A soldier in Ukrainian uniform contemplates the ruins of an Orthodox monastery in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
“This is the result of Putin’s war,” he says angrily. “As a Christian, this is very offensive to me.”
The soldier, who CNN agreed to remain anonymous to protect his identity, goes by the call sign “Caesar.” He is one of hundreds, if not thousands, fighting to keep the city of Bakhmut, the current epicenter of the war, in Ukrainian hands.
But there is one thing that sets him apart from most of those who share a common goal: he is Russian.
“From the first day of the war, my heart, the heart of a real Russian man, a real Christian, told me that I should be here to defend the people of Ukraine,” Caesar explains. “We are now fighting in the direction of Bakhmut, this is the hottest part of the front.”
Few buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city have been spared by the endless artillery barrages that are being fired here and there. Many of the structures have been completely destroyed, others with collapsed sections left uninhabitable, in apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of the failed city of Mariupol, captured by Russia early in the war.
“After (Russia’s) mobilization (in September), Putin threw all his forces (into Bakhmut) to reach the breaking point in the war, but we are fighting a fierce defensive battle,” Caesar said.
Many Ukrainian resistance forces have been forced to wallow in muddy trenches and fight tooth and nail to deny the Russian forces the victory they so desperately desire.
“The conflict is very brutal now,” Caesar explains.
A few miles away from the battle, but still in the corner from the constant blows and explosions, Caesar’s commitment is unwavering and he does not regret his decision to join the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
While urged to enlist early in the conflict, he was only able to leave his country with his immediate family and join the Ukrainian army in the summer.
“It was a very difficult process,” he says. It took me a few months to finally join the group of defenders of Ukraine.
Now with his family in Ukraine – where he considers them safer – Cesar says he is one of about 200 Russian citizens currently fighting alongside Ukrainian forces against their country’s army. CNN has not been able to independently confirm this number.
In Caesar’s eyes, Moscow’s troops are not real Russians.
“Yes, I kill my countrymen, but they have become criminals,” he explains. “They came to a foreign land to plunder and kill and destroy. “They kill civilians, children and women.”
He added: I have to deal with this issue.
Caesar is an opponent of what he says is the “tyrannical regime” headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, not only in Ukraine but also at home. He claims to have shot at least 15 Russian soldiers on the battlefield in his encounter with the war.
He says that these are the lives that he has no pity for and the murders that he does not regret.
“I am fighting an honorable fight and doing my military and Christian duty. Caesar says I defend the people of Ukraine. And when Ukraine is free, I will take my sword to Russia to free it from tyranny.
Caesar’s ideological motivation is not the only reason why some Russians side with the Ukrainians on the battlefield. For many, motivation is closer to the heart.
“Quiet,” the call sign of another Russian soldier, whose full name has not been released to CNN for his safety, was visiting Ukraine when Russian rockets and artillery shells rained down on the country’s towns and cities on February 24.
In early February, I came to Ukraine to visit my relatives. I stayed here and the war started.
He says he joined the Ukrainian army shortly after witnessing atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, just outside the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. After Russian forces withdrew from the Kiev region in early April, evidence of mass graves and executions of civilians in those areas emerged.
Russia has previously denied allegations of war crimes and claimed that its forces did not target civilians, despite extensive evidence gathered by international human rights experts, criminal investigators and international media in various locations.
“I was just outside of Kiev, not far from those places, and when they were kicked out of that area, we went over there to help people and see what they had done,” says Silent. “The bodies, the children, the women, the executions… when you see it in person… everything inside is definitely upside down.”
He adds: I decided to stay here until the end and join the Legion.
Silent says his best friend was recently forcibly conscripted into the Russian army back home. Silent says they discussed the terrifying reality of being on opposite sides of the Ukrainian battlefield.
It’s strange that this could happen – especially since he wants to leave Russia and come to fight with me against Putin’s army in Ukraine. We are trying to get him out, but he is being held by the Russian military.
His family, like many in Russia and Ukraine, has roots in both countries. His wife and two children now live with him in Ukraine, but other relatives are in Russia. Although they are behind, Silent says, they see Putin’s propaganda about the war, which the Kremlin continues to describe as a “special military operation.”
“They know what’s going on: Russia invaded Ukraine,” he says. They know my character that if I have made a decision, I will follow it to the end.
They told me to stay safe.
Another soldier, who goes by the call sign “Vinny,” insists on covering his face with a cap because he fears the Kremlin’s long hand will try to reach him in Ukraine.
“My family is not here with me right now,” he explains. He says he will fight for them and for their future, but he is still afraid of what the Moscow security apparatus will do to them.
“My children, my wife, whom I love so much, they are my everything, my whole life,” he says with a twinkle in his eye and a smile through the fabric covering his face.
“If I show my face… I’m worried about them because there’s no one to protect them,” he adds.
This is one of the additional risks for Russian citizens risking their lives for Ukraine, but not the only one. Russian soldiers fighting for Ukraine may face harsher consequences than their Ukrainian counterparts if captured by the enemy.
Last month, Yevgeny Nozhin, a soldier who left Wagner’s Russian mercenary group for Ukraine, was brutally murdered with a sledgehammer after returning to Russia.
His execution was applauded by the group’s leader, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigogine. “Nozhin betrayed his people, betrayed his comrades, knowingly betrayed them,” Prigozhin said without directly admitting that Wagner’s fighters had carried out the murder. He was neither captured nor surrendered. Rather, he planned his escape. “Nozhin is a traitor.”
This type of example is because Vinnie is sure of what awaits him if he is caught.
There will certainly be no trade-offs. It will be 100% the end.” He says. “It will only hurt more.”
But pain and death are not part of this unit’s vocabulary, even though they face great odds in Bachmouth.
Russia has been trying to capture the city for months, throwing huge numbers of men into the Ukrainian defenses to break them. But they haven’t broken Winnie.
“I defend the country, I defend the houses, the women, the children, the people who cannot defend themselves,” he says. “My conscience is completely clear.”
Caesar, standing in the ruins of an Orthodox monastery, is equally defiant, saying that even the possibility of defeat does not sway him.
I will stay here as long as my heart beats. “I will fight to defend Ukraine.”
And when we defend Ukraine, I will free my country.”