The radioman in Astana: "Then the colonel came, dragged me up to the office and threatened to throw me in jail. That's how I became a lieutenant."

The radioman in Astana: "Then the colonel came, dragged me up to the office and threatened to throw me in jail. That's how I became a lieutenant."



Deserting Putin A Visit to the Soldiers Who Have Fled Russia's War

Soldiers who escaped Putin's war and fled to Kazakhstan claim they witnessed crimes and are willing to testify in courts of law. But they are also facing an uncertain future as they look for a country willing to take them in.
By Timofey Neshitov and Max Sher (Photos) in Astana, Kazakhstan

"As a rule, deserters threatened by severe repression can receive international protection in Germany. Those who courageously oppose Putin's regime and thus put themselves in the greatest danger can apply for asylum in Germany on the grounds of political persecution."

Nancy Faeser, German interior minister, September 2022

If the Russians had taken Kyiv in February 2022, Rambo probably would have been right at the front. He led a reconnaissance team of the Russian special forces at the time, dressed in civilian clothing and armed with a sub-machine gun equipped with a built-in silencer.

He told me this one year later, in March 2023. Rambo has been living in Kazakhstan for the past seven months. He has a physique that justifies his nickname, a full beard and a good reason for keeping his real name secret.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 18/2023 (April 29th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

He says that every evening when he goes to bed, he is afraid that the Kazakh police will show up at dawn and haul him away. If not them, then the FSB, Russia's secret service agency. Rambo is a wanted man in Russia.

He deserted from Putin's army.

At the beginning of the invasion, nobody was talking about deserters. A column of Russian tanks was rolling towards Kyiv at that time, and it didn't matter who the men were sitting in those tanks, what they were thinking or feeling. If the column had a face, it was that of Vladimir Putin.

When Putin ordered a mobilization last September, views of the Russian army changed. Politicians in Europe and the United States encouraged Russian deserters to flee to the West. It sounded like a humanitarian gesture, but it was also the product of a cold calculation: Those who don't join the fight can't kill.

Only a few Russian officers have made it to the West since then. Most have gone into hiding in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, countries that have extradition treaties with Russia. They don't receive humanitarian visas or asylum papers. In contrast to conscripts, who are fleeing the draft en masse, professional soldiers are more than cannon fodder. They know how to kill in war.

Who Are These Soldiers?

"I wanted to be a little green man."

Many find it hard to understand why anyone would choose a military career in Putin's Russia, where they serve a commander-in-chief who oppresses his own people and attacks other countries.

I myself am a lieutenant in the Russian army reserve. In the early 1990s, when I was attending university in St. Petersburg, I was faced with a choice: either a year of military service after graduation, or, during my studies, a few semesters of voyennaya kafedra, military training, where young Russians are schooled as artillerymen, scouts and radiomen, at least theoretically. In fact, though, we did very little aside from just killing time. It was the only legal way to escape the barracks: After graduation, you were sworn in as a lieutenant, and then they left you alone.

Professional officers are trained at military academies. While reporting this story, I met several of them in Kazakhstan. They joined the army for a variety of different reasons – they longed for a father figure, a secure income or for power and adventure. Later, they decided to flee because they feared for their lives and because they didn't want to kill in a war of aggression. Some of them are eager to testify before international investigators about war crimes in Ukraine. They say that they are not war criminals themselves, but say they have witnessed killings, looting and rapes.

There is no way of verifying what they have or haven't done. In interviews, they tell their stories, show their military IDs, share videos and name the places of their deployments. One presents some chat history with his mother, another shows a gunshot wound he claims to have inflicted upon himself.

For five of them, this story marks the first time they have told their stories to a journalist. Two say they were at the front, while three managed to evade their marching orders. They describe themselves as follows:

Rambo, 27: I grew up in a big city in Siberia. When I was 18, Putin annexed Crimea. On TV, I saw masked men in green without any insignia, Spetsnaz GRU, military intelligence special forces who are also known as the "little green men." I wanted to become a little green man. I went to an officers' school, learned shooting, hand-to-hand combat, diving, horseback riding, quad riding and parachuting. Then they assigned me to a special army unit.

Radioman, 27: I come from a small town located above the Arctic Circle. My mom sells women's clothing there. She raised me alone and sent me to the officer school. She said being a soldier was a respected career with sick pay and paid vacations. I signed a contract but hated the barracks and the obedience. In the sixth semester, I wanted to quit. The major said: You have to stay. I said: We'll see. I skipped class, stayed in bed and failed my exams. Then the colonel came, dragged me from my bed and threatened to throw me in jail. That's how I became a lieutenant.

