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What do we know about the ‘Siberian Battalion’ that reportedly crossed into Russia?

by Emmanuelle Chaze March 12, 2024 5:46 PM 8 min read
Perun, a member of the Siberian Battalion during the training in Kyiv Oblast, December 2023. (Emmanuelle Chaze/The Kyiv Independent)
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent doesn't provide the full names of soldiers mentioned in the story to protect them and their families from persecution in Russia. They are identified by callsigns.

KYIV OBLAST – In the early hours of March 12, Russian state media sounded the alarm. A number of Ukrainian military units consisting of Russian fighters reportedly attempted to cross from Ukraine into Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that it "thwarted Kyiv's attempt to make a breakthrough into the Russian border territory in the Belgorod and Kursk oblasts," adding that the incursion took place "simultaneously in three directions."

Meanwhile, the units allegedly taking part in the attack say that the operation is ongoing.

Russian anti-Kremlin militia break into Russia, claim to occupy villages
The Freedom of Russia Legion and the Siberian Battalion crossed the border into Russia from Ukraine on March 12 to conduct combat operations, according to the Russian anti-Kremlin armed groups.

While this wasn't the first time units consisting of Russians fighting for Ukraine have allegedly crossed into Russian territory, this time a new formation had its first run.

Announced in October and training throughout the winter, the new Siberian Battalion took part in the incursion, along with the earlier formed Freedom of Russia Legion.

The Siberian Battalion was the third unit established by Ukraine for Russian nationals who want to join the fight against the Kremlin. The battalion was meant primarily for ethnic minorities coming from Siberia, including Buryats, Yakuts, Tuvans, and others.

Members of the Siberian Battalion prepare weapons during military exercises with the International Legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, in December 2023. (Andrew Kravchenko/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Siberia, a cold North Asian region that covers 77% of Russia’s territory, is home to a variety of ethnic minorities that have been largely disenfranchised by the Russian state.

Nine of the 10 poorest Russian regions, in terms of GRP (gross regional product) per capita, are regions with a substantial minority population. Out of them, five are located in Siberia.

Adding another Russian unit to the Ukrainian Armed Forces is more about information warfare than growing Ukraine’s battlefield capacity, experts say.

"Russian volunteer battalions fighting alongside Ukrainians are an aspect of the war which may make little direct difference on the front line, but it will have a disproportionate impact in terms of information activities, morale and influence on Russia's population and its leadership," Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told the Kyiv Independent.

Belgorod incursion: Meet the anti-Kremlin militia behind the attack inside Russia
Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent, together with a number of journalists, was taken to a location in northern Ukraine to interview the members of the units that took part in the military operation inside Russia. Not revealing the exact location was the only precondition for the interview. Norther…

Ready to fight?

During the winter months, the Kyiv Independent’s correspondent visited a training range near Kyiv that was used by the newly established Siberian Battalion, a unit within the regular Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The men were conducting active training for weeks, awaiting the call to be sent to the front to defend Ukraine against a country they once called home. All of those men came from Russia and were eager to take the fight back home.

From the onset of the full-scale invasion, Russian citizens have been fleeing their homeland en masse. Most settled abroad. A few of them, however, volunteered to fight for Kyiv.

"At the end of 2022, we reached an agreement with the International Legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces about regular recruitment, first within the Russian Volunteer Corp, and from 2023, with the Siberian Battalion, and we try to recruit 20 to 25 volunteers monthly," said Denis Sokolov, co-founder of the Civic Council, a Russian organization in exile that helps recruit Russian citizens to fight for Ukraine.

If the initial assessment is positive, the volunteer goes through a lengthy screening process before he signs a contract and joins the next group of recruits on their way to Ukraine.

During the process, which can take months, online classes on tactical medicine are given to the candidates, and they are provided with basic gear. All the volunteers are civilians, and none of the candidates are former soldiers or prisoners of war in Ukraine.

For the dozens of men who have successfully passed the tests so far, the training phase begins.

The battalion's trainer, a Ukrainian from Kyiv known under the callsign Batya, spent over a year at the front line, where he got wounded several times.

"They become military personnel under contract, like any other soldier. Every fighter is registered with the Armed Forces before being sent to the zero line," the trainer said.

