This is an interview with a Ukrainian soldier who fought in the Donbass for almost two months. “If on television they say that two to three soldiers died that day, know that it was in fact twelve to thirteen”, the National Guard soldier stated to the publication “GORDON”. For security reasons he asked that we not publish his identity.6 August, 2014 14:35 By Natalia Dvali – Editor
He appeared to be in his twenties. He is a contract soldier in the National Guard of Ukraine, and fought for almost two months in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone in the Donbass. He participated in the battles for Krasny Liman, Nikolaevka, Seleznyovka, Zakotnoye and Yampol. In the winter of 2013, on the order of the Presidential authorities, he had fought to protect the Administration from militants. Later, these same militants brought food, cigarettes, helmets and body armour to his ATO camp.
Now he is back in Kiev for rotation and agreed to retell his story to the publication, “Gordon”, about everything, starting with soldiers’ living conditions in the ATO area, outdated equipment, constant information leaks to Separatists, and ending with statistics on the Army’s losses.
– Why don’t you want to advertise your name and that of the unit in which you served?
– It would mean the end of my military career. I don’t hold to the idea of serving and nor am I afraid of losing my rank; I have good friends, in any case, I’ll be OK. I just don’t want to jeopardize the guys with whom I fought.
– Then why agree to the interview?
– I wanted to show specific examples of what’s causing dissatisfaction among ATO troops, namely: incompetent commanders, the complete absence of interaction between units, information leaks, which seems to occur even at the Kiev level. Very often we didn’t know where and what mission we were going on, but the Separatists were aware of it and had prepared an ambush. But to explain, I first have to tell the whole story.
– Let start from the beginning. When you were sent to the ATO zone?
– At the end of May. The order to send a few dozen people from our military unit arrived a week before we shipped out. A few days later we were training at the centre in Petrivtsi village; weekends we were allowed to spend with our families.
We received our orders but weren’t given a proper uniform or equipment for fighting; we didn’t even get “ankle boots”, which have a special plate.
– What is the “special plate”?
– There’s a steel plate inserted in the sole of modern army boots. There are some small mines that look like petals. They can’t kill you, but if you step on them wearing a non-combat boot—your foot gets blown off.
We had no such “ankle boots”, no body armour, no army uniform made from a special fabric that doesn’t burn. When you’re fighting, it’s easy to burn yourself; your rifle gets red hot after firing it, there’s hot brass flying out. You see I have burns on my left hand? That’s from the brass. We didn’t have protective eye-wear, which protect the eyes from dust, dirt, powder, gasses and flies. There weren’t even tactical gloves to protect your palms. In war it’s necessary to take a rifle that’s constantly hot, and crawl on the ground or something else. Nothing. We had nothing.
– They threw you into the ATO zone unequipped?
– Fortunately our unit’s leaders found sponsors who have provided an enormous sum: about 1.5 million hryvnia (approx. $121,371 USD). We bought everything we needed but there weren’t enough “ankle boots” and uniforms.
By the way, we didn’t just buy for our own unit, but also for a few guys who were sent to the ATO zone a month before us. They called us, and told us what was going on in the Donbass.
– What specifically did they tell you?
– We in Kiev were certain that it was mainly mercenaries and local fringe firing intermittently in the East, but the majority were residents of the Donbass in Ukraine. It turned out, according to the armoured group, that the residents gave the Ukrainian Army a hostile reception.
For example, our military convoy went from point A to point B through the village, past the market along the way. The locals calmly went about their business, shopping, selling. As soon as our convoy drove a few metres beyond the market it was ambushed by heavy gunfire, and the people didn’t even turn around, they continued shopping, they didn’t care.
– After such stories was there any desire left to protect the Donbass?
– There were those who refused from the outset because they understood that they would not be able to handle it psychologically. They comprise less than ten percent. I don’t consider this a betrayal. One must be honest with himself so as to avoid letting a comrade down in battle. Honestly, I had the opportunity to get out of going, but… I didn’t want what happened in the Donbass to spread to Kiev where my loved ones and relatives live. Maybe that’s selfish, but it’s true.
– Was there fear? After all, you had to know you were going into a real war?
– There was no fear when the order first came down. Anxiety started during training in Novi Petrivtsi.
