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Russian deserters tell of blood, betrayal and hope in escaping Ukraine war

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MOSCOW — When Igor, a Russian soldier, was conscripted to go to war in Ukraine, he reacted with a fatalistic shrug. But deserting the army amid staggering casualties, he said, required determination and a plan.

The 28-year-old Muscovite, who was mobilized in September 2022 and left Russia this September, never supported the war and claims he never met a conscripted soldier who did.

“The mobilized do not want to go to war and to fight,” Igor said in an interview. “There is no motivation. How can we even talk about any motivation for a Russian person to kill a Ukrainian?”

He felt guilty leaving comrades fighting as he skipped out of Russia during his two-week home leave.

“The time comes and at a certain point people realize how scary it is and how heavy the losses are. And you reach the point when you can’t take it any longer,” he recounted, adding that many never returned from leave.

Amid appalling casualty rates, many Russian soldiers are desperate to escape. One Russian underground antiwar network, Go by the Forest, says it has helped more than 400 men to desert, and advised nearly 20,000 how to avoid being drafted.

The Washington Post approached Go by the Forest for help contacting deserters it had assisted, and ultimately interviewed Igor and another man, Alexei, who sought the group’s help, and succeeded in deserting and fleeing the country.

Igor and Alexei, requested that their surnames and current locations not be published because they are on Russia’s wanted list, accused of a serious crime, and their families remain inside Russia. The Post spoke to Igor in an audio call using an internet messenger app and sent follow-up questions. Alexei answered questions and follow-up questions in writing via a messenger app.

Russia’s military continues to vacuum up men. Authorities lately have swept up Central Asian migrants in raids on mosques, birthday celebrations at restaurants, and fruit markets where many of them work, taking them straight to military enlistment offices. The authorities are also targeting debtors and prisoners and running door-knocking campaigns to urge men to sign contracts, with no opt-out clause until the war’s end. State companies are pressuring employees to go to fight.

Conscripted out of high school

Young conscripts fresh out of high school are pushed to sign permanent contracts, according to Grigory Sverdlin, one of the founders of Go by the Forest who fled Russia last year. The group helps men with advice on how to desert, to file asylum applications, seek financial aid and travel across borders. Russian authorities this month put Sverdlin on a wanted list and declared him a “foreign agent.”

“We have dozens of routes across the borders and we instruct people and help them all the way,” Sverdlin said. “We even have volunteers on the ground who help these people to cross the forest or cross the river or drive through different kinds of terrain.”

With no idea how to escape the war, Igor contacted a friend who fled Russia to avoid mobilization and who told him to call Go by the Forest.

Igor said he followed the group’s advice, making sure to flee Russia while on leave, so his absence would not be noticed right away. He deserted weeks before a major planned attack, convinced he would not survive it.

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Russian officials say there are no plans for another mobilization round, after 335,000 men signed military contracts this year, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

But according to activists, including Sverdlin, many are forced into the army. Last month, special police rounded up dozens of migrants at a mosque in southeastern Moscow just after Friday prayers, an incident that only came to light because they netted a state television song contest participant, Mamut Useinov. Looking distressed, Useinov posted on Instagram that police had taken them to a military registration center in Balashikha, a city just east of Moscow. He has not posted since.

Police this month also press-ganged dozens of men from a hostel in Domodedovo, near Moscow, and in Voronezh, in western Russia, they swooped down on a party and seized dozens of Azerbaijani men at Fort Restaurant.

In a September video conference with local officials, Alexander Avdonin, the military commissar in Yakutia, northeastern Siberia, demanded that each of the region’s 36 districts send 15 recruits a week to the war.

“No one is taking this task away from us. We will work, we will work hard, we will send people, because nothing has ended,” Avdonin said in the leaked video, which was published on YouTube by nongovernmental organization, the Free Yakutia Foundation. “Guys are dying in the trenches every day.”

