Volunteer battalions and revolutions — an interview with Dmytro Yarosh

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2016/06/30 • Analysis & Opinion, Featured

Article by: Mykola Kniazhytskyi

Dmytro Yarosh, the controversial former head of the far-right Pravyi Sector (Right Sector) organization, discusses his political development, the Donbas war, the volunteer battalions, the dangers of new revolutionary activity, and his current efforts to establish a volunteer army within the framework of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in a wide-ranging interview with Mykola Kniazhytskyi, Espreso TV.

Yarosh and the Pravyi Sector are Russian media’s favorite poster boys for illustrating the supposed “neo-Nazism” in Ukraine. However, the group’s volunteer battalions have developed a reputation as effective military forces fighting Russian hybrid forces in the Donbas, whose members were among the legendary “cyborgs” who defended the Donetsk Airport. Yarosh, himself, was wounded near the Donetsk Airport in January 2015. A more recent victim was the famous baritone Wassyl Slipak, who gave up a promising opera career in Europe to defend Ukraine and who died in the ranks of the Pravyi Sector on June 29, near Donetsk.

Dmytro, I have very mixed feeling after getting to know you. because, on the one hand, you remind me of a teacher of Ukrainian language…

I am a teacher of Ukrainian language.

Humanities … On the other hand, you are constantly pulled to the front, where you always worry about the young men who are fighting there, about your friends. And that is a completely different image than was presented by Russian propaganda, about a terrible bloodthirsty man who appears out of nowhere and kills everybody. How do you think of yourself.  Who are you?

First, I’m a human being, a Ukrainian. Therefore, I don’t consider myself someone terrible, some zombie who carries out somebody’s whims. Right now we have war and it is understood that for me, a person who has spent 20 years of his life in the national-patriotic education of youth (I was leader of a youth organization) it was natural that I would be at the forefront and not in the rear. And wherever there was a need in 2014 or 2015 (until I was wounded) I was always there.

Now, thank God, we were able to develop and form combat-ready units. The guys are coping by themselves and now my main goal is no longer to take such an active part in military activities but rather to secure these units, provide help in resolving various issues and so on. Therefore, I’m working with the volunteer units, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and so on.

In your biography it states that in 1989 you were in the Rukh Movement (People’s Movement in Ukraine) and in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, which was really a human rights organization that united very many dissidents. How did it happen, can you remember? How did you end up in that environment, who did you  deal with?

I began to get involved with this in Kamianske (Dnipropetrovsk Oblast) in 1988. These were environmental movements that were informal, as you remember.

Zelenyi Svit (Green World)

The Zelenyi Sviti did not exist yet. We had urban ecological issues in Kamianske, which have remained relevant till the present time. And we began to rise on that groundswell.  And then there was Literaturna Ukraina — I subscribed to that publication. And the first draft of the program of  Narodnyi Rukh (People’s Movement of Ukraine) program for reform. Then still in February I went to Kyiv and met with Ivan Drach (Ukrainian poet, screenwriter, literary critic and political activist, and a key leader of the Rukh movement — Ed.) and with different people from the Academy of Sciences.

You were quite young then?

I was 17 — very young.

But to go meet with Drach at 17 — you had to have great talent and desire. Where did it come from? Did you parents bring you up that way or was it these newspapers you subscribed to?

Furthermore, this was essentially eastern Ukraine. You can’t say that the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast was very Ukrainian at that time, even though, of course, it is the heart of Ukraine.

I would say it was very Russified. Today the difference is very noticeable — what was then and what is now. But I wouldn’t say that in my family there were any particular nationalist (tendencies).

This was a Russian-speaking family and my parents worked at the factory all their lives. I did not receive any particular upbringing from them. Somewhere this spirit of the eternal element inspires people sometimes. And it inspired me the same way. I was really interested in political processes even when I was still in school.

In the 1980 the  Sąjūdis  (political organization that led the struggle for Lithuanian independence) was formed in Lithuania, and the National Front of Latvia and the National Front of Estonia. I followed them and they became so natural for me. Well, school also probably also instilled something good. Some of the teacher were excellent. And then in June 1989, we had elections in Dniproderzhynsk. Serhiy Akuniev was made deputy then.

