Arkady Babchenko / BaroshinPhoto

Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko: Russians want war. My nation wants war

18:55, 23 October 2015
11 min. 3211 Interview

A renowned Russian journalist, creator of Journalism without Intermediaries project, branded as “national traitor” by Putin’s regime, has told UNIAN about the reasons why the Russians crave for war, why they are so encouraged to come and fight in Donbas, why they don’t like the Ukrainians, and how he met the Ukrainian citizens in Chechnya during the war.

Arkady Babchenko is a unique journalist. He mastered his profession after military service in the Russian army, where he took part in the first and second Chechen campaigns. As a reporter, he has visited many hot spots, including that in Ukraine. For his disagreement with the official position of the Russian authorities he was enrolled in the ranks of "national traitors." Creator of the Journalism without Intermediaries project, Arkady has thousands of Facebook followers, which makes his Facebook page a respected information platform.

UNIAN sat with Babchenko to discuss Ukraine and Russia, war and peace.

Arkady, now that there is truce in Donbas, there is every chance that there will be no more large-scale hostilities. What is the outcome of the first Russian-Ukrainian war? Or is it too early to sum anything up?

My feeling is that the first episode of this war is over. In the near future it will be something like it is now. That is, provocations and attacks are possible. It should be understood that as long as Vladimir Putin is around, Russia will always be at war. He has no other tools left to hold things together and retain public influence but war. Now the war is shifted to Syria, so the military agenda is predetermined for the next couple of years. If something goes wrong, I don’t rule out transfer of a war theater back to Donbas. It’s quite possible.

I see absolute parallels between the Donbas conflict and the first Chechen war. Russia entered the conflict in 1994 in exactly the same condition as Ukraine did in the Donbas war: zero economy, almost completely destroyed state institutions, the lack of an efficient army. Of course, Ukraine is not Russia, but I still see the background for your country to develop a similar scenario. If we compare, there was a five-year break between the first and the second Chechen wars in Russia. I think that we’ll have to wait for about the same period before the the second episode starts in Donbas. This will happen when the low price of oil hits Russian economy really hard, and Russia thinks of anything but Donbas as its internal problems come out to the surface.. Over this period, Ukraine will more or less solve its problems with the economy and the army, and will dare to defend its territory – it will reach the border [with Russia]. The war will only be over when the Ukrainian flag flutters at the border and at the checkpoints.

Are you deliberately not saying anything about Crimea and leaving this part of Ukraine out of account?

The history of the Crimea is a separate conversation. It should be clearly understood that Russia will be fighting to the end for Crimea. The Kremlin does not intend to fight for Donbas (although this does not exclude the supply of arms and ammunition), as the Kremlin wants none of the new problems and new casualties.

Ukraine and the world community have neither opportunities, nor capabilities to return to pre-war status quo, because Russia remains a nuclear power and nothing can be done about it. The head of the nuclear power is a man who lives in his own world and enjoys the support of 86% of Russia’s population on the issue of Crimea. Frankly speaking, most of the Crimeans also want Russia more. Let people enjoy their dream, don’t touch Crimea today - leave it there for five years, let them comprehend what Russia is. Solving this problem now would mean entering the peninsula in tanks. Remember that Russian television has not gone anywhere, and the image of "fascist invasion" will be ready on a short notice, for sure. As a result, Ukraine will have a new war. Is it what you need? Before this, you blocked the supply of food, now you will cut electricity supply... Let [the Crimeans supporting the annexation] live in Russia for a while, I am for universal education, people need to be taught, let them learn.

Photo by Mitya Aleshkovsjy

For the Ukrainians the participation of Russian troops in Donbas hostilities is an indisputable fact. Do the Russians understand it or is it enough for them to hear the official statements that "our soldiers are not there?"

