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The Russian Soldier Who Surrendered to a Ukrainian Drone – WSJ (video)

  • Trying to survive bombardment in the trenches, draftee Ruslan Anitin pleaded with a drone to spare his life
Watch video: Footage from a Ukrainian drone shows Russian draftee Ruslan Anitin attempting to communicate to a drone camera.( video:Achilles)

Stephen Kalin, Isabel Coles and Ievgeniia Sivorka, WSJ

KUPYANSK, Ukraine
EnergiesNet.com 06 14 2023

Russian draftee Ruslan Anitin was being hunted by Ukrainian drones dropping small bombs. For hours, he scurried up and down a narrow trench.

As the sun began to set on May 9he gazed up at a small machine buzzing overhead. Parched, exhausted and alone, Anitin crossed his arms above his head and clasped his hands together, pleading into the drone’s camera to stop the bombardment.

His face was beamed onto a screen at a command post of Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade a few miles away, near the eastern city of Bakhmut. Col. Pavlo Fedosenko conferred with other officers, then sent an order over the radio to the drone pilots.

Try to take him alive.

If Anitin’s experience is any indication, Russian morale appeared to be fraying even before the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive began. A Ukrainian hotline for Russians who want to surrender has received more than 17,000 inquiries since September, Ukrainian officials said. Social-media posts show draftees pleading for more equipment and their wives back home complaining that they are ill-equipped and under heavy bombardment at the front despite being promised jobs in the rear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow had been able to fight off Ukraine’s counteroffensive so far but acknowledged losing a significant number of tanks.

Anitin is one of the few Russian soldiers to try to surrender to a drone. Drone footage reviewed by The Wall Street Journal captured in its entirety the frantic efforts of a man trying to survive bombardment in the trenches.

Anitin, 30 years old, a slight man with a receding hairline, studied to be a veterinarian and never expected to end up in the middle of a war. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 of last year, he was a marshal at Penal Colony No. 3, a prison near his hometown of Idritsa. His social-media posts at the time, including images of the Russian flag and comments such as “Let’s punish the fascists,” suggested he supported the war.

A tattoo on his hand reading “Za-VDV,” or “For the Airborne Forces,” was a memento from the year of mandatory military service he completed nearly a decade ago, he said in a recent interview. He said he assumed only the professional army would be fighting in Ukraine. “It felt like it was never going to involve us at all,” he said.

That changed in September, when Russia mobilized civilians into the army after a string of battlefield losses. By then, Anitin was managing a liquor store in Idritsa, a town of 5,000 near the Latvian border. His income and his wife’s provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. 

Anitin, who was working as a liquor-store manager, said Russian commanders had told him he would stay in Russia to fortify the border. (Sasha Maslov/WSJ)
Anitin, who was working as a liquor-store manager, said Russian commanders had told him he would stay in Russia to fortify the border. (Sasha Maslov/WSJ)

After his shift ended one Sunday, he said he received a call to report to his local draft office. Officials there told him they were going through names alphabetically. One told him to go home to pack and show up the next morning or face jail time for evasion.

Anitin left home before dawn the next day. His wife sobbed when he told her he had been drafted, so he said his goodbyes the night before and didn’t wake her or their 3-year-old daughter before he left. “I didn’t see the point,” he said.

He and three other villagers were bussed to a larger town. So many men were being mobilized that officials skipped medical checks. They were given uniforms and Soviet-era rifles. In weeks of training they got only two chances to fire the weapons, Anitin said.

Commanders told the men they would stay in Russia to fortify the border. Within a month, Anitin was shipped into Ukraine. His unit performed guard duties and built fortified positions in Luhansk, an eastern region of Ukraine partially seized by Russia in 2014. For months, he said, they saw no fighting.

That changed in early May. The commander of his platoon said they were moving to Bakhmut to cover for retreating assault teams. Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner Group, had just threatened to withdraw his men after they sustained tens of thousands of casualties in their push to capture the city.

