The commander of the “Donbas” Defence Unit Semyon Semyonchenko gave an interview to the Russian TV channel “Dozhd” in which he explained why he decided to take up arms, in what way the situation in Sloviansk, in his opinion, is similar to the Russian Chechen war, and whether Ukraine can ever be the same. This interview was conducted by Timur Olevsky. A translation of the interview was published on the Ukrainian Volunteer Defense Force ‘Donbas’ FB page.
Olevsky: Who are the people that support the separatists? It is commonly assumed in Ukraine that separatists that are fighting right now in Slavyansk are people from Russia, that Russians are behind this all. Who are those people in your opinion?
Semyonchenko: Let’s look at how it all began. It all started when pro-Maidan protesters prevailed in the February of this year. Then we’ve had the first anti-Maidan demonstration during which “people’s governor” Gubarev came before the crowd and announced that “we all support Russia”. The meeting was organized by Ukraine’s “Party of the Regions”. They gathered up public workers and retirees from nearby towns, and then, by accident, Gubarev showed up and addressed the crowd; he quickly convinced everyone that being part of Russia is great, the idea of federalization is great. Gubarev took advantage of the people’s perception that the Kyiv is sucking up all the money from the region. After that we all observed that all additional pro-Russian demonstrations were put together by the management of the local factories, mining enterprises, public offices, provincial mayors – people who were closely tied to the ruling Party of the Regions.
Russia had absolutely nothing to do with it. These demonstrations were financed by the local businessmen, businesses, and so on. Ordinary people were brainwashed with anti-Ukranian propaganda. Consider the following two examples: firstly, almost every business automatically deducted 15% from the workers’ salaries for so called “Maidan rebuilding project”. Now imagine that person’s, that miner’s salary is reducted to rebuild Maidan, something he has been brainwashed to hate for the past three months. Secondly, there were automatic salary deductions for the Ukrainian National Guard. It seems everyone knew about this, however no one did anything about it.
Olevsky: Why would the local leaders do something like this?
Semyonchenko: In order to sow hatred amongst the locals, anger the local population, in order for the locals to view the rest of Ukraine as something alien and forein to them. Why was it all done? I firmly believe that we saw a repeat of what happened in 2005, when the Yanukovych and his local criminal allies lost power during the elections. At that time, they successfully negotiated a way to keep all of their prior privileges, such as an opportunity to continue stealing money from the provincial budget; incredibly large sums of money originally designated to develop and support the local mining sector were stolen. Those gangs wanted a repeat of 2005: hold their positions in the provinces after electoral defeat; regroup and come back to power again. Consider that during recent negotiations with new Ukrainian federal powers they threatened Kyiv with separatism. They killed people during demonstrations, e.g. on March 13th during one of the protesters was killed; these gruesome murders weren’t done by some Russian provocateurs or agents; they were done by thugs locally known as “titushki”, or violent criminals; it is Party of the Regions who utilized those thugs to accomplish their goals in the same manner one, two, three years, four ago.
So what happened next? Those forces that were brought up to the surface from the deepest layers of the society, those uneducated blue collar workers realized that could do better – they could become “people’s” mayors, governors, Che Gevaras, they could grab more of everything. Look at what’s happening: in Donetsk these gangs broke into auto dealerships and stole all the vehicles that were on display; these criminals raid and pillage ordinary businesses. Bands of the outlaws who were previously controlled by the Party of the Regions now completely spun out of control and became to act on its own. A new group of paramilitaries appeared who have nothing to do with Russian GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Army). Yeah, they are experienced ex-military men, they did enjoy taking part of the military ops, and as a guy I actually get all of that, however these self-organized bands that have been at some point blessed by so-called local governments began to do real damage. They began to grab members of the SBU (Ukraine’s Security Service), counterspies, which is actually funny in some way.
They were later joined by the large number of people who were previously simply supporters of the Party of the Regions, but now were brainwashed by propaganda – both Russian and local. These people believe that Russia is a kingdom of magic fairies, whereas Ukraine is a kingdom of darkness, full of Stepan Bandera followers. And we can see a lot of these brainwashed people during the anti-Ukrainian demonstrations or manning the separatists’ military check points.
