Men tell of escape to Armenia, guilt and remorse as growing number of soldiers flee ‘criminal war’ in Ukraine
Sitting in a basement studio hidden in the centre of Yerevan, Artyom reflected on his decision to desert the Russian army after a year spent fighting in Ukraine.
Just two weeks earlier, the former platoon commander was living in a trench. He has since abandoned his post and fled to the Armenian capital.
“I did not want to participate in this war. I wanted no part in the imperialistic habits of our ruler,” he said. “But I do feel guilt in front of Ukraine. Guilt that I didn’t do this earlier … I could have said no, I just didn’t know what the consequences would be.”
Artyom, who asked for his last name to be withheld out of fear for his safety, is one of the growing number of Russian combatants who have fled the army over the past 20 months of war.
Coming from a small city in southern Siberia, Artyom said he joined a military boarding school as a teenager “because the army sounded prestigious”. He signed a three-year contract with the Russian military but quickly became disillusioned and as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, he was stationed on the border training conscripts.
But as Russia’s invasion faltered, forcing the Kremlin to announce a large-scale mobilisation, he was ordered to join the fighting. “I told my commanders that I do not want to shoot people; they knew what my stance was even if they bullied me for it.”
Artyom was assigned to lead a signal platoon unit tasked with maintaining communications networks, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence on the battlefield. He denied killing Ukrainians in combat and claimed he did not participate in or witness war crimes such as the killings of prisoners of war and civilians. But he still grapples with his role in the fighting.
He said he would be told to keep quiet when he sometimes discussed his views with other soldiers. “We are at war, what are you, a traitor?” he said they would tell him.
“I don’t try to excuse myself. My work enabled other forces to take part in the hostilities,” he said. “Throughout my time there, I kept on thinking about how to escape.”
Desertion and “voluntary” surrender are punishable by lengthy jail terms in Russia, and Artyom said his commanders threatened him with prison if he dared to leave his post. He said he also heard stories of service personnel being locked up in basements in eastern Ukraine after refusing to fight, reports that have been backed up by independent Russian news organisations.
“Worst-case scenario was to end up in a ‘Storm-Z’ squad,” he said, referring to so-called “punishment battalions” sent to the most exposed parts of the front with heavy losses.
His chance came last month when his commander gave him a few days off, at which point he decided to flee with the help of a Russian anti-war organisation. “I knew I only had two-three days before they would start looking for me, so I had to be quick,” he said. Russian authorities have since opened up a criminal case against him.
He arrived in Armenia via a third country. Like Georgia and Kazakhstan, Russians can also enter Armenia without a visa, and all three countries serve as a logical first stop for those looking to escape the fighting.
Aleksei is a second deserter who spoke to the Guardian in Yerevan. He said: “You see other Russians on the street here and you might not even know that you served together. It is not something you talk about.”
Unlike Artyom who was a regular contract soldier, Aleksei was called up as part of Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation in September 2022.
“To say I was shocked when I was mobilised, wouldn’t be saying anything at all,” said Aleksei, who also asked for anonymity. “We quickly realised we would just be meat for the war machine.”
He described how conscripts like him received poor equipment and a lack of basic training: “We bought it ourselves with our own money, including uniforms and clothes.”
Once in eastern Ukraine, where he was assigned to a communication unit, Aleksei said he quickly saw first-hand that he was participating in an “illegal invasion”. He recalled being stunned when a local taxi driver told him: “No matter what, Ukraine will win anyway.”
“All these stories of some kind of Nazis in Ukraine, the reason why we started the fight, they are just empty words,” he said.
The mood soured in his unit over the summer as Ukraine launched its counteroffensive and casualties mounted. “During the day Ukraine would start shelling our position, and you weren’t able to stick your head out. At night you still had to get to work,” he said.
Aleksei described the daily moral dilemmas he faced as a soldier participating in a war he knew was wrong. “I felt a responsibility for my team, I didn’t want the guys I have come to know well to die because I failed. But I realised that by setting up communication lines, I was indirectly killing other people.”
He said he witnessed drunken brawls among fellow soldiers, claiming that some of them resulted in deadly shootings. “As time went on, soldiers started to think what is this all for? Many of those who were enthusiastic about fighting started to question the purpose of it all.”
Using the same escape route as Artyom, Aleksei eventually made it to Yerevan last month after he was allowed to return to Russia for a short break.
Both men were helped in their flight by the Georgia-based anti-war organisation Idite Lesom, an idiom that literally means “go through the forest” in Russian.
The phrase is most often deployed as a curse, roughly translatable as “go fuck yourself”, which was what one of the soldiers said to the Russian authorities by deserting.
Idite Lesom’s founder, Grigory Sverdlin, said his group had helped more than 500 Russian soldiers to desert so far.
“If we find out that a person is involved in war crimes, we will not help him,” Sverdlin said. “But we are not investigative agencies, we reason pragmatically – even if he managed to shoot three times, let him not shoot the fourth, and then there will be someone to investigate war crimes.
“We believe that this is absolutely correct both from a humanistic point of view and from a pragmatic one – so that Putin has fewer soldiers.”
The group has recently seen a noticeable increase in requests from those wanting to desert. It is an assessment backed up by data released by the Russian court system, where, according to a tally by the independent news outlet Mediazona, 2,076 criminal cases were opened in the first half of 2023 against soldiers accused of abandoning their units without official leave. This is twice the total for 2022 and three times higher than the prewar figure for 2021. The real numbers are likely to be greater given the Kremlin’s systematic attempts to hide information about the military.
Darya Berg, the head of relief and evacuations at Idite Lesom, said: “Some of those soldiers who are deserting now were injured in the fighting and don’t want to go back having seen the horror. Others are exhausted since they haven’t been rotated since the war started in Ukraine.”
Nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have died in the war in Ukraine, according to a recent statistical analysis. Another study showed that in 2022 the war in Ukraine had become the leading cause of death for young Russian men.
“I quickly realised that you return from Ukraine either without legs or in a coffin,’ said Aleksei.
For now, the two deserters’ future remains unclear. “I only have a vague idea about what’s next … I hope to get a refugee permit in a western country,” said Artyom, adding that he did not feel safe staying in Armenia given its proximity to Russia.
But claiming asylum in Europe could prove difficult. The west has not come up with a united approach to dealing with asylum claims submitted by men fleeing military service or the fighting.
Some western and Ukrainian officials have argued that by offering refugee status to Russian combatants, the host nation fails to hold them responsible for the invasion. The Lithuanian foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has said that Russians opposing the war “should stay and fight against Putin”.
Others believe that encouraging Russian soldiers to desert would damage their country’s military abilities and enable Ukraine’s eventual victory in the war.
Pavel Filatyev, a former paratrooper, and Nikita Chibrin, a former army mechanic, both fled the Russian army from Ukraine and said they were still waiting for an decision after submitting an asylum application to France and Spain respectively.
More straightforward was Artyom’s message to his former comrades. “I would say to all those who are now at the front, those who know me and perhaps recognise me … guys, there is no need to participate in this criminal war. There is nothing sacred about it. There is always a way out.”