– What happened in the National Guard training centre?
– We hired an instructor to prepare for the ATO. An absolutely incredible person: professional, good teacher, loves his job. He taught us how to hold down a checkpoint, storm a building, explained how to properly protect an armoured vehicle or shelter from a mortar attack. It turned out that we didn’t know anything. Not a damn thing!
– Didn’t know? Before our meeting you told me you worked for the Ministry of the Interior for several years.
– Usually we’d go to the firing range once or twice a year to “learn” how to aim to shoot. It looked like this: there would be a mock-up of a terrorist and a hostage, and you aim from a distance of twenty-five metres. A very silly exercise, not even close, not in the least, to real combat conditions. In the army, the emphasis was on physical fitness and on tactical skills—assaults, sweeps, retreat—and no discussion about it. For firing practice, we performed the tasks in accordance with long-outdated military norms.
Our instructor in Novi Petrivtsi told us almost in tears: “You have a very low level of training; I don’t know what to do. To get to a level where a technique is second nature, you need to practice it for two months, and you’ve only have a few days.” The most annoying thing was that more than half of the allotted time had to be spent on showing off.
– What “showing off”?
– Avakov and Turchynov came to the training camp [Note: Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Acting Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Oleksandr Turchynov, Acting President of Ukraine from February 23 to June 7, 2014.] They selected some people from the unit, including me. My colleagues and I really prepared, and we practised demonstration performances for the brass.
Everything that you see in Novi Petrivtsi—it’s a showcase for a beautiful movie set. The training centre doesn’t have a single normal training mock-up where you can work out the actual fighting techniques. We’re leaving for the ATO in a couple of days and we’re pulled away to put on a show for the top-brass? Absurd, beyond absurd!
After a few days of training, we were sent home on the weekend, to be with our families. But after one day, they called us in, it was necessary to defend Kiev from possible provocations, riots and acts of terrorism. The next day we had accelerated medical training and were sent to the Donbass.
Most of us deceived our mothers and wives, of course—didn’t say where we were going, just said we were going to work and would be back soon. I, too, didn’t tell my family.
– Where exactly did they send you?
To the ATO camp in Kharkov region. A huge field, a small piece of asphalt, staff tents, where the generals lived (or rather, hung out, since they slept mostly in hotels), camouflage nets. Overall, beautiful. But covering the generals’ modern tents were old Soviet ones, stretched one on top of the other, and stretched over that one, still another, a third tent.
– So they wouldn’t leak; almost all the tents were full of holes. No electricity, no poles, tents on the ground. On the day of our arrival there was a heavy rainstorm, the tent was completely flooded, mattresses soaked and that’s how we slept. In Eastern Ukraine, after it rains the land turns into a mixture of clay, shit, mud, dust and super-glue. We sank—sank up to our shins in a camp transformed into a muddy swamp.
You can’t smoke at night, otherwise you’re signing an immediate death warrant. The camps are always being shelled and at night a sniper can take you out by the twinkle of your cigarette. You can use your cell phones but you shouldn’t in the ATO zone because the Separatists tap the airwaves. I, for example, called only one close friend a day: said “all’s well, I’m alive”.
– Leaky tents, wet mattresses… Morale fell?
– We got used to it, and later became resentful during the Operation.
– What was the first combat mission received?
– Remember the helicopter that was shot down near Karachun? [Note: May 29, Separatists shot down a Mi-8 helicopter at Mount Karachun near Slavyansk. Twelve people were killed—six soldiers the National Guard, including two crew members, and six Special Forces from the Ministry of the Interior.] From the ATO camp to the Karachun checkpoint it was sixty to seventy kilometres. It was necessary to take food and ammunition to the guys.
We all loaded up in the APCs, no space left, I had to ride on top. We drove twenty miles, the armoured car broke down, and not because it was mistreated. Even more banal—it was a very old APC. So it’s just not handling, the machine’s weight—up to 12 tons. Had to call a second APC, unload and reload the supplies.
– And you continued on your way?
– Yes. We drove into town. Twenty percent of the locals happily waved at us, while the remaining eighty percent were outraged, saying, “Why did you come here?” We tried to pass through the village quickly, but suddenly the engine began to boil and just stopped. Right in the middle of the village, and it still wasn’t clear to us whether Separatists were hiding in the homes of locals or not, or whether they would attack us now or disperse. But we had to wait until the engine cooled down, otherwise a second BTR would have been out of commission.