Olevsky: Is Russian GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Army) involved in this all or not?
Semyonchenko: Russian “visitors” constitute the smallest piece of the separatists’ puzzle. Russia is accommodating requests by the local separatists plus it is also playing its own game here, but again, they make up the smallest percentage. It is possible that there were some “inspectors” from GRU, perhaps. But, forgive me for being so frank, when federal government in Kyiv is sending tanks and armored vehicles to the local city centers, which means it is doing the same idiotic thing Russia did in Chechnya’s capital Grozny back in the 90s, and, consequently, those forces then are being blocked, why would GRU’s forces would even need to come here? The Ukrainian government is already playing to lose without any GRU’s involvement. I suspect that certain people in the Ukraine’s government benefit from the fact that people are too distracted to focus on problems identified by Maidan revolution: corruption, widespread graft and lack of unifying national theme.
So when everyone in the country became focused on defense of the Motherland, simultaneously everyone got swept in a patriotic inspiration, patriotic fervor, one can say. No one cared anymore who is doing what and where in the Parliament, who illegally obtained a position of power, who stole what from whom. And, therefore, the interests of the local Kyiv clans, certain power circles in Kyiv and the unwashed masses got aligned, and that’s what we are dealing with right now.
Olevsky: Your viewpoint, practically speaking, is that the root of the separatism evil is the corruption. If that’s the case, how come Igor Kolomoysky, an oligarch-businesmen is providing your defence unit with money?
Semyonchenko: Who said he is giving us money?
Olevsky: We have such information. How are you getting financed?
Semyonchenko: It’s very simple. 15 days ago I announced on Facebook that we are creating this self-defense unit. We have a bank account number to which people are able to donate money, we have ties to local businessmen who bring us food; we have people who do not get paid. If you were only to enter our facilities, you would see.. Look, here is a person walking around in sneakers, he doesn’t even have military boots. Initially, we all slept on training mats. All of what you see here was donated to us by ordinary people, which is hard to believe for today’s Russians and Ukranians, because in reality, no one gives a flying fu.. no one cares about us except for the ordinary people. And the second we won’t be needed anymore, or when they will begin to see us as another worthless military-like unit made out of paper, this support will disappear.
Olevsky: In your estimation, how many people currently “need” you in Donetsk?
Semyonchenko: I saw demonstrations counting five, ten thousand people in support of united Ukraine. Personally, I believe most of people in Donetsk support united Ukraine, however there is also a lot of people which I call “a swamp”.
Olevsky: How should people be treated who supporting union with Russia, who are anti-united Ukraine? They certainly exist, and their opinions should matter, too, no?
Semyonchenko: Certainly. In my estimates, they constitute about 20%, and we are ready to hear their points of view. If someone believes that the region should become a part of Russia, what options do they have to defend their rights? First of all, their representatives should get elected to the upper house of the Parliament (Verkhovnaya Rada), and work on passing a referendum law, and then, according to the results of that referendum, become a part of Russia, or in some other similar manner. However, what is happening in actuality? We see audacious, cynical lies on TV telling us about some Bandera followers, about Right Sector organization, about murder of 19 year old press-secretary of the nationalistic Svoboda party. Russian TV portrays this murder as killing of pro-Russian demonstrator killed by Bandera follower. So, first of all, we see audacious lies. Secondly, we see kidnappings by the separatists, killings of the civilians, ordinary people being threatened and terrorized, we see armed takeovers of the local municipal and provincial buildings.
What did those pro-Russian separatist complained about before – why are those Maidan protesters taking over the buildings? They now doing exactly the same thing. Their actions, in my opinion, are fascist. Modern Russia, unfortunately, is a fascist country, it is becoming just that. Not the classic Spanish fascist kind, but as we see it – audacious lies, violent threats, intimidation. This is exactly what Ukrainian side is accused by the Russians. At the same time we don’t like the current government in Ukraine, and in that sense we have something in common with pro-Russia separatists. However I will never allow someone to plunge our region into lawless chaos, which is exactly what is happening right now. That’s all.
Olevsky: What is your prognosis for people who, with weapons in their hands, took over the city of Sloviansk? What’s going to happen to them?
Semyonchenko: I think, most likely, those people will all receive amnesty.