"The thought of what they’ve done to the people is frightening"

Of course, everybody understands everything, but this is not the problem. Public opinion in Russia is what the TV airs. Yesterday, public opinion reflected the TV image of "jew-bandera crucify Russian boys," now it’s  "we need to fight in Syria." If the TV says tomorrow that the Ukrainians are our best brothers, and [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko is our best friend, public opinoin will also reflect this new image. And the fact that we fought in Donbas and killed thousands of people will be forgotten. [Public]memory is just like that of a goldfish – it holds information for three hours.

In other words, the Russians know about Russian army taking part in the war in Donbas, but this is not the problem, and they think: "Right on! Smash those hohly [a colloquial term used in Russia to describe the Ukrainians; perceived as derogatory in Ukraine]! Our guys are there, what’s the problem?!" There’s no need to tell anything to anyone. Everybody knows everything.

Why do the Russian TV channels portray Russia’s participation in wars as an easy ride? The very possibility of death or injury of Russian soldiers is excluded. Is a life a citizen of this country not important for the media?

The answer is simple: a “zombie-TV-box,” propaganda, brainwashing and mental debilitation of the population turned out to be surprisingly powerful. I couldn’t have imagined this; I couldn’t imagine that this could be done to the people – making eat their own brain, in all seriousness, turning them into real zombies. Five years ago the following joke would be nonsense: "Hey, our son was killed in Donbas! Shut up, you fool, we never had a son." Now it is a reality. Nothing surprises me in this country, but the thought of what they’ve done to the people is frightening. They sell the memory of their dead husbands and sons. The government gives them some money and the people are silent. They disown their relatives, burying them under the number plates. I don’t understand how is it even possible, but they, managed to do it. In this the authorities did succeed, what else to be said here.

Moscow's official position is well known: there are no military servicemen, but "we have never hidden the participation of Russian volunteers." Does someone count Russian casualties in this war, regardless of their legal status?

Here, no one has ever counted casualties. We still don’t know, how many soldiers have been killed in Chechnya. And no one is going to count these [Russian citizens who died in Donbas]. The exact death toll will never be announced, even if we call them "volunteers." We can only speculate.

What awaits the veterans of the conflict, from both sides?

This is a separate topic, a big one. I can speak for a long time on the topic of veterans. In this respect, it will be easier for Ukraine, but you will witness the post-combatant syndrome anyway. This syndrome has accompanied all of the wars so far. I was surprised that Ukraine was not that much drawn into this war, as I thought before. While all the TV channels scream that "Russia attacked us!" the army has hardly drafted 50,000 troops across the country with a forty-something-million population. This is weird. People returning from the war will be asked by their friends: “Where have you been?” The division of society is inevitable, and the state needs to start dealing with this problem now. In any case, it will be easier in Ukraine – this war is righteous for you, and you will win it. Victory in war always encourages you to gain victory in civilian life. Defeat in war always sets you up for a defeat in civilian life.

Citizens of Russia, we can call them "volunteers," returning from Donbas, will be in complete isolation. This will be the strongest post-combatant syndrome, no one will need them, society would quickly peter out and will not think about them, they will not think about Ukraine. These veterans will get no status, no benefits, no medals, and no money. Three years later, when public opinion shifts, they will be told: no one has sent you there, and look what you’ve done, you fools. 90% of this society layer will drown in a bottle, and this will be their end.

Arkady Babchenko / Facebook

Reveal us the mystery of Russian nature. Do the Russians want war?

The nation has been debilitated for the past twenty years.

