Russia calls man a traitor, Ukraine wary of “betrayal”
There is a sterile rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Kyiv, surrounded by rows of Soviet-style housing buildings, packed with injured Ukrainian soldiers.
Nearly everyone’s tattooed arms and legs are covered in shrapnel wounds, including people who have suffered nerve damage, burns, breaks, and even an amputation.
He’s lying in bed with his legs being moved by something that looks medieval. Stepan Kaplunov’s legs were severed by a tank shell explosion that happened to be right next to him.
It’s hard to tell Kaplunov from the other Ukrainian soldiers in the room because of his bearded appearance and tattooed sleeve. Only one citizenship does he have: that of the United States.
His birthplace is 150 miles northeast of Moscow, and he was raised in Russia’s far north, where he served a tour of service with Russia’s military in Syria. To establish his Russian origins, he provided us with a copy of his birth certificate.
As a “opponent of the Russian government and the presidential rule,” he referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “tyrant who is longing to revive the Soviet Union.”
Then Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, taking Crimea and the majority of the Donbas region, prompting Kaplunov to take action.
Through a translator, he said, “It moved me. As I said earlier, I’m not going to argue that justice is the sole source of my inspiration. People are born with a tendency for adventure and risk-taking. I had served in the military before and wanted to put my experience to good use, and I had a deep empathy for Ukraine, which I thought needed support.”
In any case, he crossed the border and joined the Azov Battalion, which at the time consisted of a motley crew of some of Ukraine’s most ardent soldiers, many of whom were white nationalists and supremacists.
Kaplunov claims he was lured to the battalion because it was the most accessible for foreigners to join and because he already had friends in it.
There wasn’t much he could do about it. A other battalion or regular Ukrainian military force may have been more appropriate, but I only knew people from Azov, so I went there instead.
Despite the battalion’s efforts to disassociate itself from its neo-Nazi past, Russia still considers it as a terrorist organization.
There have been reports of Russian-held territory civilians being screened for tattoos that could indicate ties to the Azov Battalion or far-right nationalism.
On his left forearm, Kaplunov proudly displays a “Born to Kill” tattoo and the German phrase “Sieg Oder Tod,” which translates as “victory or death,” a war cry that has been used throughout history, as well as a reference to the Nazis.
“I live by that motto.” The sound and style of writing appealed to him, he claimed.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Azov Battalion were approached by CNN for comment.
He says he found himself in the eastern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. Near misses, injured coworkers, and burned-out Russian tanks are all captured on his helmet camera footage, which he kindly shared with CNN. As a result, he eventually met his match when he was shelled by a tank.
“You know, my ears were bleeding and my head was concussed. In addition, I suffered a shrapnel cut to my eye and a concussion of my internal organs.” After a few seconds, he came to his senses and realized that he couldn’t see anything. “In order to avoid being taken prisoner, I tried to crawl away and wanted to blow myself up with a grenade.”
Kaplunov claims he would have preferred to die than be captured because he feared being killed, tortured, or imprisoned if he had been found. Foreign military involvement in any confrontation with Russia is punishable by up to 20 years in prison under a bill passed by the Russian parliament this month on state treason. It also makes it illegal to flaunt Nazi symbols.
Kaplunov was said to have a tattoo of Hitler’s deputy, Heinrich Himmler, on his bicep and a swastika on his chest, according to a popular pro-Russian site in 2019. After speaking with Kaplunov twice, CNN discovered the claim. On a subsequent video chat, he denied that he had a swastika or any other Nazi symbol on his chest, but he refused to provide any proof to back it up.
The thought of removing my shirt makes me squirm. As for the tattoo: “I don’t have it,” he added. “I don’t have anything to prove to anyone,” I declare.
“Ukrainian nationalism” is an accurate description, but he denies ever having espoused neo-Nazi or white supremacism views.
Ideological and propaganda warfare are being waged in conjunction to real-world battles in this war, and his situation shows this reality.
A small fraction of far-right radicals in Ukraine has been used to legitimize Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Throughout Ukraine, politicians regularly accuse Russians of being racists and neo-Nazis intent on eradicating the Ukrainian people. “The Russian Nazis have declared a war of annihilation on Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tweeted in April.
In Russia, several of Kaplunov’s closest friends were hurt by his decision to fight against his own country. Others, he claims, silently backed him up. He has also enraged the Russian government. Russia’s official newspaper issued a list with the names of more than 200 people accused of terrorist or extremist activities by the Russian government.
Kaplunov adds that Russian security agencies have visited his parents in Russia, but he is not concerned about their safety.
While Russia is a lawless country, there are still some basic rights and rules that are upheld in the country. As a result, he remarked, “My parents have no issues at all.”
Although Kaplunov does not have a Ukrainian passport and does not feel particularly Ukrainian, Ukraine has become his home and he sees his future here, even though he does not feel particularly Ukrainian. He is still Russian.
“I’m quite fond of Ukraine,” he stated.
As far as his Ukrainian comrade Vlad Pachka is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference to him.
When Pachka spoke about the mercenary’s status in his own nation, “despite the fact that he is a criminal, he will always have a place to sleep in my house and he will always be fed,” he stated.
If Kaplunov returns to Russia, it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the front lines again. The extent of his injuries is clear. He lost the use of both of his legs, is unable to walk without the aid of crutches, has a disfigured hand, and has extremely sensitive eyes.
He will be out of commission for months, if not longer, as he continues to recuperate. But he claims he plans to return to combat as soon as he’s well enough to do it.