According to Moscow Times, some Russians are so vehemently opposed to their country’s invasion of Ukraine that they are taking up arms against President Putin’s army, choosing to fight alongside the Ukrainian army. “The Freedom of Russia Legion claims it was formed in March when over 100 Russian soldiers gave themselves up to Kyiv’s forces,” Moscow Times reported on Monday (Switching Sides: The Elusive ‘Russian Legion’ Fighting with Ukraine).
The American embassy in Georgia reported earlier this month, citing media reports, that some Russian troops are refusing orders, walking away from military bases or crossing the border into Ukraine and switching sides.
The Wall Street Journal reported in June about Albert Sakhibgareev, who was sent near the Ukrainian border in early February for “training exercises.” The soldiers in his unit had their phones confiscated and were told to wear bulletproof vests for a pending mission. When he learned about the invasion of Ukraine through an online report, Sakhibgareev went into hiding. “None of us wanted this war,” he said.
Some Russians with Ukrainian roots left Russia to fight on Ukraine’s side, as Igor Volobuyev, a former executive at Gazprombank, told The Guardian. “The moment war broke out, I knew right away I wanted to go and defend Ukraine,” Volobuyev said. He joined the Freedom of Russia Legion, which began as a unit of former Russian soldiers who support Ukraine. “I could not be part of this crime,” he said.
Ukraine’s military receives support from many foreign volunteers, including Georgians, Belarusians, and even Israelis who are part of the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine. But unlike other national units, the Freedom of Russia Legion is shrouded in secrecy, according to Moscow Times. No one knows just how big it is and on what fronts it has fought. Some have suggested that this lack of information means it’s mostly a “Ukrainian PR project.”
According to Moscow Times, the Legion gets most of its recruits from POW camps in Ukraine. The unit has posted videos of Russian prisoners who gave their names, denounced Putin’s regime, and pledged their allegiance to the Legion. One video shows a Russian soldier with cuts on his face, which could mean he wasn’t there voluntarily.
According to Ukraine’s Interfax agency, citing Legion representatives, many people want to join the Freedom of Russia Legion and fight the Putin regime on the side of Ukraine. Speaking with masks on their faces at a March 4 press conference, those representatives said “there are more than 300 applications to join the legion every day. There are a lot of people who want to join.”
“Our legion also includes our Belarusian brothers. Our legion includes active and retired military of the Russian Federation and otherwise. People come from different countries to fight the Putin regime,” one Legion representative said.
According to Ukrainian media sources, the first volunteers of the Freedom of Russia Legion began individual preliminary training in late March 2022. Under the guidance of instructors from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, these volunteers learned to operate the Swedish-British portable anti-tank guided short-range missile NLAW. The commanders of Freedom of Russia units became acquainted with the operational situation on the frontlines. According to Time, the Legion’s stated goals are to repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ultimately depose Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in June that the group had a “few hundred” members, but the Legion claimed in July it consisted of two “fully manned battalions,” which could mean more than 1,000 fighters, according to Moscow Times.