“We understood that they wanted to throw us into that meat grinder,” said Anitin.

The next evening, he rode in a military truck to a patch of woodland a few hundred yards from the front line. His commander picked him out along with two other recruits, including Dmitri Ivanov, a 21-year-old restaurant worker whom Anitin had befriended. They were told to advance into the trench system closest to Ukrainian lines, take shelter and sit tight, Anitin said.

The men carried a total of four meals and six bottles of water. Around 1 a.m., a Wagner fighter guided them to the nearest trench, where they immediately came under mortar fire that lasted about 40 minutes. The Wagner fighter warned them: “If you refuse to execute a mission, you get shot. And if you try to retreat, you also get shot.”

Footage from a Ukrainian drone shows Anitin walking through trenches.
(Achilles)

During a short pause in the shelling, Anitin and the others ran to the next trench. It was hard to find shelter from the shelling just 200 yards from Ukrainian positions. The men groped around in the darkness, stepping on discarded bags, weapons and, as they discovered once dawn broke, dozens of dead bodies.

“They weren’t fresh. They must have been there for a week or two,” said Anitin.

He and Ivanov eventually discovered burrows in the walls of the trench. They climbed inside for protection.

Small Chinese-made drones driven by four propellers, the kind used for panoramic wedding videos, were a constant menace. They sent live video that corrected targeting for Ukrainian artillery. Some had been modified with claws that dropped explosive rounds, originally made for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, directly into the trench.

Some of the Ukrainian drones have been modified with claws that allow them to drop explosive rounds.
Some of the Ukrainian drones have been modified with claws that allow them to drop explosive rounds.(Photo: CODE 9.2)

Around 7 a.m., a blast injured Ivanov and wounded Anitin in the head, chest and shoulder. Anitin found a walkie-talkie and radioed commanders for help. No response. They hadn’t been given an evacuation point, either.

A few hours later, he was crouched inside a burrow when Ivanov ran past. An explosion sent shrapnel into Ivanov’s lower back. He shouted to Anitin that he couldn’t feel his legs. Moments later, a third explosion hit him.

“I’m not well, brother,” Anitin recalled him saying.

All this time, the Ukrainians piloting the drones were watching everything the terrified Russians were doing. Anitin moved to another position. Ivanov pulled the pin from a hand grenade and detonated it next to his head. The third man in their group was seriously wounded. He later shot himself with his own rifle, the Ukrainians said.

Anitin was on his own. Drone and mortar attacks continued all afternoon. By around 5 p.m., he had no energy left. “I thought I would end up staying in that trench forever,” he said.

Then he got an idea: Surrender to the drone.

A still image from Ukrainian drone footage shows Anitin pleading to the camera to spare his life. PHOTO: CODE 9.2
A still image from Ukrainian drone footage shows Anitin pleading to the camera to spare his life.(Photo: CODE 9.2)

He stood up without his rifle and gestured with his hands to stop attacking. Footage recorded by the drones shows him drawing his finger across his neck and shaking his head—his plea to the Ukrainians not to kill him if he surrendered.

He didn’t have a clear plan, he said, but thought it was worth a shot.

In another set of trenches a few hundred feet away, the Ukrainian drone pilots were suspicious, they later recalled, fearing a trap. 

The pilots watched Anitin’s body language and used the drones to respond—up and down for yes, left and right for no. They would flash a light on the drones—once for yes and twice for no—a system that he proposed to them through a series of hand gestures.

Anitin didn’t know whether he would be understood. When the drone started moving away, he said, he was filled with relief and decided to follow it.

Ukrainian drone footage shows Anitin using hand gestures to propose a system for communicating yes and no.

Ukrainian drone footage shows Anitin using hand gestures to propose a system for communicating yes and no.
(Achilles)

Ukrainian drone pilots had been operating in the area since March. The Wagner troops leading the fight, they noticed, moved quickly and hid well. Regular Russian army recruits were slower and moved in groups, making them easier to pick off, the pilots said. 

