Escaping Putin’s War Machine

Escaping Putin’s War Machine

By The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

As the war in Ukraine grinds into a third year, more Russian soldiers are attempting to escape frontline deployment, supported by an underground network of fellow Russians.

Associated Press investigative reporter Erika Kinetz follows the dramatic journey of one Russian military officer who deserted the army and fled Russia, guided by an anti-war group that has helped thousands of people evade military service or desert. The name of the group, Idite Lesom, is a play on words in Russian – a reference to the covert nature of its work but also a popular idiom that means "Get lost.”

With help from the group, the officer made the perilous journey to Kazakhstan, but only after he had a friend and fellow soldier shoot him in the leg.

“You can only leave wounded or dead,” he tells Kinetz. “No one wants to leave dead.”

His act of desperation reflects the horrific conditions troops face in Ukraine. But life in exile is not what this officer and other deserters had hoped for. Some have had criminal cases filed against them in Russia, where they face 10 years or more in prison. And many are also waiting for a welcome from European countries or the United States that has never arrived. Instead, they live in hiding, fearing deportation back to Russia and persecution of themselves and their families.

For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian military defectors present particular concern: Are they spies? War criminals? Or heroes?

Next, Reveal host Al Letson talks with Kinetz and fellow reporter Solomiia Hera about why these military defectors are not finding sanctuary in Western Europe or the U.S. and how demographics and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to accept enormous casualties in Ukraine could give Russia an edge in an emerging war of attrition.

In the final segment, we follow a Ukrainian man who knows all too well what a war of attrition really looks like. Oleksii Yukov is a martial arts instructor and leader of a team of volunteers who collect the remains of fallen soldiers, both Ukrainian and Russian. Yukov is on a spiritual quest to give these souls a final resting place.

“We are not fighting the dead,” Yukov says. “Our weapon is humanity and a shovel.”

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