(Dolina) Their precise numbers are strictly confidential, their positions inaccessible and their speech well rehearsed. Russians are fighting Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region (east) within a highly symbolic brigade called “Freedom of Russia”.
When their spokesman, “Caesar,” meets with journalists, he usually takes them to the ruins of an Orthodox monastery in Dolina, an area captured by the Ukrainian army in the fall.
A broken golden dome, a stucco lion amid the rubble, 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, utters sentences in Russian and sometimes English. “I’m not fighting against the motherland, I’m fighting against Putin’s regime, against tyranny”. “I am not a traitor. I am a true Russian patriot,” he repeats.
Formed at the beginning of the war, the Russian militia brigade, whose emblem is a raised fist with the words “Freedom” and “Russia”, is part of the international volunteer force in the Ukrainian army.
It is, according to “Caesar”, “several hundred” Russians, after two months of training, have been stationed since May in this mining area of Eastern Ukraine that Moscow is trying to completely conquer the Donbass.
His men are notably stationed at Bagmouth, one of the hot spots on the Eastern Front, the scene of months of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
Employing mainly artillery, they are under the command of Ukrainian officers.
“They are motivated and professional fighters who do their job perfectly,” the Ukrainian official said on condition of anonymity. Recruits were subjected to multiple interviews, psychological tests and lie detection to avoid the risk of infiltration, he explains.
On social networks, the “Freedom of Russia” brigade mainly posts campaign videos and claims to have received thousands of applications.
“They are taking part in the war, but their numbers are small so they don’t have a significant impact,” said Oleg Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert.
Their emphasis is still political. Ukraine would do well to show that there are Russians who support democracy and freedom, and the right is fighting.
Oleg Zhdanov, military expert
It is difficult to know who the “Russian patriots” are that make up the Legion and their motivations. For Tiki, a worker from the Russian automobile capital of Togliatti, 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow, they seem more personal than political.
This round-faced forty-year-old belongs to a mixed family. His wife, whom he met in Russia, is a Ukrainian.
“She wouldn’t have understood that we were staying in Russia,” said the father of two, who was visiting the family in Kiev during the invasion. They never returned to Russia, and he joined the Ukrainian army as part of the brigade.
He had almost no contact with his family in Russia, who did not understand his will. “We brainwashed them. But I knew they were worried about me.
And he parted ways with his friends. “They sit on their couches in Russia and say over and over again: We’re going to liberate Ukraine,” he jokes.
Unrepentant and unflinching, he says he considers Russian soldiers “enemies” and would “rather throw grenades than be captured” by Moscow’s forces.
Dickey applied for Ukrainian citizenship, but he couldn’t get it until after the war. “For now, I still have the enemy’s passport”.
“Caesar”, the spokesman, hails from St. Petersburg, where he was a physiotherapist. Lui says he has a political motive, casting himself as a “right-wing nationalist” who believes that Vladimir Putin’s regime can only be overthrown by force.
According to him “all puppets” he has no faith in the enemy and believes that his comrades “do not want to see or hear anything”.
The man suddenly revives: “Russia is dying. If you go to villages, you will see drunkards, drug addicts and criminals. People are suffering,” he said.
“This is the result of 20 years of Putin. His organization, his government, his representatives, it’s shit. Losers, corrupt people, thieves who want to live only on money and pleasure. This is not the way to run a country,” he criticizes.
Provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he took his wife and four children to Kiev. “They also live in fear of bombing and cold, but they agree with my wishes”, declares “Caesar”, who is speaking openly because his family is now “safe” in Ukraine.