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“The young Belarusian who selflessly covered me lost his life”: Former Gazprombank exec and decorated AFU soldier shares war experience

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Igor Volobuev, the former vice president of Russia's Gazprombank, who joined the Ukrainian army after Russia’s full-scale invasion, has recently been honored with the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s (AFU) Cross of Military Merit. During a conversation with The Insider, he admitted not fully understanding the reason for receiving the award, and recounted an incident where he assisted in rescuing a wounded Ukrainian soldier from shelling. Volobuev also described sustaining injuries himself near Bakhmut, shared his encounter with the Wagner Group’s convicts-turned-mercenaries, and witnessed the sacrifice of a Belarusian soldier. He added that he was the sole Russian in his AFU unit at that time.

Volobuev got the award in late July, but unveiled the photo recently.

Volobuev served as a vice president at Russia’s Gazprombank until spring 2022, when he says he left his position to join the fight in Ukraine. Born in Okhtyrka in Ukraine’s Sumy Region, Volobuev described not being able to “stay on the sidelines watching Russia ravaging my motherland.” he previously told The Insider.

No one wears awards on the front lines, especially now, Volobuev explained. He said he hasn't given it much thought, but suggested he might wear the cross “on a very special occasion.”

“I myself don't know exactly why I was given the award. I was wounded near Bakhmut and spent two months recovering. I was wounded in the shoulder. We were pulling out a wounded fighter, dragging him through a trench under fire. It was a knee-deep swamp, [there was] mud. We dragged him a hundred meters for about an hour, pulled him up to the top, where there used to be an evacuation point, but the Russians shelled it so heavily that armored vehicles couldn’t reach the area. So we had to carry him on our backs for a kilometer and a half.
While we were catching our breath, the wounded man lay on the ground, conscious. I planned to take the stretcher from behind, on the left, while a young guy, around twenty years old, stood beside me. He touched my armor and urged me to stand in front of him. Moving to the center, we formed a group of three on one side and four on the other. As we took a couple of steps, an explosion occurred. I initially thought it was right behind us, and in the chaos, I believed the young man had been torn apart. It turned out that he wasn't, but tragically, he lost his life. He was a young Belarusian who selflessly covered me and sacrificed himself. He had chosen to be in that spot, though it should have been me. As a result, I sustained injuries, and everyone else was wounded too, including the initially injured man who got wounded again. We managed to rescue the wounded man, and he survived. Now I serve in the International Legion of the AFU and I have not been associated with the Freedom of Russia Legion for a long time.
We came across the Wagner PMC near Bakhmut, they were criminals. They were great ‘meat’ — they were thrown to the slaughter wave after wave. They were killed, and then they went again. Their submissiveness was really strange — they knew that they wouldn't break through. They took out ten men, they were mowed down, and on it went, several times. Before [Wagner we saw] the regular army in some places. Now the Russians have progressed in their fighting skills, they're learning to fight at the cost of huge losses. It's probably even harder to fight them now. But the Ukrainian army had already been fighting for 8 years at the time of the invasion, so it has much more experience.”

Volobuev says he believes he does not have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and realized in the war that he has a strong psyche. The former Gazprombank vice-president also said that Russians are not hated, but “despised for doing nothing to help even themselves.” However, he clarified that his experience living in Russia led him to realize that the latter is impossible:

“The war didn’t change me in any way, I realized that I have a very strong psyche. All these horrors didn't really affect me, because I realize that it’s normal for this situation. I don't have nightmares, I don't have any post-traumatic syndrome. I can't say that I had any drastic changes that affected me internally.
I just didn't know what I was like because I'd never been to war, not even in the army. I guess I'm relieved in a way, because I'm at peace with the horrors of war. There’s probably some anger and bitterness, but I had it before. Most people don't hate — they despise. They despise [Russians] for their weakness and cowardice, especially those Russians, who seem to be against the war, but do nothing to help not even us, but themselves. There’s this false sense in Ukraine that people in Russia will stand up and do something. The whole burden is on Ukrainians, and we here want someone to help and share our burden. I don't believe in this, because I lived there (in Russia) and I realize that this is impossible. It's not hatred, but rather a disgust towards almost all Russians.
When I was wounded near Bakhmut, I was the only Russian in my unit. I had traveled a hard road to get into the army. Nobody wanted to take me. They said that I was a ‘fighter of one battle’ and that I would be killed immediately because I had no experience. Yeah, and age too, but my physical condition isn’t that bad. So I tried to knock on every door. Even where doors were opened at the last minute, they were then slammed right in my face. The reason is simple: no one wanted to do business with me because it's a risk. ‘What do we do with it? What if he’s mince meat? What if there's something wrong with him? What if he backs out and I signed on for him?” [Taking me on needed] responsibility. It was easier not to deal with. It's not like I'm some great fighter, there's enough [willing soldiers around]. My problem was and still is mainly that.
I was originally associated with the ‘Freedom of Russia’ Legion. Then I was transferred south to a small tactical unit for five months. It was a completely different unit, not associated with the legion. I could not serve in regular AFU units, but I could, as I do now, serve in the AFU’s International Legion. After being wounded, I was in hospitals for two months and since June 1 I have already returned to the unit.”

Asked about the timing of the end of the war in Ukraine, Volobuev suggested that fighting will continue until the end of the year:

“I have a feeling that when the war ends, it will turn out that no one could have foreseen such an ending. Last year I thought it would end this year, that was the hope. Now I think that nothing will end this year, God willing [it ends] next year. This is all at the level of feelings, I don't know any facts that give me reason to think so.”

Ukraine's Cross of Military Merit was established by decree of President Volodymyr Zelensky on 5 May 2022. The decree states that the award was “established to honor servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine [...] for outstanding personal bravery and courage or an outstanding heroic act while performing a combat mission in conditions of danger to life and direct contact with the enemy; outstanding success in commanding troops (forces) during military (combat) operations.”

The same person may be awarded the Cross of Military Merit no more than three times. There are no state benefits for the holders of the cross, but the awardees are entitled to the benefits provided for all military personnel in Ukraine.

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