Olevsky: Why is that?
Semyonchenko: Because if Kyiv’s government didn’t play to lose, this whole thing would be over by now. For example, “people’s governor” Gubarev two months ago was involved in absolutely crazy stuff: taking over the treasury using forty people, his parades around town, his pronouncements. Afterwards, he gets together with journalists in the comfort of his home and waits to be arrested. I totally get what he was doing there: once he obtained personal security guarantees, his plan was to spend two months under house arrest and then come out to a hero’s welcome. After all of that Kyiv attempted to exchange him for Ukrainian hostages three times; Kyiv was like “come and take him from us, here he is.” Last time when Yakubovich was kidnapped, Kyiv wanted to exchange Gubarev for Yakubovich.
Olevsky: Are you referring to Igor Yakubovich?
Semyonchenko: No, Nikolai Yakubovich.
Olevsky: This power alliance was, I believe, run by Sergey Taruta.
Semyonchenko: Yeah, and then that “orthodox revolutionary army” refused to exchange for Gubarev, that said that they don’t need him. And, in the end, Gubarev was transferred over to the leader’s nation to commemorate May 9th (Victory Day) holiday. By the way, I respect him, he is a fairly inspirational leader, although he lies to people. I believe people who follow him will create a lot of problems later on.
Olevsky: What will happen on the May 9th, in your opinion?
Semyonchenko: I believe more government buildings will be taken over on May 9th. We will see waves of massive hysteria everywhere “our grandfathers fought in WWII against the Germans, crush those Bandera followers”. They will work on whipping up this hysteria to the maximum extent possible.
Olevsky: At the same time, you do cooperate with local police (militsiya), don’t you?
Semyonchenko: We do not. At this time, in their current form, I don’t see them being a part of the Ukrainian state. I envision the current form of the Ukrainian state transforming into state the way it is supposed to be and that is why I am here. I see some kind of shadow network, consisting of journalists, certain members of the Parliament, certain government officials, doctors, policemen, including certain highly ranked police officials, certain members of the SBU (Ukrainian Security Service). All of those people are true Ukrainian patriots, and they are working on coordinating their efforts. This is precisely who we are in all of this – we are part of this network of patriots. When it comes to ordinary policemen, I can’t say we cooperating with them, there are too many traitors in their ranks.
Olevsky: How come the police in Donetsk turned out to be so treacherous vis-a-vis Kyiv and doesn’t follow Kyiv’s orders?
Semyonchenko: Let’s analyze this. First of all, if we look at who makes up the police force, we can see a natural selection process happening, whereby the remaining persons are perfectly suited to be utilized in the corruption schemes. Patriots and professionals are weeded out. Secondly, police personnel are victims of ongoing propaganda; they, themselves, told stories about Berkut units hands being chopped off during Maidan events, they described how Berkut members being attacked with Molotov cocktails, and they actually believe in those stories. Thirdly, it’s all about greed – they are being told that once they become a part of the Russian police forces, their salaries will become $1,200 a month. The fourth reason is that most of them are cowards who are demoralized. Today 40 people showed up at Krasnoarmeysk’s police headquarters with fake machine guns and proceeded to put the headquarters’ policemen in the mud, face down; the policemen didn’t mind at all. This is where this kind of policemen belong, really. There are exceptions to this, obviously. Deputy head of the Gorlovka’s police headquarters fought to the very end, for example, there are other patriots out there, however they are very few of them.
Olevsky: Do you trust Arsen Avakov (Minister of the Internal Affairs) at this time?
Semyonchenko: Arsen Avakov was the only person who helped us out when our base was surrounded, around 500 people, there were weapons on our base.
Olevsky: You were shot at, right?
Semyonchenko: That’s correct, we were shot at.
Olevsky: What did you do?
Semyonchenko: We were shooting in the air or at the ground. We wanted to avoid spilling blood. So Berkut unit, who was called up to help us out, actually waited for us to kills someone so they could arrest us. That didn’t happen, Alfa unit sent to help us came in late, so the only thing that actually arrived in time was a military helicopter sent to us from Dnepropetrovsk. That helicopter made a couple of overhead flyovers in what looked like threatening battle-ready posture, and, consequently, most of the attackers fled. I don’t know personally Arsen Avakov, but he was the only one that helped us out in that difficult moment. If I ever hear others say bad things about him in the future, I will make sure to double check the accusations at the very minimum.
