Elena Kostyuchenko, “Novaya Gazeta”. 03.09.2014
Recruiting. Training. Money. Equipment. Losses. One of the volunteers told this to Novaya Gazeta on the condition of anonymity
The interlocutor is a man in his thirties, He took part in several military campaigns as part of the Russian peacekeeping force. During civilian life he worked in personal security. He’d been in Rostov region for about a week and yesterday crossed the border with his unit.
What happened to the Pskov paratroopers?
I know they were maintaining the corridor through the border. Some died.
Were they draftees?
Well… If you’ve been serving for half a year, you already have the right to sign a contract. But you heard it on TV: everyone allegedly got there on vacation, contrary to the Ministry of Defense’s will.
But aren’t they a regular army unit?
So why do you need volunteers if there’s regular army?
Regular army is more expensive. They probably also thought there’d be more volunteers. That we’d be a game-changer.
How do they recruit you?
There are several ways. Specific experts are looked for through draft centers, they looked for them at home. Of great demand are military occupations 107 and 106 – intelligence and sabotage.
Another way is veteran communities. There’s a lot. “Battle Brotherhood”, “Combat Veterans”, “Afghan Veterans”, “Internationalist Warriors”. They just offer it at a meeting and ask: who wants to go? Some do. Mostly these are soldiers retired due to different reasons. Like laid off during the reforms. They are registered and then called to an interview. The Federal Security Service men are doing the interview. This is mostly a formality: they take almost everyone.
They are. One was asked his registered address at the rally point. He went hesitant: “I don’t live at the registered address”. “Where do you live?” “Well, I don’t live at home”. Finally they found out he was living at a railway station. They picked him up from hoboing. There are really elderly people. One guy has oligophrenia, mental retardation, he was sent to the kitchen to cool for now: someone has to. I think the drafters just get paid for each person. I believe their reports say all the volunteers are supersoldiers.
They just don’t take anyone under 25. That’s probably because young ones still have a strong connection with family and parents.
The main source is the cossacks. Most come through them. “Cossack Union of Russia”, “Great Don Host”. They hate and don’t recognize each other, but all of them recruit people. For some they stress their patriotism, some they lure with money. Some have never seen that much money.
The total comes for a unit, and then the distribution depends on the commander. It depends on the unit. Actually everything is distributed according to the staff schedule. For us its starting at 60 000 rubles [1600 USD], some get 80 or 90 000 [2400 USD], commanders get even more. But for a rank-and-file fighter 60 thousand is the top.
That’s for how long?
For a month. Everyone tells for how long he wants to go. A month is a minimum, some volunteer for longer.
There are also compensations. 120 thousand rubles [$3200] for a light wound, 180 thousand [$4800] for a medium and 360 thousand [$9600] for a heavy one. But it’s hard to get the criteria. Isn’t a stab to the leg already a light wound? For death the relatives also get 360 thousand rubles and coverage of burial costs. But you can’t test that, for sure.
Do the payments always come?
It depends. I know that two weeks ago a cossack ataman [warlord], his nom-de-guerre was Terek, ran away with all his unit’s money. The unit had over 100 people. He stole 2000 to 3000 USD from each. Go figure. The FSB [federal security service] started an investigation, but I think if Terek shares his catch with the right people nothing will happen to him. Cossack atamans are often crooks. They self-appoint military ranks. He was a private in the army but here he is a colonel. Some didn’t even serve in the army but carry three stars on their shoulders here. Actually they let lots of people get killed due to incompetence. There was an ataman Samurai, he was stationed neat Snizhne, in Dimitrovka I believe. He used to be a police captain from the far east. Almost all his men got killed. He got back, now he’s recruiting new ones.
By the way, atamans reduce payments for holes (for wounds. — E. K.). They give a hundred and put all the rest in their pockets. An no one controls them.
Actually we are warned that you get paid for a wound only if you come back in your unit. They warn that if you go over to a rebel commander, you will be prosecuted for mercenaryism, it will be a criminal case. If you go over from your unit to a field commander like Bezler and then you come back to Russia, you’ll get to prison.
Otherwise it will be an anarchy. You should come back with the same people you’ve left with. If you want to go back in, you should wait for a reforming and go with the next unit.
Do you know where the money comes from?
I can’t say exactly. Some say it is paid by Yanukovych and his men.
When do you get paid?
Right before you go in. The guys name bank cards, accounts to transfer money to, the unit commander goes to the nearest bank and does the transfers
How does it work?