We reached the Karachun checkpoint ten minutes after the Separatists downed the helicopter. And our own almost blew us away…
– Why is that?
– Our own guys were just about to start shooting us from the checkpoint. We didn’t know at the time that a Ukrainian flag was supposed to be attached to all vehicles.
– Strange disguise—as if Separatists couldn’t fasten a flag to their vehicles and freely pass ATO roadblocks…?
– That’s a different story. At the checkpoints, the guys sit in the trenches because they’re constantly getting shelled from the towns. The Separatists hide in the villages, in the courtyards of houses, churches. Set mortars and let them thrash our guys, and they can’t retaliate. The guys on Mount Karachun told us that they saw how the helicopter was being shot down, but couldn’t do anything—a rocket was fired from the town.
– After the first mission, did you make it back to camp without incident?
– On the way back, the APC’s engine boiled again, we stopped again, let the engine cool off, then set off, drove a few miles and… a wheel exploded.
– Hit a mine?
– No, the wheel snapped from wear and tear, and again in completely the wrong place. We’re standing in the valley, hills all around us, we’re totally exposed—shoot as many as you’d like (easy pickings). Fortunately, we managed, somehow, at very low speed, to make it back to the camp.
– You mentioned that the Donbass locals gave the Ukrainian Army a frosty reception…
– As soon as the unrest in the East began, civilians voluntarily sheltered the “DNR-ers”, greeted them as heroes of the liberation army. But when they started behaving outrageously, (the locals) realized what’s what. Even now, though… the Separatists have a highly developed intelligence network among the residents of Donbass.
For example, we went to a relatively safe area in an armoured car; suddenly a taxi is right on us. Drives along for ten to fifteen minutes. We veer into the bushes—and the taxi driver’s still there, and constantly talking on the phone with someone.
– How do you get rid of the tail?
– We fired a few rounds in the air while on the move and the taxi driver fell behind. Stopping the APC in an unprotected area is dangerous as Separatists can shoot from the bushes, with a grenade launcher for example. Such a weapon has an explosive charge, which with enormous pressure can literally burn through the armour of an APC.
Unfortunately, and not an uncommon occurrence among Ukrainian troops, (there are times) when friends want to eat fish and not choke on a bone.
– You what?
– There were leaks coming from inside our army. There were those who released information when (they deemed) it was necessary. As a result, the Ukrainian convoy unexpectedly fell into an ambush. Thus comrade, our troops got screwed and with an extra reaming from the Separatists too.
On the road to Karachun when our first BTR broke down, we weren’t far from the Ukrainian checkpoint where volunteers were on duty. One of them came up to us, and while we were busy with the armoured vehicle, began to photograph us with his cell phone along with our weapons and the ID number of our APC. We asked him once, twice, not to do that. He answered that it was for his personal records. Had to quarrel with him to get him to erase all the pictures from his phone.
– When did you sense that the locals changed their attitude towards Ukrainian troops?
– When two tearful women fell at our feet in Zakotnov, “How we’ve been waiting for you!” We went into shock. [Note: In April of 2014 the “DNR” Militia captured the village of Zakotnov, Donetsk region, and later blew up the bridge over the Seversky Donets river. Most people left the village; on July 1, ATO forces brought the town under their control.]
According to intelligence reports, in Zakotnov there was no one—no civilians, no Separatists, but the whole place had to be swept especially since the day before, the Separatists had shot three Ukrainian soldiers—ambushed them directly in the camp. We began a house-to-house search, cellar to cellar, looking for Separatists, booby-traps and so on.
At the first farmhouse I visited in Donbas, I understood why locals went with the “DNR” and “LNR”…
– And why?
– I’d never seen such poverty before. Believe me, I’m not spoiled, I grew up in an ordinary family, but the villages of eastern Ukraine—a life beyond the bounds: regional centres are dead, nothing works, a solid circle of poverty. In Western Ukraine people don’t live a wealthy life, but they have well-kept houses, even rich houses compared to the East.