They do. The Russians want war, and it’s for sure. Now I can say that my nation wants war. Where does it come from? From the zombie-TV-box! Even the Soviet Union didn't do with the public what is being done now. Even back then, when proletariat was proclaimed a hegemony class, the emphasis was still on academics, cosmonauts, engineers, and physicists - the working intelligentsia. The modern regime bets on the lumpen, and also on “gopniks,” [colloquial term for aggressive youngsters from shady neighborhoods], aggressive and armed. They have been brought up for decades. That what Dmitry Kiselyov [one of the Russian propaganda’s talking heads] does, threatening to turn the United States into the nuclear ashes, is just the tip of the iceberg. Nation has been debilitated for the past twenty years. It started with Regina Dubovitskaya and Dom-2 [a comedy and a reality show, respectively, believed to be of a questionable quality]. Those who have brains and carry the gene of freethinking were squeezed out of the country, and only the most abominable features of character were left in the people. The TV has done this, there's no getting around it. People have changed drastically. Those who were my best friends five-ten years ago, are impossible to talk to.

I still don’t understand, even if it so. Russia is a huge country, and it is possible to find a job, rather than run around with a gun in the other states...

There is cognitive dissonance – everyone is well aware that the our country is not rich, it’s not great and it’s  not a world leader. It’s only the external picture. No one voices it, but they feel it subconsciously. You can’t live in a country stuck in the middle of the XX century and seriously think that you are the leader of the XXI century. Reality will enter contradict with the imaginary world, anyway. By the way, only large cities enjoy a XX-century kind of life. If you go to Verkhniy Volochek – just 300 km from Moscow – it’s the mid-XIX century there, the toilets are outside, and there is stove heating.

As a result, a person born in some Verkhniy Volochyok realizes that he has no prospects. They have two ways to die - in 40, of cirrhosis, or in 25, of tuberculosis, while in prison. That’s the only life plan, no other choices. And then suddenly, the TV shows Ukraine where Bandera followers kill the Russians. Seeing this, a mediocre man takes a rifle and goes to defend the Russian people. It is in Donbas where someone begins to see [starting to understand the falsity of propaganda], and not all of them. The second point: there is a logic: "At least, I get to go shoot Ukrainians, see the world, get out of here somehow." I repeat, there are no prospects back at home. Do you think that they when traveling to Donbas they think that the war is terrifying, that it means death? Nothing like this. The war is the best adventure of their lives for them; they will never experience anything like it. They will go back to their province and still die of cirrhosis, but then again, at least they at least saw the world, did something. They had a goal, they were not just some junkie.

So this country living in the middle of the XIX century, and still screaming from TV screens that it is the leader of the XXI century, produces schizophrenia in the minds of its citizens. It’s not going to end well for us.

Why has Russia pulled the switch, and there is instantly way less anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and everybody forgot about Donbas?

Yes, they really pulled the switch. Now we have a new topic - Syria.

So what is the reason? Is the Ukrainian issue no more interesting for the Russian authorities?

The switch can be pulled in any direction and at any rate; everyone will engulf any information without thinking.

Putin needs to withdraw from there [Donbas], and the air time must be filled with something else. This is done with the help of Syria. Again, the mass memory of the viewer is just like that of a goldfish – it lasts for three hours. Russian viewers turn on their TVs not to learn some facts or watch the news. They perceive tone and hatred. They don’t care what will be the target of that hatred: Ukraine, gays, nationals from the Caucasus states or the Asian part of the former Soviet Union, migrants, or Syrians. Over the last five years we've had a lot of different enemies. First, Russia was irritated by the Estonian and Latvian fascists, then Bandera followers [in Ukraine], the Chechens, the Wahhabis, terrorism in general. Then there were the immigrants, Georgians, Tajiks, gays, liberals, “jew-banderas” and so on. A peace of that hatred was every time attached to these targets, so that the viewers could consume it. The switch can be pulled in any direction and at any rate; everyone will engulf any information without thinking.

So why is the Ukrainian issue no more attractive for the Kremlin?

We have no idea of the decision-making mechanisms. Had Putin not said that the decision to annex Crimea was taken by five people, we would have never known this. I don’t know how they make decisions, but apparently the pressure has reached a stage when his entourage said: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, it didn’t work out as we expected, it's all too expensive, and brings us problems, we are losing our palaces and our dough, let's cut it off and justget out of there." Probably it was something like that, but I can only guess.

