A soldier in Ukrainian uniform gazes morosely at the ruins of an Orthodox monastery in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
“It’s the result of Putin’s war,” he says angrily, as he surveys the wreckage. “As a Christian, this is very offensive to me.”
The soldier, whose name CNN has agreed not to reveal to protect his identity, wears the call sign “Caesar.” He is one of hundreds, if not thousands, fighting to keep the town of Bakhmut, the current epicenter of the war, from Ukrainian hands.
But there is one thing that sets him apart from most of those who share the same goal: he is Russian.
“From the first day of the war, my heart, the heart of a true Russian, of a true Christian, told me that I had to be here to defend the Ukrainian people”, explains César. “We are now fighting in the direction of Bakhmut, this is the hottest part of the front.”
Few, if any, buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city were spared from the endless artillery barrages fired from either side. Many structures were completely destroyed, others rendered uninhabitable with sections collapsed, in apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of the battered city of Mariupol, captured by Russia earlier in the war.
“After the (Russian) mobilization (in September), Putin threw all his forces (on Bakhmut) in order to reach a breaking point in the war, but we are fighting a fierce defensive struggle,” Caesar said.
Much of the Ukrainian resistance force had to hole up in muddy trenches, fighting tooth and nail to prevent the Russian forces from achieving the victory they so desperately craved.
“The fights are very brutal now,” says Caesar.
A few kilometers from the battle, but still within earshot of the muffled noises and incessant explosions, Caesar’s commitment is flawless and he does not regret his decision to join the Ukrainian foreign legion.
While the desire to enlist appeared at the start of the conflict, he could only leave his country of origin, with his immediate family, and join the Ukrainian army in the summer.
“It was a very difficult process,” he says. “It took me several months to finally join the ranks of defenders of Ukraine.”
Now with his family in Ukraine – where he considers them safer – Caesar says he is one of some 200 Russian citizens currently fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, against their own country’s armies. CNN was unable to independently confirm this figure.
In Caesar’s eyes, the forces of Moscow are not real Russians.
“Yes, I kill my compatriots, but they have become criminals,” he explains. “They came to a foreign land to rob, kill and destroy. They kill civilians, children and women.
“I have to face this,” he added.
Caesar is an avowed opponent of what he calls a “tyrannical regime” led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, not only in Ukraine but also inside his own country. And in his confrontation with the war, he had to shoot at least 15 Russian soldiers on the battlefield, he claims.
These are lives he does not pity and murders he does not regret, he says.
“I fight a noble fight and I do my military and Christian duty; I stand up for the Ukrainian people,” Caesar says. “And when Ukraine is free, I will carry my sword to Russia to free her from tyranny.”
Caesar’s ideological drive is not the only reason why some Russians chose to side with the Ukrainians on the battlefield. For many, motivation is closer to the heart.
“Silent,” the call sign of another Russian soldier whose full name CNN is not disclosing for his safety, was visiting Ukraine when Russian missiles and artillery shells began landing in his towns. February 24.
“I came to Ukraine at the beginning of February to visit my family. I stayed here and the war started,” says Silent.
He says he joined the Ukrainian army shortly after seeing the atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers in the suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka, just outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Evidence of mass graves and civilian executions in these areas emerged after Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region in early April.
Russia has previously denied war crimes allegations and said its forces were not targeting civilians, despite extensive evidence gathered by international human rights experts, criminal investigators and international media in multiple locations.
“I was just outside Kyiv, not far from those places, and when they were expelled from that territory, we went there to help people and saw what they had done,” says Silent. “Corpses, children, women, executions… When you see him in person… of course, everything inside has been turned 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 fact that it’s conceivable that they could end up on opposite sides on a Ukrainian battlefield.
“It’s weird that this could happen – especially since he wants to leave Russia and wants to come and 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,” Silent says.
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 have remained in Russia. Silent says that although they stayed put, they perceive Putin’s propaganda on the war, always described as a “special military operation” by the Kremlin.
“They understand what is happening: Russia has invaded Ukraine,” he said, adding that those close to him were not angry with him. “They know my character, that if I have made a decision, I will follow through.
“They told me to stay safe.”
Another soldier, whose call sign is “Vinnie”, insists on covering his face with a balaclava, fearing that the Kremlin’s long arm will try to reach him in Ukraine.
“My family is not here with me at the moment,” he explains. He says he is fighting for them and their future, but still fears what Moscow’s security apparatus might do to them.
“My children, my wife, whom I love very much, that’s everything for me, my whole life,” he says, his eyes sparkling and the smile perceptible through the fabric that covers his face.
“If I show my face…I worry about them, because there will be 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 could face harsher consequences than their Ukrainian counterparts if captured by the enemy.
Last month, a soldier who deserted the Russian mercenary group Wagner and crossed over to the Ukrainian side, Yevgeny Nuzhin, was brutally murdered with a hammer after returning to Russia.
His execution was applauded by the group’s leader, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Without directly acknowledging that Wagner’s fighters carried out the murder, Prigozhin said, “Nuzhin betrayed his people, betrayed his comrades, consciously betrayed them. He was not taken prisoner, nor did he surrender. On the contrary, he planned his escape. Nuzhin is a traitor.
This kind of example is why Vinnie is certain of what awaits him if he is captured.
“There will certainly be no exchange. It will be the end, 100%,” he said. “It will just be more painful.”
But pain and death are not part of this unit’s lexicon, even if they face overwhelming odds in Bakhmut.
Russia has been trying to take the city for months and has thrown large numbers of men at the Ukrainian defenses in an attempt to break them. But they didn’t break Vinnie.
“I defend the country, I defend the homes, the women, the children, the people who cannot defend themselves,” he said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”
Caesar, standing amid the remains of the Orthodox monastery, is equally defiant, saying that even the prospect of defeat will not waver him.
“I will stay here while my heart beats. I will fight to defend Ukraine,” he said.
“And when we have defended Ukraine, I will liberate my country.”