Igor’s scathing account of Russia’s military problems, and the scale of desertions, could not be independently verified by The Post, but are consistent with dozens of videos recorded by Russian soldiers in occupied Ukraine and posted on social media, complaining about suicidal missions, a lack of ammunition and supplies and other issues.

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Some soldiers died because they did not know how to use their military equipment or vehicles, Igor said. But most died in storming operations because commanding officers never ordered a retreat until casualties were too high to continue the attack.

“A minimum survived,” Igor said. “You would see new faces and new people, and you realized that in a couple of days, you would not see them again.”

He described a cutthroat environment, in which newcomers were suspect, many soldiers were poorly trained, and only smart soldiers survived. His job was retrieving the dead and wounded, often close to Ukrainian lines.

“We drank with only close friends,” he said. “We had a principle: We didn’t let strangers at the table.”

Many of the men were poorly trained.” You can’t be a good soldier when you have had no practice using a machine gun for years,” he said.

Even today, Igor cannot explain why he did not initially flee Russia after President Vladimir Putin’s controversial September 2022 mobilization, unlike tens of thousands of men who ran for the borders.

“I was sent a military summons and you just go without thinking,” he said. “It was that typical Russian man type of thinking, ‘If not me, then who?’”

Pressing men into arms has become easier because of new laws allowing military authorities to access all personal data including passport, police, prison, medical, educational, financial, travel, sport and welfare records.

They can also draft men electronically. At enlistment offices, men are processed in a day to prevent them appealing on medical or any other grounds, said Sergei Krivenko, of Citizen Army Law, a rights group founded in 2010.

“The police stop you, take you by force to the military enlistment office and you go through this medical checkup with a whole group, and the same day you can be sent to the army,” Krivenko said. “Once these guys are in the army, they have no way to contact their relatives or human rights activists to get any legal advice. They’re in a new environment, under their commanders without any clear idea of what to do.”

Alexei, 28, who is from a medium-sized Siberian city, was motivated by money when he signed a military contract in 2017 and renewed it in 2021. He never expected to fight.

“Once the war started, no one asked you what you wanted — everything happened very quickly,” Alexei said. “There was no time or opportunity to think and realize what was going on,” Alexei said. “We were literally packed up and put on a plane in a day.”

‘The war was not necessary’

Alexei rejected Putin’s assertion that Russia faced such a threat from the West that it had “no choice” but to invade Ukraine. Nothing justified the loss of life, he said.

“The war was not necessary,” Alexei said. “There were no threats to Russia whatsoever. The only threat to Russia is its current internal politics, and that is a threat both to people inside and outside of the country. War is not a solution at all.”

Alexei served as an artillery operator near Volchiy Yar, a village in Kharkiv region about nine miles from the front line, firing into fields and forests. He returned home on leave in fall 2022 intending to terminate his contract, but Putin’s mobilization decree indefinitely extended all contracts.

Alexei was charged after repeatedly defying orders to return to the war, and was sentenced to two years in prison in September. He fled the country before his sentence began.

Many Russian soldiers’ wives and parents are furious that men must fight with no way out until the war ends. Mobilization News, a channel on the Telegram messaging platform, is crammed with women’s recorded video messages begging for help to find their missing men.

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One of them, Olga Belonovskaya said her husband, Maxim, 28, a warehouse employee, of Primorye, and others in his unit refused to carry out a suicidal advance on Bakhmut, Ukraine in July. She has not heard from him since July 4.

Ivan Chuviliayev, a volunteer with Go by the Forest who helps deserters flee, said they were desperate to stay alive and furious that the military “lied to them. “They’re very frightened and they’re angry because they are dying in this war,” Chuviliayev said.

“The most significant thing for us as Russian citizens is making the Russian army weaker,” Chuviliayev said. “It is an important condition for the war to be finished. And that’s our aim.”

Alexei, who deserted, misses his family and friends in Russia but sees his country set on a “sad, nasty but predictable” path. “So much has changed. People have to keep quiet about many things and watch what they say in public. Trust is dead,” he said. “There are new heroes. But these heroes match the current times.”

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