I met Arsen Pavlov (Motorola) for the first time in Simferopol, at the beginning of April 2014 (although the exact date I no longer remember), in one of the offices at the headquarters of the 1st Regiment of the Crimean People’s Militia. I am certain that this meeting took place after the Donetsk Regional Administration building was occupied by the insurgent local activists on April 6th, 2014. This was after the decision had been made to provide urgent assistance to the Russian people of the Donbass, and the feverish preparations to send a unit had started. At that time, our Simferopol “special purpose detached battalion”—headquartered at the Crimean Conscription Centre—had surrendered its weapons and disbanded, and the majority of the fighters had gone home. The remaining group (the 1st Platoon, led by Romashka)—numbering no more than fifteen men—had been relocated to a small sanatorium near Alushta. The size of the unit was clearly insufficient for the task before us. Another group of fighters who had stayed on was housed at the Conscription Centre. Most of them—natives of “continental” Ukraine and Antimaidan activists—had nowhere else to go.
In these circumstances, I turned to one of the commanders of the 1st Militia Regiment—in time he became well known as Balu—with a request to assemble a unit, a group of the most battle-hardened, reliable, and disciplined fighters, preferably from among the ranks of Ukrainian citizens. All the proposed candidates were interviewed by me and Romashka. About ten were selected (eight or nine men, if memory serves me right). Amongst them was Arsen, who immediately made an excellent impression on me. Unlike certain others, he took heed of my warnings—that we were going “into the unknown” and that we had to be prepared to fight a guerrilla war—with unconcealed enthusiasm that made his eyes sparkle. Listening to the account of his military background (it turned out that for some time we had served almost side-by-side in the Vedenskiy district of Chechnya—he was stationed in Dyshne-Vedeno at the same time as I was on assignment in Tsa-Vedeno), and clarifying in depth the details of his biography, convinced me that before me was an experienced professional soldier. Not only a mere professional, but an enthusiast of the military craft. I had met people like him on many occasions, and they had always proved their worth. They are enterprising and resourceful. War for them is a natural and desirable habitat. Simply put, I had before me—stretching himself in a taut military posture, as a good soldier in the company of a senior officer is accustomed to—a real Warrior, the kind that make up the backbone of any fighting army. All in all, Motorola immediately inspired the utmost sympathy and trust in me among all the candidates—an impression that I made no effort to hide from my comrades.
After that followed the crossing of the border and the taking of the Ministry of the Interior headquarters in Slavyansk. Arsen was one among the troops, at that time I did not single him out in any way. But I distinctly remember an episode during the disarmament of a column of the 25th Brigade, in Kramatorsk. As one group, we were returning to Slavyansk, sitting atop the armoured plating of the lead infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Around us were our comrades (at that point, still wearing face masks) and gloomy Ukrainian paratroopers (at that point, we still allowed them to carry guns). A masked fighter sitting next to me all of a sudden started discharging his automatic rifle into the air, so I reined him in immediately, demanding that he stop the shooting and introduce himself. The fighter turned out to be Motorola—he took off his mask and, smiling from ear to ear, said to me: “Believe me, Igor, this is the happiest day of my life.” He repeated this phrase again and again.
During the first attack on Slavyansk by the units of the National Guard, on May 2, 2014, Motorola and his unit provided cover for the MANPADS team assembled just a day earlier. He was the one who, with a small camera, captured the first combat use of Igla anti-aircraft missiles against Ukrainian attack helicopters, and it is his triumphant cry (after a helicopter was hit) that was heard by everyone who saw that footage.
Arsen’s career as a battle commander began a few days after that episode, following an unsuccessful battle entailing palpable losses (significant not in a quantitative sense, but because several experienced fighters were killed and wounded, including Romashka’s successor, Medved). This was the battle at the gas station near the road junction in Semyonovka, when I ordered him—commander of a freshly assembled platoon—“at all costs” to drive the Ukrainian mobile checkpoint from this strategic intersection. I remember showing Arsen the map, explaining the utmost importance of the junction which, following the enemy’s takeover of the Karachun Mount and the establishment of a checkpoint at the city boundary ‘stele’, became the path of the last open supply route for our garrison. Motorola’s platoon fulfilled the objective—expelling the National Guard’s two armoured personnel carriers (APC) from the intersection and immediately began to fortify its position to defend the critical lifeline. This manoeuvre laid the foundation for the defence of Semyonovka, in which Arsen Pavlov played a most critical role.
Arsen kept vigil at this position almost without interruption until the very moment of the withdrawal from the village during the evacuation from Slavyansk. As soon as we obtained our first automatic grenade launchers (AGS) and Utyos heavy machine guns, and, later, anti-tank rifles and the very first Kornet anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), I put him in charge of the anti-tank–machine gun platoon. Motorola continued in this role until my departure from the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Militia.
