From the author:
A month ago, friends told me a story about a guy who took part in the military conflict in Donbas, saying he was ready to tell about his adventure. The problem was that he did not trust the reporters, but having read some of my previous articles, the young man gave his consent for an interview, asking not to reveal his name and exact number of his military unit.
- You only agreed to talk with me anonymously. Still, could you tell me a little about yourself?
- I’d rather not tell anything about myself, don’t get me wrong. But I can tell you something about Ukraine.
- When you were drafted for military service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation?
- In June of 2013.
- Did you intend to be a military or were you reluctant to become a soldier?
- It was upon my own will. I wanted to see what it is, to have my own experience. Honestly, I haven’t seen anything interesting there.
- What kind of impression has the service in today’s Russian army left in general?
- If you take my conscription service, we were just manpower, roughly speaking.
- As far as I know, you have served in the artillery, not the least recognized type of forces, to put it mildly, so why was there such an attitude toward you?
- Yes, you’re right. That’s because they do not consider it necessary to teach the conscripts the full program, as they would all go home in a year. It makes no sense to give knowledge and to engage with them, so that’s why the officers had such attitude to "draftees." All classes were basically taught for show.
- Was there any harassment from the fellow soldiers?
- How should I put it? To some extent, yes, there was some. The strong wins over the weak - it is the law of life. Leaders impose their own rules. They exerted moral pressure. Although, you can’t physically touch anyone, otherwise you can get locked up...
- Were there such cases?
- Oh, we have a lot of things happening. People used to commit suicide.
- For what reasons?
- Because of the women generally. Love and all that garbage. I was actually dumped, too, when I was on my sixth month of service, but I did not care. Seriously, I’m telling you, I’ve never had any thoughts of suicide (laughs).
- But someone did care? (I smile)
- Yes, we had a sergeant, he had three months of service left. His girl wrote him telling him it’s all over, so he went and hanged himself, on the same day.
- Wow, if that was so serious, he should have deserted... (with a smile).
- Yes, really, he should have gone there and made things up with that girl (laughs). It was only three months left, no one hurt him, he seemed to be a normal guy, and then it turned out so stupidly... Although, there are actually a lot of such cases in the army today.
- Could you elaborate on this situation? Is the atmosphere so oppressive it brings a person to a stage when he is ready for suicide? Or is this about the people, originally mentally unstable, who get into the army because of a medical error of a draft board?
- I think it’s the draft board’s flaw. In general, it is necessary to improve these psychological tests, the ones we passed before the service. This guy clearly had a problem with his head, and the doctors just could not identify it.
Returning to the issue of desertion, I want to say that it was just the case. One guy was harassed a lot, so he decided to escape fro the base for 30 days. He was hiding somewhere, living in the basement. Then they found him and put him into a disciplinary battalion for four months.
It all happened in a training center, where they were still watching us, took us to a psychologist; but then, in the Caucasus, it was way tougher, there were people cutting veins... Because there was no one there to help them, but themselves.
- And after all this, you still decided to continue the service on a contract basis - why?
- I guess I was wondering, what's the difference of the contractual service in practice. Well, I also wanted to earn some money. The salary was good, and there were decent bonuses.
- If it’s not a secret, could you tell me, how much were you paid per month?
- It was nearly RUR 40,000 a month. A New Year’s bonus was RUR 160,000. My first salary was also RUR 160,000.
- So, it was all voluntary with your contract… Were you not forced to sign a contract?
- I was all voluntary in my situation. But to say honestly, I witnessed cases when people were lured into signing contracts. Because of the debts, for example.
- The debts?
- Well, how could I explain this properly? The thing is, some of the officers are attracted to other people’s money... They really want to collect some cash from the soldiers and bring it home. I’m not even putting this correctly. It’s not the debt. There are people who are lured into signing a contract, to collect money from them later.
I witnessed cases when people were lured into signing contracts
- So, the guys are forced to sign a contract so that they give part of their money back to the officers?
- Have you witnessed such cases personally?
- Yes (with a smile). And this soldier is comfortable. Infirm people, I do not understand them. Although I tried to talk to them on the subject, but to no avail.
- Now, let’s talk about the war. What did your fellow soldiers think about the conflict in Ukraine, what was discussed in private conversations?
- Of course, we watched the news on television. Although, I personally tried not to listen to the news. Your colleagues are keen on lying (laughs). The guys’ opinion about the conflict was that it could be solved very quickly with our army. We had an entire brigade – 1,000 contractors - near Rostov. This brigade alone could "make some noise." But I should note that the Ukrainian forces have mustered great experience throuhgout the campaign, and now are prepared perfectly.
In general, we had various conversations, Alexei…
- And what was your opinion on the matter?
