Dismayed by Moscow’s war, Russian volunteers are joining Ukrainian ranks to fight Putin’s troops.
When Moscow stormed into Ukraine, a young Russian who now goes by the name of Karabas was plunged into despair.
Shocked by images of what was happening to Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas, he decided to act – against Russia, his home and country.
Karabas said he knew what he was doing was drastic. He packed his bags and decided to find a way to get to Ukraine to join the ranks of Kyiv’s troops.
It took him almost a year to make it happen.
Today, he is part of the Siberian Battalion, a six-month-old unit made up of Russians who have joined Ukraine’s military ranks to fight against their homeland, hoping someday to help oust Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Its members hail mostly from ethnic minorities from Russia’s far east.
“I was disillusioned with my own people,” said Karabas, who like other fighters in the battalion spoke to The Associated Press on condition that only his military call sign be used.
“That is why I wanted to come here… and fight for a free Ukraine,” he added.
Karabas said that when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he was dismayed to find that most Russians he knew either blindly supported Putin or were indifferent to the war.
Sometimes, he said, his grief was so overwhelming he would break down and cry.
Unlike other volunteer units in Ukraine that have Russian nationals, such as the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, the Siberian Battalion is officially part of the regular Ukrainian army.
Its fighters undergo lengthy security checks, which sometimes take up to a year. They are then trained and deployed to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, which has seen some of the most ferocious fighting of the war.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are still locked in a grinding battle for control here.
One Russian fighter, who goes by the call sign Holod, says he wants Putin’s government removed from power.
“When this happens, we can talk about victory,” he said. “Russia will at least cease to be a source of sudden aggression.”
The Russians who joined the battalion left behind their entire lives, including families and friends.
Many had to escape to a third country before they could travel on to Ukraine – but they say they had no other choice.
Ukrainian military leaders are hopeful more will come to join their ranks and based on applications that have come in so far, they are aiming to have a 300-man-strong battalion of Russian fighters.
Some have already been deployed near Avdiivka, a Ukraine-controlled city in the Donetsk region, which Putin’s forces have long tried to overrun.
Karabas estimates there must be tens or hundreds of thousands of other Russians willing to fight with Ukraine.
“I think we should have a lot more,” he said.