Fire reported at several Russian oil refineries after Ukrainian drone attack
A fire broke out at an oil refinery in Russia’s city of Oryol, regional authorities reported on March 12. First responders have been deployed to the scene, Andrey Klychkov, governor of Oryol region, said via his official Telegram page.

For many Ukrainians, it’s hard to trust Russians, even those willing to fight against the Kremlin. For Batya, it isn't an issue.

"I spend a lot of time with them, and I can't help but trust them. First, we are brothers in arms; we go into fighting together. If I had the slightest doubt about them, I couldn't do that," he said.

"They've successfully been screened, and I trust the process. I trust that they have my back, 100%."

Malyi, 22, is an ethnic Bashkir. He grew up between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains and decided to take arms to defend Ukraine in spring 2023.

"My parents didn't approve, because they were scared for me," he said. "Not because of the side I was joining."

Malyi said that he is disgusted by the war waged by Russia against Ukraine.

"Just imagine that, from one day to the next, your neighbor comes over and ransacks your country, during many years, brings in troops, and not only occupies territories but also kills and rapes civilians, loots, this is complete chaos and anarchy," he added.

Perun, 32, a former engineer from Moscow who has cut all family ties with his Russian relatives, is among the Russians who decided to join the battalion with the goal of helping Ukraine win and continuing his life in Ukraine. His partner is a Ukrainian woman that he met in Donetsk in 2013, a year before it was occupied by Russia.

"I will stay here and be part of this great country," he said.

Perun knows that, because of his decision to fight for Ukraine, he doesn't have a way back.

"I stopped communicating with my friends back in Russia. I don't feel that I have anything to do with this country anymore. Among the people I used to know, there are some who consider this war vile, but others lean towards ambiguity and are persuaded that the NATO threat is real."

Siberian Battalion training in Kyiv Oblast, December 2023. (Emmanuelle Chaze/The Kyiv Independent)

Another fighter, who goes by the callsign Johnny, 32, left Russia in February 2022, when the country started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

He first settled abroad before his friends helped him connect with the Civic Council, recruiting for Ukraine. He joined the Siberian Battalion in October.

His family doesn't know that he is fighting for Ukraine, and Johnny grew disillusioned with those who stayed in Russia.

"I thought there would be a revolution in Russia when the mobilization started – this was my mistake," he said.

"When the full-scale war began, my mind was set, and I decided to join any battalion I could in Ukraine. From my school years, I have always fought against (Vladimir) Putin's regime."

In words that echo those of his fellow soldiers, he determinedly eyes a Ukrainian victory. "First of all, we have to liberate all territories, and afterward, fully destroy Putin's regime."

For people like Malyi, Perun, and Johnny, there is no possible return to Russia – they would be arrested and prosecuted as traitors.

In Ukraine, they are being thoroughly watched and will have to prove their loyalty by putting their lives on the line to protect the people they swore to defend against their own.

Although the formations are officially part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ukrainian authorities tend to downplay Ukraine's involvement in these units’ operations on Russian soil.

Johnny, a member of the Siberian Battalion during the training in Kyiv Oblast, December 2023. (Emmanuelle Chaze/The Kyiv Independent)

"The Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and the Siberian Battalion act on the territory of Russia as independent units, since they consist of Russian citizens. Moreover, they are at home," Andriy Yusov, spokesperson of Ukrainian Intelligence, said following the March 12 incursion.

Those operations are often interpreted as publicity stunts – meant both to send a signal to Russian authorities and population, and to encourage more recruits to join.

"This is part of a combined and coordinated information campaign by Ukraine to put the Russian leadership on edge and to put its population on notice that they are not going to be immune from the consequences of the war," Giles said.

"By putting psychological and information pressure at both ends of the Ukrainian front line, both across the border into Belgorod region and in occupied Crimea, Ukraine is keeping the Russian leadership guessing and also putting it under stress no matter how significant or insignificant the incursions into Russia may in fact be," he added.

"So far, of course, we have no reliable sources on what exactly has been achieved, but it does demonstrate to the Russian leadership that they need to reinforce this area of the border in order to demonstrate to their own population that they are capable of defending the country, and that, of course, will draw troops and resources away from other areas of the front line where Ukraine is under threat."

Members of the Siberian Battalion of the International Legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are participating in military exercises at a training ground on Dec.13, 2023. (Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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