First Russian pilot defects to Ukraine, says others should follow

A 28-year-old Russian military pilot who defected to Ukraine last month has detailed his escape in a helicopter, encouraging others to follow.

“You’ll be provided for for the rest of your lives. You will be offered a job everywhere, no matter what you do. You’ll simply discover a world of colors,” Capt. Maksim Kuzminov said in a video released by Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, known as HUR. “When all this opens up before you, your views will fundamentally change.”

In the video released Monday, Kuzminov said he first reached out to HUR in late 2022 and agreed on a plan to defect by flying his Mi-8 helicopter into Ukraine via a safe corridor. He said he flew the aircraft from an air base in Kursk, Russia, at an “extremely low altitude in radio silence mode” to avoid detection en route to Vovchansk in northeastern Ukraine.

“I contacted representatives of Ukrainian intelligence, explained my situation, to which they offered this option: ‘Come on, we guarantee your safety, guarantee new documents, guarantee monetary compensation, a reward,’” he said.

The interview offered a host of new details on the daring escape, which took place Aug. 9 and marked the first time a Russian pilot defected since the start of the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022.

HUR head Kyrylo Budanov earlier in August told Radio Liberty how Ukrainian officials helped the pilot defect by creating “the conditions to get his whole family out undetected, and eventually create the conditions so that he could take over this aircraft with a crew that did not know what was happening.”

Budanov added that two other Russian service members were on board the helicopter when Kuzminov began his escape and tried to run after the aircraft landed but were killed by Ukrainian forces.

Kuzminov, who said he was a Russian military transport pilot — moving troops and equipment across Russia and into occupied territory in Ukraine after the war began — chose to leave Russia as he was opposed to the war.

“When everything started there were tears, suffering, fear and a question: Why does our country need this war?” Kuzminov said. “I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Independent Russian Telegram channel Agenstvo identified Kuzminov as a pilot of the 319th separate helicopter regiment of the Eastern Military District, an army aviation regiment based in Primorsk in Russia’s Far East.

Although Kuzminov said he was living a comfortable life when the war began, he first wrote to HUR via Telegram to come up with his escape plan as “the motivation for my action was to not contribute to these [war] crimes.”

Russia, meanwhile, has not commented on the defection.

HUR has encouraged more Russian service members to defect by promising financial compensation for any Russian equipment stolen and given to the Ukrainians, as well as similar treatment as Kuzminov has been given.

The new details come as Ukraine is making some gains in its counteroffensive in the south after months of limited forward movement against Russian forces.

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