The radioman on a street in Astana: "I don't use a SIM card and avoid all intersections with surveillance cameras."

The radioman on a street in Astana: "I don't use a SIM card and avoid all intersections with surveillance cameras."

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

Tank crewman, 23: I grew up in central Russia with no father around. I think I only applied to cadet school because I longed for a father figure. My mother went to anti-Putin demonstrations. When I finished cadet school, my father, a senior police officer, showed up and said: We'll send you to tank troop school. I actually wanted to become a singer, but they trained me on the T-72 and T-80 tanks.

Artilleryman, 28: I'm from southern Russia. My mother works as a cashier in a supermarket, my father drives a bus. He's Ukrainian. My grades in school were always poor. I had to do military service, and after that I said to myself: You need to go to college. So, I enrolled in military college, they took everyone. But I quickly realized that the officer's life was not for me, and I became interested in programming and developed games. My family is my home, I would have defended it with gun in hand. But no one attacked them.

Artist, 25: I'm from northern Russia. My father is a professional soldier, he wanted me to become one too, but we were never close. I decided to study art. I was drafted for military service in fall 2021. They said: If you sign a contract, you can work a desk job, you'll never have to carry a weapon, and then you can quit again. That's how I became a professional soldier.

What Did They Do in the War?

"My hands are still shaking today."

It's an evening in late March, Rambo and the radioman are sitting on a red leather bench in an Irish pub in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. There's a shamrock flag hanging behind them, and Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Rolling Stones are playing in the background. The radioman orders a Guinness, Rambo orders a Guinness bomb: a Guinness with a shot of Jägermeister that is lowered into the beer in a shot glass like a depth charge.

Radioman: How many times did you almost die? Times when you thought, OK, this is it?

Rambo: Five, maybe.

They talk about the war, motorcycles, women and music, but they always return to the topic of the war.

Rambo: In the middle of March, I stumbled into this ambush, they were firing out of the underbrush. I was already cut off from my brigade, and I had to accompany a colonel who was going to the 90th Tank Division, which was stuck outside of Kyiv. That day, the tank in front of us hit a mine, and the truck behind us was struck by a shell, right in the cab. I was sitting there in an armored personnel carrier, a wonderful target, I don't know why they didn't fire at us. I told my gunner, swivel to the right, fire. It's a 30-millimeter gun. Everything fell silent.

Radioman: I had to climb high masts in the Donbas every six hours to change batteries at signaling stations on the front line. There I was when the alarm went off, cluster bombs. I headed down and hid under one of our tanks. Then the fucking tank suddenly started up. They hadn't realized I was beneath it. My hands are still shaking today.

Rambo was in Ukraine for almost two months. I ask him how many people he had killed during that time.

Rambo: War isn't like "Counter-Strike." On the computer, you shoot, and an indicator pops up that you hit someone in the head. In war, you get shot at, usually from the woods, and you fire back. I always told my people: If possible, capture them. Every captured Ukrainian can be exchanged for a captured Russian.

"How many people have you killed?" I repeat my question.

"I don't know," Rambo said.

The radioman spent six months in the Donbas region, and on his phone, he has saved a wanted list from Ukrainian military intelligence. He says his whole unit is on it, several thousand troops, including women, who never even crossed the border into Ukraine. Someone in his brigade must have leaked the list to the Ukrainians, he says.

Rambo downs his second Guinness bomb in the Irish Pub and describes how two soldiers from his unit raped a young Ukrainian woman, a civilian, for passing coordinates to the Ukrainian artillery. Then he reveals what happened to a Ukrainian school-aged boy who built Molotov cocktails in the village. He says a Russian snipers shot him in the forest. Rambo calls his comrade an "asshole" who would probably kill people even if there wasn't a war. He says the sniper was later killed by a German mine in the Donbas.

The radioman, Rambo and the reporter Timofey Neshitov (face vsible) in an Irish pub in Astana.

The radioman, Rambo and the reporter Timofey Neshitov (face vsible) in an Irish pub in Astana.

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

He shows a short YouTube video, saying it was taken by a Ukrainian villager in the first days of the war, halfway between Kyiv and the Russian border. A crowd is seen standing in front of two armored personnel carriers, a dog barks, an elderly woman sinks to her knees. After half a minute the tanks turn around, the female voice off-screen says: "They're taking off, the bastards."

