In a sandy valley near the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, soldiers dressed in camouflage are learning the basics of warfare. They are Russians and they came to fight against their countrymen.
These men belonged to a new unit of about fifty Russians called the “Siberian Battalion,” which was integrated into the Ukrainian army.
“I made the decision to go to Ukraine as quickly as possible, to fight against Russia, against (Vladimir) Putin’s regime, and against imperialism,” explains one fighter, who calls himself “Grecha” (Russian for buckwheat).
The war in Ukraine attracted foreign volunteers from all walks of life. Most of them serve in the International Corps – of which the Siberian Battalion is part – which is integrated into the Ukrainian army.
The fighters who are training, with their faces covered, do not want to reveal their real names.
The group includes both ethnic Russians, long-time opponents of the Moscow regime, and members of ethnic minorities from Siberia.
The Siberian battalion is not the only Russian unit fighting with Ukraine.
Last spring, two other groups made headlines after brief incursions on the Russian border: the Russian Volunteer Corps, which has ties to the far right and rioters, and the Russian Freedom Corps.
The International Legion spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not explain how the Russians entered Ukraine, saying only that some of them come in small groups and others come alone.
“We don’t bring them in car trunks,” he stresses.
“It is not about illegal crossing. The spokesperson insists that it is completely legal.
He adds that conscripts are subject to military contracts, and there are no prisoners of war.
Grecha was born in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, but lived mainly in Moscow, where he worked as a medical assistant.
The man, whose political views are “more liberal than in Russia currently,” said: “We must liberate Ukraine, the homeland where I was born in Crimea, this is my dream.”
He participated in Russian opposition protests against the war, but considered them “useless.”
“Russia currently has a dictatorship that I’m obviously very dissatisfied with, even if it doesn’t affect me appreciably,” Grecha explains.
“I am not in prison, and I am not a foreign agent, but I have the impression that the state gives less freedom to its citizens. Sooner or later it will be a big concentration camp, and that is already the case.
He says that he left Russia in 2022 and sought to enter Ukraine, but “in the beginning there was no organization, and there was no information on how to enter.”
After living in countries without a visa for Russians, often living in a tent, he finally found an organization called the Civil Council, whose website recruits for the Siberian Battalion in Warsaw.
“The need for victory”
According to “Grica,” the organization accepted his passage with his wife. “I spent some time waiting in a third country, and in a wonderful moment, they wrote to me that we could get out, offered us the way, and so we entered Ukraine,” the recruiter says.
His parents did not know he had been drafted: “They have different views on this war. “We talked about this topic several times and argued every time.”
Another fighter, called “Tchved” (Swedish), claims that he left Russia more than ten years ago, “due to political persecution,” and has been living in Sweden since 2011.
“I was involved in anti-government and anti-Putin activities for a long time, and I had to emigrate,” he says, describing himself as an “anarchist.”
Other Russians who have joined the Siberian contingent include anti-Kremlin activist Eldar Dadin.
“In this war, Ukraine stands on the side of the freedom of the people,” asserts Tchved, who began fighting last summer in another unit.
“What we have to do now is defeat Putin’s Russia,” he says, hoping this will bring about political change in Russia and Belarus, its ally. “That’s why we need Ukraine to win.”