There are believed to be several thousand Russian volunteers currently fighting in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. This man – who remains anonymous – travelled to fight in Donbas in July. Having returned to St Petersburg in September, he was contacted by Anton Shirokikh for his story. What follows is a first-hand account of fighting in Donbas.
My own people nearly sentenced me to death by firing squad twice. Before going on manoeuvres, I'm given a mission. Our group moves out. It’s impossible to cross a piece of ground without somebody noticing you. Often we simply ran into groups just like ours. For example, some guys are resting, hidden among the trees. Sometimes you just can’t get round them. If the numbers were in our favour, I would give the order to attack, and destroy those units. You can't kill everyone in combat. Suppose our group still hasn’t completed our mission at that moment. There’s another, say, 30 or 40 metres to our destination. What should we do with the prisoners? I had only one possible solution (silence)… For me, my priority is to get the job done.
People from other groups joined my unit at various points. For example, an artillery observer or an armoured weapons groups and so on. I wasn't involved in the selection of these groups. They joined us as reinforcements. They had their own objectives and we had ours. Apparently, it was from one of these groups that headquarters got wind of what was going on. That is, they told them how I treat prisoners.
What should we do with the prisoners? I had only one possible solution
For me, they aren’t prisoners. For me, they are enemies. You see… For example, there’s a plane. It’s just bombed a town. The plane bombed civilians living there. Fifteen minutes later we hear shouts down the radio: 'We've got him! He’s going down!' Or we catch a deployed artillery division just as it’s moving out. We’ve got the element of surprise. They’re in open ground. What should we do? We took them out. All of them. No prisoners. Yes, they were conscripts. But what about when they shoot at civilians… Or at us? Sure, they’re young guys, 18-20 years old. But they have to understand that war cuts both ways. Today this guy shoots at us, and tomorrow we’re behind enemy lines and we shoot them all like pheasants. I know how borshch is made: you have to break the chicken’s neck.
Member of the Vostok Battalion. (c) Sergei Ponomarev.
We’d come back from the field. Two days later they called me into headquarters and placed me under arrest. Someone had informed on me, whether out of hatred or not – I couldn’t tell by that point. It’s their right. My guys came and got me out. They tried to come to an agreement with headquarters. Maybe it came to shouting and swearing, but nobody, of course, shot anyone else. And those guys who arrested me, they understood too. What else are you supposed to do? Say I let four or five people go – I’ve hardly turned my back, and they take me out. I value my own people most of all. And those decisions I took, well on my head be it…
All prisoners say they don’t know anything. They all say they didn’t shoot anyone. Well, as you might expect. Lord, what nonsense! I’m off to war and somehow I know what awaits me there. But there’s these older guys, just like me, 40-45 years old. They’re slapping around some hunchback guy. You go up to him, grab him by the lapels, lift him up, look him in the eye and say 'You didn't know?' After all, I know how borshch is made: you have to break the chicken’s neck.
But there were moments of honourable behaviour. Out of the three prisoners I let go, there was one in particular. Two of them I let go for personal reasons, but the third… He was from the Aidar battalion, 47-years-old. Cavalier of the Order of the Red Star. He had earned his spurs, all the same. Back then, those medals weren’t just given out left, right and centre. It was an acknowledgment of what he’d done before, and not what he was doing now. He conducted himself honourably. He said straight away that he understood what was going to happen to him, and asked if he could make a call. I said a lot of things to him – as one man to another – and explained step-by-step where he was wrong. I even punched him. Then I let him go. Hopefully, he went home.
This is war. It's not at all how it’s shown on television.
I talked to our lads who were exchanged before the ceasefire. They’d made it back. Another week or two, perhaps, and they wouldn’t have come back alive. They said that the Ukrainians took many people away in trucks. Then the trucks came back empty, and the people who’d taken them away were seen reloading their weapons. That is, they were putting fresh rounds into their magazines. Where had they fired them? If they returned without the prisoners, then where were they? This is war. It's not at all how it’s shown on television. I’m not the only one who didn’t take prisoners, and Ukrainians weren’t the only ones to execute them. Whatever anybody says, there’s only one rule when it comes to war – survive.
Over the last three months, my unit and I have specifically targeted units from the Ukrainian National Guard. We fought practically all the volunteer battalions: the Polish battalion, Kiev-1, Azov… whatever the hell they’re called. After what I’d seen, I came to the conclusion that these battalions present zero military threat. They aren’t prepared for normal combat. They don’t even know what they are going to die for. Somehow all those slogans about a united Ukraine disappear when you start talking to them after the fighting is over. You ask one of them: what do you actually want? 'For everything to calm down.' To calm down? Then what are you doing fighting here? On camera, they’re all idealists. But when you're talking to another soldier just like you, it’s impossible to lie. Just what kind of idealism can there be when you’re mopping up populated areas abandoned by separatists? The volunteer battalions avoided open combat with us on purpose. Apart from Kiev-1 perhaps. But we completely hammered them. Took them right out.