On the red leather bench in Kazakhstan, Rambo says one of the tanks in the video was his, and that he was the one who gave the order to leave.

Rambo: Too bad, the video is so short. We drove in there with our hands up. I didn't want to shoot. You have an order, you have to drive through there, but you don't want to kill anyone. There was this grandpa on his bike who started grilling me: Why are you attacking us, we speak the same language, that kind of stuff. I said: Grandpa, we're little people. Please ride your bike to the Kremlin and tell them that there."

Rambo nods to himself each time he has finished sharing a scene from the war as he waits for the next one to emerge from his memory. He sinks another Jägermeister into his beer, strokes his beard and stares into the void. Now, it's the radioman's turn to show videos, Russian phosphorus bombings on June 29, 2022, and July 6, 2022, night skies, rooftops, chimneys, and in the distance, hundreds of balls of light slowly descending to earth. He didn't film the devastation that ensued.

Radioman: I also didn't film the 12 bodies I saw in the small marketplace near Vuhledar. Ukrainian uniforms, hands tied behind their backs. I also didn't photograph the bodies of the two soldiers from my unit who hanged themselves. They were in Ukrainian captivity, the Ukrainians had castrated them, he says.

The radioman and Rambo speak louder and louder as the evening goes on, they talk about Bucha and the global outcry after people saw images of bodies lying in the street. They say there are many Buchas in Ukraine and many corpses in the forests.

Radioman: I found out about Bucha at the beginning of April. We had WiFi again, I read news all night.

Rambo: I'm 90 percent certain that the civilians had helped the Ukrainian army. That's always dangerous, especially for uninvolved civilians just sitting in their basements trying to stay alive.

Radioman: Goddamn it, the Ukrainians are doing the right thing!

Rambo: There are many sides to this coin.

Radioman: This fucking coin has only one side, people fight for their country.

Rambo: They could join the army and fight us openly.

Radioman: I saw only dead Ukrainian soldiers during the war. If a Ukrainian were sitting across from me now, I wouldn't be able to look him in the eye.

Rambo: I don't have flashbacks at night. I think I did everything right. I ensured the maximum safety for myself and my soldiers.

How Did They Escape?

"The trip was supposed to look like a family outing."

Radioman: "I was granted home leave in August after six months of war. I visited my mother, I told her I wanted to quit the military service, she responded with cold silence. In September, on the day Putin announced the mobilization, I left my barracks. I flew to Siberia, found a car and drove to the Kazakh border. My commander called me, and I said I was hungover after a night in a bar not far from the barracks, and that tomorrow was my day off and I would be back the day after. By the time he alerted the border guards, I was already in Kazakhstan. On the way, I read the calls from Western politicians addressed to us; they were spreading like wildfire on Telegram at the time."

"Apparently, many Russians are leaving their homeland: Those who hate Putin's way and love liberal democracy are welcome to join us in Germany."

German Justice Minister Marco Bushman in a tweet from September 2022

Rambo: I deserted twice. The first time last May, from Ukraine. We had to storm a village in the Donbas several times. It made no strategic sense, and one of my men was killed there. Shot through the heart. Ultimately, we just started pretending to storm the village. We would head out in that direction and then hide in the woods before returning. It was on one of those days that I shot myself in the leg.

Forests on Google Maps on Rambo's mobile phone: "They were firing out of the underbrush."

Forests on Google Maps on Rambo's mobile phone: "They were firing out of the underbrush."

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

In Kazakhstan, Rambo shows a bullet hole in his calf. He says his commanders believed him and that he had been admitted to a hospital in Saint Petersburg and took a long sick leave. In September, he says, they told him he was healthy again and that he should pack his things to return to the Donbas. He then fled again, this time leaving Russia. He says he sold his motorcycle, took out a loan for the equivalent of 20,000 euros and bought Bitcoin. Then he wrote to Idite Lesom, an organization in Georgia whose volunteers help Russian soldiers and conscripts make their way to former Soviet republics.

The organization's name is a play on words. Read one way, it can mean a "walk through the forest," in another, "go to hell." The first is addressed to deserters, the second to the Russian authorities.

Kazakhstan is one of the few countries that Russians may enter without a passport. Most military officers don't have passports – and to get one, they need special permission from the FSB. The border between Russia and Kazakhstan is almost 7,600 kilometers (4,720 miles) long. Some deserters have crossed the border through checkpoints, while others have slipped past the border guards. One, who disguised himself as a mushroom collector, pretended he had gotten lost and accidentally crossed the border. The Kazakhs sent him back and he's now in a Siberian prison.