Among the most memorable episodes of that period is the “Semyonovka namāz” [the Islamic form of prayer which includes prostration ―ed.]. We always considered retaining Semyonovka to be a decisive factor, but our forces in the settlement were, on the whole, very small. Especially at the beginning. By May 2014, the Semyonovka garrison numbered between forty (at the beginning of the defence) and two hundred (by the end of the month) fighters armed with several grenade launchers, two AGS and Utyos machine guns, and two ATGMs (with a complement of missiles that were nearly all defective, as amply demonstrated in the battles of June 2-4, 2014). If only the enemy had clearly understood that it was opposed not by Spetsnaz troops, but merely by several dozen poorly-armed and—with the exception of several commanders—local militiamen almost entirely lacking combat experience, then its attacks on the village could very well have succeeded. Nonetheless, at that time, we took considerable pains to maintain the myth of the “Russian Spetsnaz”—a narrative that Motorola, quite independently, supplemented with his original twist: by spreading rumours about three hundred “Chechen Spetsnaz fighters in Semyonovka.” To give credence to the tale, he had a daily routine whereby he would blast audio recordings of Muslim prayer using loudspeakers, generously seasoned with cries of “Allahu Akbar” and the like. Incredibly, the Ukrainian military believed the subterfuge. A number of them later admitted as much to me in correspondence and in conversations. This despite the fact that in all the time that our forces defended Slavyansk, there was not a single Chechen in our ranks.
While defending Semyonovka from attacks on June 2-3, 2016, Motorola’s platoon had little success. But it was difficult to blame his performance when only two out of six anti-tank missiles launched against the enemy would fire successfully, neither of which would hit the target (on account of being “guided” in theory only, but not in practice), and every second RPG-7 or RPG-26 grenade would fail. Yet his anti-tank specialists, Sever and Tsygan, were the first in Slavyansk to be awarded the Cross of St. George—though, unfortunately, posthumously—for succeeding, despite it all, in stopping and damaging a Ukrainian tank using their anti-tank rifle. Motor himself acted, as usual, with valour. More than once when he arrived with a report from Semyonovka, he was covered in shell fragments lodged in his helmet and flak jacket. It is for that reason that Arsen was entrusted with carrying the banner of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of Slavyansk from the cathedral to the headquarters during its consecration ceremony.
By the middle of June 2014, as the battles at Yampol were beginning, Motorola was appointed to lead an anti-tank–machine gun company that had just then been formed. Ordered to deploy and assist Prapor’s battalion, he returned by nightfall, alone. He had lost the unit he was leading in a clash with Ukrainian APCs who they encountered en route to their destination. As it turned out, the company had only been dispersed, and the unit had advanced, with virtually no loss in men and armament, and had taken up the new positions the following day. This setback cost Arsen the rank of company commander, because he did not even warn the other platoons of his departure, personally taking up the fight. Deciding that it was too early for him to command a company, I kept him at the previous level of platoon commander.
The second time I had to express my disapproval with Arsen (and this was after he was awarded the Cross of St. George) related to the events that took place at the beginning of July 2014—following the withdrawal from Slavyansk. Directed to reinforce Prapor’s combined battalion in Snezhnoye, Arsen missed a T-junction on the road, driving an APC at high speed, and literally crashed into a patch of forest. The BTR-80 APC (at that time the Slavyansk Brigade had fewer of them than there are fingers on one hand) remained out of service for a long time, and Arsen himself was sent for treatment to Crimea with clavicle fractures, a fractured hand, and concussion.
To be frank, I did not expect to see him again—the military situation was growing worse every day, and the encirclement of Donetsk was progressively tightening into a full-blown blockade. In addition, the injuries he sustained demanded a lengthy hospital confinement. But a mere three weeks later, Motor was back in Donetsk, with his arm in a sling, firmly announcing that he was ready to resume his duties. Without delay, he left to rejoin his platoon in Snezhnoye.
Because Arsen was not among the battalion and company commanders expected to make their reports to me in person, I only saw him once after his return—at his wedding. On my way to Snezhnoye, I stopped at the Donetsk Palace of Marriage Registrations to congratulate him on his marriage.
Arsen has remained in my memory the way I saw him then: still sporting a short beard, the solitary St. George and a Guard pin adorning his simple military fatigues, his arm packed in a pouch sling, and, in a wooden holster on his side, the Stechkin pistol that I personally awarded him for military valour.
What happened after my departure—when Arsen made a dynamic career, advancing promptly to take the reins as commander of the Sparta Battalion, and taking part in the battles of Donetsk Airport in this capacity, and in the assault on Uglegorsk—is something I am not entitled to write about. I certainly was no longer around.
I can only say this: no matter what is said about Motorola, and no matter who says it, at the beginning of the Russian Spring he made an enormous contribution to the defence of the Donbass. He is worthy of being honoured as a Hero of Novorossiya. Unlike so many others.