KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - When Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked warIn Moscow, a young Russian now known as Karabas was sinking into despair. Shocked by images of what was happening to Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territories, he decided to take action against Russia, his home and country.
Karabas said he knew what he was doing was callous. He packed his bags and decided to find his way to Ukraine to join the ranks of Kiev's soldiers fighting the Russian army.
It took him almost a year to do this.
Today, he is part of the Siberian Battalion, a unit made up of Russians who have joined the Ukrainian military ranks to fight against their homeland in the hopes of someday helping oust Russian President Vladimir Putin. Its members come mostly from ethnic minorities in Russia's Far East.
"I was disappointed by my own people," said Karabas, who, like other fighters in the battalion, spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that only his military call sign be used.
"That's why I wanted to come here...and fight for an independent Ukraine," he said.
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Karabas said he was disappointed that most Russians he knew either blindly supported Putin or were indifferent to the war. .
At times, Karabas said his grief was so great that he would break down and start crying.
Unlike other volunteer units in Ukraine consisting of Russian citizens – such as the Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps - The Siberian battalion is officially part of the regular Ukrainian army.
Its fighters undergo lengthy security checks before being trained and deployed, sometimes taking up to a year Front lines in eastern UkraineWhich has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war and where Ukrainian and Russian forces locked in fierce battle For control.
Karabas went to Armenia first. There, he sought out Ukrainian friends and learned the language, which he now speaks fluently, refusing to speak a word in his native Russian.
On Wednesday, in a training exercise outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev, more than a dozen Russians from the battalion fired their machine guns during firing practice, scattering cartridges on the snow on the ground.
The battalion's fighters in Eastern Siberia hope a victory in Ukraine will bring them one step closer to ending Moscow's political control over Russia's poorest region. People from the region's Yakut and Buryat ethnic communities complain of racism and oppression in Russia, which has inspired some activists to call for independence.
Another Russian militia, known as Holod, openly says he wants to oust Putin's administration.
“When that happens, we can talk about victory,” he said. "Russia will at least suddenly cease to be a source of aggression."
Russians like Karabas left their entire lives behind, including families and friends. He had to flee to a third country before he could travel to Ukraine, but he says he had no other choice.
Integration into the Ukrainian army was a long process, he said – their documents were checked, and if they passed this step, they were subjected to lengthy interrogation upon arrival in Ukraine.
The battalion, numbering a few dozen, was formed six months ago. Ukrainian military leaders hope more will join its ranks and based on the applications received so far, they are aiming to create a 300-strong battalion of Russian fighters.
Some from the battalion have already been deployed nearby Avdiivka, a Ukraine-controlled town in the Donetsk regionWhich Putin's forces have been trying to eliminate for a long time.
Karabas says there will be "tens, hundreds of thousands" of other Russians like him, willing to fight alongside Ukraine.
“I think we should have a lot more (Russian fighters),” he said.