How Ukraine tries to fuel Russian defections

How Ukraine tries to fuel Russian defections

A rare video aired on Ukrainian television on Sunday allegedly showing a Russian pilot who had defected and encouraging other Russian soldiers to do the same. His dramatic escape allegedly took six months to plan, and was carried out in cooperation with Ukraine’s intelligence services. Whether the video is authentic remains unclear, but one thing is certain: Ukraine is doing everything it can to fuel Russian defections.

A Russian Mi-8 assault helicopter crossed the border into Ukraine on August 23 and landed at the Poltava Air Base in Kharkiv with three people on board: a pilot and two crew members. The latter two were reportedly killed shortly after landing as they were trying to run away.

While a Russian military blogger initially claimed the pilot had lost his way and that the helicopter had wound up in Ukraine by mistake, news reports soon emerged saying the incident was no accident. Instead, it was the Russian pilot’s carefully planned defection, which had taken six months to plan and was carried out in close cooperation with Ukraine’s military intelligence services.

‘A world of colours’ 

The pilot, identified as 28-year-old Maksim Kuzminov, appeared in a documentary-style video on Ukrainian national television on Sunday, confirming his defection and divulging the details of his escape. His family has also been moved to safety in Ukraine, he said.

Kuzminov decried Russia’s often-cited justification for the war as targeting a “neo-Nazi” regime.

“The truth is, there are no Nazis or fascists here. It’s a real disgrace what’s happening here. Murder, tears, blood. People are simply killing each other,” he said, calling Russia’s actions a “genocide” in which he did not want to take part.

Kuzminov encouraged other Russian soldiers to follow suit.

“You’ll be provided for, for the rest of your lives. You will be offered a job everywhere, no matter what you do. You’ll simply discover a world of colours,” he said, recounting how he had been guaranteed both money and new identity documents if he defected.

Although the video has not been verified, Ryhor Nizhnikau, a senior research fellow specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said there is reason to believe it is real.

“All the conditions [surrounding the escape] and the many details given in it point to it being authentic,” he said, while noting that it still needs to be viewed as part of Ukrainian propaganda efforts in its information war against Russia.

“I’m sure he was groomed for this,” he said of Kuzminov’s video appearance.

Two major campaigns 

Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine has been hard at work to try to convince Russian soldiers to defect.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, passed a law in April 2022 offering lucrative rewards for anyone supplying Ukraine with Russian military equipment that was particularly aimed at demoralised Russian troops.

A warship or combat aircraft can fetch up to $1 million, while helicopters carry a price tag of $500,000 and tanks $100,000.

The Rada’s first deputy chairman, Oleksandr Kornienko, said at the time he hoped Russian soldiers would now have an “additional incentive” to “lay down their arms”.

US media reports said the law would provide Russian soldiers with “secrecy, a safe stay in Ukraine, and support in obtaining new documents and leaving for a third country”.

Ukraine also launched the “I Want to Live” hotline in September last year in a bid to target Russian and Belarusian soldiers who might be seeking to defect. The hotline is open 24/7 and is accessible by phone as well as on the Telegram and WhatsApp messaging channels.

Those who turn themselves over are offered the option of either taking part in a prisoner swap with Russia or remaining in custody, with the possibility of either staying in the country or emigrating elsewhere.

In an interview with “The Guardian” in January, Vitaly Matvienko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s department for prisoners of war, said more than 6,500 Russian troops had contacted the hotline in the four months since it had opened but declined to say how many had actually defected.

Hard to get through to Russians 

Despite Kuzminov’s striking video, and the many incoming calls the “I Want to Live” hotline claims to have received, Nizhnikau said that the overall Russian defection rate – of which there is no official estimate available – is still thought to be very low.

“I’d say it’s in the dozens, maybe in the low hundreds, but there’s nothing we’ve seen that can be described as en masse,” he said.

One of the main reasons, he said, is that up to two-thirds of Russian recruits are currently volunteers.

“And if you volunteer, you are of course much less likely actually to defect,” he said, since it is their own choice to go to war.

Nizhnikau also noted there are few Russians left with any illusions about either life on the front line or the Russian military’s resources.

“They know,” he said bluntly.

But even if some soldiers were willing to defect, he said, it would be hard for the Ukrainian defection campaigns to reach them because “inside Russia there’s the question of access, and then the fact that it won’t come naturally to them because it wouldn’t be advertised via the websites or the media content they normally consume”.  

In the Kuzminov case, however, the Ukrainians did seem to get through.

“This was clearly a highly sophisticated intelligence operation that would have required a lot of preparation,” Nizhnikau said.