Ukraine’s newest heroes: How brave Russian defectors have joined Kyiv’s forces
Like all his Ukrainian army comrades, Volodymyr Grotskov is fueled by deep-seated patriotism as he risks his life on the bloody front lines of the brutal war against Russia.
The 48-year-old electrical engineer says he loves his country and sees the Kremlin as a destructive “cancer” threatening world peace and security. “It may sound pretentious, but I am fighting for freedom and democracy,” he emphasizes.
Yet there is one big difference between Grotskov and all the other soldiers of his brigade who sit next to us, eating borscht and cleaning their guns as the thunderous artillery bombardment crashes around the battered Donbas front line.
Because this member of the Ukrainian army is Russian – and he is fighting to free his country from the dictatorship and to keep his adopted nation.
“So what would happen if you got caught?” I asked this quietly spoken soldier as we chatted in his unit’s temporary farm base. “Death would happen,” he replied with a laugh, admitting that many of his countrymen would see him as a traitor.
Yet he is one of dozens of Russians so outraged by Vladimir Putin’s barbarity and corruption that they have defected to Kiev — including captured POWs and even a senior official in one of Moscow’s central financial institutions.
“Guys from Russia, if you hate Putin’s regime and want Russia to become a free, democratic country, join us,” said Igor Volobuev, the former vice president of Gazprombank, last week.
Grotskov certainly subscribes to such views. When we met near some of the fiercest fighting on the deadly battlefields south of Izyum, he told me about the personal journey that led him to take up arms against his nation’s armed forces.
Countless Russians are so outraged by Vladimir Putin’s barbarity and corruption that they have defected to Kiev — including captured POWs and even a senior official in one of Moscow’s central financial institutions (Russia’s Freedom Legion in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, pictured after being a Russian tank)
Volodymyr Grotskov, 48, says he loves his country and sees the Kremlin as a destructive “cancer” threatening world peace and security. “It may sound pretentious, but I am fighting for freedom and democracy,” he emphasizes.
His awakening began 11 years ago when pro-democracy protests erupted across Russia over vote fraud and fraud to confirm the success of Putin’s party in the parliamentary elections.
Grotskov took part in small demonstrations in his hometown of Kandalaksha after discovering a video posted by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who has since survived a poisoning attack and been jailed.
The video, based on documents obtained by Navalny, revealed how billions of pounds were stolen from an oil pipeline project by one of Putin’s closest cronies.
Grotskov said: ‘I was shocked by the magnitude of corruption and injustice organized at the highest level. I started to examine the political and economic situation and realized that we have to fight against this regime.’
The soldier, whose family remains in Russia, started putting up posters and joined protests. But after Putin illegally took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, he decided it was immoral to pay taxes to fund a thieving and poisonous dictatorship. “I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to fight for justice,” he said. “I went to Ukraine because I knew that the fight against Putin’s imperial regime is here in this country.” Initially, he planned to set up an online project with friends in Russia to spread information about corrupt state officials, expose the government’s failure to prosecute them, and encourage the imposition of tougher Western sanctions.
He explained: “They have fun, spend the money, have businesses abroad. I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be allowed into the West. The brainwashing has been going on for decades.’
But after Putin sparked a separatist uprising in Donbas and war broke out later in 2014, Grotskov joined the Ukrainian volunteers despite living in the country illegally — eventually fighting in one of the most brutal battles near Donetsk. He is furious at the complicity of his fellow Russians. He said, “A lot of people are getting the same information I had, but they’re ignoring it. When the war started, I realized that 99 percent of the people are happy to see Ukrainians suffer, bomb and murder.’
Grotskov, who was granted the right to remain in Ukraine last fall, said he is proud to fight for Kiev after rejoining four months ago, adding: “I feel like it’s my home. is. My friends are here, I love this country and I will fight for it.’ But he also believes he is fighting to protect “the entire civilized world” and defeat the dictatorship.
He wants Moscow’s empire destroyed because he argues that Russia’s problem goes far beyond the current president.
He added: “I am not personally against Putin, because if it is not Putin, there will be someone else. Russia, as it is now, should not exist.
It’s a cancer on the body of the world. Take any military conflict around the world – like Syria or in African countries – and you can always find the Kremlin’s hand.”
It is not known how many other Russians like this brave man fight alongside Ukrainian troops, at the risk of execution or a show trial if captured. It is clear that such people have great propaganda value – although I came across Grotskov by chance.
He fights for a regular army unit in the savage battle for control of Donbas, recently described as “hell” by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Grotskov said: ‘I am not personally against Putin (pictured), because if it is not Putin, there will be someone else. Russia, as it is now, should not exist. It’s a cancer on the body of the world. Take any military conflict around the world – like Syria or in African countries – and you can always find the Kremlin’s hand.”
An aide admitted that they are losing up to 200 troops a day under the Russian attack. But there is also a Legion of Freedom of Russia, formed by anti-Putin dissidents in the armed forces, which Ukraine’s defense ministry said in April had been established with more than 100 recruits.
A presidential adviser said it was created after Russian prisoners, outraged by atrocities in places like Bucha and Irpin, begged to take revenge on Putin.
It fights under the white-and-blue flag used by anti-war protesters, which changes the red band of the Russian flag to white, and carries the slogan “For Russia, For Freedom” – a subversive twist on Putin’s claim that his troops fight ‘For Russia, for victory’.
Earlier this month, the Legion’s social media channel showed some cheering soldiers showing their flag next to a captured Russian tank. “Now it will serve for the liberation of Russia from Putinism,” they proclaimed.
Their latest recruit is Ukrainian-born Volobuev, who said he could no longer “keep on the sidelines watching Russia destroy my motherland.”
Additional coverage by Kate Baklitskaya.