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‘Nobody understood what was happening’ Meduza tells the story of Albert Sakhibgareyev — a Russian contract soldier who deserted from the war in Ukraine

Source: Meduza

Five weeks ago, 25-year-old contract soldier Albert Sakhibgareyev was in Russia’s Belgorod region, several miles from the Ukrainian border, where his brigade was “conducting training exercises.” Sakhibgareyev says he and his fellow soldiers would fire “wherever they were ordered to,” though what exactly they were firing at was unclear. According to him, he didn’t understand he was in a real war until the Ukrainian side started firing back; soon after that, he deserted. Meduza reports on how a soldier from Bashkortostan decided enough was enough.

Albert Sakhibgareyev is a 25-year-old contract soldier from Bashkortostan, Russia. When he was younger, he dreamed of serving in the army. After finishing his mandatory military service in 2021 (Meduza has his military ID card), he signed a contract for three more years. At the beginning, Sakhibgareyev served in his home republic; after that, he was transferred to Nizhny Novgorod to serve in the 288th Artillery Brigade at Military Base No. 30683.

At the beginning of February 2022, his brigade was sent to Belgorod region, near the Ukrainian border, to conduct some exercises. “They didn’t warn us about any ‘special military operation’; we were just going to do some training. After arriving, we just sat there, waiting for something,” Sakhibgareyev told Meduza.

On February 23, the servicemen were ordered to put on body armor and not to remove it; they were then given automatic weapons. Not long beforehand, a significant amount of artillery ammunition had been brought to the base — much more than was usually necessary for training, according to Sakhibgareyev. “Nobody explained anything to us at all,” said Sakhibgareyev. “They just told us to load the ammo in the vehicles, and that was it. They said we were going to change locations. Every day, we brought ammo from one place to another. Nobody understood what was happening. We thought it was training.”

A frame from an official video produced by the Russian Defense Ministry that shows soldiers participating in exercises in the Rostov region. January 28, 2022.
Russian Defense Ministry press service / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Sakhibgareyev is certain his commanders knew about the “special military operation” ahead of time and were preparing for it, even as they hid it from the soldiers. “They just told us there would be a march to the other [Ukrainian] side. Nobody told us why. And if they give you an order, you have no choice but to follow it,” said ​​Sakhibgareyev.

On February 24, the brigade began firing from artillery vehicles “in whatever direction they were ordered.” ​​Sakhibgareyev claims none of the soldiers knew what targets they were shooting at.

The servicemen started to suspect this was something more than an exercise when the other side started firing back. Shells began landing in a district about two kilometers from ​​Sakhibgareyev’s brigade. “We realized something was wrong. Training is never conducted close to villages where people live, but that’s where [the shells] were falling. It meant Ukraine must be shooting in the opposite direction to defend itself.”

​​Sakhibgareyev had his phone with him, and he soon read online that Russia had begun invading Ukraine. “We realized our armed forces had attacked [Ukraine]. We realized this was a real war. We were all in shock. We weren’t really prepared for this.”

Albert Sakhibgareyev
Albert Sakhibgareyev's personal archive

‘Why should I serve with someone who would attack his own?’

“What’s happening right now [the war in Ukraine] is wrong. I don’t support it at all,” said Sakhibgareyev. He emphasized that he “couldn’t disobey orders.”

Sakhibgareyev’s brigade never crossed the Ukrainian border: they fired all of their shells from the Belgorod region in Russia. Sakhibgareyev claims that his assigned task was to guard the artillery depot — and that he didn’t directly participate in any combat.

According to Sakhibgareyev, on March 2, when the war had already been going on for over a week, he was assaulted by Senior Warrant Officer Vladislav Tikhonov. According to Sakhibgareyev, earlier that day he had asked one of his commanders for permission to go to the store, and the commander said yes. When Sakhibgareyev returned, another commander, Tikhonov, attacked him, beating him up and breaking his arm.

“Maybe he was offended that I hadn't asked him. Other people saw it happen. They dragged him away, and I just got up and left,” said Sakhibgareyev. Before that, he told Meduza, he and Tikhonov hadn’t gotten into any conflicts.

