'I ran away, and now they're all dead': The Russian soldiers who escaped the front lines (2024)

He arrives with a mask and hoodie obscuring his face.

Anonymity is paramount. What he's about to say could put him back in jail.

"We have to do something to make it all end," he says, eyes darting around the room.

"I don't understand the involvement of all these countries in this conflict. It's like people are sitting on the couch, rooting for a side like it's a football match.

"This is not the Olympics, it's hell."

He would know. He's been there. And he fled.

Soldier X — as we will call him — was recruited from a Russian prison to fight in Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

After heading to the front lines and watching dozens of comrades get slaughtered, he escaped, something he describes as "a miracle".

Casualties in the war, which has raged for more than two years, are mounting.

While neither Russia nor Ukraine release figures outlining their own casualties, there is evidence to suggest the numbers are at record highs.

On May 13, Kyiv's armed forces claimed it had killed 1,740 of Putin's troops in a single day — the most in 24 hours of fighting since the war began.

'I ran away, and now they're all dead': The Russian soldiers who escaped the front lines (1)

As the loss of life continues, the ABC has spoken to two Russian soldiers who slipped away from the front lines, as well as people who know a third.

"I was counting the odds, just like roulette," Soldier X explains.

"I thought trying to escape was my chance to survive. It seemed to me that it's better to risk running than get f**king blown up."

Soldier X spent one month on the front lines before he became critically ill with pneumonia.

In that time, he'd already watched most of the people he'd arrived with be killed.

Soldier X was evacuated — mistakenly — to a hospital in Russia, rather than occupied Ukraine, which is when he saw his moment to flee.

And he's not the only one.

'I was shocked by what I saw'

There's no data on the number of deserters on either side of the war, but it is happening.

Soldier Y — as we will call him — had never held a gun before he arrived at his five-day military training camp in Russia.

He's another convict who signed up to fight but managed to escape.

"I had to sit in trenches with water and rats for two weeks," he says.

"Then, we were sent across a minefield to storm a position. Two drones hovered above us, literally above us.

"Our commander told us not to move, and we weren't moving, but the guys behind us did and the drone flew at them. Three people were blown apart right there."

Not long after that, he sustained shrapnel wounds in an attack and was transferred to several hospitals to recover in the subsequent months.

"I was shocked by what I saw on the front lines," Soldier Y says. "I expected to see a high-tech army fighting with decent equipment. Out of the 210 people I was sent there with, 16 survived, and seven of them are amputees.

"As soon as I got there, I immediately started thinking about how to get out."

Once he had recovered, he was sent to a marshalling centre in the city of Voronezh, in Russia's south-west, where he was to be deployed again.

While they were waiting to be sent back to the front lines, Soldier Y says he and several comrades were allowed to go shopping as long as they were being watched by a guard.

One time, there was no-one watching. And that's when he took his chance.

"I went to the shopping centre, but then when we got there I said I was tired and that I'd wait for the others in the car," he says.

"That's when I ran. I just ordered a taxi and got in. It was so scary. I've been travelling between cities ever since.

"I ran away, and all the guys I was with there went back. And now they're all dead."

Russian soldier could have defected

Soldiers X and Y's decision to desert might sound brazen, but it's nothing compared to accusations made about Yuri Galushko.

In May, a wanted poster surfaced claiming a man fighting in Russia's army had shot six comrades and was on the run.

It says Galushko was likely armed with an assault rifle with a silencer, and that if found "he should be detained immediately". That doesn't seem to have happened yet.

A channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram known for releasing classified Kremlin intelligence reported that while Galushko had Russian citizenship, he was a native of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and could have defected to fight with the other side.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine were contacted for comment.

Galushko's profile on VK — the Russian equivalent of Facebook — has not been accessed since the day before the attack.

'I ran away, and now they're all dead': The Russian soldiers who escaped the front lines (2)

Some in Ukraine have hailed Galushko a hero, however, the ABC spoke to a Russian man who knew him who described the father-of-one as: "A piece of sh*t."

The wanted poster says Galushko was recruited from a prison, but not what his offence was.

Soldiers X and Y were both behind bars for drug convictions when they enlisted.

Soldier Y says defecting to the other side would not be impossible. He claims it could sometimes be difficult to tell who's who on the battlefield.

"One time, we were ordered to approach these Ukrainian soldiers who were about 150 meters away," he says.

"A group of 15 of us were getting shot at and we all fell to our knees, and the bullets started flying back past us towards other Russian soldiers.

"So the Russians thought we were Ukrainians and also started shooting at us. So we sat there for about an hour under this fire then crawled back shouting that we were Russian."

'This is a meat grinder'

The way Soldier X deserted was a little less dramatic.

After he developed pneumonia in the trenches and began coughing up blood, he was mistakenly transferred to a hospital in Russia where convict soldiers were not supposed to go.

"My paperwork somehow got into the other folder, it's a damn miracle," he says.

"Our minder was furious when she figured it out along the way."

Being back on Russian soil made it easier for Soldier X to escape, but the other main difference was that there was no-one guarding him in the hospital he was sent to.

One day, he was allowed to leave the hospital to meet his wife and daughter for a coffee.

"I realised that people are living their lives, there were healthy grown men in that cafe too," he says.

"I had been surrounded by war. People who went to war, people who were thinking about war. I thought the whole country was at war, and that everyone was involved, but that turned out to be a lie."

Soldier X says he managed to convince doctors at the hospital to send him even further from the war zone, where there would be less supervision.

And that's when he left, first to a country in Eastern Europe, and then to France.

He says he did not try and conceal his identity while leaving Russia.

"There were some checks at the border, while I was crossing, I stood in front of the officers turning pale," he says.

"And for 15 minutes this lady was calling someone and told them my last name. I thought that's it. But she eventually waved me through. I had to be calmed down by the flight attendants. It was a pretty memorable flight."

He's now hoping to start a new life in Western Europe and apply for political asylum.

Soldier X hopes the bloodshed in Ukraine will end soon.

"I think everyone, both sides, understand that this is a meat grinder," he says.

'I ran away, and now they're all dead': The Russian soldiers who escaped the front lines (2024)

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