For Russia, he is a traitor and a right-wing extremist. In Ukraine, it’s a Russian who fights against his own country.
There are patients with nerve damage, burns, broken bones, even an amputated leg – and it seems almost everyone’s inked arms and legs are covered in shrapnel wounds.
Stepan Kaplunov lies on a bed with a medieval-looking contraption moving his leg back and forth – both legs were broken in battle when a tank shell exploded next to him.
Sporting a shaved head, a beard and a sleeve of tattoos, he looks just like every other Ukrainian soldier in the room – except Kaplunov is actually Russian. This is the only citizenship he holds.
Born in Ivanovo, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, he grew up in Russia’s far north and later joined the Russian army, serving a tour of duty in Syria. He showed us his identity papers to prove his Russian birth.
He described himself as an « opponent of the Russian government and the presidential regime » and described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a « tyrant who aspires to restore the USSR ».
Yet, says Kaplunov, he never felt compelled to act against his opposition, until 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing Crimea and part of the Donbass region. .
It moved me, » he told CNN through a translator. « I’m not going to say 100% of my motivation is exactly justice. There is a predisposition in people, people who like adventure, risk taking. I had been a soldier before and wanted to apply my skills, and I had sympathy for Ukraine, I thought Ukraine was right and deserved help. »
So he crossed the border and joined the Azov Battalion – then a motley militia of Ukraine’s most diehard fighters, many of whom were ultra-nationalists and white supremacists.
Kaplunov says he was drawn to the battalion because it was the easiest for foreigners to join and he already knew people, contrary to far-right ideology.
« I didn’t really have a choice, » he said. « Maybe I would have gone to another battalion or to a regular Ukrainian military unit, but I only had acquaintances in Azov, so I went there. »
Azov has since integrated into the regular Ukrainian army and tried to distance himself from his extremist origins, although Russia still considers the battalion a band of neo-Nazis.
Kaplunov, who says he left Azov after two years, and bounced around other Ukrainian army units, proudly sports a « Born to Kill » tattoo on his left arm, and the German phrase « Sieg Oder Tod, » meaning « victory or death », a battle cry widely used throughout history, but also linked to the Third Reich.
« It’s my motto in life. I liked the way it sounded and the way it was written, » he said.
CNN has contacted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and the Azov Battalion for comment.
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Kaplunov says he found himself defending a village in the eastern suburbs of Kyiv with a rifle and a rocket launcher. Helmet video he provided to CNN shows close calls, injured colleagues and torched Russian tanks. Eventually his luck ran out and he was hit by a tank shell.
« I remember I had a very bad concussion and my ears were bleeding. Also, I had a concussion of all internal organs and shrapnel in my eye. So when I came back to reason after a few seconds I couldn’t see anything, » he recalls. « I tried to crawl and wanted to blow myself up with a grenade to avoid being taken prisoner. »
Kaplunov says he would have preferred to die rather than be captured because he feared that if captured he would have been killed, tortured or imprisoned. A law passed this month by Russia’s parliament on state treason explicitly bars Russian citizens from fighting in any military conflict against Russia – punishable by up to 20 years behind bars. It also prohibits the display of Nazi emblems.
« I have nothing to prove »
In 2019, a popular pro-Russian blog claimed that Kaplunov had a tattoo of Hitler’s deputy Heinrich Himmler on his arm, and a swastika on his chest. CNN found the claim after meeting with Kaplunov twice. None of his arms show a Himmler tattoo, and in a later video call he denied having a swastika or any other Nazi imagery on his chest, although he refused to prove it.
« I don’t want to take my shirt off. But I don’t have this tattoo, » he said. « I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. »
He openly describes himself as a « Ukrainian nationalist », but says he never held neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.
His case illustrates the complex realities of this war, and the ideological and propaganda war waged alongside the actual battlefield.
Russia has sought to justify and galvanize public support for its « special military operation » by magnifying a small minority of far-right extremists in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials regularly accuse the Russians of being racists and neo-Nazis bent on annihilating the Ukrainian people. In April, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted: « Russian Nazis have declared a war of extermination against Ukraine ».
Kaplunov’s decision to fight against his own country cost him friends in Russia. He says others quietly supported him. He also earned the wrath of the Russian state. His name was published by the Russian government’s official gazette on a list of more than 200 people suspected by the government of terrorism or extremist activity.
His parents are still in Russia and Kaplunov says they were visited by Russian security services, but he never worried about their safety.
« Russia, of course, is a country of a certain anarchy, but certain norms and rights are still respected there. So my parents have no problem, » he said.
Ukraine is his home now, and he sees his future here, even though Kaplunov still doesn’t have a Ukrainian passport and doesn’t feel particularly Ukrainian. He is still Russian.
« I really like Ukraine, » he said. « But I still have parents and grandparents. All Russian. »
For Vlad Pashka, his Ukrainian comrade in the bed next to his in the rehab center, it doesn’t matter.
« Despite the fact that in his country he is considered a criminal, a mercenary, there is always a bed for him in my house, he will always be fed, because he defends my house, » Pashka said.
Kaplunov knows he will probably never be able to return to Russia, nor return to the front any time soon. His wounds are extensive. Both of his legs are broken, he cannot walk without crutches, his hand is disfigured and his eyes are very sensitive to light.
His recovery will take months or more. But he says that when he regains full health, he will go straight back to war.