PARIS (AP) — Breaking the rules by taking a deep drag of his cigarette in a Paris airport washroom, the fugitive paratrooper rips his Russian passport in two and tosses it in the toilet, along with his military ID.
It is Pavel Filatiev’s last act of defiance before turning his back on his country forever.
Filatiev accuses the Russian military leadership of betraying their own troops out of sheer incompetence and corruption, chronicling what he’s seen in his online book “ZOV” — the three letters inscribed on many Russian trucks and tanks that also means “call” in Russian — as in a call to arms.
The 34 year-old said he harbored doubts even before his army unit took part in the invasion of Ukraine and helped capture Kherson in the first days of the war. The son of a soldier, he served in Chechnya when he was just out of his teens. He knew there wasn’t supposed to be any rust on his machine and that his uniform wouldn’t protect him much against the winter cold.
Filatiev said neither he nor the other soldiers alongside him had any idea that they would be part of an invasion force when they were ordered into trucks with their headlights off. They figured it out quickly enough.
After weeks of fighting, Filatiev was evacuated mid-April with an injury that nearly cost him an eye and left him with excruciating back and leg pain. He spent his last weeks on the battlefield promising himself that if he survived the next round of incoming artillery, he’d tell the truth no matter what it cost him.
For most of the winter, his unit had been training in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. On Feb. 23, the day before the invasion, his unit received ammunition and some paperwork that made little sense. Something was starting.
“But we had no idea that it would look like this. We were woken up by these blasts. And at that moment, we realized that something serious had started. Maybe, a full-scale war,” he told The Associated Press in Paris, where he has sought asylum. “But against whom? And why and how and what for – it wasn’t clear. That’s about how everything started for me.”
They learned their destination — Kherson — only when they were already on the move, he said. By then, he thought that it was a war against NATO. It took about a week before he realized that the only enemy was Ukraine.
“And then I understood that it was total trash and total insanity,” he said. “I don’t want to take part but I don’t want to leave.”
Kherson, located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, was one of the first cities to fall to Russian forces in early March.
I n “Zov,” Filatiev described the da y his unit entered the port, saying he witnessed Russian soldiers looting food, electronics and even appliances, describing one particularly chaotic evening when his unit broke into an office and came across a bottle of champagne and a desk that he ended up using as a bed. He said he saw no human rights abuses.
Russia’s last official update on military losses in Ukraine came on March 25, when officials said 1,351 were killed and 3,825 were wounded.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on Monday estimated Russian dead at over 25,000, with wounded, captured and deserters bringing the overall number of losses to more than 80,000.
Ukraine’s government has launched a counteroffensive in the area, and occupation forces have postponed plans to hold a referendum on whether the region should become part of Russia — which American and Ukrainian officials have denounced as a sham vote.
Filatiev’s account could not be independently verified but matches descriptions of the invasion being passed around Telegram and as recounted by families of Russian soldiers. His public denouncement that ordinary soldiers have been betrayed by their own government is highly unusual.
Filatiev published “Zov” on the Russian social network VK in early August. The human rights organization Gulagu helped him leave the country a few weeks later, moving him from one place to another until finally helping him reach France.
He spent two days inside the Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting to be approved for entry.
In Russia, he said, “I understood that no lawyer could defend me,” he said, a muscle in his jaw twitching. On his wrist, he wore a silver bracelet adorned with a crucifix.
Filatiev said Russia’s army is degrading by the day, unable to replace the soldiers who die, are wounded or who simply don’t want to fight. Gulagu, the aid organization that helped him leave, said the government has begun recruiting prison inmates.
Filatiev said the Russian military has dropped all standards on who’s fit to serve. “There’s a 55-year-old guy who was lying on his couch, drinking beer, and he’s filled up on watching propaganda on TV,” he said. “And they take this person, put him in the paratroopers, I mean in the elite, in our group. And they send him to the front without any preparation.”
He describes this as an open secret.
“It’s not because everyone was killed, as the Ukrainians say. It’s because no one wants to be there,” said Filatiev. “Unfortunately, it turned out that I’m the first one who says so out loud.”
Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.