At around four each morning on February 24, 33-year-old Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev woke up close to his fellow soldiers within their ammunition-laden truck to the sound of rockets being fired at Ukrainian positions.
My first thought was something insane was happening. There have been rockets being fired, heavy artillery, he told Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp video call, speaking from France, where he could be seeking asylum. When youre crossing the [Crimea-Ukraine] border and you also see 10 warplanes launching missiles overhead, you can find 10 helicopters flying in another direction, and tanks riding up alongside you, you understand its an extremely serious thing.
In the times resulting in the invasion, Filatyevs unit was moved nearer to the Ukrainian border and ordered at hand within their phones, so that they had no chance to check the web or call friends to ask that which was really going on. All he knew was he was section of a massive contingent of troops moving towards the Ukrainian mainland.
I understood this is a genuine, full-scale war, but also for the first couple of days I didnt know very well what exactly was happening. I thought maybe NATO is really attacking us? he pondered.
After more than half a year of war, firsthand accounts from front-line Russian soldiers are trickling out. Probably the most detailed originates from Filatyev, who hastily typed up a 104-page memoir of 8 weeks combat, titled Zov, which then uploaded on the Russian social media site VK.
I couldnt just drop my weapons and try to escape, because for a warrior thats cowardice. Not everyone understands this, but were held hostage by our very own patriotism, he said.
I decided easily escape this alive, Ill do everything in my own capacity to stop it. I decided the very best I possibly could do was write everything down what I thought, what I felt, when I was afraid without the exaggerated heroism.
Filatyev wished to show Russian readers what he says may be the truth, in comparison to what they could have observed on TV.
Filatyev comes from a military family.
His father served in Chechnya, where he’d later be posted himself during his first stint in the airborne forces from 2007 to 2010.
This past year, looking for a dependable salary, he re-enlisted in his fathers old unit. Stationed in Crimea, he saw firsthand a chronic shortage of equipment, the consequence of widespread corruption in the supply chain.
The gear that was there is old and exhausted.
I only received a bulletproof vest at the last moment before crossing the border, he said. Everyone understands such incidents when 10 men are delivered with two helmets and bulletproof vests, and told to sort it out between themselves. The problem is indeed absurd that the majority of folks are buying their very own clothing, equipment, boots, before being delivered to war.
After crossing from Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland in late February, Filatyevs unit occupied Kherson with little resistance.
The paratroopers were then ordered to march on Mykolaiv, where they took position in the woods, that have been being bombarded by Ukrainian artillery, killing many of Pavels comrades. On the following month, there is a stalemate as Russian forces wanting to take Mykolaiv were held back their trenches by fierce Ukrainian resistance.
We were looking forward to weekly with nowhere to sleep or wash, constantly coming under fire, and couldnt realize why we werent being rotated, Filatyev recounted. You need to live and sleep in the bottom, under constant bombardment. Nevertheless, you get accustomed to it. You even slept through when there is a blast 100 metres away.
He finished up spending per month in the trenches.
The war ended for him after an artillery blast resulted in a watch infection, and he was evacuated to a hospital in Crimea. There, he finally got the opportunity to watch TV and compare how he experienced the war to how it had been being portrayed on the news headlines.
In a healthcare facility there is a television, and I still didnt have a phone with internet, therefore i watched TV, he said. I couldnt know very well what the hell these were discussing. All Id seen is war, war, war, and theyre telling me it had been a particular operation? Something about Nazis Yes, the Ukrainians were our enemies at that time, however they werent fascists. I knew none of the reports were from the front line because where we were, there wasnt a journalist around the corner. So between what Id experienced and what I saw on TV, it had been complete nonsense.
Russias defence ministry has been tight-lipped about casualties in Ukraine.
Based on the latest official figures from March, 1,351 servicemen had lost their lives, however the true death toll may very well be higher.
One conscript who told his story to the web site Cherta, which reports on violence and inequality in Russia, claimed out of 3,000 men in his regiment, only 15 percent returned alive and uninjured.
I dont consider theyre covering up losses, I understand, Filatyev said. I dont desire to touch upon rumours but one specific case I understand, the initial of my friends to die in my own unit continues to be only listed as missing.
Just how have Filatyevs fellow soldiers reacted to his tell-all account?
We dont acknowledge everything, however they completely understand me and do not require can call me a coward, since we were at war together and Id already expressed my feelings then, without running away, he said.
Even Ukrainians wrote if you ask me. [They said, Although you’re my enemy, I respect you. Ive received many threats, but I’ve the impression many of these folks have never gone to war. Theyre like football fans. Its possible for them to speak about war or judge someone from their safety in Moscow.
Understandably, Ukrainians who’ve experienced the invasion might not look at him so kindly, either.
There were many horrific tales of abuses and war crimes from the Russian invasion, including from the invaders themselves.
Through the occupation of the village of Andriivka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, one soldier, 21-year-old corporal Daniil Frolkin, admitted to executing a civilian with a go to the top. The victim was suspected of relaying information back again to Ukrainian authorities.
His confession was published in the investigative outlet IStories, an unbiased Russian website.
Frolkin also admitted to stealing from villagers homes and implicated his commanders in more organised looting by the truckful.
Filatyev distanced his brothers-in-arms from such grievous felonies.
Many in Ukraine dont trust me and make an effort to portray most of us paratroopers as orcs, but Ill pass a lie detector test. No-one in my own unit, for both months I was there, took part in virtually any crimes, he said. Nobody raped anyone, shot anyone, or anything like this. [But] because we’d nothing to consume or drink, whenever we found abandoned shops we did take water, cigarettes and food.
Oleksandra Romantsova, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, says her organisation is monitoring Russian soldiers stories with interest.
If were talking about justice later on, its very important to us because each [Russian] soldier whos discussed that, its not just a matter of him being accused but [also] his commanders [and the] generals who made a decision to place this soldier in the territory of Ukraine, she told Al Jazeera by phone. Its not merely about personal responsibility, but additionally concerning the responsibility of individuals who make these decisions. So we collect all such evidence.
For individual responsibility, Romantsova said soldiers must answer for just about any crimes against Ukrainian citizens, and called on men to refuse deployment to Ukraine where possible.
Filatyev, for his part, believes Russians ought to be doing more to get rid of the war.
Whether it breaks regulations, I believe Russian society should demonstrate contrary to the war by all possible means, he said. Each day, lives are lost on either side, and theyre not returning.