Rambo's escape route is kept secret by Idite Losem. The tank crewman simply drove to the border before his commander even realized he was missing.

Tank crewman: A few days before the war began, I tore my ACL playing soccer. Our boys were sent to Ukraine, I was sent to the hospital. One came back from the front and said that someone from our class had disappeared right on February 24, together with his tank. They only found his head. When I fled to Kazakhstan, I took my mother, my sister, my aunt and our dog with me. The trip was supposed to look like a family outing. My mother drove us.

Why Did They Desert?

"We were more afraid of our commanders than of the Ukrainians."

Three of the five deserters had tried to cancel their contracts with Putin's army before the war started. Until September 2022, professional soldiers in Russia were permitted to resign from service, provided they paid a penalty fee to the government for each year of unfulfilled service. That, at least, is what the law stated.

Artilleryman: I put in my notice for the first time in December 2021 and they told me it would be processed. When the war started, I asked about my application in the personnel department. The major said this was the first time he had heard about me quitting. So I handed in my notice again. At the end of February, our captain told me: You're going to Ukraine. I said: Of course, I'm not going, my father is Ukrainian.

In Kazakhstan, the artilleryman showed me a video: A man in uniform steps close to him, says "traitor" and spits in his face.

Rambo: I lost my enthusiasm for the army long before the war. When I was 21, I met an American woman online, she was studying Russian literature. We fell in love. She moved in with me in the backwater where I was stationed. It was a tiny, moldy apartment. I was constantly with my soldiers and bought her a Bengal cat. The cat lost its hair. I proposed to my girlfriend. She said "yes." One day my commander came and said, the FSB is interested in you. He was looking out for me. He said, get rid of the girl or you'll wind up in jail. I told him I was quitting. He told me to shut up.

Rambo says the American girl went back to the United States and took the cat with her. He says it was then, in 2019, that he came to the realization that laws do not apply in Russia. By law, he would have been allowed to marry the American woman, but the reality is that he was only allowed to do what his commander told him he could.

What would have happened, I asked Rambo, if he had refused the marching orders on February 24, 2022?

Rambo: No one told us: We're sending you to war. They told us we would be transferred to Ukraine for three, maybe five days, and that most of us wouldn't even notice it. My contract would have expired in the summer of 2023. I was afraid they would put me in jail first. We were more afraid of our commanders than of the Ukrainians.

The radioman also tried to quit before the invasion, in November 2021 and again in January 2022. He still has a copy of his most recent resignation letter: six handwritten lines, a date and a signature. It states that he refuses to be transferred to Crimea and that he is seeking to change professions. He says he placed the letter on his commander's desk and that the commander took a pen and drew a big penis on it. "He said he'd shoot me in the knee if I bothered him with anything like that again."

Radioman: Ever since Navalny's arrest, I have been listening to protest rock. Of the four armored personnel carriers in my unit, only on was still operational. My helmet was from 1941.

The radioman's attitude toward the war is also documented in a chat with his mother:

A necklace with a cross on the chest of the artist: "I'm just trying to think logically."

A necklace with a cross on the chest of the artist: "I'm just trying to think logically."

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

A month after the start of the invasion, his mother sent him photos from the opera in his hometown, where she had attended a performance of "Carmen."

She sent him emojis: ❤️🙏🏼💪🇷🇺.

He didn't answer. She sent him a photo of his grandmother using the fingers of both hands to form the Z-sign, the identifying mark of war supporters.

He wrote back: "I wish this was over."

Mother: "Everything will be fine, your leave is coming soon."

Him: "I hope they still terminate my contract. To hell with my leave. And to hell with this war."

Who Will Take Them In?

"I am screaming, you just can't hear it."

Artilleryman: I was able to talk to the German consul last September. He said he was aware of what his interior minister had said, but he hadn't received any new instructions since then, and he couldn't help me.

One morning in late March, the radioman went to the store to get a toothbrush, socks, toilet paper, bread, water, tea and underpants, four bags of stuff. Two days before that, the Kazakh police had detained the tank crewman. The other deserters pooled money for him. The tank crewman had panicked, the radioman said. He had booked a flight to Armenia, but had been detained at the airport. He will probably now be extradited to Russia, the radioman told me.

The radioman has grown into a new role in Kazakhstan: He looks after the newly arriving deserters, helping them find accommodations, collecting and distributing donations and arranging contact with lawyers.