- Frankly, I didn’t want to go there. I had this attitude - if they tell me to go, I’ll go, I won’t be afraid, as this is my job. It was possible to refuse, there was no official order. It was a guised as military training. But had I not gone, I would be not very comfortable with this.
- Not very comfortable with what? That you would give up on your fellow soldiers?
- Yes. Not because I (at this point the Sergeant cursed for the first and only time during our conversation) did something wrong to my Homeland, but because I would give up on my guys.
- I understand your story, but were there extremely patriotic soldiers in your team?
- Not one?! It can’t be!
- Seriously, I’ve never met any.
- Really?! It’s hard for me to believe it now.
- It’s the truth. I also tried to find someone saying: "I will tear anyone apart for my country!" but my search has not been successful.
- Yes, it’s weird. You surprised me here.
- In my unit there was no such thing, I repeat.
- In what way were you informed on deployment in Ukraine?
- Initially we were sent to the military training in Rostov region on the border with Ukraine in the autumn of 2014. And starting from November 2014, we were, in fact, out in a field near Novocherkassk. It was announced during an evening line-up in the beginning of February. The battery commander came up to us and said: "We are leaving," without explanation. We gathered around the tent, and he said: "Early in the morning, at 4:00 you go to Donetsk."
- Did he say it outfront: "In the morning you go to Donetsk?"
- Yeah, and then he added: "Those who give no consent – step forward. We will not force anyone."
- What was the commander’s rank?
- It turns out it was just a conversation, no formal order was given?
- No, no. Only those go, who want.
- How many of soldiers were there in a line-up?
- Let’s see, three vehicles, it’s a two-person crew, plus another officer with a driver. So it’s 10 peopleincluding the commander.
- Did he talk to the rest of the contractors about it?
- No, everyone was in a general line-up, he just said who would go that day. He chose the most trained crews. Had we not agreed, he would be ready to replace us with others. After all, it was not just us who went to Donetsk and Luhansk for "trips."
- Have many people refused?
- Nobody from our team refused, everyone agreed.
- Were you promised higher reward from the state at the end of this trip?
- A Medal of Courage (laughs). By the way, I’ve not gotten one. They promised it, but they never gave it.
- Someone got one, as far as I know.
- Yes, I have personally seen that my name was put into a draft order, this order was forwarded to the General Staff, but never got anything.
- Did the order explain in detail, what you were supposed to get a medal for?
- By the way, I don’t remember exactly what was written there. I believe, positive moments of my service were listed briefly and that’s all. There was nothing about this "trip," and of cource there was nothing about combat missions. Who would write this? By the way, I was promised high rewards - "per diem," but I never got any. We did not seek to earn any money, we all were just curious, what kind of a trip this would be.
- Did you perceive it as an unusual adventure?
- Yes, roughly speaking, I did.
- How did you get to a designated location?
- Do you know what a drop-frame trailer is?
- I can imagine.
- So, there were the trailers from some military base in Volgograd, We got onto these trailers on MTLBs [Multi-purpose light-armored towing vehicles]. Then the convoy of trailers drove to the border. From the border we would drive our own equipment. It took us a long time to get from the border to Dinetsk, it sure was about 200 kilometers.
- How many people and how many vehicles did you have in your convoy?
- Five vehicles - a KamAZ [truck], four combat vehicles, and 11 people. In addition, we had ammunition and food.
- What was the Russian-Ukrainian border like at the time of your arrival there?
- There was no “hohly” [a colloquial term in Russian, used to describe Ukrainians, deemed in Ukraine as derogatory], it was clearly our border, our special forces were there. They looked at us and said, "Drive on!" As a result, we passed the border partly through the woods.
Actually, it was not really pretty for us, at an early stage, when we started to bring our vehicles down from the trailers. Our MTLB driver forgot he had the vehicle on gear, and he was far from sober, as usual. I was in command of this process. So, the MTLD was on Drive instead of Reverse, so it went forward and fell over the cabin of a trailer, along with all the equipment. Can you imaging 10 tonnes falling in front of you from a four-meter height? We really thought that it’s over, that the driver was dead. And then he looks out of the cabin and tells us: "Take my kettle here, I almost broke it." The situation is not at all a pleasant one – we are stuck on the border, with broken equipment, oil and diesel fuel flowing out of the tanks. By the way, it was the most proper vehicle out of all the others. Then we had to move to a neighboring Russkoye training ground, repaired the vehicles in a few days and then moved on. We spent more than one day at the training ground, as there were no more trailers coming. Everything was moving toward the truce, and almost all of them were involved in transporting Russian military equipment back home to our military bases.
We were officially deployed in Rostov
- Leaders and representatives of the Russian authorities at various levels have repeatedly stated and continue to insist that there was no Russian army in the territory of Donbas. What do you say to that?