This was the first democratic convocation of the deputies of the Soviet Union], where they joined the interregional group with (Andrei) Sakharov.

Yes, and we succeeded in winning in these elections on the third try. And Kamianske was such a reservoir of patriotism in the east at that time. We had the first blue-yellow flags. In April 1989 the blue-yellow flags were already raised. This did not happen everywhere, not even in Halychyna (Galicia) at that time.

I primarily worked with the young people then, but afterwards I went to Moscow. There were hunger strikes for the legalization of the Greek Catholic Church on the Arbat (central street in Moscow — Ed.). It was there that I met Levko Lukianenko and Stepan Khmara.

How did it happen. You were living in Dniproderzhynsk as a very young boy. And then suddenly you go to Moscow, where there were hunger strikes of the really faithful, where there were the first priests, who had come out of the underground. Then there was a great number on people who went on real hunger strikes on the Arbat. Why? Did you know what the Greek-Catholic Church was. Did somebody tell you?

To tell you the truth, I had no idea at that time.

Well, how did it happen?

Well I mentioned this environmental problem where  we collected signatures for the closure of the illegal launch of a coke production (plant) because there were phenols and cancers. I can’t remember the details,

Did people always suffer from these environmental problems?

We succeeded in blocking them, but during elections people no longer paid attention to these issues , but there was a political activism that they had forgotten. Then they launched (the plant) quietly.

I then announced a preliminary hunger strike at home in Kamianske and came out on the former Lenin square with a  placard. People began to sign up. It was May 29 – the day of border guards, as I remember. Guys were walking in a column with green peak caps. They signed (the petition) and said “Brother why are you starving? Come with us!”

That was still the  Soviet Union?

Yes, It was 1989. And I went to Konev with this placard in order to involve a deputy of the Soviet Union in solving  the problem. Well we were able to stop it again at that time. And I was able to get to Arbat. Moscow was a political center then, the capital of the empire. Something was always happening there.

And I got  to Arbat because someone there told me that there were Ukrainians there and that there was a hunger strike and I went to look for friends then. Later I received recommendations from the Ukrainian Helsinki Group through Levko Lukianenko and Stepan Khmara. At that time these were the highest practical recommendations in that environment.

And you worked with them in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group? You did things, met with them, went to meetings?

Of course, we worked in many directions. But in the fall of 1989 I went into the Soviet army and served there and then returned to active involvement again. It was all very natural for me.

And the studies in Drohobych, that came afterwards?

Yes, afterwards. I was in Tryzub (Trident).

Western Ukraine, then Drohobych. After a longer stay, were you somewhat surprised or had you become used to the Ukrainian environment… ?

I was finishing in absentia. I was not there all the time. I already had a family. I came for the sessions. We already had a nationwide organization, which began in Drohobych and began to expand very rapidly still in the 1990s – in 1994, 1995, 1996– to expand in the east. I commanded the various units and was constantly in the West – not only in Drohobych, in Ternopil and Lviv.

This is already when you were in Tryzub?

Yes.

And later your patriotic activity was limited to Tryzub?

Tryzub was a narrowly functional organization. It exists to this day but simply is not heard about, so to speak. The education of the young, the propagation of the Ukrainian national idea, the idea of statehood, activities to protect the nation.

We were not engaged in official politics. We did not run for parliament, even though we could have supported someone somewhere. And  frankly, such public politics did not appeal to me…. But after the second revolution it became necessary to engage in it.

But then you even ran for the presidency. And it was not close – what did you want?  What were your plans in life? When you were such a young person what did you want the most?

I’m a Ukrainian nationalist, and for me this is not an empty concept – to have a unified, independent country. That is what I wanted the most. And what I did was enough for me. I saw concrete results that are very clear to me even now because I see most of my students at the forefront, finally in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard, the volunteer battalions.

Students from Tryzub?

Yes. I did not engage in this in vain, I’m quite convinced of this now. That was enough for me… And then there were decisions of the Pravyi Sector (Right Sector). And the presidential elections, even though I hardly spent any time on them. The war had started already at that time. A week of campaigning was a lot already. The parliamentary decisions were also decided by the leadership. I even chose the county that was located the closest…

And this is interesting . Why do certain people — national deputies like you or Biletskyi, who commands the Azov Battalion — fail to show up in parliament very often but often go to the front. And there are those, including commanders, who work  constantly in parliament, who have withdrawn from that activity.

