A Putin Opponent From Russia Leads Fighters Against His Home Country

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — The ground below the Ukrainian positions was scorched black, burned by flares dropped from Russian jets. The green wheat fields beyond were pockmarked with craters gouged out of the earth by Russian artillery strikes.

“This was such a beautiful scene,” the unit commander said, looking out across the rolling countryside Friday morning, “and they ruined it, the swine.”

The commander, who asked to be identified only by his code name, Kandalaksha, leads a volunteer unit camped out in the hills of eastern Ukraine. For two months the unit has been holding part of the line south of the city of Izium, blocking a Russian offensive to encircle and seize the eastern Donbas region.

Kandalaksha is something of an anomaly. He is from Russia, and describes himself as a political refugee. An opponent of President Vladimir V. Putin’s government, he left his homeland in 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist war in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

“I was fighting the Putin regime,” he said, “and I understood the hottest place to fight against the Putin regime was in Ukraine.”

In an abandoned farmhouse on the front lines near Izium, soldiers prepared dinner for their unit.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York TimesSoldiers from the 95th Air Assault Brigade used improvised wooden platforms as their sleeping quarters in an abandoned farmhouse.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Soon after arriving in Ukraine he took a step beyond political activism and joined a volunteer military unit in 2015. “I was searching myself and I looked for a way to be useful,” he said. “I thought it would be most honest to go to fight for the country.”

When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, he volunteered again and fought in the northwestern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, for a month. Then as Russia withdrew from Kyiv and concentrated its forces on the battle for the Donbas, his unit was also sent east.

“We don’t see them but they shell us,” he said of the Russians who are positioned about 10 miles away from his outpost. “Rarely a day goes by without shelling. They try to bite us, but our forces are holding their positions and are not letting them advance.”

Ukrainian forces are under increasing pressure in eastern Ukraine as the Russian military has switched tactics. It has focused its forces and firepower on a much smaller target with a more limited goal: encircling a last crescent of towns and villages that belong to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway areas where hostilities between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists have simmered for eight years.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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In eastern Ukraine. After seizing the city of Lyman, Russian forces are coming closer to surrounding the much larger city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control. Lyman is the second midsize Ukrainian city to change hands in one week.

In Kharkiv. Several neighborhoods in the northeastern city, where the Ukrainians repelled an attempted Russian encirclement in mid-May, came under fire again. At least nine people were killed in the attack, which shattered the sense of relative peace that had begun returning there.

Talks in Europe. European Union leaders will gather on May 30 and 31 to discuss Ukraine’s financial needs for reconstruction and the effect of the war on the global economy. But hopes that the summit would also see the end to a standoff with Hungary over a possible Russian oil embargo appear to have faded.

The war’s economic toll in Russia. Gripped by sanctions and isolated from Western suppliers, Russia is working to stave off a return to Soviet-era scarcity and prop up the economy. The Biden administration said it expected the country to default on its bond payments to U.S. investors after the Treasury Department allowed an exemption that permitted Russia to make those payments to lapse.

Every few days soldiers from this unit head forward to the front line, which they call ground zero, relieving others who swap out for a break from the pounding artillery. The soldiers are caustic about the type of warfare they are undergoing on the open country of eastern Ukraine. They describe themselves as cannon fodder, and reduced to “cotton” or stuffing under the heavy barrages of artillery.

But their morale seems high and, as volunteers, most said they were convinced of the need to stand up to Russian aggression.

One of the volunteer soldiers is a theater director, another a university economics lecturer.

“It’s much more difficult sitting and doing nothing,” said the lecturer, who goes by the code name Academic.

Maksim Bulgakov, 40, the theater director, said he had never wanted to join the army. “My father, brother and grandfather were artillery officers, but I never wanted to be,” he said. “But it’s such a time. You have a problem and you have to decide.”

The men, and one woman, lie low, sleeping in a farm building and keeping out of sight of Russian drones during the day. They operate artillery guns from the tree lines in the area but did not allow visiting reporters to see them.

A soldier with the 95th Air Assault Brigade looked toward the sound of artillery from a trench system near Izium.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times