- In my opinion, only the most stupid can believe it. Everyone knows that it's there. Without the Russian army the militants would not last a month. Therefore, our army has been constantly helping them.
- What was your status in Ukraine?
- We had this “trip.” We were officially deployed near Rostov.
- Who gave you specific instructions on the location? Who did you report to?
- We were subordinates of a local commander of some local group. Some special forces troops from the DPR [self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic”] have met us close to the border, and we followed them to Donetsk. The commander on the ground was a local resident, a Colonel. A serious guy. People called him by a nickname - Ivanych. It is evident that he had a military background, but for a long time he lived a civil life.
- Were you issued any documents where your Donetsk deployment was recorded?
- No, I was not. Some specop guys from the DPR met us near the border and took us to Donetsk, and then all communication was through this guy, Ivanych.
- And where exactly were you stationed in Donetsk?
- We had a trump location – a base in the heart of Donetsk. Abandoned furniture storage. There still remained some expensive furniture - from Italy and France. The owner of the warehouse knew that it was still there, but he was afraid to do anything.
Upon arrival in Donetsk we were strictly forbidden to tell anyone where we are from
- Were you welcomed there?
- They were so excited, like, finally, the Russian army arrived. By the way, they had everthing strict there, as in the army – detailing for guard, punishment for drinking. I did not expect such a high level of discipline from them.
- While participating in all these events, you were on active military duty in the Russian army, if I understand you correctly.
- Yes, with the rank of Sergeant. But upon arrival in Donetsk we were strictly forbidden to tell anyone where we are from.
- Were you issued any local IDs, like DPR police or something of a kind?
- I heard about this, but no one gave us anything. The only thing is that we changed our uniform to an old Flora model before deployment, I got Gorka-type.
- The military equipment you used in combat missions – who did it belong to?
- It was our equipment, we just painted over the registration numbers on our vehicles, and also the logo of our brigade. We wrote "To the DPR", in order not to reveal ourselves. Then, when we got back to our military base, we had to wash off all these signs.
- Did yo get to the front line? Did you take a position?
- We went there just once in two weeks, it was near Horlivka in Donetsk region. It was a bit scary there. The militants call their adversaries "ukrops,” so these “ukrops” were really almost next to us. At any time we could run into an ambush there. We have chosen our positions on the spot, started masking our equipment, but the actual fight never took place. Actually, we stayed for two weeks in Donetsk, in anticipation, and then a truce was declared. Two hours before the truce there were tough battles there. The fight was so intense that the windows cracked. We are artillery, anti-tank platoon, but, just when we arrived – the Ukrainian tanks stopped attacking. We were all waiting, we were told: "Be ready, tomorrow there will be a battle ready, guys," but it never took place. We just had this one trip to the front line.
- Have you talked to the guys from the armed group in Donetsk, the one you were attached to? What kind of people were there?
- Ordinary guys, mostly local, maybe a few people were volunteers from Russia. Various ages - from 18 and up to 70 years of age. The older people mostly perform functions of petty officers.
- I’ve been trying to closely follow the development of this military conflict from its beginning. Over this time, a lot of horrible facts have accumulated. I'm not just talking about those widely known, like a downed Boeing, but also about what’s been talked about in a narrow circle - the torture of soldiers, for example. Did you witness anything like that? Or do you know anybody who was involved in this?
- Not really. I've heard some stories from the militants, but it was all like: "We were ambushed, someone got killed, someone was wounded." I haven’t heard anything neither about the torture, nor about the Boeing. People were talking about the battle for Donetsk aiport, but I wasn’t listening closely.
If they caught some “ukrop,” they would beat him lightly and that’s all. The militants told me that the “ukrops” do such things, but it's also been just rumors.
- I think, it’s no secret for you, how actively the Russian federal TV channels have been telling their viewers about the bloody junta in Kyiv, Bandera followers and crucified children. Some Ukrainian publications were also publishing not the most accurate information, generating hatred between the parties.
What role has the media played in this military conflict, in your opinion?
- A very rough one... In fact, journalists have put two fraternal peoples into a quarrel. It was not just a quarrel – they incited people against each other. Both the Ukrainian journalists, and the Russian. While in Donetsk, we were actually watching the news from both sides. From one side they lie a lot about the militants, our side lies telling that there’s no Russian army in Donbas. "’Moskali’ [derogatory term used in Ukraine to describe Russians] are shit” on the one hand, “Hohly are shit” on the other. It is so stupid. They’ve divided Ukraine in two. I believe, local residents are in no way to be blamed. Their houses were shelled, I saw it personally, while I was in Donetsk. I’ll tel you about this “Debaltseve ring,” when the militants tried to evacuate more people before starting the shelling. They couldn’t close this ring wof quite a while, as they couldn’t evacuate all civilians, but the Ukrainian troops would not let the people leave, to be safe from attacks.
