‘There was no order to shoot’
Special correspondent of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Pavel Kanygin interviewed two Russian officers of the special reconnaissance unit “Spetsnaz” Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev detained by Ukrainian troops in the Donbas last Saturday. Both Russian soldiers are now at the Kyiv hospital where they are being treated for wounds sustained in a shootout near the Village of Schastye with the Ukrainian forces.
The correspondent was given an opportunity by law enforcement officials to speak with the detainees in private. The representatives of the OSCE, the Red Cross, also psychologists and lawyers have already visited the captured Russian soldiers. So far, only Russian officials have not paid a visit, although, according to international law, consular employees have the right (and actually are obliged) to do so.
Aleksandrov had earlier gone through a complicated operation on his wounded leg, so he is still not able to even stand up. But he will walk again, after rehabilitation, say the Ukrainian doctors who have saved his leg. Yerofeyev’s arm was also saved by the Ukrainian medics. In both cases, there is no more threat of amputation.
Part of the conversation was off the record at the request of the interviewees.
Both asked me about the news and the reaction in Russia. However, they already heard from conversations with the Ukraine’s Security Service officials that they have been disowned by the Russian Defense Ministry, and branded instead as “people's militiamen” of the Luhansk People’s Republic. But they don’t fully believe this and don’t seem to believe me either, even when I confirm the bad news: They don’t accept it.
I turned off the camera a couple of times, leaving only a voice recorder running, as I was just not able to film some [emotional] things. For example, the moment when Sergeant Aleksandrov could not hold back his tears after learning from me of the episode aired on [Russian state-controlled TV channel] Rossiya24 where his wife Katerina said that Alexander had been dismissed from the military service in December 2014 and that she did not know about him going to the Donbas.
- Tell me, why is that? All I had was an order, I am no terrorist... there was an order! I gave an oath to my Homeland!.. How old are you?
- Twenty eight.
- Well, we are the same age. I don’t know if you served. But you are Russian, too, we are sort of fellow countrymen. Tell me, how could this all be? ... Why would they disown us?
- I don’t know...
- We had a mission! And that episode you told about, on the TV, what is it about? Is it my wife there or her picture?
- I think that was her who was telling about you.
- Well, maybe it was only a picture of her?! (Alexandrov covers his face with a towel). - Why would she say such things?!
- Maybe that’s not exactly her.
- Then who ?!
- I'm sure, she still loves you, and she probably said this against her will.
- But why?! I swore an oath!... We have been together, in one [military] unit...
I don’t know how to react to that. I don’t know what to say. At the end of the interview Alexandrov asks again to pass his love to Katerina. While I was walking out of the hospital ward, the sergeant buries his face in a paper towel with tears in his eyes.
I am recording this interview with [the soldiers’] consent. At some moments during the conversation a security officer in civilian clothes is present, but then the conversation goes on privately. The wounded soldiers want their families and friends to see them alive, and don’t want to be forgotten. They want to return home.
Interview with Alexander Aleksandrov
- Could you please introduce yourself and tell a little about yourself. Your name is Alexander Aleksandrov?
- Yes, Alexander Anatolyevich. Born on January 7, 1987 in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Currently registered in [Russia’s] Kirov region. My parents live there. I am a citizen of the Russian Federation. I am a soldier (of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation – P.K.) on active duty. Well, I used to be.
- Used to be?
- Well, as far as I know, I didn’t quit, I didn’t write any declarations [on my resignation].
- So you [consider yourself] an active serviceman of the Russian army?
- In your own opinion, what is your status here at the moment? Are you a prisoner of war or do you have some other status?
- I wish I were a prisoner of war. This status is, well, better for me than that of a mercenary or a bandit.
- You said that there was an order [to deploy you]. Who gave that order?
- There was an order, and obeyed it, as a soldier. It was a kind of a mission.
- Have you already met with representatives of the Russian embassy?
- Do you want to pass a message to them?
- Maybe. [I want them] to visit me.
- Have you heard the message of the Russian Defense Ministry that you are no longer the soldiers of the Russian Federation since December 2014?
- This is the first time I hear it, from you.
- Yesterday, several Russian media published an interview with your wife. She said that you retired from the Russian army in December and left for Samara, and she did not know your whereabouts.
- I didn’t know this. Frankly, you shocked me a little right now...
- Have you talked to her at all?
- My calls couldn’t get through to her. The connection has been failing.
- How have you been treated?
- I’ve been treated properly.
- You are accused of terrorism.
- I haven’t been engaged in any terrorist acts, I performed my military reconnaissance tasks. I haven’t been involved in sabotage activity.
- How would you comment on the statements by the [Russian] authorities and leaders that the Russian army is not present in the Donbas?
- As you can see, it is there. [The problem is] that admitting it does no good.
- Was there any pressure from the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service] during interrogations?
- No. I was properly and appropriately treated. As a prisoner of war.
- Would you like to say something to the public?
- I would like to return home. And [I want] no one else be sent here [to the war].
- Is the military service in the territories controlled by the DPR and LPR [self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] paid for in any special way?
- I don’t know. I guess it’s the same as in Russia. There were only promises. But there was nothing beyond those promises.
- What promises?
- A double salary. But it’s just not happening. There was no [such double salary].
- What do you think about the ceasefire? Has it been observed in the area where you were?
- Sure, for the most part, it has.
- Would you like to say something to your family?
- Yes, to my wife. I am very much in love with her. And I hope that after all I’ll be back. Excuse me [...]
Interview with Yevgeny Yerofeyev
- Please tell us a little about yourself. You are Yevgeny Yerofeyev?