On one recent morning, he joined one of the lawyers on a trip to the prison where the tank crewman was being held. He drank a Red Bull for breakfast in the car and chain smoked. They drove through the industrial area and stopped in a parking lot in front of a gray gate. The lawyer dragged the bags to the gate, the radioman stayed in the car. He didn't dare get out. He just wanted to see the prison.

Astana, the city he can't quite seem to escape, is located in the steppe. After the trip to the prison, we walked through dusty, six-lane streets, past the Presidential Palace, which is eight times bigger than the White House. Past the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr shopping center, the largest tent in the world. The city bores him, said the radioman, but this is where all the embassies are located. In the afternoon, he showed me an office building with mirrored windows: It is nine stories tall, with a security fence with metal spikes and a dozen flags behind the fence, that of Germany, Britain and Japan.

The radioman said he actually managed to make it inside once, to the German Embassy on the first floor. He told them he had a passport and an employment contract with a German company to get an appointment. "I just wanted to talk to someone in person, I thought maybe it would help if they could see my face."

The radioman has created a Google Docs spreadsheet with all the embassies, aid organizations and foundations he has contacted since his arrival: Date, contact person, response. By the end of March, the spreadsheet had 29 entries. The most common sentence in the "answer" column was "no answer."

The Kazakh capital city of Astana in March: "The city bores me."

The Kazakh capital city of Astana in March: "The city bores me."

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

He said he had written to the embassies of Britain, Canada, France, Sweden and Switzerland and had contacted Pro Asyl, Amnesty International and Human Rights First. He had gotten in touch with German organizations like the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation as well as the Red Cross.

When he arrived in Kazakhstan last September, the first thing he did was email White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, who had said in a press briefing: "There are people out there in Russia who do not want to fight Putin's war or die for it (…) Anyone seeking refuge for persecution, regardless of their nationality, may apply for asylum in the United States."

"Dear Karine Jean-Pierre," the radioman wrote to her. "I'm trapped in a vicious circle." To apply for asylum, he needed a recommendation from a U.S. Embassy, but he was told at the embassy that they were not responsible.

Karine Jean-Pierre didn't answer him.

The radioman then sent an e-mail to the German Embassy. He said his unit was still on the front lines, and he was asking for a humanitarian visa. The next day he received a reply without any name on it.

"Good day. Thank you for contacting us. A visa for humanitarian reasons is granted to a narrow group of people (usually opposition politicians and journalists or active public figures). In this case, we require documentary evidence of your active work against the war, as well as evidence that you are being threatened by the Russian authorities (we cannot tell you specifically which documents this includes). You also have to prove your connections to Germany."

The embassy also informed him that he could apply for asylum. However, he would have to be in Germany to apply due to what is called the "territoriality principle."

The radioman says he obtained a fake passport on the darknet in November for 2,500 euros. He used it in an attempt to flee to Europe a few days before the Russians put him on the international wanted list. He says he bought a ticket to Belgrade, with a stopover in Frankfurt. "I know three words in German: 'Ich heiße' (my name is) and 'Asyl'." But he says they wouldn't issue him a boarding pass at Air Astana. They said that 40 Russians had already applied for asylum in this manner, and this path had now been blocked.

The deserters meet frequently in Astana within walking distance of the European embassies in a small office where a lawyer tutors them in dealing with authorities. On this morning, another newcomer has arrived, the artist. He has only been in the country for three weeks.

The lawyer is reserved, leaving the radioman to do the talking. He gives tips to the new guy: Don't go to the airport, no SIM cards, avoid intersections with surveillance cameras. He talks about how the Kazakh government is caught between a Putin it doesn't want to agitate and a West whose money it needs. He then shares what happened to the tank crewman.

The tank crewman has been released after two days of detention. But the men in Astana aren't sure why. Are the Kazakhs now giving Putin the middle finger after all? Or has a single prosecutor gotten out of line? When the artist asks what this means for him, neither the lawyer nor the radioman can give him much of an answer. They recommend that he get used to this "limbo."

The tank crewman at the airport in Astana: "I just wanted to get out of this city."

The tank crewman at the airport in Astana: "I just wanted to get out of this city."

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

Artist: And what if the UNHCR issues me a paper, stamp and all, saying that I'm a refugee, can I go to Canada with it? I have an aunt in Canada.

Radioman: Absurdly, the UNHCR is not responsible for this. In Kazakhstan, it's the Kazakhs who decide who can call himself a refugee – and they do not recognize you as a refugee.

