By Tom Balmforth and Parniyan Zemaryalai
KYIV (Reuters) – A former senior executive at Russian lender Gazprombank said on Thursday that he fled Russia for Ukraine hoping to take up arms against Moscow’s invasion and that he believed President Vladimir Putin was leading Russia to catastrophe.
Igor Volobuev, 50, who holds a Russian passport and was until recently a vice president at Gazprombank, told Reuters in an interview in the capital Kyiv that he had been moved to act because of his Ukrainian roots and family.
The public defection is extraordinary because of his senior role in a company that is at the heart of the Russian establishment and is chaired by Alexei Miller, the CEO of gas giant of Gazprom, who is a close Putin ally.
It also illustrates the close mesh of family links between the two countries.
Volobuev was born in Okhtyrka in Ukraine’s northeastern region of Sumy where Russian forces poured into in late February.
“I came here to defend my motherland because the war started (in places) like my hometown Okhtyrka – it was one of the first cities to be hit by bombing,” he said.
He arrived in Ukraine on March 2 and declared at the border that he wanted to join Ukraine’s territorial defence force, he said.
“They said no, but maybe I can find a way. I hope (I can),” he said. “They said we have enough of our own (people) with military experience.”
He declined to elaborate on how he left Russia and managed to get to Kyiv. Checkpoints have been set up across Ukraine during the war and it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to move around easily with Russian documents.
Volobuev gave his interview on Independence Square, the spiritual home of the Euromaidan protest movement that toppled a Moscow-backed president in 2014. Russia annexed Crimea after that and backed separatists in the east.
There were tank traps and sandbags on the side of the road and armed soldiers milled around. An air raid siren sounded overhead as Volobuev arrived. Few people took notice; couples posed for photographs.
Volobuev described the war as a sin and was categorical in his criticism of Putin.
“Russia has no future. I think this country (Russia) will break up. Putin has already brought Russia to a catastrophe,” he said.
“I’m not afraid,” he added.
“If I was looking for safety, I wouldn’t have come here, I’d have continued to live a well-fed life of plenty and everything would have been well. I understood I was going to war.”
Russia describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special operation” aimed at degrading Kyiv’s military power and protecting Russian-speakers living in the east of the country.
Volobuev said he had opposed the annexation of Crimea, but that he had decided for the last eight years to choose the welfare of his family over that of Ukraine.
February’s invasion had made him choose Ukraine over his loved ones, he said, and he feared they could now be in danger. He declined to elaborate more about their situation or whereabouts.
“I never felt like Russia was my motherland. My motherland was Ukraine,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Parniyan Zemaryalai, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)