From Bosnia to Ukraine: How a Serb Sportsman Became a Russian Fighter

A Bosnian Serb former martial arts fighter has been posting videos and pictures online, documenting his new life as a volunteer soldier with a Russian unit fighting in Ukraine. BIRN was able to track his posts, following his journey to the frontline.
Afew weeks after returning home to Modrica in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, after several years in Switzerland, Dario Ristic left for another trip abroad.

But this time, his father, Ljubomir Ristic, worries whether Dario will ever come back.

“I expect something bad [to happen to him],” he said, standing in the doorway of his house in Mladicevo, a settlement in Modrica.

The last time he was away, according to his father, Dario was in prison in Switzerland. This time, he let neighbours know that he was off to Russia.

Online posts from Russia and Ukraine tracked by BIRN show that Ristic is now a volunteer soldier fighting for Russia in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

His father also found out from his other son that Ristic, a martial arts fighter who has won medals in competitions, now has Russian citizenship.

He and his fellow fighters have been posting videos and photos glorifying their involvement in Russia’s continuing war against Ukraine. Some have also threatened to bring violence home with them.

In one video posted on Telegram, a fellow volunteer from Serbia sits next to Ristic in a trench and vows to return and seize back Serbia’s former province of Kosovo by force.

“Once we are done with these NATO fascists here, we’ll come there personally to regain our shrines and what is ours,” he declares. “Glory to God, glory to Mother Russia – to victory!”

The video was one of several published on the Permski Medvedi Channel on Telegram in March this year, before it was closed in April. Permski Medvedi, or Bears from Perm – a city in Russia – are the unit that Ristic joined.

Over several weeks, BIRN followed these social media posts and Ristic’s progress and, with additional media from his other social media accounts and interviews with his family, reconstructed his path to the frontline in Ukraine.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago, this is one of the few cases in which it has been possible to establish the identity of volunteers fighting on the Russian side.

The first post that attracted the attention of BIRN was published on Permski Medvedi in early March. It depicted a masked man in a trench holding an automatic weapon and issuing a greeting: “To Modrica from the Serb volunteers.”

The eyes of the man sending greetings to his hometown are the only thing that can be seen of him on the photo. But previous posts on the same channel on Ristic’s own social media accounts, as well as interviews with his family and security sources, revealed his identity and his path from Sarajevo airport in November 2023 to the trenches in Ukraine in March 2024.

Photographs and other posts on Telegram and Russia’s VKontakte social network, which helped BIRN journalists to identify him, indicate that Ristic was in Russian-occupied Ukraine in late 2023 and in Russia in mid-February 2024.

Dario’s brother, Danijel, confirmed this in a telephone interview, after which he stopped answering BIRN’s calls. He said Dario had flown to Russia from Sarajevo. He’d communicated with his brother over the phone and online, and had last spoken to him in March.

A source from the Bosnian security services confirmed to BIRN that Ristic flew to Istanbul from Sarajevo on November 17, 2023. Going to fight abroad is illegal in Bosnia, so volunteers fly via Istanbul instead of flying directly from Belgrade to Moscow or travelling via Moldova in order to fool Bosnian police agencies, said military commentator and journalist Dean Dzebic.

“What has become the biggest problem for volunteers is how to transfer to Moscow,” he said.
Ristic did not publish details about his journey but in December he could be seen in Ukraine in the company of several other men.

Another soldier posted a photo on VKontakte showing Ristic in Lugansk on December 31. Ristic previously posted a photo on VKontakte depicting him holding a gun and wearing a camouflage uniform, with the flags of Russia and Serbia displayed behind him.

In mid-February 2024, Ristic then became the administrator of the Permski Medvedi channel on Telegram.

From mid-January, Ristic’s fellow Permski Medvedi fighter Zeljko Tomic was posting photographs on social media showing Ristic and other volunteers undergoing military training. Similar posts can be found on the Permski Medvedi unit’s Telegram channel, including a video of a training session with Ristic and other volunteers in camouflage uniforms with guns.

Judging by the photographs he posted on Telegram, Ristic has also operated a kamikaze drone – a weapon that the Russian Army often uses in attacks in Ukraine.

‘War with the West started in Bosnia’

The Permski Medvedi unit’s channel is connected to other pro-Russian channels with tens of thousands of followers from Serbia and Republika Srpska who promoted it. This was how BIRN’s journalists first found out about it.

It contains a dedication to Russian volunteers who fought for the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-5 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of them is Aleksandar Kravchenko, who has often attended celebrations to mark the Day of the Russian Volunteers in Visegrad in eastern Bosnia, which celebrated Russians who fought on the Serb side in the Bosnian war. He is also reported to have helped other Bosnian Serbs join pro-Russian forces in the past.

