Interview in English from Volchek's 'Itogi Nedeli' in Ukraine Today: "Among Thugs"
The story of a Russian citizen, who volunteered to fight against fascism in Donbas but found himself not in any regular army, but among thugs.
Ukraine Today provides a translation of an interview originally published by the Russian Bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on April 17th during the 'Itogi Nedeli' program authored by Dmytry Volchek.
Russian businessman Bondo Dorovskikh, an oil trading and construction executive in Moscow, decided to volunteer to fight in eastern Ukraine. He was certain that he was going to Donbas to fight fascism.
After serving in the 'Ghost' Battalion in Luhansk region led by Alexey Mozgovoy, Dorovskikh returned Moscow, before heading to Donetsk region as a volunteer fighter on the front lines.
Dorovskikh learned that what is actually taking place in eastern Ukraine is much different than what he had imagined before travelling there. There is no so-called 'Russian Cause' there, he said, adding that television propaganda had pulled the wool over his eyes.
Having returned to Russia, Bondo writes: "Everything has turned upside down and now I feel like joining Ukraine's volunteer battalions to protect Ukraine's sovereignty."
Bondo Dorovskikh agreed to speak with Dmytry Volchek of Radio Liberty's Russian Bureau's 'Summary of the Week' (Itogi Nedeli) program about his experiences.
Volchek: Many people go to fight for money. You are a businessman, and well off. What prompted you to go to war?
Dorovskikh: I truly thought at the time that Russia was in danger, that there were [Western] mercenaries trying to take land from our country. I thought that Donbas was the first line of defense for Russia, that we must stand firm and defend our interests there.
Volchek: So you were ideologically – not materially – motivated?
Dorovskikh: I couldn't have been in it for money, because I wound up buying my own gear: a bulletproof vest, etc. I spent about 100,000 rubles of my own money to go there. So it wasn't about money. And they don't pay much there, either, about USD 360 these days, if you can collect it. And not everyone gets paid. People go there for different reasons, some for adventure, others to gain battle experience. Everyone has their own reasons. Of course, most people who wind up going are a little unstable. It just like the people who volunteer to fight for the Islamic State (ISIS). Why do people volunteer? I think it's because people feel they are needed – that's the crux of the matter. But once you arrive in eastern Ukraine it takes only minutes before you understand that you haven't wound up in a military formation, but have entered into a den of thieves.
Volchek: Do you remember what prompted you to finally decide to travel to eastern Ukraine? Was it as certain radio show or television program, or something you read on the Internet?
Dorovskikh: Russia-24 TV channel reports about the 'new history' of Ukraine dominated my thoughts. I said to myself, "I won't go there," and repeated it each morning. But whenever I turned the TV back on, that's all Russia-24 TV was talking about, from day to night. Russian media coverage on the events in Ukraine influenced me greatly.
Volchek: Had you ever been to Ukraine before?
Dorovskikh: No, never. It was my first trip there.
Volchek: How did you apply to become a volunteer fighter?
Dorovskikh: There are several ways to apply, and I tried several of them. There is Limonov's Interbrigade, which has an electronic address and a dispatch point, Shakhty, where volunteers depart from. There is also the Donetsk People's Republic military recruitment office, which accepts applications, and later gives the number of a telephone in Rostov, where you are told where to show.
Volchek: There are no checks? They are only interested in your previous military experience? They are not worried that volunteers may be provocateurs?
Dorovskikh: There are no checks at all. Moreover, there were times when applicants had no documents at all. They just ask for your surname, first name and patronymic, take a photograph, and issue you ID.
Volchek: And give you a gun?
Dorovskikh: Usually they dole out weapons immediately. I was a sniper. I had my own machine gun and rifle. I also had a grenade launcher and machine gun. I had all the firepower necessary. When we arrived at Nikishyne [in Donetsk Region] in the combat zone I was with local separatist fighters who were far less equipped. They had a gun and that's it. But we were armed to the teeth, with everything from hand grenades to rocket-propelled shoulder-held missile systems. We even had two cars for transportation.
