If we had more people, we could have taken control of Belgorod — Caesar, Freedom of Russia Legion member
Since March, the military groups that make up the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion have been increasing their activities in Russia's Bryansk and Belgorod regions, near the border with Ukraine. These units, comprising Russians, successfully crossed into Russia from Ukraine and carried out a number of military and political missions. Espreso talked with Caesar, a fighter with and spokesperson for the Freedom of Russia Legion.
The correspondent of Espreso TV channel Artem Lahutenko talked with Caesar about the composition and purpose of the legion, political views, and impressions of military raids on Russian territory.
Caesar, are there Ukrainian soldiers or any other Ukrainian forces fighting in the units on Russian territory?
No, there are no Ukrainian soldiers or any other Ukrainian groups in Russia. In fact, there are no foreign citizens there at all. Only Russian citizens are involved in handling internal matters and addressing political issues through armed resistance against Putin's regime, as it is the only option available to us.
What are you using in the fight? Do you have equipment or weapons that Ukraine obtained from our Western allies in the last year and a half?
Everything we use in the Russian Federation, I want to highlight, is the equipment or weapons seized during battles with the Russian Federation's army and the already captured Belgorod region on Russian territory.
Caesar, I want to understand the training and combat experience of the Legion. Did you fight in Ukraine during the Russian invasion?
Yes, that's right. The Legion defended and continues to defend Ukraine. It's our first duty and a matter of honor to the Ukrainian people. We fought in different places like Lysychansk, Kherson, Severodonetsk, and the Kharkiv direction. We spent most of our time near Bakhmut, fighting there throughout the autumn and winter. Now, we've decided to come back to our homeland.
What is your goal and how do you plan to achieve it? We saw the Legion's actions in Russia for a few days before you left. Will it be the same this time, or are you aiming to liberate Russia thoroughly?
Let me explain. We're still there (this conversation took place on June 7). There are ongoing battles of local importance. The first operation in the Grayvoron district was like a test, where we assessed the enemy's resistance, the political situation, and how the population would react. We wanted to understand how the enemy's army would fight on their own territory. Now, we have set ourselves a more ambitious goal, and we have been successful. We see that Putin's security forces are not well organized. The soldiers show bravery, but the officers and the overall structure are unprepared for war. If we launch a bigger operation with clearer objectives, we could take control of Belgorod.
Do you have more troops on your side?
Yes, we do. Unlike the Russian army, we don't lose our ability to fight, but we're actually getting stronger. We are growing in terms of quality and quantity, and gaining valuable combat experience. More and more people are supporting us, including local residents who are joining our cause. We also have a strong partisan movement within Russia, which can be seen through numerous acts of sabotage against military facilities and infrastructure. It's only a matter of time before these two trends intersect - a declining Russian army and an increasing fighting capability of our Legion.
Caesar, that's interesting. When you say people join you, what do you mean?
Well, during our first operation in the Grayvoron district, we started receiving messages not only from residents of major cities like Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk, but also from people in villages. They would say, "Come to our village, we want to join you." This is a clear sign. It shows that not only city dwellers, but also those in rural areas understand that Putin's regime is destroying Russia. Over the past 20 years, they have witnessed the true nature of Putin's government. Yes, you see the glamour and luxury in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but once you venture just 50 kilometers away, as someone who used to live in St. Petersburg, let me tell you what you find in the villages: alcoholics, young Russian men hooked on heroin, syringes, and empty bottles. That's the reality. The local drug dealers are part of the picture too. The whole scene is one of decay, with dilapidated houses. It wasn't always like this. People used to live and work there. Their work was valued, and they enjoyed cultural activities during their free time. But now, there's nothing. The choice is simple: either die or move to the city. That's it. And Russians understand this. You see, Putin isn't just killing Ukraine now. For the past 20 years, he has systematically been destroying Russia. Take a look at the population of Russia 20 years ago and compare it to today - that alone will show you the truth. People don't want to live in this country anymore. They don't want to have children. It's clear, isn't it? And those who understand this also realize that peaceful protests, flags, and inflatable balloons won't solve anything. If a girl draws a poster, she's sent to an orphanage, and her father is thrown into prison. Unfortunately, there's no other way out. We've been pushed to the brink. We now understand that if we don't stop this madness by force... Yesterday it was the Kakhovka HPP, what will it be tomorrow? Zaporizhzhia NPP? Will this cowardly man press the red button? It surprises me how he's still in power. As someone who is armed and goes to the battlefield, I can't comprehend how the soldiers of Putin's regime see him as a leader. He's a weak, deceitful old man who hides behind body doubles and fears everything. Meanwhile, there are ordinary Russians ready to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of Ukraine and their own homeland. It's truly surprising to me. I always thought the military had more intelligence and honor. It appears they are more concerned about their apartments, certificates, and hefty payments. This is the degradation of all the institutions in the Russian state. But we will change all that, and we will succeed.
Caesar, if I understand correctly, is the Legion's goal to completely free the Russian Federation?