After the FSB is done with you, you are directed to Rostov. They don’t tell you the address of the rally point, but someone meets you at the railway station. The tickets are compensated upon arrival.
Do you buy the ticket on your own?
Well, yes. Or else you can give the ticket back, not go anywhere and get the money. It’s all unofficial. A plane ticket costs, say, 20 thousand [540 USD]. A drafter says he’s recruited a group of one hundred, then he goes and gives back the tickets – here’s 2 million [54 000 USD] for you. That’s Russia.
Where’s the rally point?
It used to be at the Minplita resort (a health Resort in Rostov. — E. K.), I don’t know where it is now. You hand in all your papers in return for a receipt – the passport, the military card, the bank cards. Everything stays at the rally point. The idea is that nothing should give away our Russian identities. You get fingerprinted and photographed. The local FSB checks if you are on the wanted list, if you have committed any criminal offenses, where you served in the army and if you actually served. Some are denied upon the results of the check. You get a nom-de-guerre. Then you get sent to Zelenyi island (a small island on the river Don within Rostov, there are several tourist resorts on the island. — E. K.), to the Karavai resort. There are panelized houses there for four people each. They use noms-de-guerres during roll calls.
Does anyone but you live on the resort?
No. The locals sometimes wander to our beach, see us running. Actually they get nervous because of how many guys in camo are there on the island. It’s obvious we aren’t regular army, people get frightened. Several times they even called the police… Several journalists were called trying to take pictures without asking, they recorded their passport data, I don’t know what happened to them later.
What happens at the base?
We wait until there are enough people to be sent to the training grounds. Training also goes on there, but it all depends on the unit commander. Whether he cares about the training. Mostly its FIZO, MPD, TSP, topography and VMD (physical training, demolition techniques, special tactical training, working with maps, combat medicine. — E. K.). But there are no weapons on the island, I’ll tell you that.
Some people leave right away when they see what a mess this is. Say, a career soldier, a regiment commander comes – he gets a battalion commander position. Well, ok. He looks around, sees how it all is organized, starts asking questions. Are you so clever? Go away! Instead of him a toothless alcoholic is appointed. What will he say to them? Those who work with us are dilettantes. They have no academic military training.
…Then we are sent to the training grounds for combat shakedown. They give just several days if that. At this stage many realize they aren’t physically fit enough for that and go away. We get weapons at the training grounds. The uniform… it’s digitally colored, the Russian army can’t even dream of that, calculated and tailor-made for the local Ukrainian nature, and the material quality is really different. If a battalion is formed as a motorized, they give tanks, IFVs and APCs. It’s still an awful mess. They say: OK, you three are now tank drivers, and you will be artillery men. How do you like that? People only learn for several days, get it? And off you go to fight the Ukrops [derogatory term for Ukrainians]. I saw weapons and vehicles issued without receipt, people just came up and said: we are from that and that unit, we need two assault rifles and a car… And they got it. We hand in our mobile phones at the training ground. As soon as our staff is full, the group is sent. They tell us the battle mission right before we cross the border or when we arrive to a resistance center in Luhansk or Donetsk regions.
Where are the training grounds?
First it was near Veselyi township. It was set up right in the field. A lot of different folks were shoving around, a lot of fighters crowded there. Those who got back across the border in an ordered group went to the training grounds. Deserters also went there, they didn’t live on the terrirory, more like in the bushes. Why would they care? Put your backpack under your head and go to sleep. They waited to be sent home. The wives of the fighters also came to look for their husbands and were left to wait there so that they wouldn’t make a fuss. It was a total mess. Then they moved it to a regular military training grounds near Persianovka (Persianovskyi township. — E. K.). Local Luhansk rebel units also got there to regroup. There are a thousand men or so at the training ground at a given time. Then we were relocated to Kuzmninka (training grounds in the Rostov region where mass paratrooper tranings were conducted in March under the paratrooper commander general Shamanov. — E. K.), that’s closer to the border, it’s more convenient.
Do vehicle convoys leave often?
Almost every day.
Then why does the militia complain that they don’t have enough heavy vehicles?
I don’t know. Each unit got tanks and other gear. However, mostly they broke it down or lost it in the very first battle due to stupidity. There are lots of peasants and too few experts. Then there isn’t enough fuel and ammo.
I know that our vehicles and weapons were sent to Rostov region from Crimea. Those the Ukrainian soldiers left in their units when our guys asked them to leave. Because the SBU [security service of Ukraine] can track the weapons. What will they track this way? The weapons were issued to the Ukrainian army, is all.
Is that the only way across the border?