Volchek: They gave that all to you in Rostov?
Dorovskikh: No, they didn't give out any weapons in Rostov. I got everything in the Donbas. Militants in Rostov, who used to serve as tank crewmen in the army, were trained there and formed into tank crews. They were given weapons there. I saw it myself. The tanks were hauled to the Russian-Ukrainian border and crossed the border and into the combat I was given my weapons in Donbas.
Volchek: How did you get across the border?
Dorovskikh: We were taken across the field. The first time, we arrived at the checkpoint officially, however I had some restrictions for travelling abroad, so I was not let in. The border guard told me, "No problems, our guys will guide you through." We really taken across the border in a group of about 15 people. We did it in broad daylight. There were no border signs.
Volchek: Were you restricted to travel abroad because you have unpaid debts?
Dorovskikh: Yes, I have be ordered by bailiffs to pay a small debt, so that's why I was denied permission to travel abroad, but I did not know about that.
Volcheck: Was your volunteer unit was formed in Russia or in the Donbas?
Dorovskikh: You join a unit after you have arrived in Donbas. The Rostov region hosts some transfer points, where people (militants) are brought together to be sent to their destination points. Some of them want to join ranks of Donetsk People's Republic, others want to go to the Luhansk People's Republic, still others want to join the 'Ghost Brigade'. These preferences are taken into account, and you will send wherever you want. We arrived after dark where 'Ghost Brigade' was stationed. Next morning representatives of brgade came round to find out which unit you wanted to serve in. You have a wide choice – either the contact line in the village of Verhulivka, Luhansk region, or in intelligence, the tank corps, or counterintelligence unit. You can enlist in whatever unit you want.
Volcheck: But you need to have certain skills, right, to join some units?
Dorovskikh: In theory, yes, you must have some certain skills. But what skills are required for counterintelligence? What kind of counterintelligence troops do they have there? These troops just have the power and they openly abuse it. Skills are required, if you are, say, are a tank crewman. But no skills are needed if you shoot or stay in trenches. You just stay and wait in the trench when the artillery fire is underway. And then this unorganized mob starts moving. Basically, tanks are not equipped with intercom devices and radios, so infantry troops cannot communicate with tank crewmen. As a result, tanks move one way, the infantry goes another one. There is no coherence in their operations, not training, nothing. Do you think this mob is capable of winning the war? Do you know how they won the 2014 summer war? SU fighter jets flew in from Russia. One of militants, who operated anti-aircraft guns, said "We received the order that SU aircrafts would fly in and we must not attack them." Russian troops are most likely to be there in summer. I heard militants say that Russian jets were there. However, I did not see Russian troops myself. I saw many (Russian) officers 'on-leave' who were there. Some Russian staff officers are based at the headquarters of the 'Ghost Brigade'.
Volchek: Did you see them or communicate with them?
Dorovskikh: I knew them very well. I often visited the headquarters. I knew the intelligence chief of the brigade, headquarters chief, some lower chiefs. I got in touch with them when the volunteers arrived. I often communicated with the chief of intelligence; we live not far from each other. He is a Russian. I liked intelligence more, so we communicated more.
Volchek: What did the 'Ghost Brigade' do when you were with them?
Dorovskikh: The Russian members of unit went into business for themselves, making money. Walkie-talkies, armored vests, etc. was all for sale. When I was in the brigade operations were run out of Alchevsk. Our battle-ready units were on the front line in Verhulivka (Luhansk region), Komisarivka (Luhansk region), and in several other towns. There were about 100-150 of us in Verhulivka, and a smaller unit in Komisarivka. Everyone else was in Alchevsk. Neither DNR nor LNR at first recognized the 'Ghost Brigade'. There was an internal conflict and there was a period when no artillery and tanks from Russia were supplied to the unit. But the leaders of the brigade managed eventually to work out a compromise. Fighters from Russia continued to join the brigade when I was there, but no one trained for battle except for foreign fighters from Spain, Italy and France. For everyone else, the route was the same. A morning formation, around 08:00 a.m., and an evening formation. During the interval members of the unit looked for iron fences to tear down and sell for scrap metal. In other words, looting, in order to make money for cigarettes and alcohol. And fighting among themselves. When I was there was a fellow who wanted to blow himself up with a grenade in the hotel. Luckily, he was disarmed in time. Those tired of the boredom went to the front lines.