The front somehow holds on to you — is it responsibility, is it the feeling that you are more useful, more important there? Why do you spend more time there?

Right now I’m commanding the so-called Ukrainian Volunteer Army. Why do we call it an army, even though there are several battalions and several services there? Because there is the possibility — I think it still exists — to pass a law about the volunteer army. This is the reason for that name.

I also continue to command these units even though they are completely under the authority of the ATO Command, of course. We do not have any Makhnovshchina (reference to anarchist guerilla bands under the command of anarchist Nestor Makhno during the Russian civil war — Ed.) and all that. This is why is becomes necessary  to take care of this. Until I make this bill happen it will not be adopted by the Verkhovna Rada and someone will have to take care of it. We cannot abandon the men who are there and the memory of the men who have died in our ranks without obtaining that status …

But why do we need this volunteer army today? Many volunteer units have become part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, or the Ministry of Internal Affairs. You continue to remain this separate unit, as I understand it, that coordinates its own activity? Is this the way it should be?

Many people criticize that kind of activity because they believe that only the state should have a monopoly on power and, therefore, that all such units should be in the (Armed Forces). However, this was very interesting: Kulczyk Dominika, this very wealthy Polish woman who is very involved in the volunteer activity in Ukraine. She presented her film here, which she developed together with Espreso TV.

And here a young boy, one of the heroes of this film who fought with the regular units of the Armed Forces, comes out on the stage and says thanks to all who fought with me, thanks to all from  the volunteer battalions. They arrived on two jeeps and did much more. And this is said by people who did the real fighting. What is the nature of this? You say it is not Makhnovshchina. What is it? Why don’t these people enter the formal structures?

You see, Ukrainians are essentially a Kozak people. Kozaks are free armed people and in fact most of these volunteers came into our ranks and into the other units, many of which, unfortunately, practically no longer exist as a volunteer formation within the Armed Forces of Ukraine or the National Guard. This is one of the reasons why many of our guys don’t want to go there. Then they go for 6 months to a training field or somewhere where you’re not fighting, not protecting your homeland. Accordingly, here the passionate personalities come together — very different people from different social strata, but they are united by love for their homeland, the desire to carry out their constitutional duty to protect the country.

And besides, we know very well the problems that exist in the Armed Forces to this day. We know that there is great mistrust of the command. Perhaps these events that happened in Ilovaisk or in Debaltseve highlight such things again. And many of the guys are very concerned that they will give up territory that the war will not be conducted to defeat the enemy and that at any moment any part of the  Armed Forces can flee from the front and so on.

But active offensive actions will begin — we can well remember how it happened more than once. Well, there is a whole range of these issues. And actually when I spoke with the  president on that subject I told him that here is a bill where it is possible first of all to take advantage of Ukrainian Kozak tradition, second to gather these passionate people, such as “Bohema” (Andriy Sharaskin). He’s a theater director and he was defending the terminal at the (Donetsk) airport. He will not go into the Armed Forces. That does not interest him. He can do it for a certain  period, but then he will be in the ranks of the territorial defense, which this law provides for.

And here you see the Ukrainian Kozak tradition, Europe’s best examples, because we took the      Estonian experience, the Swiss, and Finish experience and accumulated it. Europe cannot accuse us of have something so unique and non-European. In fact, we’re taking the European experience. And, of course, we take into account that this type of army will be one of the deciding factors in national security and defense with minimal financial outlays because, again, the volunteer potential can be involved.

As far as I know, similar volunteer armies or armies of volunteers are secured with legislation in the Baltic countries.

Exactly

And these are people who are allowed to have weapons, but they are responsible for these weapons.

Of course, I have repeatedly cited this example. “Kaitseliit” (voluntary paramilitary armed forces of Estonia – Ed.) for example. There if a person gets caught even for a traffic violation while intoxicated, he will immediately be thrown out of Kaitseliit. This is not only a right but a huge responsibility.

This image created in Russia — a terrifying, bloody, right wing extremist —  where did this come from, in your view?

yaroshI think that Russia still finds itself on some kind border of this empire. And any empire is doomed, sooner or later, to shrink in territory, to break up and all that. The events we had on Maidan are also a detonator for Russia.