Of course not. There are crazies that go by themselves. There are other organized groups. I know that there is another rally point in Rostov. The Vostok battalion is staffed separately from us. They get sent to another place so there are no conflicts. There are mostly Chechens there. They write it’s Kadyrov’s [the current president of Chechnya] men, but there actually those who used to serve in the unit of Sulim Yamadaev [Kadyrov’s rival]. But there are also those who used to serve in Kadyrov’s father’s regiment.
There is another rally point in the Moscow region near Solnechnogorsk, but only certain military professions go there, the selection is really severe. I didn’t want to go through that one because my friends went through this one. And forming and sending the groups takes longer there. I didn’t want to infinitely prolong that.
Who supervises the whole process?
The cossacks started it all, the FSB was responsible for secrecy, and the Ministry of Defense was, let’s say, the supply side. There are talks that we even will have special contracts with the Ministry of Defense as civilian contractors. We’ll get ID badges, similar to the military. There’s an acute problem of body identification.
Are the losses high?
The losses are huge. We didn’t see that kind of losses in Chechnya. The people who go are mostly completely untrained. They plan for over 50% dead, wounded and deserted. Some actually don’t understand where they are going. There is a real, full-scale war there. Some drop their weapons and run when they see real combat.
One unit of 300 went in. They lost 200 dead and wounded in the first week. They got under artillery fire and that was is. Another unit went in, 82 men, they lost 30 wounded and 19 killed in the first days.
If a commander has robust nerves, he tries to get the dead and wounded back through the corridor. But usually you can’t move them all out. Ukrainians don’t let us exchange the bodies. The militia doesn’t know where to send them. They get buried there. You die and the local militia only knows your nom-de-guerre.
Some commanders assume military court powers. They shoot people for looting. There are bodies like this too. Different people come. But it’s less common among the volunteers. So the locals treat us better than the local militia. They say: “You ask, but you don’t rob”. For some the law of war means taking anything not nailed down.
An Armenian guy gathered 30 men, allegedly a unit. He takes tribute from all humanitarian aid. If you want to get aid through – pay. Those who did not pay sooner or later ran into the Ukrainian army. He already got confronted about it. He says: “Is there proof? No – well, that’s it”.
…I have to say that the volunteers weren’t even recorded before June 4. So everyone who died before June 4 are unidentified. There are so many passports at the rally point right now… There also was a girl working at the rally point who disappeared three weeks ago with some questionnaires. They say she was a Ukrainian patriot. Those whose questionnaires she snatched were told they probably couldn’t go out of Russia now.
If a soldier’s body crosses the border, people are appointed to bring it to the relatives. It still goes through Voenved (a former military town in Rostov where there is hospital 1602 with a centre of reception, storage and sending of bodies.— Е. K.), they get packed and sent right away. This process is also supervised by the FSB. But I also had to take part.
Several of my friends are fighting there. I got an SMS from a Ukrainian number: “this guy was killed”. I called, they confirmed it. I called his family. They now believe I’m indirectly responsible for his death because I knew he was in Ukraine and they didn’t. That actually was one of the reasons why I’m here.
Some guys don’t leave relatives’ phones in the questionnaires on purpose.
I’m no psychic. It’s different for everyone. There is a guy in our unit whose wife is 7 months pregnant. Another told his mom he was building a subway in Rostov. Allegedly for the 2018 Soccer World Cup.
Do your relatives know?
And what’s their attitude?
Well, they don’t approve. But I don’t have that many relatives.
Can you explain why you’re going there.
There are two reasons. The first and the main: there’s some truth there. Quite a lot of blood was spilled there, and the government in Kyiv, if it considers itself an official government, bears responsibility for that. This government should be toppled. You can’t do it without a military conflict. I’m not for the reign of Strelkov, Bezler or “Tsar” [the separatist minister of defense replacing Strelkov]. I’m for the people who live there.
There’s anothe thing. The happiest days of my life, the days I can be proud of are the days spent at a war. I can’t watch what’s happening there on TV. Or learn the news from my friends who fight there. I believe this is impossible. How will I look like in their eyes, if I go back now? I just went, saw what a mess it was and chickened out. But now I’m going together with the guys and I will do anything I can to save their lives. The guys are such a great gene pool. Some don’t even drink or smoke.
I feel I haven’t reached my full potential. Many of my peers left the army because it was deteriorating. They could have stayed but they left. Some left due to health issues, some due to staff schedule, some retired. I left as well. No, after the war, I will probably go back to the service. To shake off the civilian dust.Source: Novaya Gazeta, translated by Kirill Mikhailov