Olevsky: What if your Defence Force is able to apprehend one of the separatists, what would you do to that person?
Semyonchenko: I can’t answer that question.
Olevsky: Are you going to pass those apprehended to the police?
Semyonchenko: We did that before.
Olevsky: What about now?
Semyonchenko: I am not ready to discuss what we would do to them now. I can only fantasize here, this area is becoming Chechnya, with kidnappings, with targeted abductions. What I see is journalists, “Patriots of Ukraine” being kidnapped, just like Yakubovich was seized, by unloading a machine gun into his legs while this all is being completely neglected by the authorities. What is the only way to free those people? The answer is to exchange the hostages from both sides. I dislike this whole concept of taking hostages, however I don’t see an alternative solution at this time.
Olevsky: How many people are being held as hostages by the Donetsk People’s Republic (“DNR”) right now?
Semyonchenko: I suspect that much more people were already killed than currently being held as hostages. In our estimates, 15 people have already been killed by the DNR. When it comes to hostages, in the past week alone I got 10 SMS from people whose husbands, brothers are being held as hostages, and who is working on setting them free from our Ukrainian side. Unfortunately, we don’t see any progress as far as getting those people freed; at the very minimum there are 10 people who are being held.
Olevsky: Who is typically being kidnapped?
Semyonchenko: Two types of people – either people who can be pressured or people who can be used for PR purposes. Because the ultimate goal of the kidnappings is to either get your own men back through hostage exchanges or intimidate / terrify the hostage. Journalists are the easiest targets; and so are Patriots of Ukraine, activists, who participated in the protest movement. There is also a third category, important folks like OSCE’s people. Third reason why those people are kidnapped is because separatists use them as human shields to avoid being targeted during the (government forces’) assaults . I was in absolute shock to find out that separatists have no problem using women and children as human shields.
Olevsky: What do you think is going to happen next in Slavyansk? In your opinion, how will it all end?
Semyonchenko: It all depends on what happens next in the country.
Olevsky: Who is the key player here?
Semyonchenko: The people
Olevsky: And does it depend on what Russia does?
Semyonchenko: It does not – Russia’s position is well understood, it will be helping in a very pragmatic manner, meaning the invasion of Ukraine by Russia won’t be not dependent on whether the separatists are successful or not. That’s number one. Number two – it all depends on what people do, if they show up on the stage as the third actor, that may change it all. If people do not show up, a horrible picture will be painted, everyone will be terrified with the prospect of massive loss of human lives, separatist will be given amnesty and, possibly, the region may be given away.
Olevsky: Can you envision a scenario where Donetsk region separates from the rest of Ukraine?
Semyonchenko: I can certainly envision it, but I also understand that whatever happens is not only drive by the people who put together plans, but also by what happens in actuality – so anything can happen. But in reality I suppose that the governance system of the Donetsk region is already broken at this time, and under certain circumstances Ukraine may lose this region.
Olevsky: On May 11, we will see so-called (separatist’s) “referendum”. What will happen on May 12th?
Semyonchenko: I don’t see how it won’t happened because today legislators of the Donetsk’s People’s Republic in the end voted for holding this referendum. I don’t see how holding it is dangerous, though – Kyiv shouldn’t PR it as much. The more we keep repeating words like “referendum”, the more legitimate it becomes, that’s all.
Olevsky: The U.S. says that Russia is responsible for everything that happens in Eastern Ukraine, or, at least, has a lot of control over it. Do you agree with that statement?
Semyonchenko: It is in America’s interests to hold Russia responsible for everything. No matter how we feel about Putin or the Russia’s corrupt system, we have to admit that Russia, as a state, has its own interests in this all, just like the U.S. does. It’s just those interests are pursued by people, who aren’t always decent. And so it is in America’s interest to position Russia in a negative light, and vice versa. Therefore, I have my doubts when I hear such statements. At the very least, I don’t know (whether Russia is pulling the strings), I don’t have such information and I am not a member of the conspiracy theory club, to pretend I know what is really happening. I simply see what I see.