Volchek: So no one was getting paid? Volunteer fighters had to sell scrap metal for money?
Dorovskikh: In fact, yes. Some sold weapons, walkie-talkies, ammunition, bullet-proof vests. Everything was on sale. This was how we lived.
Volchek: What was the proportion of local separatist fighters to members of the 'Ghost Brigade'?
Dorovskikh: From 10-30 percent of the brigade members came from abroad. The rest were locals.
Volchek: How did the locals treat you?
Dorovskikh: After we arrived in Alchevsk, we went to the market the next morning to exchange rubles. We met an elderly woman there who asked what we had against Ukrainians. Some 30 minutes later, we went to a church. There a women came up to me and said that elections would be held soon. She asked whom to vote for. I told her to vote her conscience. She said, "We don't need Putin and we don't want to become part of Russia. We want Ukraine to remain independent." This is the first thing people told me right after I arrived. Later, when I was in Nikishyne (Donetsk region), I chatted up a women about what the city was like when Ukrainians were in control. She said that everything was fine when Ukrainian forces controlled the city. She said that when [Oleksander] Zakharchenko's Oplot unit moved it looting was rampant. People said they feared members of that unit would return. Different local treated us differently. They all wanted to know why we had come.
Volchek: Were locals who served in the brigade with you trying to strike it rich, or were they apolitical?
Dorovskikh: I think that they could have cared less about politics. Many of them were prior convicts. I took pictures of them. Many of them were former police officers. They were not interested in politics. They paid money in the DNR and they decided to sit out the war there. The remainder were armed retards. It's important to understand that there is no law and order in areas controlled by the militants. They run red lights all the time. They say: We are respected and can run red lights with impunity.
Volchek: You are an educated fellow. It was probably difficult for you to find someone to talk with ….
Dorovskikh: I didn't make friends with many, but there were people. There was a guy who had lived 10 years in Germany and a couple of Russians. There was also a young guy from Madrid. So there were people to talk with, but not many. That's probably why I left the unit and went to the front lines to see what was actually happening. There I began to sympathize with the so-called enemy. I was there during the ceasefire when they were being targeted by heavy artillery and rockets. I listened to the radio chatter after 2 Ural military transports were hit. I heard the screams. It's then that I understood that what was happening was the complete opposite of what I actually expected. I sympathized. And those firing from our side were ordinary thugs, bandits, who do not care whom they shoot dead.
Volchek: Did this happen right after the first Minsk Peace Agreement?
Dorovskikh: Yes. It was in November and December last year. It was exactly the same in Verhulivka, from where we shot at the enemy.
Volchek: And did the Ukrainians observe the ceasefire? They did not shoot back?
Dorovskikh: They also shot back, but we shot at them all the time. I remember when they blew up two Ural trucks and an armored personnel carrier. How they attacked a fortified Ukrainian position on the road. The Ukrainians did not attack us in retribution, although they could have easily overrun our positions. We only had 80 fighters then. They could have wiped us out from Kamenka, where they had lots of troops. They just didn't want to.
Volchek: Were there many casualties in your unit?
Dorovskikh: No. When I was in Nikishyne, there was one guy who died from a shell fragment. No one was killed on the other flank, where a fighter nicknamed 'Biker', was stationed.
Volchek: You said that the 'Ghost Brigade' had troubled relations with the Donetsk People's Republic. How did the conflict play out and what were the reasons for it?
