The soldier knelt in the snow, aimed a rocket launcher and fired in the direction of Russian troops positioned about a mile away. He was set up at a Ukrainian firing position, and looked just like the other Ukrainian troops fighting south of the city of Bakhmut in one of the most brutal theaters of the war.
But he and his comrades are not Ukrainian. They are soldiers in a Ukrainian military unit made up entirely of Russians who are fighting and killing their own countrymen.
They have taken up arms against Russia for a variety of reasons: a sense of moral outrage at their country’s invasion, a desire to defend their adopted homeland of Ukraine or because of a visceral dislike of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. And they have earned enough trust from Ukrainian commanders to take their place among the forces viciously fighting the Russian military.
“A real Russian man doesn’t engage in such an aggressive war, won’t rape children, kill women and elderly people,” said one Russian fighter with the military call sign Caesar, ticking off atrocities committed by Russian soldiers that motivated him to leave his native St. Petersburg and fight for Ukraine. “That’s why I don’t have remorse. I do my job and I’ve killed a lot of them.”
Nearly a year into the war, the Free Russia Legion, as the unit is called, has received little attention — in part to protect the soldiers from reprisals by Russia, but also because of reluctance within the Ukrainian military to highlight the efforts of soldiers whose home country has done so much harm to Ukraine. Several hundred of them are concentrated in the area around Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, officials said; they are always grouped with their own but are overseen by Ukrainian officers. [Continue reading…]