It sounds hard, but once people silently endure such misery, then there’s a price. You need to turn around, to work, and not expect that “a boss” will say, “Dude, here’s work, a car and an apartment.” But in the Donbass many sincerely believe that the “DNR” is the panacea for all ills.
– Let’s get back to Zakotnov. You began the sweep …
– Yes, we went to one of the houses. Inside was poor, but cosy—bookshelves, a sofa, and cigarette butts on the floor. It’s clear a home-owner doesn’t mess it up like that, so Separatists are here. Judging by the number of cigarette butts, they’d been there a long time. Suddenly a man comes out to meet us, fifty years old. We’re on edge because of débâcles we’d suffered, and he came straight at us. We shouted to him: “Stop!”—He was silent, but kept coming. Fired some automatic rifle shots into the air—he stopped, silent, but with his hands began to show something. It turned out the old man lost his speech after a stroke. It’s a pity it was, we took him to a place in the shade and explained: do not worry, we’re the Ukrainian Army, you are safe.
– Well, who fell at your feet?
– We went to the house next door and again saw poverty. We went to the cellar, and written in chalk on the door it said: “We’re seven people, two young children, two old men, hiding from the gunfire.” The words moved us to tears, but there have been cases when ATO fighters believe such a text and walked into a booby-trap. Or went down to the cellar, and surprise—a Separatist machine gun greets you…
We opened the door to the cellar, it’s dark, and suddenly a child starts crying, a woman comes with babies, an old lady. Once they realized we were the Ukrainian Army, they fell at our feet, burst into tears. It made us uncomfortable; we asked them to grab their passports and exit through the gate.
– What for?
– We had learned from bitter experience. There’s never a moment when you can relax around civilians, you can get shot in the back from a house or garden. We brought them out past the gate, brought them water and asked: “Why didn’t you leave when the Separatists began to rampage?” “Well, where would we go?” they answered “We have a farm, cows and a house. Leave, and looters would steal everything. We’ve been waiting for you for almost a month.”
– By the way, about the sweep: here is an example about the volunteer battalion “Kiev-1”, which is part of the Ministry of the Interior. We worked together for the capture of Nikolaevka in the Donetsk region [Note: fighting for the city lasted two days, July 4 Nikolaevka was liberated from the Separatists]. We ousted the Separatists from two directions: on the one side the Paratroopers, on the other the National Guard. The Paratroopers went through the industrial zone, where there were crazy fights. The National Guard and “Kiev-1” went through the housing sector. At six o’clock in the evening the assault began; we were met by active enemy fire. We settled on the first street, took up defensive positions and began the sweep.
I told you about Zakotnov in which we, step by step, inch by inch, swept the houses and cellars to identify Separatists, but didn’t run into booby traps. So, in Nikolaevka “Kiev-1” didn’t conduct an accurate sweep, but instead immediately threw grenades.
The next day, there was a planned offensive. There was a meeting the evening before during which the commander of “Kiev-1” Battalion said: “my people are physically and psychologically ready”. As a result, the volunteer battalion agreed that the National Guard would go first, take up defensive positions, make a safe passage, and only then would the volunteer battalion go in and start the sweep.
– Again with grenades?
– On the second day they didn’t do so straight away. Step by step the National Guard occupied the housing sector, provided a corridor, and only after that “Kiev-1” came in behind us. The most difficult area—the industrial zone—was assigned to the Paratroopers. There dwelt the main forces of Separatists. The Paratroopers did an incredible job, a lot of them died. These guys all deserve a monument! The Paratrooper Corps is the fiercest and most reckless faction in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They don’t care about not having proper bulletproof vests and are always a hundred percent ready to fight to the last man. There are, however, a lot of them dying.
– I remember TV news reported that Nikolaevka was the first baptism of fire for “Kiev-1.”
– We went back to the base and saw how on TV all the news reports said that: “Kiev-1” and the Paratroopers had liberated Nikolaevka from the Separatists. There wasn’t a single word about the National Guard—the story was that “Kiev-1” did it all.
You know, not long ago, I realized with horror that Russian “Channel One” tells more truth about the Ukrainian Army’s situation in the ATO zone than our own media does.
– You mean “First Channel” that reported the “Army of Ukraine crucified a three year-old boy in Slavyansk”?
