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‘The beginning of the end’: A former Russian military intelligence officer explains why he’s fighting for Ukraine

Armed Forces of Ukraine soldiers assault an OPFOR controlled mock village during training at Rapid Trident 2021. (Staff Sgt. David Carnahan/U.S. Army)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Vladislav Ammosov says he spent more than 15 years building a career in the Russian military and its intelligence service, known as the GRU. Now he is in Kyiv, ready to take up arms against his homeland.

“The country to which I swore allegiance…no longer exists,” he told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, which has examined documents relating to Ammosov’s Russian military service record.

During a recent stroll through the center of Kyiv, Ammosov stopped to look at a display of destroyed Russian military equipment.

“These guys did not understand what they were dying for,” he said. “I’m glad they never made it here. I’m glad we are standing in a free, thriving city. At the same time, I feel sorry for the guys who were in these vehicles. They could have lived their lives if Russia was a normal country.”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ammosov was among those few Russians who were ready to fight on Kyiv’s side.

“I called the Ukrainian Embassy, and I tried to contact the Free Russia legion,” he said, referring to a military structure within the Ukrainian armed forces in which Russian defectors and Russian and Belarusian volunteers serve to fight against the Russian military. “But it was to no avail. I almost gave up.”

But, in November 2022, a Russian emigre organization recruiting volunteers to fight for Ukraine, the Civic Council, was formed in Poland. In particular, the group recruits Russian citizens who are not ethnic Russians, including Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, and others. Ammosov is an ethnic Yakut from Siberia’s Sakha Republic, also called Yakutia.

‘I Hope…I Will Earn Trust’

The Russian security services have a long history of planting spies and provocateurs within the ranks of opposition groups, a practice that goes back to tsarist times, and it is often even said there is no such thing as a “former” GRU officer. So Ammosov is not surprised when he is asked how he can be trusted.

“There are never any guarantees,” he said. “But I hope that, with my service and my work against Russia, I will earn trust.”

RFE/RL could not independently verify Ammosov’s account of his past, but it was supported by the service-record documents. He said that he has been repeatedly vetted by Ukrainian security and military structures.

“I have passed all imaginable and unimaginable checks,” he said. “If I am talking to you now, then I passed them.”

“I am ready to go to the territory of Russia,” he added, “and destroy the enemies there. The enemies of my homeland are those who support Putin’s government…. My compatriots, it turns out, have become servants of dark forces.”

Moscow’s unfounded claims that fascists have taken control of Ukraine are risible to Ammosov.

“There is no state more fascist than Russia,” he said.

An Imperialist’s Progress

Ammosov’s transformation has been a long time coming, its seeds sown early in his military career. As he describes it, he is a veteran of Moscow’s two wars in Chechnya, in the 1990s and 2000s, and a graduate of some of the country’s most prestigious military institutes. In retrospect, he says, he was being trained to be an “imperialist.”

“I am a product of the Soviet Union,” he said.

The wars in Chechnya “sobered me up,” he added. “I was influenced by propaganda and thought there were real bandits there. But I saw ordinary people and saw what they were fighting for. It was a people’s war for freedom.”

He also became disenchanted with Russian officers at that time.

“I was always taught that officers were the best people in the country,” Ammosov said. “But then I saw what they were like when they went 10 days without drinking. There were some who just screwed everything up. There were some who sold their weapons. There were some who just betrayed us and sent us to be slaughtered.”

Nonetheless, he “had an inner conviction” that he should do his duty and “protect the homeland.”

After his combat experience, Ammosov said, he was recruited into the GRU, where he was trained to use mathematical modeling to “find the vulnerable point of a country’s economy.”

“You can find a weak point in any complex technical system,” he said. “These days, without electricity there is no life. Even turning off all smartphones for a few hours could have a big impact on an economy.”

The ultimate goal, he concluded, was “to destroy entire countries.”

Fighting Back

As an ethnic Yakut, Ammosov said, he frequently experienced racism and chauvinism from ethnic Russians. He said it is not uncommon to be stopped by police or upbraided by passersby in major Russian cities simply for speaking Yakut in public.

“When I went to Moscow and went into a metro station, I would be stopped immediately,” he said. “As a ‘non-Russian,’ only my officer’s papers saved me. I was treated like a second-class person.”

“Since I have been in Ukraine, I have never been asked for my passport,” Ammosov added. “I have never been stopped by the police.”

He was further disenchanted, he said, as Putin’s Russia became increasingly authoritarian.

“It was difficult to watch people being beaten,” Ammosov told RFE/RL. “And people being jailed. I was thinking — can’t we get together and fight back?”

Ammosov left active service and entered the military reserves before Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its fomenting of a separatist war in parts of eastern Ukraine.

He said he believes there is a lot of pent-up rage in Russia that is bound to come out at some point as the war in Ukraine weakens Russia’s highly centralized system.

“Can you imagine the degree of hatred there will be after the collapse of Russia?” he said. “People will remember incidents from 100 or 200 years ago.”

In Ammosov’s mind, he said, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 was “the beginning of the end” for Russia.

“I understood it immediately,” he concluded.