He wrote a book describing a Russian military so ill-prepared when it invaded Ukraine that he didn’t know his unit had entered the country until he awoke to the sound of artillery fire.
Now 34-year-old Pavel Filatiev, who says he was a paratrooper in Russia’s military, is seeking political asylum in France after arriving there last weekend. He has been greeted as a hero by some in the West, his book embraced by Kremlin opponents as proof of what he has called a “terrible war.”
But Mr. Filatiev remains a scourge and a traitor in his native Russia, at least among proponents of the war who know of his existence, as opponents of the invasion are aggressively censored. Some critics also say his book ignores the strong support for President Vladimir V. Putin and the war among many Russians and Russian soldiers.
Mr. Filatiev’s account of his time in Ukraine could not be independently verified by The New York Times. Kamalia Mehtiyeva, his lawyer, said he was awaiting a decision in the coming days on whether he could remain in France as a refugee. “He fears persecution from the Russian Federation,” she said by phone from Paris.
According to his book, Mr. Filatiev spent about two months as a paratrooper stationed in the southern Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv, and contracted an eye infection in a trench. He then tried to leave the army after being sent to a military hospital in Sevastopol, citing health reasons. But he writes that he was threatened with prosecution unless he returned.
He fled Russia in August after publishing his book “ZOV,” which refers to the symbols painted on Russian military vehicles, and escaping to France via Tunisia.
“We had no moral right to attack another country, especially the people closest to us,” he writes in the book, which he self-published on VKontakte, a Russian social media network, in August. “We started a terrible war,” he writes, “a war in which cities are destroyed and which leads to the deaths of children, women and the elderly.”
“ZOV” describes a chaotic Russian army in which demoralized recruits were equipped with rusty guns and ill-fitting uniforms. On Feb. 24, the day the invasion began, Mr. Filatiev writes that he and other soldiers were shocked to learn they were invading Ukraine.
“I woke up at around 2 a.m.,” he writes. “The column was lined up somewhere in the wilderness, and everyone had turned off their engines and headlights,” he continues. “I couldn’t understand: Are we firing at advancing Ukrainians? Or maybe at NATO? Or are we attacking? Who is this hellish shelling aimed at?”
Later, he characterizes the Russian Army as lacking basic supplies. During a military operation in occupied Kherson in March, he writes, desperate Russian soldiers raided buildings looking for food, water, showers, and a place to sleep, and looted everything they could find of value, including computers and clothing.
Mr. Filatiev’s account was widely reported by independent Russian media outlets, most of them based outside the country. But state-run outlets have conspicuously ignored him. And even some Ukrainians on social media have lashed out against attempts to glorify or praise him, given that he fought in Ukraine.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Russian opposition activist and ally of the jailed dissident Aleksei A. Navalny, said that Mr. Filatiev had blood on his hands.
“Honestly, I am skeptical about his decision because he went there and fought there,” he said on his show on YouTube.
In an interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency, Mr. Filatiev said he believed he had a moral imperative to say what was happening in Ukraine.
“I want people in Russia and in the world to know how this war came about,” he told the news agency.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris.
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