A volunteer fighter in Donetsk. (c) Demotix / Paul Gogo
We started to hate the enemy, my lads and I. So far we still haven’t settled the score. We haven’t had payback yet. But we'll be back for a rematch soon. It just depends on when the Ukrainians rebuild their army. They haven’t got any planes. They haven’t got any ground transport. Either they’re afraid of fighting with machine-guns and rifles or they don’t know how. Our offensive proved this. They don’t have any tactics. They fight very badly. Why are they banging away at hammering built-up areas with artillery and Grad rocket launchers? Because they don’t know where to hit us. Hit a five-man checkpoint with a Grad? That’s just stupid! The Novorossiya Army is split up into mobile units which can gather in one place within 30 minutes to an hour. Artillery is useless in this situation. And when we face each other rifle-to-rifle (which has happened more than once), we just shake them off and collect their ammunition, equipment and weapons for ourselves. Then they scatter for two weeks or so, only to re-surface in their home towns.
The Ukrainians haven’t got any planes. They haven’t got any ground transport.
Strange as it may be, we didn’t hate the enemy at the start. But then I started to hate them, and so did my lads. One of our guys died. There’s one unit we particularly hate. We haven’t paid them back yet. But we will.
I haven’t seen any regular Russian army units in the Donbas, honestly. There are advisers, I suppose that’s what you’d call them. Military specialists. You have to understand what the militia was back in Slavyansk. Those guys had real spirit, they were ready to die. But they didn’t have any training. So at that point if you’d given them a Grad launcher and two trucks of ammunition, then perhaps, after a while, they would’ve learnt how to hit something. But look at how the militia’s artillery has been working since July. It’s a like they’ve been taught on a rifle range. a rifle range, that is, they’ve been taught. And I’ve seen the specialists. Of course, they don’t say that they’ve been sent by Russia. But everyone knows full well that that guy, he’s a specialist. I’ve only seen one person from the regular army – a lieutenant. But he came because he felt he had to. He took leave and set off for the Donbas. But during my whole time there, I didn’t see any regular Russian forces. Not once. Nor any deliveries of heavy equipment. And it wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. The Ukrainian Army is so open-handed, they could give us 20 tanks a day. But it’s different when it comes to firearms and machine-guns. I understand some of what’s written on the crates. Russia has one system of weapon specification, and Ukraine has a slightly different one. And people in the know understand which weapons are Russian-made, and which ones are Ukrainian. But they don’t talk about it.
I didn’t see any regular Russian forces. Not once. Nor any deliveries of heavy equipment.
The specialists taught us skills, and in return we told them about our combat experience from various conflict zones. For example, there’s an officer from the elite FSB [Russian security services] ops group in my unit. He was often taken off to the training camps. Those camps didn't exist back when we were fighting for Slavyansk. It was more like this: on the first day, you sign up for the militia. You're given a uniform, if they have any, and a rifle. They show you the basics in one day and then send you off to the front. Now you spend from one to two weeks preparing in a training camp.
Russians and Ukrainians
There are some things I don't want to say… On the one hand, yes, I’ll tell you the truth, but on the other, officially the army of the Donetsk People’s Republic doesn’t want to hear it. Right now the militia is becoming increasingly disgruntled with the DNR leadership. And this conflict will be decided, in the end, in favour of the militia. At the moment, there’s a carve-up going on in the Donbas between the haves and the have-nots. That’s what why we really left, because those squabbles were increasingly coming to blows. Some are here to fight, and others are here to make money. As soldiers, we don’t particularly like it when people use us. For example, the recent ceasefire – nobody from the army understood it at all. The situation became very tense at that point: the slightest spark could have set off a change of leadership.
At the moment, there’s a carve-up going on in the Donbas between the haves and the have-nots.
Then people began vying for the plum jobs inside the administration. Even among the militia. Maybe I’m a chauvinist, but at a certain moment I started noticing that Russian commanders were leaving or were being replaced by Ukrainians from Donetsk. I didn’t like this. Many people didn’t. The reasons for these changes came down to the fact that we had started winning. The time when this land would be completely free was on the horizon, and when it happens, the question of its government will naturally arise. Initially, it will be military. So if Russians are in control locally, then the politicians will also be Russian. That’s why we have all these slogans about the 'brotherly nation' and so on… I don’t differentiate. I support anyone I’ve fought with. I’ll give my life for him, whether he’s Ukrainian or not. But when you see what’s going on, then you start to think it over: perhaps they’re dividing us up into those who are local like them and those from elsewhere.