Artist: So, what's even the point of the UNHCR? Under international law, I am a refugee, am I not?

Radioman: You are. There is this EU directive – you can apply for asylum if your army commits war crimes.

Artist: That's what gets me.

Radioman: That's what has been getting us since September. The Kazakhs told me that I wasn't a refugee, that Article 59 of the Russian constitution applies to me. Do you know what that one is? Every citizen of the Russian Federation is obliged to defend his fatherland.

Artist: And if I show the Kazakhs this EU directive?

Radioman: You think I've been sitting here twiddling my thumbs for eight months?

Artist: I'm just trying to think logically.

Radioman: You should break that habit.

The tank crewman left Astana after his brief detention. In jail, they told him he could take a domestic flight. He flew to Almaty, to the south.

Tank crewman: When I saw all the bags in jail, all the toilet paper that the guys had brought for me, I thought: You'll be staying here forever. My cellmate was a serial killer. Then the door opens, and they say: Get moving. I was crying, I had no clue what was happening and I just wanted to get out of this city.

The radioman lives in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Astana. There's a desk next to the bed, but no chair. He lives together with his long-time girlfriend, a literature student who followed him to Kazakhstan. She has brown curls and doesn't talk much, but he listens to her when she tells him which authorities he could still contact and what else he could possibly write to them. Most recently, she recommended that he write a letter to the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican embassy in Kazakhstan.

He reads Erich Maria Remarque to her in bed at night. She says she loves "A Time To Live and a Time To Die," especially the scene where the teacher Pohlmann asks the young soldier Graeber: "You are smiling. And you are so calm? Why don't you scream?

Graeber says: "I am screaming, you just can't hear it."

Why Doesn't the West Want Them?

"The Ukrainians are laughing at us."

The few officers who have made it to the West escaped with the help of a Russian human rights activist living in exile in France. He smuggled one soldier to Paris, one to Oslo, one to Madrid, and one made it across the Mexican border into the United States.

The human rights activist's name is Vladimir Osechkin and he is known for exposing torture in Russian prisons and has good contacts in the EU. Since the beginning of the invasion, he has received more than 500 requests from Russian soldiers, he says over the phone, many more than he can answer.

Osechkin doesn't talk about the evacuation routes he uses. What he does say is that he won't be pulling out any further deserters for now. The paratrooper he brought to Paris had concealed an atrocity in which he had been indirectly involved when he entered the country. The former Wagner mercenary, who now lives in Oslo, reportedly had a run-in with Norwegian police officers outside a bar.

Osechkin says he understands the Europeans' concerns, but simply abandoning the deserters isn't a solution. He points out that he isn't the United Nations, that he doesn't have any money or any airplanes. Perhaps, he says, there could be an island somewhere in Europe where Russian deserters could be allowed to go temporarily. He suggests they could be questioned there, given a psychiatric examination, and a decision could then be made on how to proceed.

A letter to the Apostolic Nunciature in Astana.

A letter to the Apostolic Nunciature in Astana.

Foto: Max Sher / DER SPIEGEL

Artilleryman: I have cousins in the Ukrainian army. In January, I wrote to the Ukrainian consul and asked for a meeting. I wanted to offer to fight for Ukraine or write software for Ukrainian companies. The consul didn't answer me. The Ukrainians are laughing at us. I understand, they live with death every day, and we're whining here in Kazakhstan. But sometimes I envy them. They have a homeland they are fighting for.

In Astana, the radioman makes almost daily phone calls to former comrades who are still on the front lines. The Ukrainians' spring offensive is getting closer, Putin has tightened border controls for his soldiers. Very few, the radioman says, would still dare to flee now. "They're more likely to kill in the hope that they'll survive."

Those who have made it to Kazakhstan also don't know for how long they will still be safe. On some days, when they are desperate, they joke about Baikonur, the largest spaceport on Earth, which is located in the south of Kazakhstan. It's from there that Yuri Gagarin flew into space. "Maybe I'll get shot into space and land in Germany on a rocket," says the radioman.

When I said goodbye to Rambo and the radioman in Astana, they were smoking in front of a fast-food restaurant.

Rambo: If I were European, I wouldn't take someone like me in either. I'm not an Olympic champion, I'm not going to win them any medals or anything.

Radioman: But what about humanitarian values? You help someone because they need help, not because you need them. Even you gave 1,000 tenge to a beggar here yesterday.

Rambo: "I just wanted to get rid of my spare change."

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