When Russian tanks rolled down the frost-covered roads through Crimea during the early hours of Feb. 24, Pavel Filatyev, a Russian paratrooper, was part of a unit that he described in his journal as armed with "patriotism" instead of "good training, support and modern technology."
Even as the columns of military equipment crossed into Kherson Oblast in Ukraine, Filatyev told CBC News he and his fellow troops were unaware that Russia was invading Ukraine. Instead, a regiment commander had urged them just a few days earlier to "stop spreading gossip," he said, telling them they would be on their way home in a few days once the exercises end.
Nearly seven months later, the Russian military is losing large swathes of Ukrainian territory it tried to occupy, and Filatyev is out of the army — and out of Russia. He was forced to flee after posting a scathing rebuke of a military he fought for, and a government he served, he said.
"Russia has been captured by some kind of mafia," he said during an interview with CBC News in Paris, where he is applying for asylum.
"The commanders, our government used its army, misleading it."
Filatyev, 34, was evacuated from the war zone after suffering an eye infection in mid-April, and afterwards spent over a month writing a 141-page journal entitled Zov, which refers to the tactical "Z" labels that Russia uses on its military equipment.
He posted the manuscript on social media at the beginning of August. He documents confusion and disarray in the days leading up to the invasion, the chaos he observed once the troops moved into Ukraine, and his disgust with everything that has happened since.
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Filatyev is the only Russian soldier to criticize the military in such a public and detailed way, and his actions carry enormous personal risk, given that Russia has already sentenced some civilians to years in prison for "discrediting the military."
He left a few weeks after he posted his journal, with the help of a human rights network in France that advocates for Russian dissidents. While it is impossible to verify his claims, his account is very detailed.
Realizing it was Russia who was attacking
Filatyev served in the Russian army during the second Chechen war in the late 2000s before leaving military life to become a horse trainer. He gave that work up after a decade for financial reasons, he said, and then re-enlisted.
In February, while stationed in Crimea for training, Filatyev wrote that he was given a rifle that he said was so rusted it stopped firing after a few shots. He said on Feb. 23, the division commander arrived and promised all the troops that they would be getting a daily bonus that was the equivalent of $90 Cdn.
Filatyev said that was a clear sign something was going to happen, but he thought the most likely scenario was that the troops would be sent into the self-proclaimed, Russian-controlled Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic to act as peacekeepers during referendums.
He said rumours began to spread that the soldiers could "storm" Kherson, but he dismissed that talk as nonsense. He said he got into a fight with his platoon commander because he wasn't issued a bulletproof vest, so he ended up being reassigned to a mortar team
As they drove into Kherson on the morning of Feb. 24, he wrote that the military truck that he was in had no working brakes, and equipment was getting stuck in the mud.
When he heard the sounds of artillery, different scenarios swirled through his head. He thought perhaps that Ukraine was trying to retake Crimea, or that NATO was somehow involved.
He said it was only when his unit was given the order to destroy a bridge going over the Dnieper River, that he realized it was Russia who was attacking.
He later wrote that while it felt shameful to invade Ukraine, it was also "shameful to refuse a military order."
During his interview with CBC News, he said the military units were poorly organized as soldiers didn't know what they were doing, and there was little communication. In his journal, he wrote that Russian soldiers were not killed because of the "professionalism of the Ukrainian army, but the mess in ours."
He described driving further in Ukraine, passing lines of cars as Ukrainians fled. At one point, two men passed Filatyev's truck carrying a banner with a cross.
"Either they saw us off to the next world, or they blessed us," Filatyev wrote.
Losing trust in Russian leadership
Russia was able to seize Kherson on March 2, just over a week into the invasion, but Filatyev said Russian soldiers were left fighting exhaustion, freezing temperatures and hunger.
In his journal, he wrote that some contemplated entering homes to take warm blankets, but says he didn't see anyone do that.
"We don't even need an enemy," he wrote. "The command has put us in such conditions that the homeless live better."
When the soldiers reached the port of Kherson, he described them acting like "savages," raiding buildings searching for food, water and anything else they could take of value. He admitted he stole a hat and shared a bottle of champagne that another soldier found. They drank it while watching a Ukrainian news channel on television.
When news reports detailed a multi-front attack across Ukraine, Filatyev said he felt somewhat relieved as it all would be over soon. However Russia's military campaign — which stalled early on when troops failed to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv —has recently faced major setbacks in Eastern Ukraine.
Some military bloggers and even Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have criticized Russia's military.
On one of his social media accounts, Kadyrov said on Saturday that if no changes in strategy are made, he would be "forced to speak with the leadership of the defence ministry and the leadership of (Russia)."
The UK's Ministry of Defence said in the past week, Ukraine has taken back an area that is roughly twice the size of Greater London and speculated that the already "limited trust deployed troops have in Russia's senior military leadership is likely to deteriorate further."
While speaking with CBC News, Filatyev said morale was already low even before troops moved into Ukraine. By March, he claims some soldiers were shooting themselves in an attempt to get compensation and "get out of this hell."
He said others left and didn't want to return.
When asked about the allegations that Russian soldiers committed war crimes, including murder and rape, Filatyev said he didn't see anything personally.
However, in his journal he wrote about a Ukrainian prisoner of war who had his fingertips and genitals cut off.
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He told CBC News that everyday war makes people "more and more cruel," but this is a reality of all conflicts.
In an Aug. 3 tweet, Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office said it was investigating more than 26,000 alleged Russian war crimes. In recent reports, Amnesty International, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have also raised concerns about the conduct of Ukrainian forces — including allegations they could be endangering civilians.
The difference with the Russian army, Filatyev said, is that the government isn't rooting out and punishing the criminals.
"I blame the Russian government and command for not suppressing in any way," he said. "I have a huge anger at these events."
Filatyev told CBC News that before arriving in France, he had a stopover in Tunisia, and described being taken out of his hotel room and questioned by security services for hours.
Once he arrived in Paris, he ripped up his military ID and Russian passport in a bathroom, in a show of protest. That video was also posted online
Kamalia Mehtiyeva, a Paris-based lawyer representing Filatyev, said his case is unique because he is not a politician who had to flee Russia, but a soldier who is starting a new life with few connections in France.
"The price (of safety) is very high," she said.
When Filatyev spoke with CBC on an observation deck in Montparnasse, Paris, his eye injury was still bothering him and he said he felt dizzy.
While he was eager to share his story about what he did and saw in Ukraine, he appeared exhausted and weary.
Even now in France, there is still a risk he could be within the Kremlin's reach. Still, he is expecting his journal to be published, and said he wants to keep writing.
"I understand that if someone needs me to die, it can happen anywhere," he said.
"I don't want to spend (life) as a slave."