For Russia, he is a traitor and a right-wing extremist. In Ukraine, he is Russian, fighting against his country.

There are patients with nerve damage, burns, fractures, even with a leg amputated – and almost all of them seem to have tattooed arms and legs riddled with shrapnel wounds.

Stepan Kaplunov lies on a bed with a medieval contraption, moving his leg back and forth – both legs were broken in battle when a tank shell exploded next to him.

With a shaved head, beard and tattoos on his sleeve, he looks like every other Ukrainian soldier in the room, except that Kaplunov is actually Russian. This is the only citizenship he has.

Born in Ivanovo, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, he grew up in Russia’s far north and later joined the Russian military after serving in Syria. He showed us documents confirming his Russian origin.

He called himself “an opponent of the Russian government and the presidential regime”, and called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a tyrant who yearns for the restoration of the USSR.”

However, Kaplunov says he never felt compelled to act against his opposition until 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing Crimea and part of the Donbass.

It touched me,” he told CNN through an interpreter. – I’m not going to say that 100% my motivation is precisely justice. People have a predisposition, people who love adventure, risk. I used to be a soldier and wanted to apply my skills and I sympathized with Ukraine, I thought Ukraine was right and deserved help.”

So he crossed the border and joined the Azov Battalion, at the time a ragtag militias of Ukraine’s most ardent militants, many of whom were ultra-nationalists and white supremacists.

Kaplunov says he was drawn to the battalion because it was easiest for foreigners to join and he already knew the people in it, not the far-right ideology.

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” he said. “Perhaps I would have gone to another battalion or a regular Ukrainian military unit, but I only had acquaintances in Azov, so I went there.”

Stepan Kaplunov was wounded by a tank shell explosion next to him and is currently undergoing rehabilitation.

Fears of capture

Azov has since merged with the regular Ukrainian armed forces and attempted to distance itself from its extremist origins, though Russia still considers the battalion to be a neo-Nazi gang.

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Kaplunov, who says he left Azov after two years and has been bouncing around other Ukrainian army units, proudly wears a “Born to Kill” tattoo on his left arm and the German phrase “Sieg Oder Tod,” which means “victory or victory.” death”, a battle cry widely used throughout history, but also associated with the Third Reich.

“This is my motto for life. I liked the way it sounded and how it was written,” he said.

CNN contacted the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and the Azov Battalion for comment.

When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Kaplunov says he had to defend a village in the eastern suburbs of Kyiv with a rifle and grenade launcher. Helmet camera video, which he provided to CNN, shows close calls, wounded colleagues and burnt-out Russian tanks. In the end, luck turned away, and a tank shell hit him.

“I remember that I was very concussed, and my ears were bleeding. Plus, I had a concussion of all the internal organs and a shrapnel wound in the eye. So when I came to my senses a few seconds later, I didn’t see anything,” he recalled. “I tried to crawl away and wanted to blow myself up with a grenade so as not to be captured.”

Kaplunov says he would rather die than be captured because he was afraid that if he was caught, he would be killed, tortured or imprisoned. A law passed this month by the Russian parliament on high treason expressly prohibits Russian citizens from participating in any military conflict against Russia, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. It also bans the display of Nazi emblems.

Stepan Kaplunov calls himself a

“I don’t need to prove anything”

In 2019, a popular pro-Russian blog claimed that Kaplunov had a tattoo of Hitler’s deputy Heinrich Himmler on his arm and a swastika on his chest. CNN discovered the claim after meeting with Kaplunov twice. There is no Himmler tattoo on either of his arms, and during a subsequent video call, he denied that he had a swastika or any other Nazi images on his chest, although he refused to prove it.

“I don’t want to take off my shirt. But I don’t have this tattoo,” he said. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”

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He openly describes himself as a “Ukrainian nationalist” but says he has never held neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.

His case illustrates the complex realities of this war, as well as the ideological and propaganda war that goes on in parallel with the real battlefield.

Russia has sought to justify and galvanize public support for its “special military operation” by glorifying a small minority of far-right extremists in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials regularly accuse Russians of racism and neo-Nazis who seek to destroy the Ukrainian people. In April, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted: “Russian Nazis have declared a war of annihilation on Ukraine.”

Kaplunov’s decision to fight against his own country cost him several friends in Russia. He says the others quietly supported him. He also deserved the wrath of the Russian state. His name was published by the official newspaper of the Russian government on a list of more than 200 people suspected by the government of terrorism or extremist activities.

His parents are still in Russia, and Kaplunov says they were visited by the Russian security services, but he never worried about their safety.

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“Russia, of course, is a country of certain lawlessness, but still some norms and rights are observed there. So my parents have no problems at all,” he said.

Ukraine is now his home, and he sees his future here, although Kaplunov still does not have a Ukrainian passport and does not feel particularly Ukrainian. He is still Russian.

“I love Ukraine very much,” he said. “But I still have parents, grandparents. All Russians.”

For Vlad Pachka, his Ukrainian comrade lying next to him in the rehabilitation center, it doesn’t matter.

“Despite the fact that in his country he is considered a criminal, a mercenary, in my house there is always a bed for him, he will always be fed, because he protects my house,” Pack said.

Kaplunov knows that he will most likely never be able to return to Russia and will not be able to return to the front lines anytime soon. His injuries are extensive. Both of his legs are broken, he cannot walk without crutches, his arm is disfigured, and his eyes are very sensitive to light.

His recovery will take months, if not more. But he says that when he recovers, he will immediately return to the war.

Cristiana Moisescu of CNN contributed to this report.

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