In the Pampas of the Donbas

“Ъ” special correspondent Ilya Barabanov on those who were in combat near Debaltseve

20-year-old Misha was born in Yekaterinburg, 21-year-old Alex - in Mozdok, Artyom is 22 years old, he is from Slavyansk-na-Kubani, and 23-year-old Dima is a native of Vladikavkaz. And there are also guys from from Chita, Norilsk, and Ulan-Ude.

At first glance, none of them have anything in common. But there is one thing they all have in common - the city “N”, ***** military unit, or [Russia's] “N”-based separate motorized infantry brigade.

Until recently, they have been doing military service there under contract. Back in December and January they would post pictures of themselves and their fellow contractors on their profiles in social networks, last summer there were pictures of them from exercises next to an APC. And more pictures, of them in neat uniforms in front of the mirror.

But everything changed two or three weeks ago, and now two buddies without any insignia pose for a picture on one of the squares of Horlivka [in Ukraine], another one posts pictures on the same social network of three young men sitting on an armored military vehicle somewhere en route to Debaltseve. A third picture shows a DNR-marked tank stuck in a trench - the main attraction at the entrance to the ruined Uglegorsk.

They went to war after January 20, when active hostilities had already resumed in the Donbas. For them, it is sort of an indefinitely long mission. Their commanders did not oppose their going - on the contrary, they welcomed their enthusiasm, explaining to the soldiers why it was necessary for them to go to those very areas to protect their homeland.

There was no organized deployment to the Donbas by military units, instead they went in groups of three people - the crews of military combat vehicles. Now, deprived of connections [with the outer world], they ask me of their friends’ fates, ask if they are alive. Upon arrival they were assigned to different, already formed military units of the DNR army.

The logic of military operations in recent months is quite simple: only experienced troops are being deployed to perform combat missions on behalf of either the self-proclaimed republics, or “certain regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” (as is written in the Minsk agreement). They complete a mission and pull back, and local insurgents move into the seized towns, the commandants’ offices and checkpoints - ready to meet the journalists and tell them of their past lives as “miners.”  At some point, you can actually get to thinking that only the locals rose up against the “Junta”, but then someone blurts out:

- The Buryats’ positions are behind those spoil heaps.

- Who are the Buryats?

- Well ... The Donbas Indians.

Everyone is smiling - there is mutual understanding of what's going on. In the last few days before the final offensive on Debaltseve, journalists were mostly restricted from entering Uglegorsk where the attack was launched from, so as not to give away the [presence of the] Buryats [meaning Russian troops]. After a couple of days after the attack, when Debaltseve is finally “cleared” [of Ukrainian troops], miners will be manning the checkpoints, and journalists will be allowed to move around freely again.

Many things have been said in recent days on the strategic importance of Debaltseve: it is on a direct road connecting Donetsk and Luhansk, it also has a very large railway junction; and high ground, which is important artillery-wise. It will be a long time until we get to know how many hundreds of people were killed on both sides during the offensive, which dragged on for almost a month.

After seizing Debaltseve, the front line has been “evened out” once again. It may as well happen that a ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk will now be partially fulfilled, the shooting will stop completely, or at least subside a bit for a month or two until someone suddenly decides that the self-proclaimed republics can’t go on living without Mariupol, Artemivsk or Lysychansk. Then, “political commissars” will again become active in military units throughout all the huge country [of Russia] with stories about how important it is to help the freedom-loving Donbas against Western aggression. No forced deployment - just volunteers.

Michael, Alex, Artyom, and Dima – all of them signed a letter of resignation before leaving [for the Donbas]. If any of these guys were to be very unlucky in the Debaltseve offensive, that “unlucky volunteer” would certainly have nothing to do with any [Russian] military unit or brigade.

This reminds me of the Spanish Civil War. Volunteers from the USSR traveled there with “Nansen passports” or ID’s from a European country. It was difficult to reach [Spain], and aliases were quite different: the future Marshal of the Soviet Union Rodion Malinovsky was no “Motorola”, but a “Colonel Malino.”

Military Adviser Ian Berzin could have died under the name of General Donizetti, but in the end, he was shot in 1938 at the “Kommunarka” shooting site.

As Ilya Ehrenburg recalled in his "People, Years, Life" memoirs: “In 1943, at the checkpoint near Gomel I saw the army commander General Batov. We talked about the upcoming offensive. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘Fritz!’ and enemy aircraft appeared in sight. General and I both laughed: in Spain, our military advisers had different names - Valois, Loti, Molino, Grishin, Grigorovich, Douglas, Nicholas, Voltaire, Xanthi, Petrovich. For some reason, Pavel Batov got the last name 'Fritz.'”

- Were you sent to exercises to the Rostov region, or were you directly told that you were going to fight in Ukraine?

- They told us right away. You can see for yourself what these bastards do here, everybody was asking to come here. I'm not serving in the army to learn how to sew and dig.

- Is it a long-term “mission” or is it indefinite, until you are recalled?

- Until we leave, ourselves. I want to fight either until the war ends, or to my last breath.

- And what is there in it for you? I asked one of them. The answer was:

- We were told that we can help to stop the war here.

But sitting on the armored combat vehicle, one can’t stop the war. The war can be stopped only if everybody gets off those vehicles and returns home, at least back to their own country from the neighboring one.

P.S. The author is aware of the full names of the people mentioned in the article, but the editors find it inappropriate to publish them yet.

Ilya Barabanov


The original version of this article in Russian can be found here.