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‘We didn’t see any Nazis’: Russian POWs speak on fighting a war they claim to oppose

Seemingly uncoerced, pilots held by Ukraine tell CNN about low morale of comrades, being kept in the dark about the mission, and their shame in taking part

In this frame from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 19, 2022, a Russian marine runs during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
In this frame from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 19, 2022, a Russian marine runs during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Three Russian pilots captured in Ukraine have voiced their opposition to the invasion ordered by their government in a series of interviews with CNN published on Thursday.

Their remarks must be viewed with a degree of skepticism, as they were made while in Ukrainian captivity. CNN said the pilots did not appear to be speaking under duress, but Ukrainian soldiers were present in the room throughout the interviews.

Still, the captives made comments that strongly contradicted the messaging from the Kremlin.

“I want to tell our commander-in-chief to stop terror acts in Ukraine because when we come back we’ll rise against him,” said Vladimir, who along with the other two POWs were only identified by their first names in order to protect them.

“You won’t hide this for long. There are many like us here. Sooner or later, we’ll come home,” another captive officer said.

“Our government told us we need to liberate the civilian population. I want to tell Russian servicemen: lay down your arms and leave your stations, don’t come here. Everyone wants peace here,” Vladimir added.

One pilot named Maxim told CNN, “It’s not just about demilitarizing Ukraine or the defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but now cities of peaceful civilians are being destroyed. Even, I don’t know, what can justify — f**k — the tears of a child, or even worse, the deaths of innocent people, children.”

Sounding off on the Russian military offensive in Mariupol, where Ukrainian authorities say at least 2,500 people have been killed, Maxim said, “It was a horrifying fact, not just because it is a crime. It’s vandalism. You cannot forgive such things. To bomb a maternity ward?”

Asked about the stated Russian operational objective of “de-nazifying” Ukraine, Maxim said his experience during the invasion led him to realize that the charge is baseless.

“We didn’t see any Nazis or fascists. Russians and Ukrainians can communicate in the same language, so we see the good [in these people],” Maxim said. “I think it was invented as a pretext and is something that the world cannot understand… But Putin and his circle need this in order to achieve their own objectives. One such step was that it would be beneficial for them to spread disinformation about fascism and Nazism.”

“If Ukraine wanted to become part of Russia, to strike up some cooperation — by all means. No one would be against that. But to force them is just not acceptable,” he added.

The soldiers said they had been initially surprised by the Ukrainian resistance, and insisted that they had only been there on orders from above.

Black smoke rises into the sky from the Barabashovo market which was reportedly hit by shelling, in Kharkiv, on March 17, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergey Bobok/AFP)

“It’s not really up to us, who to bomb, what to bomb. It’s a command,” said Alexei.

But as time went on, morale among Russian troops deteriorated, Maxim said. “I know in my unit, they are totally against [the war].”

The pilots opened up about not having any idea what they were being instructed to target down below.

“It’s impossible to really know what is beyond our state borders. For example, they mark down a column of tanks. But we cannot be sure if there is really one there or not,” Maxim said.

“We only dropped non-locating missiles,” Maxim said, describing what’s commonly referred to as “dumb bombs,” which are less accurate and more likely to cause civilian casualties.

In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Thursday, March 3, 2022, a Russian soldier points a gun from a Russian military truck as it drives through an undisclosed location in Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

He described the weapons as “the same kind that were used during World War II with some changes here and there over the years. There are more modern ballistic varieties, of course, but the fact remains that we did not use those.”

The pilots said they had been allowed to call their families since being taken captive, but admitted to not knowing what was in store for them going forward.

“The crimes that we committed; we all will be judged the same. Other than that, I cannot say. It’s impossible to guess… They will judge us,” said Maxim.

“I wish I could sink into the earth and vanish,” said another soldier.

Though it is hard to judge the candor of statements made by prisoners, the comments on low morale among Russian troops comport with Western intelligence assessments.

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