A Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine has said he switched sides to oppose “genocide” in his first interview.
Appearing on television on Sunday night, Maksim Kuzminov said he felt “sorry for what is happening right now: killings, tears, and blood”.
The 28-year-old flew a Russian Mi-8 helicopter across the front line in Kharkiv in a coordinated operation with Ukrainian military intelligence (GUR).
On Monday, the GUR released a clip claiming the pilot landed in Ukraine on Aug 9 carrying “valuable documents” and “secret technical equipment”.
Mr Kuzminov wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Ukrainian trident in the interview and said it was his idea to defect.
“I got in touch with representatives of the Ukrainian military intelligence and explained my situation to them,” he said.
“They offered me a deal to promise me safety, new documents and a reward.”
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukrainian intelligence, has previously said the pilot’s family was extracted from Russia before the operation while other crew members were killed when they tried to flee upon landing in Ukraine.
Mr Kuzminov offered no details on his role during the past 18 months, saying only that he felt regret as “what is happening is nothing but a genocide of the Ukrainian people”.
Dramatic crossing during a mission
The GUR identified Mr Kuzminov as a pilot of the 319th helicopter regiment of the Russian air force, based in Russia’s Far East close to China. The operation reportedly took about six months to plan.
The dramatic border crossing occurred during a mission when Mr Kuzminov was flying close to the border with northeastern Ukraine. He contacted his handlers and suggested it was a good moment to flee.
“I said, ‘Let’s try it. I’m very close by’,” he said.
“I flew on at the lowest possible altitude with radio silence. No one really knew where I was.”
He said it probably took his commanders a few days to realise he had defected.
Russia’s defence ministry has not commented but a Telegram channel linked to the military previously insisted the pilot landed in Ukraine by mistake.
Others did not surrender
Ukrainian intelligence showed what appeared to be footage of the helicopter landing in a field, with two Ukrainian commandos running towards it and rushing inside.
In a separate statement GUR confirmed that two other Russian crew members had no idea about the nature of their mission and that they “decided not to surrender and died right after the landing”.
Mr Kuzminov did not comment on their deaths.
The GUR, which has previously urged Russian troops to surrender or defect, published Mr Kuzminov’s interview on Sunday as part of a one-hour documentary about its recent covert operations.
Echoing the GUR’s suggestion, Mr Kuzminov has called on other Russian pilots to follow his example.
He said Kyiv would take care of them and they would “never regret it”.
Social media accounts of Mr Kuzminov and his friends suggest that he is indeed a military pilot, according to Russian media.
Speaking to Russia’s Agentsvo website, Alexander Nikolayev, a pilot school classmate of Mr Kuzminov, confirmed that he recognised him in the GUR’s video.
Both men were pictured together in several photos posted online. Agentsvo also discovered that Mr Kuzminov was a registered taxpayer at a pilot school in the town of Syzran between 2016 and 2019.