate in an exercise on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
His unit took part in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"They woke us up at 5 a.m. Put us in rows and said: 'It's happening.' They didn't say what though," he remembers. "At this point, it was impossible to refuse. If we went forward the Ukrainians would shoot and if we went backwards, we'd be caught by our people."
He remained on Ukrainian territory until the summer. "I saw prisoners of war being executed and I heard our unit commander's give orders to that effect, but we didn't have anything like what happened in Bucha," he insisted. He said that he only heard about the massacre of civilians in Ukraine at the end of April 2022 when he had access to the internet. "I started rethinking a lot after that," he said.
'We thought Putin was a murderer and a thief but not a madman'
Yevgeniy, a special unit officer from a poor background who joined the army as a young man to elevate his social status, was also sent to take part in an exercise on the border with Ukraine in February 2022.
"We hoped and believed that there would not be a war," he remembered. "We thought that Putin was a murderer and a thief but not a madman who would start a war. But it turned out otherwise."
On 24 February 2022, Yevgeniy's unit crossed the border into Ukraine and eventually got to the city of Brovary, east of the Ukrainian capital. "It was very sad for us. On March 30, a whole unit died. […] As we got closer to Kyiv we stopped taking prisoners because we didn't have a way of bringing them to Russia, so they were killed." He said that the Ukrainian side did the same.
He insisted that he was not involved in the killings: "I am ready to go before the courts. My conscience is clear. Yes, I fought, I shot, but I was also shot at and I also want to live."
After Russia's failed offensive near Kyiv, Yevgeniy's unit was transferred to the Donbas. He was prepared to go to great lengths to escape the army, even shooting himself in the leg: "We injured each other near some Ukrainian positions and said that they had shot at us. We were believed and sent to hospital in Russia."
Scared of extradition to Russia
For his part, Viktor was given leave in mid-August. Back in the barracks, he tried to resign but he was not able to before the announcement of the "partial" mobilization in September 2022. He fled to Kazakhstan, as did Yevgeniy.
Since there are criminal proceedings against both of them in Russia, they cannot get official employment in Kazakhstan. They also had to use other people's names to obtain a bank account or even a SIM card. Worse, they are worried that Kazakhstan could extradite them to Russia.
"I have three possibilities: France, Germany or the US because these countries issue temporary documents. None of us has a passport," explained Viktor. He said that he had contacted several Western embassies but to no avail so far.
"In May 2022, the German Interior Ministry said that deserters from the Russian army could receive refugee status because it has to be assumed that their desertion is understood as political action against the war and they could be persecuted politically," said Rudi Friedrich, the head of Connection e.V., an NGO that offers international support to conscientious objectors and deserters, which has called on the European Parliament and EU member states to protect those who refuse to fight Putin's war.
He said that deserters, who have taken a high risk and refused to take part in war crimes, should be offered humanitarian visas because they could not apply for asylum unless they were already on EU territory. He said that otherwise it was almost impossible for them to get there without a passport or a visa.
New life in Germany
Vasiliy was able to come from Kazakhstan despite not having a passport. He found a job with a tech company in Germany and the German embassy gave him a temporary travel document and a work visa. He said that it was not easy to find a company which would accept a Russian deserter without papers but that it was even harder to get out of Kazakhstan.
On his first try, he was pulled out of the airplane because he was found in an international database for wanted people. He said that his five-year-old daughter walked up to the border officials and begged them to "let dad out." On the next day, he was able to leave the country thanks to his lawyer Yernar Koshanov: "It turned out that there are certain conditions that made it possible," without going into detail.
Vasiliy is getting used to his life and new job in Germany. He said that he was grateful to the authorities for giving him a visa and to Kazakhstan for letting him out finally. He decided to go public with his story despite the risk to his family in Russia because he hopes that others will also get a chance to escape the war.
"I say to all deserters, to anyone who's at the front, desperate: Anything is possible. You don't have to fight and wrestle with your conscience. You can refuse to take part in these crimes."
This article was originally published in Russian.