When the next phase of the war starts, we don’t know how far the militia will want to go – opinions differ. Some think that it’ll only affect the DNR and LNR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], but then someone else says, 'But what about our guys in Kharkov?' Most likely it won’t get that far. For them, everything begins and ends with the place they grew up: I’m ready to die here, sure, but there – God, they just freeze up – there, no way. This is exactly why the LNR and DNR have yet to combine forces.'It’s sad to say, but tensions between Russians and Ukrainians have crept in even down there. The men in the Ukrainian militia feel that 'This is my land.' No one will say so openly, but it's taken as read. Those kinds of conversations are cut short immediately. They can also lead to people getting shot. And anyway, they don’t even know themselves whether they’ll need our help in the future or not. If they’re confident they don’t need us any more, then those feelings are likely to take over. To be honest, though, they couldn’t fight at all. They were taught by the specialists I’ve already mentioned – people like me. We taught them military tactics – how to win. Before that, though, it was a bit like an amateur hunting trip: a big group of them get together, drive down, get dead drunk and go off shooting. It was only the mass heroism of the militia and Strelkov’s leadership that saved the day back then.
It was like an amateur hunting trip: a big group get together, drive down, get dead drunk and start shooting
We’ve had to spend a lot of time with local people, and not only those in territory under our control. To say they idolise us wouldn’t do it justice. As a rule, Russian people are ready to endure anything if you explain to them what’s in it for them. And in that sense, the people of the Donbas are Russian. There aren’t that many men there. It’s not often you meet a man who isn’t in uniform. Old ladies, women, they call us their sons, their saviours. For example, we didn’t have water for two weeks. An old lady has a bucket of drinking water stashed away. If she sees that we haven’t got any water, she’ll give us half the bucket. As a rational person, I understand, of course, that there are people who weren't particularly pleased to see us. But back then, I didn’t meet any.
Militia gather at barricades to celebrate Easter in April 2014. (c) Demotix / Cosimo Attanasio.
Perhaps it’s because these people simply haven’t spoken out yet. They understand that the time is not quite right. But the majority of people don’t want to see the chaos of Maidan in their backyard. The people who live in towns which were ours to begin with, were surrendered and then retaken by us – these people were practically kissing our feet when we came back. People who haven’t been under militia rule see things in two lights. Many of them genuinely want to help the Republic somehow. I was fighting down near Mariupol on the Azov coast, and we’d set up a base in a local’s house. He let us use this place of his, out of his own free will. He fed us, gave us information, his wife bandaged us up when necessary. The guy just didn’t like the chaos which now rules their lives. No one is taking responsibility for anything, and you can’t feed anyone on flag-waving patriotism.
As a rational person, I understand, of course, that there are people who weren’t particularly pleased to see us
We came back from Donbas the same way we arrived. The border is closed for the most part, but it isn’t sealed shut. We handed in some of our equipment, and took back the stuff we’d brought with us – weapons, in particular. My guys are serving officers. They entered the country with these weapons and they left with them. How they acquired them – I didn’t ask. I had my own contacts. My rifle was brought down to Rostov-on-the-Don right at the start of the conflict. I paid for it there. But I left it in Donetsk. Better someone else uses it a while longer.
On our second day in Slavyansk, all our kit went up in flames after our garrison was hit by artillery. So I came out of the DNR wearing what I had fought in. I just took off my webbing and rucksack. I had to stand in line for a ticket in my camo. You could see a mile off that I hadn’t bought this camo yesterday, and I hadn’t been out in the forest gathering mushrooms. But we took all the precautions we could: for example, we got rid of the powder marks on our clothes. Anyway, I bought a ticket. After a while a policeman comes up to me and asks for my documents, and then asks me to follow him to a special room. There they sat me down in a chair. A man in civvies comes in together with the policeman. Straight off you could tell he was from the FSB. No matter how you dress him, he’s still a spook. The FSB guy asked me why I was so dressed up. At the start, I tried to tell him that I was just passing through. And he says: 'Come on then, pull your collar back. Where’s that bruise from?' Then he takes my palm, and I’ve got blisters there. 'Well then, shall we get you examined?' I say to him: 'There’s no powder marks. You won’t find anything.' But I’d figured out it was pointless lying at this point. I open my jacket and show the St George’s Cross and medal on my chest.
He thought for two minutes or so. Then the conversation took a different turn. He asked me where the documentation was to go with the George’s Crossmedal. I told him that’d I buried it in the field. I have the map references. If I have to, I’ll go and dig it up. He told me I’d have to hand over my knife. I tell him that I’ll put it in my bag. Well, And so we talked a bit more. He even offered me a drink. He saw where I was coming from. Rather, he began to see after he realised I was from the militia. After all, he doesn’t know who I am. Maybe I’m a nutter from the Maidan in Ukraine.
Was it reasonable to keep the weapon? Yes. I have no regrets. On the contrary, I’ve only become more convinced of my cause. But after what I’ve been through, I just feel exhausted. Both morally and physically.
This piece first appeared in Russian on Colta.ru in October 2014.
Standfirst image: (c) Demotix/Paul Gogo