- Yes, and you are not the first who is interested in my fate… I have already told that all I want is to return home. Here I am accused of terrorism. But I am still being treated in hospital.
- I asked Alexandrov about his status here. How would you define your status now?
- Well, I hear some news from the Internet that we were allegedly disowned, that we have been dismissed from service since the beginning of this year.
- Dismissed by whom?
- That we, ourselves have quit. Quit from the army. And that we came here of our will.
- So, you didn’t quit?
- I have not, yet. It’s just such a situation, the information vacuum, no one comes to us from our, so to say, the embassy, no one visits or talks to us. I never saw any of our country’s officials, although I am a citizen of Russia. I do not know what's going on right now and what it will result in. But I hope that everything will be fine. I'll come back to my parents, my wife.
- Could you tell us how you ended up near the village of Shastya?
- Well, I was there to perform a mission on monitoring the parties engaged in conflict. It so happened that I may have strayed from my route a little bit. During the shooting, [with the Ukrainian soldiers] I was wounded. The Ukrainian soldiers provided us with the first aid.
- You say that you were there to monitor?
- Well, yes, there was no order at all, I was not carrying out some special mission to terminate or capture anyone. I killed no one, there even was no order to start a firefight, only to return fire in self-defense.
- So, were the Ukrainian military notified that you were an observer and were monitoring the parties to the conflict?
- No, we did it secretly. Well, how can I explain this? It was not as part of the [official] monitoring mission.
- Could you tell us more about that mission of yours?
- Well, it was reconnaissance, we conducted surveillance. Well, we would spot who opens fire, which side it is – that’s all.
- In the LPR you are now referred to as a serviceman from the “people's militia”.
- I guess.
- So you are both observer from the Russian Army and a member of local “militia”?
- Well, no I’m not. I had a status of a [Russian] soldier, carried out the order, didn’t kill anyone. It just so happened that events developed this way.
- How does your activity correlate with the [Minsk] agreements?
- I don’t know how to tell for sure. I did not conduct any combat operations (...). I [only] reported on the violations of the Minsk agreements by both parties. Well, it was not in the framework of any [official] monitoring mission... It’s just sad this that we have been forgotten, abandoned, they want to give up on us, write us off.
- And what about the statement by the Russian Defense Ministry, that you have been dismissed from the army since the beginning of this year?
- Honestly, I just heard it from people that there was such a statement... In fact, there are a lot of prisoners on both sides. And there is always an opportunity for prisoners’ exchange. Both Ukraine and the LPR have prisoners. I would love to be exchanged.
- What kind of prisoner do you define yourself in this situation? Are you a prisoner of war from the LPR or from Russia?
- Well, no state of war has been announced, of course. But it’s like, I was, and most likely still am a military serviceman [of the Russian Federation] - I don’t even know now how to say this - and I was captured, then, perhaps, there is some possibility of my exchange.
- Tell me, please, is it true that you are contracted by the Russian GRU [Main Reconnaissance Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces]?
- Well, I am an intelligence officer, not more. There is a lot such military units across the country, including in Ukraine.
- What would you like to say to your family?
- [I wish them] Patience, of course. You can imagine how they reacted after learning that their son was in such a situation. The main thing that [I hope is that] it doesn’t affect their health. And I hope they will receive some help.
- In your opinion, is there Russian army in the territory of the Donbas?
- The fact is that there is not. They caught two of us, the observers, and they want to show it as the Russian army's invasion of Ukraine. The army means a lot of equipment, plenty of infantry, artillery, aircraft and such. There are no such military units in the LPR and the DPR. They have their own. Someone just wants to use us in some political game, using us to represent aggression and the whole Russian army.
- But your presence there, what is it then?
- Can you imagine what an army is? It's more than a thousand people. It’s hundreds of pieces of equipment, the headquarters. This should work as a single mechanism. And there is no such thing. They just caught the two of us.
- You may have heard about the Buryat soldiers [representatives of one of the population of one of Russia’s distant regions with distinctive Asian features]. What do you think about this?
- About the Buryat tank troopers? (Smiles) Well, I heard that Russia throws in its last reserves from Sakhalin.
- They also just happened to be monitoring? From their tanks?
- I have no idea. In Ukraine, there are many nationalities, so anything is possible. But I didn’t see any Buryats.
- Being a commander of the reconnaissance unit, you got detained – how can this be called?
- It’s a failure.
- What you could say about this war?
- Well, I had the opportunity to observe the conflict on both sides. Both parties have done a lot of bad things. Both the volunteer battalions and the militants – they all wreak havoc.
- Between whom is this war?
- This is a civil war.
- Does Russia participate in it?
- It is being drawn into this war ... But I can see that now the burnt equipment is being withdrawn, repairs are being made [in the LPR and the DPR], some shops are reopened, and people have work again... Yes, there are problems with food, but it is being supplied. ... I hope that it will all be over soon. A lot of people are tired of it all. I think it's time to finish the fight. A bad peace is better than a good war.
- Have anyone visited you here in the hospital?
- The thing is that everybody came. The UN, the Red Cross, the OSCE. Everyone asked, how I was doing as if I am well, if I get necessary treatment. Everybody came, except the [Russian] embassy. I understand that from me disowned me as a military serviceman, to hell with it. But I'm still my country’s citizen. And I would like to see at least some official.
- From the Russian Embassy?
- From the Embassy of Russia, or anyone else will do. Either from the consulate or the embassy! Everybody came, except for them. What the heck if they don't admit I'm a soldier? - I'm still a citizen. For now… (After a long pause), Pavel! Could you go there and asked them to come see me?