- What was your attitude toward the Ukrainian people before you took part in these events? Has it changed afterward?
- It hasn’t changed a bit. It was good, it and it still is. The only thing, those who are now in power in Ukraine are a mess, I think. What will happen next, I can’t even imagine.
- Can make any forecast on further developments? The conflict has not been settled yet...
- It seems to me that tis will last for a long time there. The militants don’t want to end the war. Ukrainian army is also led forward. And so it will continue. No one will retreat. And everything will be solved as a result of one serious fight, when one side completely suppresses another. But only God knows when it happens.
- Has everyone returned alive from that “trip”?
- Fortunately, yes. Although, there were times when I was very scared. Shell fragments were flying over my head. I was in the shower one evening, wearing just sneakers, some 500 meters from the base, as the shelling started: fragments were flying, with a funny wistling sound...
This is what I’ll say. A lieutenant from my battalion was killed. He blew up on a mine in Luhansk. He was from the artillery reconnaissance. He was buried at home in the Urals. They don’t give up on the troops. Actually, all the soldiers who died there, were buried back in their homeland, as far as I heard. And there is a decent geography - from Khabarovsk to St. Petersburg, I guess. In the summer of 2014 there were strong fights involving the Russian army, and now there are positional battles - artillery and infantry.
- Did you return after receiving an order?
- No, there were no actual orders, it was all just words. As the truce was announced, everybody started to go back gradually. We are there for only two weeks, I repeat. As soon as the Minsk Agreement took effect, the next morning we headed back to Russia. We were afraid that maybe there were snipers on rooftops in Donetsk, but nothing happened and we arrived back safely.
- You may have seen video interviews with Russian POWs? They told the Ukrainian military that they were deployed in Ukraine by force, by fraud, and then sent into battle. Do you think they tell the truth?
- They lied, I'm sure. No one made them, as far as I know.
The GRU officers were on active military duty, so the decision to disown them was predictable. We would be disowned, too
- You might have heard the story of the captured troops from GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense], who were later disowned by the Ministry of Defense, as if they had been fired before deployment? What is your opinion on this situation?
- Firstly, I think that the adequate GRU commandos would not have fallen into captivity and would have fought to the bitter end. They were on active military duty, so the decision to disown them was predictable.
- Were you somehow warned about such situations? Was there a special briefing?
- We would be disowned, too. If caught, we would have to say that we are volunteers, mercenaries, and we came to fight upon our own will. There are no Russian troops in Donbas. We don’t know anything, we have not heard anything.
Actually, the deputy commander of the Southern Military District came to us and personally interviewed us on the subject. He was serious. Basically, he gave us words of encouragement, and promised that no one will be left in trouble, and if we, God forbid, then we will be brought home in caskets, everything will be OK. He advised us to tell everybody in Donetsk to say that we are militants and that we have been living there on Lenin Street since childhood.
- Could you elaborate how the communication was set up between the Russian military and the militants from the DPR in the higher offices?
- The commanders of the militia and the commanders of our military district are in constant communication, as I understand it. The militants would say that that many people are neede for reinforcement. Our commander would answer that he can deploy a certain number of people, they agree on time and place. The commander of the southern military district knows how many people he has, and where they are. And then there comes deployment.
- Top chiefs of our Defense Ministry are aware of this, am I right?
- I am sure that they are aware, because it’s unlikely anything would be done without their participation. All these orders and decisions come from the highest offices. But it's all on a voluntary basis, we have all been warned in advance. If I were hoaxed into being deployed in Ukraine, I would just say: "Go to hell!" and go to the nearest Ukrainian railway station to buy a ticket back home.
- It sounds a little pompous, but imagine if 20 years from now your children ask you, "Dad, what were you fighting for back then?" What would you answer?
I was young, stupid, that's why I went there
- Oh, that’s a tough question. I will say: "For my Motherland, son, for my Motherland" (smiles).
- I wouldn’t say anything… I was young, stupid, that's why I went there. In fact, it was foolish of me to sign this contract, I realized this just now. This is all not for me.
I would fight for Russia only in one case, if a global war starts, God forbid, and adversaries will invade us, then I'll take up arms. And this incomprehensible war hosts weird people from Russia - these volunteers, who just can’t make money here, at home, some way more normal.
After arrival from Donetsk, he has been stationed near Rostov until mid-March. It lasted for almost six months. His commanders have warned him that new “trips” over the border may come.
The sergeant then decided to quit the armed forces. According to him, living in such conditions was terryfying: "You sit there near Rostov and drink heavily… All the troops drink, everybody curses, so the atmosphere there results in getting stupid and degrading, no books can save you in those conditions.