This is evident by how many Russians have come from Russia to fight  against Russian terrorist armies. And to this day they are still here, and they may get citizenship. This is a whole group of absolutely good people. Actually , this is also a passionate mass for the Russian empire.

And for them, all these events that took place in our country during the last revolution, during the defense of the country, especially when we did not give them the Donbas and liberated Krasnoarmiisk there and then went further along with Donetsk or Luhansk when the Aidar Battalion came. This is a very great danger. As for the demonization, well they did the same thing with all the national liberation movements. This is not just the Russian empire. Any empire creates these illusions about people, about movements, about people who are fighting for freedom, for justice.

It was the same with Stepan Bandera. There was a broad movement in Ukraine, but everyone was called “banderites” because Bandera was really an outstanding leader, even though he was one of the leaders and was not involved in active combat. Are you suffering from this image?

Absolutely not. It makes no difference to me. I don’t follow the ratings but honestly perform my duty to protect the country. That is enough for me now.

And you came to see us with grandchildren asleep in the car. This does not really fit the image of “bloodthirsty extremist.” I understand that you are no longer with Pravyi Sector. What happened?

There were differences in methodology. I have spoken about them repeatedly and I don’t want to delve into these things too much.  The revolution has ended without the achievement of the ideals that were put forth on Maidan. There are young men who are asking questions about continuing revolutionary activity and I understand them perfectly. Perhaps if I were 25 I would think the same way.

But under the conditions of external aggression we can drown Ukraine in blood. There is not great problem is removing any kind of government, and our government now, unfortunately, is weak. But to open even more fronts … We know the history very well. Whenever Ukrainians begin to fight on 2-3 fronts, we always lose.

This is why I’m not a fan of any revolutionary activity. Let’s deal with what we have at the front. Even though people claim it is necessary to bring order in the rear. But it seems to me that in order to bring order in the rear we have sufficient peaceful means so far. And I am taking care of the front; that is my area of responsibility.

yarosh3This area of responsibility … You see the front and you know what is happening there. There were appeals from various politicians that we need to negotiate with  Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky or that we need to go on the offensive. There are debates on whether Minsk is good or bad … As someone who is directly involved, how do you see the resolution of the situation?

With regard to the negotiations, I am categorically opposed to direct negotiations except when it comes to hostages. When dealing with the specific issue of hostages, this is accepted worldwide.

To conduct any political negotiations — they (Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky) are puppets; they decide nothing and these types of negotiations have no sense. By the way, when I spoke with Nadia (Savchenko), she explained that she had just that in mind but that her comments were misused by the media, including the Russian media.

As for resolving the problems, this is a complex question. For example, Minsk-1, when we were still very week, when the combat-ready units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were practically destroyed by Russian armies who had crossed the border, when it was necessary to gain time in order to gather strength and not give up territory, the diplomatic path was quite understandable and justified.

But neither Minsk nor the OSCE are solving the issue today. We can see that. If we take the example of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria — any region where Russia has provoked conflicts — they were never resolved positively for the country in questions. They were frozen and became a constant zone of destabilization for the country.

Because, in my view, a set of measures is needed in our situation — diplomatic ones as well as the improvement of the defense capability of our country and preparation for instant military operation at the right time (as was the case in Croatia at one time). We need to raise the level of our intelligence services (this is partly happening already), include the Islamic factor that exists in Russia, the resistant movement in North Caucasus and the  Chinese factor in Siberia.

Therefore, in fact, this can be solved only by defeating the empire and not on a small portion of our land.

In the long run, that is the case. But we also have the problem of Crimea. What does it mean to conduct combat operations there — on such small territory with such powerful Russian forces?

If we act symmetrically, then Russia has much greater strength — both technically and in manpower. It would be very difficult to defeat them in that fashion, although it is possible if we remember the examples of Finland and Afghanistan.

And what is  happening at the front right now?

At this point we can say that the Russians are intensifying hostilities in the Donbnas in order to force us into some subsequent Minsk-3 (we can see that Minsk-2 is stalled). But now they are shooting 150 missiles to our side, but there was a time when they were thousands, in Pisky alone.