– I understand that I’m saying unpopular things. Maybe so, but the fact remains: Russian TV reports on the real problems faced by Ukrainian soldiers, namely the lack of supply, communication problems and the miserable situation of the soldiers.
– You don’t find it strange that the aggressor’s TV spends so much time on the problems of our armed forces?
– What I find strange is the general message on Ukrainian news that everything is more or less normal in the ATO zone, that money is going to the Army, the soldiers are well taken care of. But we need to show the real situation, so that every citizen of Ukraine realizes that the country’s in a real war, lay out the truth to help the soldiers. Instead, our TV news talks about how the soldiers were treated to concerts, how their food is prepared, they say everything’s great, the troops in the Donbass are swimming in chocolate (everything’s just great). That’s not true.
Also, it’s amazing that volunteer battalions have better logistics, weapons and ammunition. Why are “Kiev-1” and other volunteer battalions so generously sponsored while the regular Army is on a starvation diet, although it’s doing the same amount of work, if not more?
– According to the latest official information from the NSDC (National Security and Defense Council), 363 Ukrainian soldiers perished over the last four months of the Anti-Terrorist Operation. What do you think, is that true?
– That’s a lie. If TV news tells you that two to three soldiers died in the past day, you know, it was in fact twelve to thirteen, maybe more. More than 4000 soldiers have died during the ATO in the Donbass. Officials are lying about 363, why they’re lying—I don’t know.
– How can you hide the death of so many soldiers from the public?
– You can. Do you know that many soldiers aren’t even registered on the ATO’s official lists? Some guy’s shot in the head in the Donbass, and in the personnel file they’ll write: “Cause of death: careless handling of weapons.” Those Paratroopers who liberated Semenovka, on the documents they’re listed as being in training.
– There’s a lot of video evidence on the internet that Separatists tossed the corpses of their “brothers-in-arms” on the sidelines. Are there similar cases in the Ukrainian Army?
– We gather ours. Always. However, sometimes it happens that you can’t collect anything. For example, if you hit a mine—that’s it: no equipment, no people, everything’s in pieces. On the documents they list the dead as “missing”. But if there’s a piece of the body—arm, leg, chest with a tattoo—by which you can identify the person, families are told they were found.
Many deaths could have been avoided, but the problem is with the internal organization of the ATO, or rather, with its absence. Everything is haphazard: perhaps a wounded man gets carried out, perhaps not. There can be a long wait (to get on) the helicopter for hospitalization just because the paperwork is filled incorrectly. And sometimes there’s a strange attitude towards the dead…
– What do you mean “strange”?
– We had to participate in a joint operation with the Armed Forces for the capture and subsequent sweep of Krasny Liman. Our military convoy was divided into two parts. The first part went into the city from one side, and the second—where I was—went in from the other side. The plan was for the ATO forces to ‘pincer’ Krasny Liman from both sides and simultaneously start fighting from both directions.
But we were ambushed near Seleznevka, we barely got out. We were shot at for three hours and twenty minutes; two of our guys were killed and many wounded. Later, we evacuated everyone to a field near a roadblock. The wounded and dead from the first convoy, which had managed to make it to Krasny Liman, were also brought there.
The field was a little smaller than half a football field and totally (!) filled with wounded and dead. Helicopters flew in, at first they took the most heavily wounded, then the moderately wounded, and then the dead… We had left the fight at 09:20, and they picked up the dead at 16:30. What’s more, when they loaded the corpses, they were in the same positions they were in when they died. It’s a good thing though that there were some experienced fighters who immediately realigned the arms and legs of people when they died, otherwise the body would stiffen and you’d have to break the bones to get it in the coffin.
– Maybe it’s not indifference, but shock, fatigue, frazzled? Especially since the battle for Krasny Liman was among the most violent.
– No, it’s ignorance, inability, and most importantly, unwillingness and indifference. It should not be that way. They should at least cover the bodies, instead of haphazardly throwing them out in this heat. It doesn’t matter that there weren’t enough doctors; the soldiers themselves could have closed the eyes of the dead.
– Have the soldiers had emotional breakdowns?
