How Russian defectors escape the war in UkraineHow Russian defectors escape the war in Ukraine

Many Russian defectors don’t even have passports and are on the international wanted list. Without documents, they try to make a life abroad. DW spoke to three of them.

(DW) While Munich is buzzing with Oktoberfest atmosphere, we met “Vasily” in a quiet park on the outskirts of the city. In Germany for almost a month, he was one of the first Russian defectors to enter the country legally.

Although he feels safe in Germany, he says he fears for the family he left behind – which is why he prefers to hide his real name. In Russia, where he is wanted by the authorities, he could face up to 15 years in prison for desertion.

“I don’t fight against my own people”

Vasily is a gunner. He studied at the military academy and served in the army for several years. But long disappointed with the institution, he tried to leave the Armed Forces – always in vain. Until Russia attacked Ukraine and he received orders to go to the front.

“They said: ‘Get ready, we’re almost out of men’,” he recalls. But he refused: “I’m of Ukrainian origin,” he told his superior at the time. “My father is Ukrainian, I’m not going to fight against my own people.”

Despite all his superior’s threats, Vasily didn’t go to the front. But neither was he discharged from his unit. Like him, other deserters also told DW about the difficulty of leaving the army even before September 21, 2022, when President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization. After that, they say, it became completely impossible. The penalties for leaving the barracks without permission and for desertion were increased to ten and 15 years in prison respectively.

“There was no way out. I got a call from the command and they said: ‘Either you go to war or we’ll open criminal proceedings against you. Then you’ll go behind bars, from where you’ll be sent to war just the same.” Vasily then decided to flee Russia.

Viktor: “It was simply impossible to refuse”

According to estimates by the Go by the Forest organization, which helps Russians who don’t want to be drafted into war, more than 500 deserters have left the country since the mobilization was announced. And these are just the ones who have sought out human rights activists. The real number is probably much higher.

Most of these men are fleeing to Kazakhstan or Armenia. One of them is communications officer “Viktor”, who also prefers not to reveal his real name. Unlike Vasily, however, he ended up taking part in Russian military operations against Ukraine.

Through a video call from Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, Viktor claims that he also tried to leave the army. But in February 2022 he was called up to take part in an exercise on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia. Soon after, on February 24, his unit was to take part in the Russian invasion.

“They woke us up at 5 a.m., lined us up in columns and said: ‘Let’s go!’ But that was without telling us where we were going. At that moment, it was simply impossible to refuse. If you ran forward, you’d be shot by the Ukrainians, and if you ran backwards, you’d be caught by the people themselves,” Viktor recalls.

He himself was on Ukrainian territory until mid-2022. “I saw prisoners of war executed and even the orders [to do so] from the unit commander.” But he assures us: “There was nothing like what happened in Bucha in our country.” Viktor says he first learned about the massacres of civilians in Ukraine at the end of April 2022, when he was able to access the Internet. “After that, I rethought a lot of things.”

Yevgeny: “I’m ready to stand trial”

Yevgeny, an officer in a special unit, was also sent to the Ukrainian border in February 2022 for military exercises. From a poor background, the young man had been promised social advancement by the army.

“We hoped and believed that there would be no war,” he says, recalling that fateful February 2022. “We thought Putin was a murderer and thief, but not a fanatic who would start a war. But then things turned out differently.”
Hand holding smartphone during video call with blurred image of interlocutor.

On February 24, his unit crossed the border into Ukraine and reached Brovary, near Kiev. “It was all very sad for us. On March 30, almost an entire company died,” he says, referring to the fighting. “When we were near Kiev, we didn’t take any prisoners because there was no way of getting them to Russia, so they were killed.” But he adds that the Ukrainian side dealt with the situation in the same way.

Yevgeny denies involvement in the murders. “I’m ready to answer in court. My conscience is clear. Yes, I fought, yes, I shot, but I was also shot and I also want to live.”

Fear of being extradited to Russia

After the failure of the Russian offensive near Kiev, Yevgeny’s unit was transferred to Donbass. To escape, he shot himself in the leg. “We were wounded near the Ukrainian positions and said that it was the Ukrainians who had shot us. They believed our story and took us to a hospital in Russia.”

In mid-August 2022, Viktor received leave. Back in the barracks, he tried to resign, but was unable to do so before the mobilization was announced. Both officers ended up fleeing to Kazakhstan. But because they are the targets of criminal proceedings in Russia, they can’t get any official jobs there. Fearing extradition to Russia, they don’t even have cell phone chips or bank accounts in their names.

Applying for humanitarian visas for Russian defectors

Viktor sees three options for himself: France, Germany or the United States. “Because these countries issue temporary travel documents. After all, none of us has a passport.” He has already contacted these and other embassies in Western countries several times, but so far without success.

“In May 2022, the German Interior Ministry said that deserters from the Russian army will be granted refugee status, because desertion is understood as a political act against the war and therefore persecution also constitutes political persecution,” explains Rudi Friedrich, executive director of the Connection association. Based in Offenbach, it campaigns internationally for conscientious objectors.

Together with other NGOs, it calls on the European Parliament and EU member states to protect those who refuse to fight on Putin’s behalf, for example by granting humanitarian visas, because asylum can only be applied for in Germany itself.

But without a passport and visa, this is almost impossible for defectors, Friedrich points out. That’s why it’s necessary to protect those who take a high personal risk and don’t want to fight or take part in the crimes of this war.

The paths of Russian defectors to Europe

Vasily is one of the first defectors to make it from Kazakhstan to Western Europe without a passport, having found a job as a programmer in an IT company in Germany. The German embassy in Kazakhstan issued him with a temporary travel permit for foreigners with work visas. It wasn’t easy to find a company that would accept a defector without a passport, Vasily admits. But the hardest part was leaving Kazakhstan.

The first time he tried, he was removed from the plane after being recognized in the International Database of Wanted Persons. Vasily recounts how his five-year-old daughter ran to all the border officials asking them to “let daddy out”. The next day, thanks to his lawyer, Yernar Koshanov, he managed to leave the country. “Apparently there are certain conditions under which this is possible,” he comments, without giving details: “There is a way out.”

Now almost settled, Vasily talks enthusiastically about his new job as a game developer. He is grateful to Germany for issuing his visa and to Kazakhstan for allowing him to emigrate. Despite the risks to his family, he decided to make his defection story public, so that others also have the chance to escape this bloody war.

“I say to all the deserters, to all those who are at the front and are desperate: Everything is possible. You don’t have to fight and act against your conscience. You can refuse to take part in these crimes.”

*** Translated by DEFCONPress FYI Team ***

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