Kravchenko said that now Russia is on a war footing, it simpler for volunteers to go and fight in Ukraine than it was back in 2014, when Moscow’s military efforts to destabilise its pro-Western neighbour began.

“Now, a volunteer can come to Moscow and enlist officially… It is now slightly easier than it was before. It was not like that before. In the past, you had to take a man by his hand and bring him to Rostov and make arrangements in the field,” Kravchenko said.

“The whole of Russia is [now] a military camp, where there are many registration and training centres. In order to liberate Ukraine, it has to be done that way,” he added.

Kravchenko argued that “the war with the West”, as he called it, first started in Bosnia in the 1990s. He framed the struggle between Russia and the West in religious-moral terms, claiming that its objective is to break free from “the dictatorship of sin”.

Russian nationalists who think like Kravchenko also admire the Bosnian Serb Army’s wartime commander Ratko Mladic, who was sentenced to life in prison by the Hague Tribunal for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and other war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Permski Medvedi even sent a card to Mladic for his birthday. A post glorifying Mladic can also be found on the VKontakte account of Ristic’s Permski Medvedi comrade, Zeljko Tomic, who describes himself as a “Chetnik” (Serb nationalist).

Other social media posts by Permski Medvedi members insist that Russian soldiers and volunteers are fighting against “fascists” in Ukraine. But Ristic has shared photos on Facebook of members of Blood and Honour and Combat 18 – militant neo-Nazi organisations that have been banned in several countries.

No data about Bosnians fighting abroad

Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Bosnian police and intelligence agencies haven’t issued any figures about how many people have gone to fight here. Before it began, they estimated that ten Bosnian citizens had gone to join pro-Russian forces there.

In response to BIRN’s query, Bosnia’s Security Ministry said it “does not have the operational competency” to answer the question. The State Investigation and Protection Agency also declined to offer any data about Bosnian citizens fighting in Ukraine.

But in November 2022, Radio Free Europe found out from security sources that seven Bosnian citizens were on the Ukrainian battlefront at that point. It discovered the names of two of them – Aleksandar Velimirovic from Banja Luka, who was previously called Ljubisa Bozic, and Andrej Vukasinovic, a 20-year-old from Trebinje.

Ristic remains one of the few whose identity has been revealed.

In February and March, there was an increased number of posts showing volunteers, including Ristic, undergoing training. A video was also posted showing a soldier claimed to be Ristic firing a projectile, followed by a video recorded in a trench, in which volunteers declared they will go to Serbia after having dealt with “the fascists” in Ukraine.

In February, Ristic and his fellow fighters were in the city of Perm, where they were said to be learning Russian, among other things. The symbol of Perm is a white bear, and the Permski Medvedi unit and its Telegram channel were named after it. Ristic’s acquisition of Russian citizenship was also mentioned on Telegram around the same time.

The Russian embassy in Sarajevo did not answer BIRN’s query about Ristic acquiring the citizenship by time of publication.

‘Victory will come soon’

Under Ukrainian law, people like Ristic are criminals, said Jaroslav Simonov, charge d’affaires at the Ukrainian Embassy in Bosnia. But he noted that Ukraine and Bosnia have no extradition agreement.

“If [Ristic is] arrested in territory under Ukrainian control, we treat him as a criminal. If we arrest him as a prisoner of war, there are two options – he either goes to jail, according to Ukrainian law, that may last between 12 and 15 years, or he can be exchanged,” Simonov said.

According to information on Telegram, Ristic has found himself near territory controlled by the Ukrainian army several times already.

On March 11, Permski Medvedi published a photo of Ristic with the message: “Greetings from the Avdiivka [front] line”. According to Ukrainian data, in Avdiivka, a small city near Donetsk, more than 150 civilians have been killed since February 2022.

“More than seven days since our guys went to battle stations, they sent a brief message today, sending greetings to all followers of the Permski Medvedi channel. For understandable reasons, we cannot say which direction they are moving in,” said a post published on Permski Medvedi on March 17, with a video showing an unidentified settlement.

The same day, Ristic posted a video showing him walking through a trench and informing his followers that his fellow fighters are all “alive and healthy” but that the internet connection is problematic.

On March 26, the Permski Medvedi unit members claimed to be in Novomykhailivka, a village that is also near Donetsk. Two days later, they wrote they were in an extremely difficult battle, asking their followers to pray for them and their victory, “which will come soon”.

In another post several days later, Ristic said he had been remotely operating a drone that directs artillery and troops and “can carry one type of explosive”.

That was one of the last posts on the Permski Medvedi channel. After that, all that could be seen was a message saying that the channel no longer existed. It was unclear why it had been shut down.

Tomic and Ristic’s fellow fighters continue to publish material on other social media, and Ristic is regularly active on VKontakte, where he posted a new photo with a gun in early May. But he has never responded to BIRN’s request for an interview.

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