As reported by Censor.NET, Reuters agency was told about this by the very soldiers and their lawyers. The stories place in question the Kremlin's statements that there is no Russian army in Ukraine and that Russian citizens fight for the rebels only as volunteers.
"The number of facts that Russian citizens are in the war in Ukraine is over-the-top: Russian weapons are found on battle fields, families of Russian soldiers give proofs, and Ukrainian prisoners confirm they were taken by Russian paratroopers. After Boris Nemtsov's murder, the politician's colleagues are finishing his report, providing new evidence of Russian military presence in Ukraine. However, by now one could hardly ever find Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, who would be ready to tell about it. Even more rarely one managed to talk to those who had left their military service. Reuters contacted five soldiers who had recently left their service, including two who confessed that they did it to avoid being sent to Ukraine," the medium informs, as translated from the Russian edition.
One of them lives in Moscow. He told that last summer he was sent to the Rostov region [of Russia] for military trainings, but instead he found himself in a tank within a convoy of armored vehicles in Ukraine.
"A lieutenant colonel said after border crossing that one could be put to prison for not fulfilling an order. Some began to refuse to be there," the former military, who had served in the elite Kantemirov tank division, said. As the rest of the soldiers, he spoke on condition of full anonymity, fearing possible prosecution.
He saw soldiers refusing to fight.
"I saw two soldiers like that. They were taken away. The lieutenant colonel said that criminal cases were opened against them, but in fact, we contacted them and they were at home, just having retired."
Russian President V.Putin denied many times that Russian Federation sent its army to help pro-Russia rebels in the east of Ukraine, where, in spite of the armistice, the military clashes are going on and the death toll is rising. Putin's spokesman denied charges presented by NATO, EU and Kyiv. Moscow claims that any Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine is a volunteer, helping pro-Russian separatists voluntarily.
But retired Russian soldiers and their lawyers suggested otherwise. They told Reuters of soldiers who were afraid of going to Ukraine as they had to fight, or how they were disappointed by the way their command met them upon return from the Ukrainian territory.
A former tankman from Moscow says he wouldn't go to Ukraine voluntarily.
"Oh no, why go there? This isn't our war. If our troops were there legally, then yes, that would be a different story."
He says he was sent to Ukraine at the end of August last year, and he came back to Russia in early September during the first peace talks. His crew operated a modernized Russian tank T-72B3.
"(Upon returning to Russia) we were lined up and told that we would all be given leave, combat pay, awards," the soldier says. But eventually, according to him, none of them received what they were promised. Not even after they reminded their commanding officers about their promises.
"We decided to quit. There were 14 of us."
In Russia, all men aged 18 to 27 are drafted to serve in the military for a year. By law, draftees cannot be sent to serve abroad. However, according to human rights attorneys, commanding officers use financial incentives to pressure draftees into signing up for a contract term as career soldiers, and then send them to Ukraine.
Another soldier, who says he left the army because of the fighting in Ukraine, is only 21 and he was in charge of a Grad multiple rocket launcher system. The serviceman, who has asked Reuters not to disclose his name and unit, said that last summer his vehicle was redeployed to a battle position somewhere in the Rostov area, approximately 2 km from the Ukrainian border in the south-west of Russia. Although commanders referred to those movements as training exercise, soldiers treated them as real combat.
"We moved out without our distinctive marks. We removed all rank and unit insignia. It was all gone. We were told no one wore it in the field."
These movements indeed resembled a training exercise until the beginning of September, when the combat unit received order to open fire at a target located at distance of "17 kilometers, maybe less." He said that, possibly, the target was located in Ukraine:
"I was hoping we weren't firing at people. Or, at least, that I missed it."
He said that he heard from his army buddies about another troop from his unit, which crossed the border and stayed in Ukraine for 10 days.
"It's unclear who's fighting, what for, and what's the point of it," he said. At the end of January, this soldier was on leave when he was suddenly called back to the unit.
"We were redeployed to a different troop, which was supposed to move out to a field training somewhere in the Rostov area. We were told that this would be a large-scale field exercise involving significant number of units," the former military said.
He has no evidence of it, but he does not doubt that the urgent call back to the unit has to do with the war in Ukraine. "Why else would they call us back from the leave?"
Watch more: Russian military equipment convoy passes through Luhansk. VIDEO
He and four other soldiers decided that it was better to retire from the army than go to fight in Ukraine. They completed the discharge procedures in March, according to the military source, and that is confirmed by human rights activists and the military prosecutor's office.
Family of another Russian soldier who, as suspected by his relatives, was sent to Ukraine said they were desperate to find understanding. In October, military brought a headless body to family of paratrooper Pavel Zhilin from Voronezh. They said Zhilin, who served in the 331st Guards Airborne Regiment of the 98th Division, was killed on maneuvers in Russia. The family of the paratrooper doubted this version. The first suspicions came when a TV channel showed paratroopers from the same company held as POWs in Ukraine. Later, Putin suggested that they might have gotten lost and crossed the border by error.
The military insisted that the headless body belonged to the 22-year-old paratrooper and that he was killed during training in the Rostov region, not Ukraine. The documents issued by military officials said that he was killed by a shell burst.
Families of Russians who were killed in Ukraine usually receive compensation of 5 million rubles ($90,000), human rights activists say.
According to soldiers, their families and Russian media, the majority of troops that fought in Ukraine last summer, voluntarily or not, came from central regions of Russia, the North Caucasus, and the Volga Region. However, Reuters correspondents in the east of Ukraine encountered soldiers in winter who came from other regions of Russia.
Their presence gives weight to a version that soldiers from bordering Ukraine regions are reluctant to participate in military actions.
Earlier this year, armed men of Asian appearance were seen in the Donbas riding in armored vehicles and patrolling checkpoints. The soldiers happened to be Buryats, representatives of the Mongolian ethnic group from the south of Siberia, who live near Lake Baikal, which is about 4,500 kilometers from Ukraine.
Buryat politician Dorzho Dugarov says that one of his district's soldiers, who had returned from Ukraine, told him that "people from western part of Russia do not want to go fight to Ukraine, and their morale is very low."
39-year-old fighter from Donetsk Evgene Romanenko told Reuters that during the February fighting for Debaltseve he was the driver of a military truck as part of armored column, which was accompanied by two tanks with Buryat crews.
"They were covering us. One was ahead of us, another one behind us," Romanenko said in a hospital in Yenakieve, where he was treated after getting a shrapnel in his leg.
In response to a question whether Buryats were Russian soldiers, Romanenko said:
"Yes, they were, that's for sure. The guys were from over there, and it is clear how they got here and what for."