All day, the pilots had been using drones to kill the Russians with small grenades—a few dozen in all.

An assault drone had already set out to kill Anitin, according to its pilot, a 26-year-old Ukrainian who uses the call sign Boxer. After seeing the high-definition images of Anitin pleading for his life, Boxer aborted his mission and dropped the grenade short of his position. 

“Despite that he is an enemy, even though he has killed our boys, I still felt sorry for him,” he said. 

Ukrainian officers at the command post told Boxer to make contact. He took a Sharpie marker from his medical kit and wrote in Russian on packaging from his food rations, “Surrender follow the drone.” He filled the packaging with dirt for heft.

A Ukrainian drone pilot wrote in Russian on packaging from his food rations: ‘Surrender follow the drone.’ He then attached the message to the drone.  (Photo: Achilles (2)
A Ukrainian drone pilot wrote in Russian on packaging from his food rations: ‘Surrender follow the drone.’ He then attached the message to the drone.  (Photo: Achilles (2)

The drone flew a four-minute route and dropped the note to Anitin, who clambered over the wall of the trench to retrieve it. That’s when he knew this was for real. “They made their will known, and I showed them that I agreed,” he said.

The drones watched Anitin set off into no-man’s land. He stepped over discarded rifles, grenades and helmets, and navigated around severed limbs and decaying bodies. “He was walking like a zombie. He was walking on top of his dead comrades lying around him,” said a second lieutenant in the 92nd Brigade’s Achilles drone company who uses the call sign Touareg.

Achilles and another drone unit called Code 9.2 took turns leading Anitin on a winding route through multiple trenches to minimize the danger, flying for 30 minutes at a time and then replacing their batteries. The Russian soldier looked up at them occasionally, seeking confirmation that he wasn’t going to be harmed. He stopped frequently to sip water from a bottle lying on the ground, smoke a cigarette or just rest.

When he reached the end of one trench, he walked along a main road, then paused beside a disabled armored personnel carrier. Seconds later, an explosion erupted on the other side of the vehicle. Russian artillery appeared to be targeting him.

Footage from Ukrainian drones shows Anitin attempting to reach safety. (Code 9.2)
Footage from Ukrainian drones shows Anitin attempting to reach safety. (Code 9.2)

The drones watched him continue down the road, raising his hands in the air as Ukrainian trenches came into view. Caught between two clashing armies, he took cover in artillery craters. Mortars rocked the ground and bullets whizzed overhead. Shrapnel from an explosion downed one of the drones.

Anitin was within sight of a Ukrainian position ringed by barbed wire. He made a run for it, dodging a Russian mortar. Wary of spooking the Ukrainians, he dropped to his knees and removed his helmet and flak jacket. He rose and hurried toward a trench, where two soldiers pointed their rifles at him. They pinned him to the ground, bound his hands and loaded him into a Humvee truck. (For the full video of Anitin’s escape and capture, click here.)

Less than a week later, advancing Ukrainian forces captured the trench where Anitin’s ordeal began. By then, he was sharing a cell at a detention facility in the Kharkiv region with three other captured recruits.

He spoke to the Journal there on May 19 in the presence of a guard. The room’s lime-green walls were bare except for a poster with instructions for making calls on one of four phones.

The head of the facility said prisoners of war could contact their relatives by letter conveyed by the Red Cross. Anitin said he hadn’t attempted to get in touch with his family. His daughter turned 4 the day before he was captured. 

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Even though he could face jail if returned to Russia in a prisoner swap, Anitin said that is all he wants now.

“Let them lock me up,” he said. “I’d like to return home to my family, and never experience the sorts of things that I have seen here.”

Anitin is escorted back to his cell at a detention facility in the Kharkiv region.
Anitin is escorted back to his cell at a detention facility in the Kharkiv region. ( Sasha Maslov/WSJ)

Kate Vtorygina contributed to this article.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

wsj.com 06 14 2023

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