The snipers are active and they are conducting active surveillance along the entire frontline using unmanned aircraft. Information is arriving from intelligence ( it is not a secret) that local offensive actions are being planned. But they do not have sufficient force to defeat the Ukrainian Armed Forces now in the East.

That is to say that the Ukrainian army has strengthened since the beginning of the war?

Definitely, strengthened. Maybe not to the extent we would like, but the progress is undeniable. I remember Savur-Mohyla, Stepanivka, when snipers from the 30th Brigade ran around in sneakers. Of course things are quite different now. Although there is still not enough of everything.

It would be desirable for our military-industrial complex to work more actively than now. They are working but it is not enough. Over there people are sacrificing their lives every day. And here there are no sacrifices; here money is being made.

At one time you spoke with Yanukovych, shortly before he fled. Recently you spoke with Poroshenko. What were your impressions of these people?

Well, after communicating for an hour with Yanukovych, it is difficult to form a picture. The meeting was very specific — to sign agreements. Honestly, I was more worried on how to get out of there than of his portrait. In my view, he is a very ambiguous person. At that time he was afraid, very afraid, that was obvious. Perhaps the Russians took advantage of these fears to extract something for themselves. He’s a person who lacks self-confidence, a coward.

And Poroshenko?

Well during wartime it’s not good to speak ill of the Supreme Commander … I think he wants to be a historical figure and do something good for Ukraine. It seems to me that the problem here is not Poroshenko but this entire old political elite, that they are businessmen rather than statesmen. And they take a businesslike approach to resolving the issues that could have nationwide, statewide significance.

To take the question of introducing martial law, as an example. These were also business matters. I said then and I repeat now that it is impossible to defeat Russia without mobilizing all the resources of a country — human, material and so forth. This is not even a question that the current special status is no worse than martial law. Simply now the further you go from the frontline, the more obvious it becomes that the country is not fighting. This is more a psychological problem. And so …

They don’t have too much time left — Poroshenko and Groisman. because the degree of radicalization in society is growing. And in the East, people are living with the war more so they don’t have these attitudes: to come to the Kyiv hills and shoot everyone. This is more in the West, especially in specific audiences, among guys who have gone through war and  are experiencing this injustice

Because getting Ukrainians to revolt on the basis of social programs in impossible. The tarrifs may be 10 times higher — this of course is very bad — but people will endure patiently. But when they experience injustice — this was the case both during the Orange Revolution and now on Maidan — when they perceive total injustice then they will rise up.

Perhaps it is not only associated with injustice but also with the risk of losing independence.

Certainly

You said these people (Poroshenko) want to make history, leave some mark. What are your ambitions?

Well, first we need to win this war. This is task No. 1, and I intend  to take care of that, and honestly it does not matter in what form — I can be a simple machine gunner. For me it is important to get this bill passed (on the Volunteer Army) and to get a carte blanche from the state for about two years to form it, to lay the right foundations and then let some general command it, especially because in the bill this volunteer movement is established as a structure in the Ministry of Defense. This  is why I say there is no violation of state monopoly on force. This is important for me, and this is something I could take care of. Now I have to deal with politics because without political backing resolving these issues that I have to decide at the front is very difficult. This is why I won’t resign.

Do you want to keep your political independence? There are probably many people who are calling you, offering some benefits, who are interesting in buying ” a piece of Yarosh.” How do you react to that?

Right now we are working to maximize the human resource base for revolutionary peaceful changes in the country, to create a  platform that would unite different segments that possibly could differ in their worldview — for example, conservatives and nationalists — but who would still be patriots of the country. And they must be united.

I have already said this, when we are united — Maidan 1, Maidan 2 — we reach our goal. But as soon as we achieve some strategic result and disperse to party enclaves, we immediately begin to lose and the government becomes a parasite on the sweat and blood of Ukrainians.

To prevent that we must maximize our base of patriotic human resources. We are creating a National Action Committee. We will issue a manifesto soon. I am pleased that the group “Nastup” (Advance), the multi-factional organization that you represent, has joined us. This is why I think that together we can do a lot to implement the ideals of Maidan into life.


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Translated by: Anna Mostovych
Source: Espreso TV

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  • Hannah Montcolly

    Good, strong and intelligent interview. Enjoyed it very much.

  • Dirk Smith

    Wish he would run for President with Savchenko. Especially if Ukraine gets sold out again by the West.