– Most did the same thing I did: call just one of your relatives, say everything’s all right, I’m alive, and say no more. Believe me, daily calls from mothers or wives don’t stabilize your emotional state, “Oh, stay alive! Oh, just take care of yourself”. Damn it! Although there were those who quietly explained everything to their wives.
As for breakdowns… There was a case when the father of a forty year-old ATO volunteer died, so he packed his bags and left for home without permission.
– What about supplies for ATO troops?
– Here’s an example. We have different uniforms: one soldier has an American uniform, another has a Ukrainian uniform, and others you can’t even imagine. To distinguish each other, we put yellow adhesive tape on both arms. And also stick a strip on our helmets.
We were travelling in the convoy. The guys in the first APC suddenly said they spotted people who looked like us except the adhesive tape was red. They asked a superior: “Open fire or not?” He ordered them to wait, and after a while shouted, “No way, don’t shoot!” It turned out it was the Ukrainian military heading towards us, they’d simply run out of yellow adhesive tape.
Another example. Again, a group of people coming towards our convoy, but they have neither red nor yellow armbands, no distinguishing marks at all. The convoy starts to fire at them and suddenly a superior says: “Don’t shoot, it’s ours!” Turns out this was a reconnaissance group—it didn’t have any tape. Thank God, in this skirmish with our own, no one was killed.
– You mean to say that the men are most in need of yellow adhesive tape?
– I want to understand how this is possible: the state allegedly allocates billions for the ATO and doesn’t even buy adhesive tape for the soldiers.
Our guys in the Donbass still need everything: pants, socks, personal hygiene items, sleeping-bags and sleeping-mats (your kidneys freeze sleeping on the ground at night), uniforms, helmets, body armour and so on. Medical supplies are badly needed, especially a good pain reliever.
We fight on Ketanov (an anti-inflammatory drug for short-term management of moderate to severe pain) [Ketorolac Tromethamine -ed.]. If you’re injured, you have to go through a lot of superfluous motions: put on a tourniquet, get a vial from the first-aid kit, open it, draw the anaesthetic into a syringe for an injection. And all of this while under constant fire and shooting with one hand. Meanwhile the Separatists have Nalbuphine (an opioid analgesic for severe pain) in their first-aid kit in a special package, which saves a lot of time; a vial with an integrated syringe—just pull it out, turn the cap and inject.
In combat, you go through personal first-aid kits very quickly, there are never enough. There’s a vile pattern: if you have a tourniquet, then you’re surely to be wounded a second time. When we were ambushed near Krasny Liman, one of the Paratroopers had six wounds.
– How was the food in the ATO zone?
– They fed us three times a day in the ATO camp, but it was military food.
– That means austere but nutritious?
– That means tasteless and not satisfying. In the morning: porridge made with water; a thin slice of butter and cheese, plus a nasty piece of bread and tea. For dinner: soup or borscht, but military-style; just horrible; if your stomach doesn’t get all matted up, after ten minutes you’re hungry again. We’re lucky there were food deliveries in principle because in other camps and checkpoints the feeding was beyond the boundaries of good and evil. They basically only got something to eat in the evenings…
– I’m almost afraid to ask what?
– Sometimes you got a cutlet along with the evening’s tasteless porridge. I don’t think they were entirely out of the meat but it wasn’t edible. In the Ukrainian Armed Forces—in peacetime and in wartime—the meals are always bad. Haven’t you noticed that on leaving service, many soldiers have diseases of the stomach and pancreas?
– And what about the American MREs? The Ministry of Defence stated that they sent a huge quantity to the ATO zone.
– In two months I tasted an American MRE exactly once. After Semenovka. One of our guys got one package and we split it up for several of us to share.
– What do you mean “got one”? Weren’t they distributed to everyone?
– American MREs were all (kept) close to where the generals were, they didn’t make it out to us. But really very tasty, very nutritious, very classy food. The package opens quietly. Just add water, a chemical reaction warms up the food, and one portion is enough to gorge on for half a day.
– How can healthy men subsist on porridge and liquid soup?
– Great volunteers helped us; more precisely, the Kharkov Ultras. They not only took it upon themselves to find sponsors, but they also brought to the ATO zone helmets, flak jackets, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, canned food, wet-weather gear, saws, axes… The Army has nothing. Believe me, given the volume and frequency of deliveries, the guys spent fabulous sums. For example, they brought us two sacks of cigarettes. You know how much cigarettes cost? Really cool guys helped us out.