For the bulk of the Ukrainians Russia is the aggressor state. What is Ukraine for the Russians now?

The first opinion: Ukraine is “hohly,” not in a hateful sense, but in the sense of “outskirts of our great empire" that is messing with us, not wanting to be friends, for which we will punish them. That’s about the way Ukraine is perceived by Russia’s mass consciousness.

And how about the slogan about the fraternal nations?

We are not fraternal at all. Ukrainians were always like brothers to Russians, but at a level a little below. The Russians always knew that Russia is a metropolis, while Ukraine is a colony. And it infuriates them now that Ukrainians show character and want to become independent, want to be a metropolis themselves and and defy the status of a colony.

But we are not interested in the status of the metropolis. We want independence, Ukrainians have no imperial ambitions. By the way, you are the author of a book called "War" about the events in Chechnya, the war branded by the Russian authorities as restoration of "constitutional order," while the Chechens believed it was the war for their liberation. What should the Ukrainians know about this tragic period in history?

With such a neighbor like Russia, you must always stay alert.

Many things I shouldn’t say not to be summoned to a prosecutor’s office... I am sure that your soldiers know what to do when they encounter an enemy. I’d like to say that the problem of Ukraine is that you were not observing Chechnya. Had it not been the case, Ukraine would know more what Russia is and what the war is. There would be no such shocks, such gigantic mistakes. Had your General Staff studied the experience of urban warfare, there would be no Volnovakha, Debaltseve, and Ilovaysk. In this sense, Chechnya is an open textbook. Everything is written with blood. Take it and see it.

Regarding the fraternal peoples I’ll tell you this story. When I came back from Chechnya, while the train was in transit through Ukraine, the Ukrainian border guards were all over me - I was carrying a knife - and they tried to push me for a bribe, as if I was crossing the border with a cold weapon. It’s an average situation. I say to them: "I am coming from the war." The answer was: "We couldn’t care less about your war, this is your war, not ours." So, this general attitude was a mistake. With such a neighbor like Russia, you must always stay alert. I would advise Ukraine to build some public and state institutions...

However, during the Chechen wars Ukraine sympathized with the Russians. At the same time no one denied the participation in Chechen war of the fighters, for example, of the UNA-UNSO [Ukrainian radical organization]. While in Chechnya, have you heard of or maybe seen these fighters?

I’ve heard a lot about the Ukrainians, there was a lot of rumor. I believe, 99% of these stories are fiction. As I understand, there was no more than a 100 Ukrainians taking par in that war, or maybe less. I haven’t personally seen them, haven’t encountered them. I came across the other Ukrainians - in my platoon there were two Ukrainians and one Belarusian, who fought in Chechnya in the Russian army, they had passports of Ukraine and Belarus when they came to the draft board. They signed a contract and went to fight in Chechnya.

So, you haven’t seen our Prime Minister in Chechnya, either, have you?

Our so-called investigators can’t do anything right. Having the information that on December 31, 1994,  there was a war in Chechnya, and perhaps some Ukrainians could participate in hostilities in Grozny on the side of the militants, everything could be smooth. But the problem is that on December 31, 1994, the area of Minutka [market] was one of the few places where there was no active fighting. The events of the storm of Grozny [by the Russian army] on December 31, 1994, were reconstructed minute-by-minute. We know where each combat vehicle was hit, where there standoffs occurred. No one shot at Russian soldiers at Minutka, no one killed them, and no one tortured them! Investigators can’t even fabricate a decent propaganda piece, even obtaining all necessary information...

The last question: over the past year and a half, Russia has had various adversaries: Ukraine, now ISIL in Syria… Who's next?

There are no options:  Americans will remain among the adversaries, as well as the Islamic radical terrorism. The internal enemies are national traitors. Who will be next, I don’t know.

Roman Tsymbaliuk, Moscow

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