Russian soldier seeks asylum in France

·4-min read

Breaking the rules by taking a deep drag of his cigarette in a Paris airport bathroom, 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 harboured 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 was not 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After weeks of fighting, Filatiev was withdrawn in mid-April with an injury that nearly cost him an eye and left him with excruciating back and leg pain.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 February 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 realised 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 the NATO military alliance.

It took about a week before he realised 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.

In Zov, Filatiev described the day 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 1351 were killed and 3825 were wounded.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Monday estimated Russian dead at more than 25,000, with wounded, captured and deserters bringing the overall number of losses to more than 80,000.

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 organisation 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 do not want to fight.