– The National Guard is composed of former Internal Security forces, who opposed the Maidan activists, among whom were the Ultras. Didn’t any controversies about the revolution arise?
– I only met the Kharkov Ultras the third time they came, before that I’d seen them sometimes on the road, sometimes while on convoy but they were practically absent at the camp. In general, we’d meet and say thank you for your help. Among the volunteers was a guy in shorts with extensive scars on his legs. “Where did you manage to get hurt?” I asked. “I was on the Maidan”, he replied “two stun grenades exploded right under our feet.”
We got to talking. Ultras and volunteers, as a whole, hate the “Berkut”. I was surprised. They no longer had negative feelings toward us, former internal security forces, despite the fact that we’d stood on different sides of the barricades at Maidan. At that time everyone had their own truth, but now we have a common cause—to win the war. Nobody got into any arguments over Maidan.
– Why were you surprised by the attitude of activists toward the “Berkut”? After all, the troops of this special division beat and shot at activists.
– In each unit, there are those who do their job, and others who stupidly vent their rage on others. Believe me, the “Berkut” is fiercely fighting in the ATO now, many of them are educated, professional guys who are excellent fighters against Separatists. And at Maidan a lot of strange things went on, questions still remain.
– What exactly do you mean?
– It wasn’t only activists who were killed; many law enforcement officers were killed as well. And the wounds are the same whether you’re a civilian or a policeman. I think they brought in specially hired people who alternated between shooting the Maidan activists and the security forces. Snipers planted by those who benefited from stirring things up. There wouldn’t have been such resonance & effect from what happened at the protests without the bloodshed.
– And for whom exactly was it profitable?
– There were many interested parties: those who came to power, and those who were in power, but not in a key role. These questions still have to be dealt with, but after the war.
– How long were you on duty at the Maidan?
– Ten minutes, and my guys stood for almost three months, until Yanukovych fled.
December 1, 2013, we had an emergency situation, we were called and ordered to immediately leave for Bankova Street. We were told that the riots had started and it was necessary to protect the President.
– It was the first assault on the President’s administration after students on Maidan Square were harshly dispersed. The activists have questions about what happened on Bankova Street. Many are convinced that it was a planned provocation.
– We, as in law enforcement officers, still have questions too. For example, we somehow were not issued with metal shields. This had never happened before! The shield is an indispensable part of your equipment.
When I, as part of the unit, drove to the Presidential Administration, I saw there were already a bunch of troops from the Interior Ministry and “Berkut” in the courtyard. They all had bruises, abrasions, fractures. Rolls of bandages were lying all around, doctors rushing, blood everywhere. In front there were two military buses, behind them explosions, screams, a crowd…
We were given the command: “Gas!” We put on our masks and stood in the fifth row because in front there were four rows of young conscripts. For some reason they too didn’t have shields. Rocks and pieces of iron never stopped flying at us, along with constant shouts of “Shame!”
– As far as I recall, in the crowd of activists there was a strange group of young sports people wearing masks who were behaving very violently.
– That’s right. This group broke through. Many of them were holding crowbars with chains welded to them and at the end there was a metal “shot-put” ball with screws welded to it. Thugs pelted us with these iron whips. Metal “shot-put” balls with screws bashing our heads, then—minus one person. Our commanders were constantly asking for guidance on the radio: “What should I do? What order should I give? Do we advance or not?” But the airwaves were silent, no orders were received.
In front of me fell two, three rows, then another, in the end I found myself in the second row. We used our batons to defend ourselves and… that’s all.
– What do you mean “that’s all”?
– I regained consciousness and realized that I was lying on the ground in the melted snow. I only came to because my back was very cold. I heard shouts: “Don’t slap him in the face! Pouring ammonia on him is better!” I opened my eyes, I couldn’t focus, everything was swimming.
Later, the guys told me that cobblestones hit my head, broke my helmet in two and I lost consciousness. I spent a couple of hours on the ground; everyone was dragging and dragging the wounded. I saw how a nurse grabbed the lapels of a wounded soldier and shouted: “Just don’t close your eyes! I will come to you tonight, but just do not close your eyes!”
