After weeks of sleeping on shell boxes, a guiltridden Russian officer decided to give up. He risked everything when he refused to fight.
It took a few weeks of sleeping in shell boxes, using them as beds, and covering the faces of Ukrainians in a growing guilt for this Russian junior officer to conclude: This wasn’t his fight.
“We were dirty and tired. people died around us. I didn’t want to feel a part of it, but I was a part of it,” the official told CNN. He went to his commander and resigned his commission.
CNN does not identify the officer, and for your safety, does not include any personally identifiable information that would help identify him.
I didn’t want to feel a part of it, but I was a part of it.”. Russian officer
His story is remarkable, but it could also be one of many, say opponents of the war in Russia and Ukraine, who say they have heard of many cases in which soldiers both professional and conscripts have refused to fight.
Russian troops are struggling with low morale and high casualties in Ukraine, according to Western officials, including the Pentagon. Britain’s Intelligence, Cyber and Security Agency said some even refused to carry out orders.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.
an unknown mission
The official, who spoke to CNN, said it was part of the massive troop buildup in western Russia that sparked global fears for Ukraine. But he said he hadn’t given it much thought, even on February 22 this year, when he and the rest of his battalion were asked without any explanation to turn in their cellphones while stationed in southern Russia’s Krasnodar.
That night they spent hours painting white stripes on their military vehicles. Then they were instructed to wash them, he said. “The order has changed, draw the letter Z, like Zorro,” he recalls.
The Z symbol, seen here on a column of Russian military vehicles, became a motif used in the invasion of Ukraine.
“The next day we were taken to Crimea. To be honest, I didn’t think we were going to Ukraine. I didn’t think it would come to this,” he says.
As his unit rallied in Crimea — the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014 — President Vladimir Putin launched his new invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
But according to the officer, he and his companions didn’t know about it because no news was relayed to them and they had no contact with the outside world without a phone.
We were not pounded with any “Ukrainian Nazis” rhetoric. A lot of people didn’t understand why, or what we’re doing here.”. Russian officer
Two days later, they were sent to Ukraine themselves, the official told CNN.
“Some guys refused. They wrote a report and left. I don’t know what happened to them. I stayed. I do not know why. We left the next day,” he says.
The officer guarantees that he did not know the purpose of the operation; that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lofty claims that Ukraine is part of Russia and must be “denazified” failed to reach the men called to fight.
“We weren’t pounded with any ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ rhetoric. Many didn’t understand why it was all or what we’re doing here,” he says.
The official confides to CNN that he hopes for a diplomatic solution and feels guilty that Russia invaded Ukraine. But he adds that he wasn’t very knowledgeable about politics.
The first thing the soldier remembers after his unit has crossed the border in a long column of vehicles are crates of Russian food scattered everywhere and mountains of destroyed equipment.
“I sat in the KAMAZ [camião], holding a gun tightly against me. I had a pistol and two grenades with me,” he says.
The force moved northwest towards Kherson. As they approached a village, a man jumped out with a whip and began whipping the convoy, yelling, “You’re all screwed!” Remember the officer.
For the first week I was more or less in shock. I could not think of anything.” Russian officer
“He almost climbed into the cabin we were in. His eyes were teary from crying. That really impressed me,” he adds. “Usually when we saw local residents we were tense. Some hid guns under their clothes and fired when they got close.”
The officer says he hid his face out of shame and safety because he was ashamed to be seen by Ukrainians there. In your country.
And he says that the Russians also suffered heavier mortar attacks on the second or third day they were in Ukraine.
“For the first week I was more or less in shock. I couldn’t think of anything,” he told CNN. “I just went to bed and thought, ‘Today is March 1. Tomorrow I will wake up, it’s March 2 the main thing is to live one more day.’ Several times the bullets landed nearby, it’s a miracle none of us died,” he says.
reactions in the rows
The officer assures CNN that he wasn’t the only soldier concerned or confused about why they invaded Ukraine. But he also recalls his excitement when they learned the bounties would be paid out soon. “Someone had a reaction: ‘Oh, 15 more days here and I can pay the loan,'” he says.
He told himself there could be a criminal case. This rejection is treason. But I persevered.”. Russian officer
After a few weeks, the officer was positioned closer to the rear, tracking equipment that needed repairs, he says. There, he continues, he also became more aware of what was going on and had more time and energy to think.
“We had a radio receiver and we could hear the news,” he tells CNN. “So I knew that shops in Russia were closing and the economy was collapsing. I felt guilty about that. But I felt even more guilty that we came to Ukraine.”
His resolve hardened to the point where there was only one thing he could do.
“In the end, I gathered my strength and went to the commandant to write a resignation letter,” he tells CNN.
At first, the commander refused the approach, telling him that it was impossible to refuse service.
“He told himself there could be a criminal case. This rejection is treason. But I stood my ground. He gave me a piece of paper and a pen,” the officer told CNN, adding that he was writing his resignation at that very moment.
Reports of more “deniers”
There were other reports in the tightly controlled Russian media of soldiers refusing to fight.
Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Mothers of Soldiers of Russia, said many complaints and concerns were heard when the first units left Ukraine to rest.
“Soldiers and officers wrote resignation reports saying they could not return successfully,” she told CNN. “The main reasons are, first of all, the moral and psychological state. And the second reason is moral beliefs. They wrote reports then and they write reports now.”
Melnikova, whose organization was founded in 1989, said all troops have the right to file reports, although she acknowledges some of the commanders might refuse or try to intimidate soldiers.
Your organization often advises soldiers on how to write these reports and offers legal advice.
The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate reported that in several Russian units, notably the 150th Motorized Rifle Division of the 8th Army Southern Military District, between 60% and 70% of the soldiers were in conscientious objection. CNN cannot verify this number.
In Russia, Melnikova told CNN there are “many” cases of soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine, but she declined to give details, citing legal and security concerns.
Aleksei Tabalov, a human rights activist and director of an organization that helps Russian recruits, told CNN he personally consulted with two soldiers who had retired from the military.
“The same guys who refused to fight and turned to us, there were two, but from the brigade that left 30 more people, they refused to fight,” Tabalov told CNN.
Tabalov said that when the soldiers resigned, they said that when they signed the contract, they did not agree to take part in a special operation against Ukraine.
Absence without permission from the Russian army is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. However, contract servers have the statutory right to cancel within 10 days of leaving the service and giving reason.
“I can’t say this is a mass phenomenon, but it’s a very strong phenomenon. If you estimate all cases from other organizations and add indirect information, the number exceeds 1,000,” Tabalov told CNN. He added that recruitment in the country is still ongoing and that new soldiers often come from poorer regions with fewer prospects.
What will happen next I don’t know”. Russian officer
Thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war. Ukrainian forces estimate more than 22,000 Russian casualties. The last time the Russian Defense Ministry reported casualties was on March 25, reporting the deaths of 1,351 military personnel.
The ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for an update.
The officer who spoke to CNN is now with his family. “What’s going to happen next I don’t know,” he says. “But I’m glad to be back home.”