Dorovskikh: The DNR and LNR did not want to recognize the political legitimacy of the 'Ghost Brigade' and wanted the brigade commander Mozgovoy to join their ranks, to absorb some units of the brigade. Mozgovoy refused because he wanted to remain an independent player.
Volchek: And did you meet with Mozgovoy directly?
Dorovskikh: I said hello a couple of times, but did not talk with him. I talked with [Ihor] Strelkov, though, whom I met in Moscow between my tours of duty in Donbas. Strelkov told me that Mozgovoy is one of the few commanders left in Donbas whom he trusts.
Volchek: When was the first time that you experienced disillusionment? Was it when you understood for the first time that what Russia 24 TV was reporting did not correspond with reality? Did this take time to seep in, or did you come to this realization immediately.
Dorovskikh: From the very beginning, as soon as I crossed the border. 5 minutes after arriving, I saw a fight between groups of volunteer fighters. Two hours later, a deputy commander of the 'Ghost Brigade' arrived and wanted to shoot two drivers. I understood then that I joined a group of thugs, not a military organization. My disappointment grew stronger over time.
Volcheck: How did you last there for six months?
Dorovskikh: This is what happened. I told them in July that I would spend another week before heading back home to Russia. There I met with Strelkov by chance in a shopping mall on Rublevskiy Highway. I thought maybe I had misunderstood something, or missed something, during my first visit and decided to return. This time I joined militant fighters with the DNR in Nikishyne. But I saw exactly the same thing as during my first visit. It's the same in the DNR as it is the LNR.
Volchek: How long do you think these self-declared republics will last?
Dorovskikh: If Russia stops supplying them, they will disappear. But Russia looks determined to support them further and that's why these two republics still exist.
Volchek: What would you tell Russians who want to fight for the DNR and LNR in Donbas?
Dorovskikh: I would advise them not to go to Donbas. That would be false patriotism. There is no Russia there. It is simply aggression. Moreover, you will wind up in a band of thugs. When I learned not long ago that a policeman from Moscow, an investigator, joined the militant ranks there, my hair stood on end. He wound up with a bunch of thugs. I don't know how he can live with those people. I would advise people not to travel there because the fighting there has nothing to do with protecting Russian interests. If Russian volunteers stop going there, there would not be thousands of dead people and Russia would stop assisting the leaders of DNR and LNR. The Great Patrotic War is not being refought in Donbas. It's aggression, pure and simple. How did it start? Strelkov and his people, professional military men, started it. But they have been fighting for their entire lives. When I returned back to Russia from my last visit, I was told that 180 Russians had left a week earlier. They asked only that I not tell anyone about this. I told them that I would tell people when I got back not to come to Donbas because the situation is not is as it is portrayed at all. People are murdering and stealing in Donbas. I understood this from the moment I arrived. I understood that the chances of being killed by a volunteer fighter were greater than dying at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers. The chances of being shot dead by a drunken volunteer fighter are higher than being killed by Ukraine's army.
Volchek: Was it easy for you to quit and come home? Did you just put your gun on the table and say, 'That's it for me?'
Dorovskikh: You are regarded as a volunteer, so can leave whenever you like. When I wanted to leave Nikishyne, they asked me to wait. I told them I would stay two more weeks. They repeated the request, I don't think this is the case with local separatists. Finally, I just turned in my weapon they had issued to me and told them I was returning to Russia. I had no further obligations to them. The commander of my company two times a week checked in on us and left as quickly as possible. I felt like I was cannon fodder and not fighting for anything. In fact, there is nothing to fight for there. I would have been happy to find a cause, but there is no reasons to risk your life for.
Volchek: Your political views have changed since then?
Dorovskikh: Yes. They are the opposite. Earlier I was disillusioned with our acting authorities when I was a businessman … and lost money because of them. But a year later I changed my opinion about Putin, about the authorities. I thought that they were doing a good thing [in Donbas]. I was wrong.