Igor Volobuyev joined a legion of Russians hoping to defeat their homeland and maybe topple Putin
Walking around Kyiv in his new Ukrainian military attire, Igor Volobuyev felt as if he finally fulfilled his purpose.
For weeks after leaving Russia for Ukraine, the former vice-president of Gazprombank spent his days trying to convince officials to provide him with Ukrainian documents and allow him to sign up for military service to fight against a country where he had spent most of his adult life.
“The moment war broke out, I knew right away I wanted to go and defend Ukraine,” Volobuyev said in an interview in the Ukrainian capital.
“I first wanted to join the territorial defence units in the Sumi region, where I grew up. I reached out to a lot of officials but legally it was not possible for me to fight there as a Russian.”
Soon, however, Volobuyev was presented with the option to join the “Freedom for Russia” legion, a special military unit that is part of the Ukrainian armed forces and is made up entirely of Russian nationals.
He said he embraced the chance with open arms, and on Saturday in a video address, Volobuyev, holding an automatic gun, announced that he had joined the legion.
“I am very glad I have achieved my first goal. But now I have to quickly undergo military training so I can actually go and fight. I can’t stop halfway,” he said.
The 50-year-old has Ukrainian roots but holds a Russian passport and lived most of his life in Moscow where he became the vice-president at Gazprombank, Russia’s third-largest bank which is owned by energy company Gazprom. He was one of a handful of high-profile Russian defectors who condemned the war.
Now, his decision to take up arms against Russia is another twist in a remarkable story. His public defection had already caused shockwaves given his senior role in a company that is at the heart of the Russian establishment and is chaired by Alexei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, who is close to Vladimir Putin.
“I made compromises with myself for a long time … But on the 24 February [the day Russia launched its invasion], any talk of compromise became impossible,” he said. “I could not be part of this crime.”
Not much is known about the Freedom for Russia legion that Volobuyev joined. News of its formation was announced on Telegram on 12 March and some of its members – wearing balaclavas – held a press conference in Kyiv in early April. On its Telegram channel, it frequently publishes pictures of its members engaged in military preparations.
“I was already known to the public so I could speak out,” said Volobuyev. “But for the other members and their families, it is very dangerous to talk about this, so the group is very secretive.”
Volobuyev declined to say what the size of the legion was and where it has been fighting, citing military secrecy, but added the unit was frequently engaged in active fighting.
He stressed that the unit was “not a group of mercenaries” but an official part of the Ukrainian armed forces and therefore, if captured, the soldiers should be treated under international humanitarian law.
The unit’s official badge is displayed on Volobuyev’s uniform. The white and blue flag is used by Russian anti-war protesters both inside and outside the country. It mimics the design of the Russian flag but with the red band changed to white to remove the association with “blood and violence”, Volobuyev said.
While Volobuyev’s main motivation for picking up arms was to defend Ukraine, which he described as his “only motherland”, he said most of the Russians in the legion were seeking regime change in Moscow.
“From what I have already seen, it is a group of highly motivated Russians who believe that defeating Russia now is the only way to create a democratic, civilised country,” he said.
Artyom (not his real name), another member of the unit, said he joined “because it was the only chance to get rid of this regime” and had been engaged in opposition politics in Russia before leaving the country in 2020.
He said he moved to Ukraine shortly before the war, sensing an imminent Russian attack. “I love my motherland,” he said. “I wish it didn’t have to come to this, but we have to end this system. I hope I can return home after the war.”
Some Russians have found other ways to contribute to Ukraine’s military efforts.
Soon after the war broke out, Maxim Motin, a former local opposition deputy in Moscow who has lived in Kyiv for the last four years, quickly set up several production lines to make body armour vests and helmets for the Ukrainian army.
“Especially in the early days of the war, there was a big demand for body armour. We have made over 700 vests so far and many helmets,” Motin said in a phone interview from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he coordinates production of the army gear.
For years, Motin said he wanted to change Russia from the inside via politics, but he said he was forced to eventually flee the country in 2018 after threats from the Russian security services.
Now, he said, he didn’t think twice about supplying military gear to help the Ukrainian army in its fight against his homeland.
Motin said the authorities in Moscow had recently opened two criminal cases against him for his support of Ukraine, including the serious charge of terrorist financing.
“I don’t associate myself at all with the bloody regime in Russia and everyone who supports the war,” Motin said. “I believe Russia needs to lose, on the battleground.”