“Azattyk”: Manas, you are dressed in the fatigues of the separatist groups of the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” How did you get there? How long were you there?
Manas: I got there in August 2014, but the contract ended in November 2014. I went as a volunteer. I was watching TV – Channel One, RTR, others. For me it was important that in 1941 my grandfather was killed during World War II. My moral values summoned me to go. TV channels told that fascists and Nazis are raising their heads, showed swastikas.
I got on the train, bought a ticket to Samara. From there I went to Rostov-on-Don. From it I got to Ukraine by bus, traveling through other Russian cities, through the “Izvarino” checkpoint.
“Azattyk”: And you immediately joined the separatists?
Manas: Not on the first day. The first five days my documents were being checked. I took a military ID and a diploma from the military school. I myself am a retired officer – in 1992 I graduated from the Simferopol Higher Military-Political Academy. I later served in the Armed Forces, but was wounded in the line of duty, and since then has been in the reserve.
“Azattyk”: That is, in Bishkek you have not had any contact with any of the groups?
Manas: I did have contact – with groups that offered guidance, but didn’t recruit directly. First I got in touch with the ‘Union of Cossacks abroad’, contacted the right people. They gave me the direction; the rest was by free will. With me there were 17 people from Kyrgyzstan. We came to Ukraine, then were assigned, and I got into a separate special purpose brigade. And so began our military activities. We were kept at a filtration station while our documents and specializations were checked. I got assigned according to my specialization to the city of Krasnodon, and in five days’ time I was sent to Luhansk. There was fighting in that city at that time. Upon arrival I met with the reconnaissance group. There were people of different nationalities in it – Serbs, Chechens, Kazakhs, Ossetians. I got under the command of Che Guevara. He is a Semirechensk Cossack [a territory in East Kazakstan – North Kyrgyzstan], and was the commander of our reconnaissance group. Then the direct fighting started.
“Azattyk:” While fighting all this time, did you believe that you did the right thing, having come to Ukraine?
Manas: My most important breaking point was just about that. I thought that there fascists, but basically hadn’t seen any. We fought with the regular Ukrainian army. They do have a few things to be criticized for – the Right Sector, Donbas battalions, which are formed by volunteers, ultranationalists. However, ultra-nationalists exist in every country. But I had not seen any fascists. We took prisoners and destroyed them, because this is a war.
“Azattyk”: Were you yourself taken prisoner?
Manas: No, but I was wounded. In the beginning, uniforms and equipment were not delivered regularly. There were gangs fighting on both sides. As for the army, it was scattered, regular troops as such were not present. I could somehow live with all that. But then, when you see how it’s broadcasted…
The [Russian] First Channel operates there, RTR, then the Russians launched the TV channel Luhansk-24. They show only the war, nothing else. But I really broke when I saw the regular Russian troops, how they entered [Ukraine], how they fight. Something inside me broke.
“Azattyk”: That is, you have no doubts that it was indeed the Russian troops?
Manas: What doubts can there be, if we fought together with them! There can be no doubts…
To understand that they were Russian troops, one needs to know the methods of how they are formed. These are not conscripts. These are combat-ready units that are stationed in South Ossetia, which have gone through the first and second Chechen wars. Mostly, they are contract soldiers. From time to time, they get relocated there, sometimes they get drawn back. But they leave the equipment behind on departing, having trained the people. The front is not very uniform there, the battles take place in different settlements.
“Azattyk”: How do you assess the situation with the [Russian-backed] militias? What is their training? Are they steadily reinforced by troops or military equipment? Or is it going towards degradation?
Manas: The degradation started after the last Minsk Agreement [of 11 February 2015]. They somehow believe that Russia, and Putin himself, betrayed them. They thought that they would be recognized as the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” “Donetsk People’s Republic” just like Crimea, then it turned out that they were simply cheated. The miners are now being told that the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts will receive a special status within Ukraine. They’re just afraid that if they become a region of Ukraine with a special status, some time may pass and they will be purged. But how? If the SBU will be operational, the separatists will be tracked down and punished. Because of this, some leave, even those that fought. For instance, my friend left with me for Rostov, he fought in Debaltseve and everywhere, because he has no future if the two oblasts will return to Ukraine. As they are being exhorted, they have to fight to the very last, they have no other way. They do not trust anyone, and don’t not believe that they will be spared, thinking that there will come a time when they will still be brought to justice.
“Azattyk”: Do they receive military equipment and weapons?
As for military equipment etc, yes, they receive that. But right now the regular Russian army is acting more there. Miners as such are almost gone. Also, there are very little remaining volunteers. Now we are being replaced with regular troops. They will be deterrent forces, which will defend existing positions under any circumstances.
“Azattyk”: How were you able to leave?
Manas: I was lucky. There is such a thing as a lawful vacation. I was granted one after we took Debaltseve. Then we accompanied the “cargo-200” [military definition for the transfer of KIA soldiers]. I didn’t terminate my contract, as that could have attracted suspicion. I just asked to visit home, even though they didn’t want to let me pass through at the Russian border.
“Azattyk”: You said that you experienced a turning point. Why did it happen?
Manas: It’s simple. I had one motive, it turned out to be a lie. It turned out that all of this is agitation and propaganda. Although I am very disappointed: I graduated from a political school, but fell for such trickery.
“Azattyk”: What is your feeling – are the militia forces more powerful than the Ukrainian forces?
Manas: Taken by themselves, the [separatist] militia forces are virtually irrelevant. The equipment are all Russian. I think that the Russian side is more powerful, lately they are receiving shipments of howitzers. You don’t really need to modify them, and there are enough of these howitzers for an entire division.