After the incident with Tikhonov, Sakhibgareyev decided to leave his base, and he did; nobody stopped him. After that, he hitched a ride and left Belgorod for Moscow. “Why should I serve with someone who would attack his own?” he said. “How could I go into battle with him? If he has an automatic weapon, he’ll shoot his own soldier in the back.”

A day passed before they started searching for him. Sakhibgareyev’s mother, Galina, told Meduza that the base called her to tell her that her son had gone to buy cigarettes and never returned. They asked her to call her son and ask him to report to the base.

She called him immediately. “He told me everything was fine. I told him I’d call him back after I left work. That evening, when I left work, his phone number was no longer available,” she said.

The next morning, Galina called the base herself. She remembers the conversation going like this:

“Well, did he report to the base?” she asked.

“No, he never came.”

“How did he leave, what was the reason? Did he have his things with him? No?”

They couldn’t answer.

“Are you looking for him? Why haven’t you searched?”

“He’s probably just hanging out with some local alcoholics. He’ll come back — we’re allowed to move freely!”

“I didn’t raise an alcoholic!”

After the call, Galina got in touch with the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which helped her get in touch with the military base in Nizhny Novgorod. “They said, ‘What, is he actually lost? We didn’t even know!’” said Galina.

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On March 8, Sakhibgareyev finally reached Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. Since then, he’s been hiding in a rental apartment. It wasn’t until March 20 that he finally decided to go to the hospital to get the injuries Tikhonov had given him treated. He was diagnosed with a closed fused fracture in his hand, which was put in a cast (Meduza has obtained his medical records).

Meduza also examined Sakhibgareyev’s resignation report. In it, he explains that he was “forced to leave the military unit because he was concerned for his life and health and did not want to continue taking part in combat on Ukrainian territory as it goes against his beliefs”:

“On February 24, 2022, military servicemen from Military Base No. 30683, including myself, directly participated in the special military operation on Ukrainian territory. Before that, we were not notified of the beginning of the special operation or its goals in any way… I believe that further service under the given conditions, in which I was hazed, physical force was used against me, and I was required to participate in special military operations that contradicted my beliefs, is impossible.”

Sakhibgareyev and his lawyer, Almaz Nabiyev, also plan to file a police report against Senior Warrant Officer Vladislav Tikhonov, who broke Sakhibgareyev’s arm.

Nabiyev believes Sakhibgareyev’s arrest is unavoidable, even if he manages to prove there was hazing going on in the brigade. “Based on my experience, if we apply to the military prosecutor’s office, they will initiate a criminal case against [Sakhibgareyev]. He’ll most likely be arrested and sent to a detention center.”

According to Article 337 of Russia’s Criminal Code, “unauthorized abandonment of a military unit for a short period” is punishable by up to six months sin prison; if a soldier returns in less than a month, it’s punishable by up to three years in prison. If a soldier is gone for more than a month, he can receive up to five years in prison. And for desertion (Criminal Code Article 338), which is defined as “the unauthorized abandonment of a unit or place of service with the intention of evading military service,” he can be imprisoned for up to seven years.

The military unit where Sakhibgareyev served has already called his mother and told her that Sakhibgareyev is to report to Nizhny Novgorod, where he will be fired officially. Sakhibgareyev himself has no plans to return to his unit; he no longer wants to serve in the Russian army, and he plans to terminate his contract.

“My son tells me the things he and the other soldiers talked about there: ‘Who knows who my bullet will hit when we go into battle! It’s not just a war with Ukraine, Mom, it’s also a war between themselves, Mom, they’re fighting,’” said Galina. “Even if he doesn’t break his contract, I’ll break it for him! I don’t need him coming home in a coffin.”

Meduza reached out to Lieutenant Dmitry Glukhov, Sakhibgareyev’s immediate superior — but after hearing our question, Glukhov hung up the phone. Meduza also sent an official request to the Russian Defense Ministry, but at the time of publication, nobody from the Ministry had responded.

The military unit where Sakhibgareyev served didn’t answer any of Meduza’s questions, either. Meduza also called the contact number that was previously listed in recruitment announcements for the unit. The person who answered said, “A correspondent for Meduza? Aren’t you ashamed to call? Goodbye,” and hung up.

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Story by Sasha Sivtsova, with assistance from Igor Zimin

Translation by Sam Breazeale