Olevsky: What can be done about the fact that people’s opinions are so different and polarized? How does one bring them together?
Semyonchenko: The priority should be given to removal of the criminals.
Olevsky: Is that the goal of your Unit “Donbas”?
Semyonchenko: Of course not. The goal of our voluntary unit, if the Ministry of Defense acknowledges for it to be legal, is to assist with removing the separatist from the government buildings, to protect the buildings, to fight with armed (separatist) groups. At this time we are not yet able to accomplish this goal to the full extent, however we are able to perform acts of sabotage (against the separatists), and act as example to the ordinary people. We can enter towns alongside troops, protect meetings put together by the activists, and so on. We don’t have sufficient number of military instructors, sufficient weapons, training and support. I view our capabilities in a realistic manner. That task belongs to the Ukrainian government, which is more than capable to accomplish this goals.
Olevsky: There is a perception that Ukrainian army is very weak, and it is acting too slow and inefficiently in Slavyansk.
Semyonchenko: It’s all about the orders that are issued by the military commanders, that’s what it’s all about. For example, there are people out there in Luhansk, military police took over a government building and holding it. Then they say, “You’ve got second Stalingrad coming, buckle up your seats”, pro-Ukrainian forces say to pro-Russians. Then pro-Ukrainians begin an attack, which is repelled by pro-Russians. Instead of continuing the attack (to finish the job off), all of a sudden Ukrainian forces are pulled back to the airport, in order to regroup it. What are we supposed to think?
Olevsky: What do you think?
Semyonchenko: We see it as an act of treason. I doubt those people see themselves as traitors, for them Ukraine is nothing, they live.. I doubt those people can be considered “citizens of the world”. Most likely, it is simply a relic of the neo-feudal society, they are caste of the Lords, and it doesn’t matter what you call this country, because no one care about opinions of the unwashed masses. In reality, not much changed since Yanukovych (was kicked out), only the most controversial members of his regime left with him. In our view, this is act of treason. And I am not gonna lie, we are in minority here. And it’s very inconvenient to be one of us, we are the proverbial black sheep here.
Olevsky: How did you become a person wearing black (military) uniform with words “Ukraine Armed Forces” written on it?
Semyonchenko: At first, we were part of Maidan demonstrations, then part of the self-defense units. Then we saw it all, realized what was happening, drew for ourselves conclusions and then decided to do our best (for the country).
Olevsky: Do you have a family?
Olevsky: What do they think about what you are doing?
Semyonchenko: My family supports me, but doesn’t get where I am coming from. I do get my spouse, it would be much easier for her to see me being like everyone else, just living my life, watching TV and sipping beer while wearing comfy pants. Actually, those patriotic genes that I am carrying is a virus, an inconvenient one. We are who we are, however. Therefore, my family supports me but doesn’t always get where I am coming from.
Olevsky: Will Ukraine be ever the same after Maidan demonstrations?
Semyonchenko: if Ukraine survives, it won’t ever be the same, we won’t let it happen. Once this phase of extreme standoff is over in our region, we will focus our efforts on what’s happening in Kyiv. What happens next is really up to the God.
Olevsky: When (pro-Russian) unarmed people stop (Ukrainian) military vehicles with bare hands, do you view them as enemies?
Semyonchenko: Well, that’s a myth (that what’s happening). I know exactly how it works. There is a coordinator, other people who, for money, put together groups of more people; that forms the backbone of this group (that stops the military vehicles). All other (people participating in this) are the locals who are brainwashed with terrifying (untrue) stories over a period of few days. Local policemen frighten these people and to also, mainly, make sure that the locals don’t run off in all directions. This problem can be easily solved by creating units consisting of the locals who will explain to the (brainwashed) people that the stories (about incoming Bandera killers) are not true. We only have to isolate the villains who pay to create this mayhem, and everything will be fine. These locals are not our enemies, they have been simply brainwashed to believe that Bandera followers are coming to kill them all, which is a lie. This (cleansing of the brainwashed minds) can be easily accomplished – if there is a will, there is a way – especially, if there is a government in place. Since we don’t have government in place yet, in its place there is a network of patriots, and, well, there is also a network of villains as well.