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Why some Russians have vowed to resist Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

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“Caesar” is one of dozens of Russian nationals fighting to defend Ukraine from Putin’s armies. | Vasco Sousa Cotovio/CNN

  • The soldier goes by the call-sign “Caesar.” He is one of hundreds, if not thousands, fighting to keep the town of Bakhmut, the current epicenter of the war, in Ukrainian hands.
  • Few, if any, buildings of the eastern Ukrainian town have been spared by the unending artillery barrages fired from side to side. 

A soldier in a Ukrainian
uniform morosely contemplates the ruins of an Orthodox monastery in Ukraine’s
eastern Donetsk region.

“This is a result of Putin’s war,” he says, angrily,
as he paces through the wreck. “As a Christian, this is very offensive to me.”

The soldier, whose name CNN agreed not to reveal to
protect his identity, goes by the call-sign “Caesar.” He is one of hundreds, if
not thousands, fighting to keep the town of Bakhmut, the current epicenter of
the war, in Ukrainian hands.

But there’s one thing that sets him apart from most of
those who share the same goal: he’s Russian.

“From the first day of the war, my heart, the heart of a
real Russian man, a real Christian, told me that I had to be here to defend the
people of Ukraine,” Caesar explains. “We are now fighting in the Bakhmut
direction, this is the hottest part of the front.”

Few, if any, buildings of the
eastern Ukrainian town have been spared by the unending artillery barrages
fired from side to side. Many of the structures have been completely destroyed,
others left uninhabitable with collapsed sections, in apocalyptic scenes
reminiscent of the battered city of Mariupol, captured by Russia earlier in the
war.

“After the (Russian)
mobilization (in September), Putin threw all his forces (at Bakhmut) in order
to achieve a breaking point in the war, but we are putting up a fierce
defensive fight,” Caesar says.

Much of Ukraine’s resisting force has had to hunker down
in muddy trenches, fighting tooth and nail to deny Russian forces a victory
they desperately crave.

“The fighting is very brutal now,” Caesar explains.

A few miles away from the
battle, but still in earshot of the constant thuds and explosions, Caesar’s
commitment is unflinching and he does not regret his decision to join Ukraine’s
foreign legion.

While the urge to sign up came early on in the conflict,
he could only leave his home country, with his close family, and join the
Ukrainian military in the summer.

“It was a very difficult process,” he says. “It took me
several months to finally join the ranks of the defenders of Ukraine.”

Now with his family in Ukraine – where he considers them
to be safer – Caesar says he is one of around 200 Russian citizens currently
fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, against their own country’s armies. CNN
has not been able independently to confirm this number.

In Caesar’s view, Moscow’s forces are not true Russians.

“Yes, I kill my countrymen, but they have become
criminals,” he explains. “They came to a foreign land to rob and kill and
destroy. They kill civilians, children and women.”

“I have to confront this,” he added.

Caesar is a self-confessed opponent of what he says is a
“tyrannical regime” headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just in
Ukraine but also inside his own country. And in his confrontation of the war,
he has had to shoot at least 15 Russian soldiers on the battlefield, he claims.

They are lives he did not pity and killings he does not
regret, he says.

“I am fighting a noble fight and I am doing my military
and Christian duty; I am defending the Ukrainian people,” Caesar says. “And
when Ukraine is free, I will carry my sword to Russia to free it from tyranny.”

Caesar’s
ideological drive is not the only reason some Russians have chosen to side with
Ukrainians on the battlefield. For many the motivation lies closer to the
heart.

“Silent,”
the call-sign of another Russian soldier whose full name CNN is not disclosing
for his safety, was visiting Ukraine when Russian missiles and artillery shells
started landing in its towns and cities on February 24.

“I
came to Ukraine at the beginning of February to visit my relatives. I stayed
here and war started,” Silent says.

He
says he joined the Ukrainian military shortly after he saw the atrocities
perpetrated by Russian soldiers in the suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka,
just outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Evidence of mass graves and civilian executions in those areas emerged following the withdrawal of Russian
forces from the Kyiv region in early April.

Russia
has previously denied allegations of war crimes and claimed its forces do not
target civilians, despite extensive evidence gathered by international human
rights experts, criminal investigators and international media in multiple
locations.

“I was just outside Kyiv,
not far from those places, and when they were kicked out of that territory, we
went there to help people and saw what they had done,” Silent says. “Dead
bodies, children, women, executions … When you see it in person … of course
everything inside turned upside down.”

He adds: “I decided to stay here until the end and join
the legion.”

Silent says his best friend has recently been forcibly
mobilized into Russia’s army back home. Silent says they’ve discussed the
terrifying fact that it’s conceivable they could end up on opposite sides on a
Ukrainian battlefield.

“It’s weird that that could happen – especially as he
wants to leave Russia and wants to come to fight with me against Putin’s army
in Ukraine. We’re trying to get him out but he’s being held by the Russian
army,” says Silent.

His family, like many in Russia and Ukraine, has roots in
both countries. His wife and two children are now living with him in Ukraine
but other relatives remain in Russia. Silent says that although they have
stayed behind, they see through Putin’s propaganda on the war, still described
as a “special military operation” by the Kremlin.

“They understand what is going on: Russia invaded
Ukraine,” he says, adding that his relatives were not angry with him. “They
know my character, that if I have made a decision, I will act until the end.

“They told me to stay safe.”

The long arm of the Kremlin

Another soldier, who goes by the call-sign “Vinnie,”
insists on covering his face with a balaclava, fearing that the Kremlin’s long
arm might try to reach him in Ukraine.

“My family is not here with me right now,” he explains. He
says he is fighting for them and for their future, but still fears what
Moscow’s security apparatus might do to them.

“My children, my wife,
who I love very much, they’re my everything, my whole life,” he says, with a
sparkle in his eyes and a smile that can be detected through the cloth covering
his face.

“If I show my face … I worry about them, because there’ll
be no one to protect them,” he adds.

It’s one of the added risks for Russian citizens risking
their lives for Ukraine, but not the only one. Russian soldiers fighting for
Ukraine could face tougher consequences than their Ukrainian counterparts if
they’re captured by the enemy.

Last month, a soldier who deserted the Russian mercenary
group Wagner and crossed onto the Ukrainian side, Yevgeny Nuzhin, was brutally
murdered with a sledgehammer after he went back to Russia.

His execution was applauded by the head of the group,
Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Without directly acknowledging that Wagner
fighters had carried out the murder, Prigozhin said: “Nuzhin betrayed his
people, betrayed his comrades, betrayed them consciously. He was not taken
prisoner, nor did he surrender. Rather, he planned his escape. Nuzhin is a
traitor.”

This kind of example is why Vinnie is certain of what will
await him should he be captured.

“There won’t be an exchange for sure. It will be the end,
100%,” he says. “It will just be more painful.”

But pain and death are
not a part of this unit’s lexicon, even as they face overwhelming odds in
Bakhmut.

Russia has been trying to capture the town for months and
has thrown large numbers of men at Ukrainian defenses in an attempt to break
them. But they haven’t broken Vinnie.

“I am defending the country, I am defending homes, women,
children, people who cannot defend themselves,” he says. “My conscience is
absolutely clear.”

Caesar, standing amid the remains of the Orthodox
monastery, is equally defiant, saying not even the prospect of defeat will make
him waver.

“I will stay here while my heart will beats. I will fight
to defend Ukraine,” he says.

“And when we have defended Ukraine I will liberate my
country.”



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