– Why were you not immediately hospitalized?
– There were a many seriously wounded people, it never got to be my turn. In the ambulance for forty minutes we were asked “who, where, weight, height, age”. I could not remember my date of birth, but it struck me that wounded men had to endure forty minutes of questions.
In the hospital I found out that I had a traumatic brain injury, concussion and a broken arm. You can see a dent on my hand. I guess it happened when I was fighting off the crowd, but exactly how my hand was injured, I don’t remember. It seems that someone, unfortunately, forcefully punched it.
By the way, some of the news broadcasts were saying that everything was fine, the soldiers were not injured. But all the infirmaries were crammed to capacity. On the third day medical supplies ran out, you had to buy them with your own money. Later we were handed envelopes with compensation of about five thousand hryvnia ($80 USD).
– I wonder why the Yanukovych regime became generous?
– (Laughs). So that I wouldn’t be talking with you, a journalist. Some military commander (I didn’t recognize him, but judging by his star—an important man) came to see me at home and asked: “Why were you without shields?” When he learned that there was no order for them, he said: “This cannot be!” We talked for about thirty minutes, he thanked me for my service and left. Afterwards a young man in civilian clothes came and handed me an envelope with the money.
– What do you yourself think? Why did they send you against the crowd without shields?
– It was advantageous to someone to arrange a mass slaughter of Interior Ministry troops to have formal grounds for dispersing the Maidan. The Government wanted to show that those weren’t civilian activists but extremists who thrashed law enforcement.
– Right after December 1, the “family” television channels began to show deputies from the Party of Regions visiting the wounded security forces. Frankly, I was sure those shots were staged…
– The hospital was really packed, most had head injuries, broken bones, but the worst thing: some of them had their eyes burned out. During the confrontations, they captured one of our men and jammed a burning flame right between his face and his helmet.
Many realized that the Internal Forces were being used for political purposes. Some didn’t want any part of that and went to the hospital, while others continued to serve. You have to understand: we were given orders, we had to carry them out. It was hard, many of us found ourselves in a position where you’re on one side, and your friends and family are with citizens on the other. But orders are orders; it’s not up for discussion.
– Even if it’s a criminal order, for example, to shoot at people?
– You carry out the order. Always. This is instilled in us during military training—you rigorously carry it out, even if the order is contrary not only to the interests, but also to the health and life of a soldier. The ATO zone confirms this.
– What was the mood in the department when they learned that Yanukovych had fled?
– We hadn’t been particularly well treated before that, and after Maidan it was terrible for the families. Neighbours also knew that we served in the Interior Troops. The mood was… the mood was bad! We really didn’t know if we should continue to serve or not. Most of the guys gave in, let it ride, but many simply quit.
– What do you think, what will end the war in the Donbass?
– I honestly don’t know. I’m in despair and confusion. When we went into Slavyansk there were many young boys and adult men among the locals. I understand perfectly well that many of them worked for the Separatists, and when they fled they hid their weapons under their pillows and went to receive social and humanitarian assistance from Kiev.
I think if someone wants to venture again into the Donbass, in their own interests (albeit for different reasons), the locals who stashed their weapons will again do what they’ve been doing these last four months. A vicious circle.
– But in spite of the mentality in the Donbass, and the problems within the ATO forces, Ukrainian troops will win…
– …Including the fact that the Separatists themselves are surrendering their positions. Remember Slavyansk? Strelkov, he left. There were tough battles for Nikolaevka; in the first days we were given a terrible thrashing, and on the second day the Separatists suddenly retreated. And not because they were afraid. I have a strong feeling that even the Separatists’ departure was in accordance with some plan.
I think that, just as at the Maidan, the war policy in the Donbass is something murky, that there’s some agreement between states (Russia, Ukraine and the West), and between the ruling elites of the East.
– You’ll go into the ATO zone again?
– If there’s an order, of course. The motivation is the same: to protect your loved ones and relatives.
But I stress one thought to anyone who’s currently engaged in the ATO: “Let’s finish up here and then go to Kiev to put some things in order.” After the war in the Donbass, no longer will anyone in the military tolerate the Army’s terrible living conditions, outdated weapons, incompetent commanders, information leaks, corruption and so on.