Yes, absolutely. The goal is complete liberation, and that means we have to engage in military actions. There's no other way around it. It's like having advanced cancer that can't be cured with medicine alone. We need to remove the tumor. Unfortunately, there's no other choice. However, from what I've seen in the first two operations in the Belgorod region, the regime's ability to resist is greatly exaggerated. They are in shock, panic, and disarray. If you look at the governor's actions and the Russian army's response, they're afraid to face us in battle. Right now, they're mainly using artillery and air strikes to level populated areas, but it doesn't cause us much harm. We know how to take cover and seek shelter, especially after the battles in Bakhmut. Civilians are having a hard time, and their properties are being destroyed. But once the conflict ends, things can be rebuilt. Unlike Putin, we don't just claim to support our own; we genuinely do.
I would like to understand the extent of the damage caused by Putin's forces to Russian cities and villages while failing to locate and neutralize you. Can you provide an estimate of how many civilians have been affected?
I don't have specific statistics at the moment, and it's uncertain if we'll have them by the end of the operation. However, I can tell you that there has been widespread shelling. When our group entered the first settlement, we were immediately targeted by 80 rockets. That was just the beginning. They continued to bombard with artillery. Look at Bakhmut as an example. They have no other methods to deal with their own people.
Do you know how the people in the villages greet you, considering that some are willing to volunteer and join the Legion? What is the general mood of the people in the areas you visit, and how do they react to your presence?
The response is mostly calm and friendly. There is a small but growing number of people who understand who is responsible and what needs to be done. We easily connect with these people, especially as they witness our attitude towards them compared to the Russian soldiers. I was shocked to witness the atrocities committed by the Russian army and security forces in Ukraine. Interestingly, upon entering as part of the first group, I observed Russian soldiers looting houses, even of their fellow Russians. When we captured a group of soldiers, their documents revealed that they were not just from Pskov or Novgorod but also from Belgorod. This demonstrates the moral decline in Russia today, where fellow Belgorod residents are being robbed by their own people as they try to flee and save their lives. It's an absolute moral low, and it's horrifying that Putin has brought the Russian people to such a deplorable state. We will continue to fight against it until the end.
Caesar, after the counteroffensive operation in the Kharkiv region, it was estimated that the largest and most significant aid that Ukraine received came from the Russian Federation. I understand that you also captured a substantial amount of enemy equipment and soldiers. Can you provide some details about this?
I cannot give precise numbers at the moment, but let's just say it's significant. Perhaps you've already seen recent reports with dozens of captured soldiers. We have obtained a considerable amount of equipment and weapons. It's quite impressive. As soon as we enter a village, we often find abandoned AGS or capture mortars and tanks. We're pleased with the outcome. The Legion consists of highly educated and hardworking individuals, which allows us to make necessary repairs and improvements. It's like a business operation—put in one mortar, get two. That's how efficient we are. As a result, our supplies from military sources are expanding. We're very happy and satisfied, and we'll continue to do so.
Caesar, I'd like to inquire about the funding of the Legion. Do you receive support from Russian immigrants, or do you primarily rely on assistance from within the Russian Federation?
We receive help from both individuals within Russia and Russian immigrants. However, it's important to note that this assistance comes from individuals rather than organizations. It can be disheartening at times. I'm aware of the state of the Russian opposition, and it's quite sad. Everyone within the Russian opposition knows what needs to be done once Putin's regime falls. They have already planned how to rebuild Russia and divide responsibilities. Yet, they are reluctant to help those of us who are on the front lines fighting against Putin. On the contrary, they criticize and hinder our efforts. The list of names is endless, and it includes various figures within the Russian opposition, from analysts to politicians and journalists. This lack of unity and inability to collaborate is one of the reasons why Putin still holds power in Russia. They are too preoccupied with internal power struggles instead of taking action.
I think there might be some people in the Russian opposition whom you have a good relationship with. Like Ilya Ponomaryov. Am I correct?
Ilya Ponomaryov is one of the few politicians who shares the same views and direction as us. Since the beginning of the war, he has been consistent in his ideas and hasn't changed them. He believes that the regime can only be changed through force and that we need to establish a legal and legislative platform in advance, rather than rushing things. It's a sensible position. Unfortunately, others don't seem to support these ideas.
Perhaps someone else from your country. However, he is not a politician. Aleksandr Nevzorov. What do you think of him?
Well, to be honest, he didn't pay much attention to us for a long time. But recently, something incredible happened: he acknowledged our existence. And what did he call us? Belgorod filibusters, right? We feel flattered by the recognition from a Master of Journalism. Especially because he spoke positively about us and our fellow fighters. He appreciated our qualities as human beings. He saw how Russian servicemen are, like a herd that follows orders without thinking. He noticed the vast difference in intelligence and our clear understanding of how Russia should live. We have honor and dignity, and we are not willing to compromise on that. So, we're very pleased that he recognized us and has even started providing us with information support. We're grateful to him if he can hear us now!
One last question for you, but it's an interesting one, in my opinion. The events in the Belgorod region seem to have many similarities with what the Russian Federation did in the Ukrainian Donbass. I'm referring to the so-called LPR and DPR. Is this just a coincidence or are Legion fighters purposely trolling at a high level?
Well, let's just say we are known for our trolling! We enjoy it. Firstly, as the Romans said, you have to fight the enemy with their own tactics. There's always something to learn, even from the enemy, during war. That's the first reason. But there is an important distinction to note. The events in 2014 were a classic example of hybrid warfare, where these quasi-republics were created. Now, it's not the work of external forces but the Russian people themselves who are tired of Putinism. They are the ones taking action, not puppets. We will do things our own way, the Russian way, in a real and effective manner.