Article by: By Mathieu Molard and Paul Gogo
This is the largest leak of documents from the separatist pro-Russian “government” of Donetsk. It contains thousands of pages that allow identifying the French fighters or propagandists who are engaged in the war in Donbas.
Wednesday, August 3 – The Twitter account of Tatyana Egorova, a member of the press service of the “government” of the self-proclaimed ”Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”), publishes a strange message, tagging the Security Service of Ukraine:
— Татьяна Егорова (@Egorova_TN) August 3, 2016
“I, Tatiana Egorova S., an employee of the MGB [Ministry of National Security, ed.] Of the DNR, can’t lie any longer and will not permit others to do so.”
The tweet has a Dropbox link which was deactivated a few hours later. It refers to 1,449 emails and 2,773 attachments from the email account of Tatyana Egorova, representing the largest leak of documents from the “DNR government” in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists took power in spring 2014, triggering a war which is still ongoing. StreetPress consulted these documents and studied them carefully.
This is good material for a detailed understanding of the involvement of Frenchmen (mostly coming from different flavors of the extreme right) in the conflict. “Volunteer” fighters have a past as members of La Troisième voie [extreme right group dissolved because its members were involved in a killing of a leftist activists – Ed.] or the Bloc Identitaire [extreme right group – Ed.], or were in charge of “filtering” journalists covering the conflict, members of highly politicized NGOs, or being close to Marine Le Pen [leader of the far-right National Front which received a multi-million euro loan from a Russian bank – Ed]. Through these documents, we discovered that there are dozens of French that came to the Donbas to serve the cause of this little self-proclaimed state supported by the Kremlin.
Nothing, however, confirms that this press service assistant of the breakaway republic is the source of the leak. Christelle Neant, a Frenchman who collaborated with this service from Donetsk, told StreetPress Tatyana Egorova still carries her functions. This supports the hypothesis that her account was hacked, especially considering the Ukrainian Myrotvorets group already has in the past posted several hacked documents, in order to intimidate journalists who set foot in Donbas.
1. The French far-right takes up arms in the Donbas
StreetPress identified 23 names of French nationals that took up arms alongside the separatists in the emails. A non-exhaustive list, because according to Christelle Neant, the number of those that came to fight in Donbas since 2014 would be between 35 and 40. Former militants of La Troisième voie, the Bloc Identitaire or the Party of France [Extreme right groups – Ed.], followers of the quenelle [French extreme right movement that denies the Holocaust – Ed.]… Almost all the flavors of the French far-right are represented on the front lines. Upon arrival in Donetsk – often via Russia [which is a breach of Ukrainian law – Ed.] – they are interviewed by the services of the “Ministry of National Security” (MGB) before joining a battalion. No document mentions compensation, but many Frenchmen reached out by StreetPress confirm to receive a pay of 15,000 rubles (200 euros) per month.
The Continental Unit, consisting mostly of Frenchmen and Serbians, includes some of the first French fighters who arrived to the conflict zone. Seven or eight “volunteers” landed for the first time in June 2014, coming from various small groups of extreme right-wing radicals in France.
“The Continental Unit is organized by our young volunteers. They belonged to La Troisième voie, they are real anti-imperialists and are not neo-Nazis,”
Alain Benajam, president of the International Voltaire Network NGO in France, explained very seriously in an interview with Sputnik in July 2014. Yet La Troisième voie, a “national-revolutionary” small group of skinheads, was dissolved in 2013, following the assassination of Clement Meric.
Originally, the Continental Unit was created by two former soldiers: the Serbian Frenchman Nicolas Perovic and Victor Alfonso Lenta, who were previously involved in two far-right associations, Bloc identitaire and Jeunesses nationalistes (a neo-fascist group, also banned in 2013). Lenta was dismissed from the army after taking part in an evening in honor for Hitler. On 19 April 2008, Lenta and his mates built wooden swastikas that they ignited before ransacking a mosque in Colomiers, newspaper Depeche du Midi reports.
The Russian side presents the war as a struggle of separatists as “anti-fascist.”
He is not the only one with a passion for weapons. Mickael Takahashi, according to his Facebook publications, was a member of the National Association of Police Shooters, a club also frequented by Samy Amimour, a terrorist of the Bataclan attack [of November 2015 in Paris – Ed]. He often shows support for Bashar al-Assad, like most of his classmates, including his friend Norman Guillaume Cuvelier – a former member of many far-right right groups. Photos in Egorova’s mailbox show he has an image of a Kolovrat (a symbol popular in the neo-Nazi movements) on his Kalashnikov and an “S” on his axe. Asked by StreetPress, he rejected any sympathy for Nazism, however, admitted that he was “close to the extreme right, if you want sensational news.”
The members of the Continental Unit were “casting errors,” as many Frenchmen still present in the Donbas say. These people are embarrassing for them, as the Russian side presents the war as a struggle of separatists as “anti-fascist.” Most “volunteers” are accepted in the Donbas. But recruiters may sometimes be stricter. In an email, Laurent Brayard*, one of the first Frenchmen engaged alongside the separatists, decided to deny access to a compatriot he found “bizarre” and “fascist.” The Continental unit was eventually disbanded in January 2015. In June of that year, the “DNR” announced “a temporary suspension in welcoming potential foreign volunteers.”
“Reinformation”: Media specialized in providing alternative information to mainstream media, but mostly conspiracy theories
The majority of French “volunteers” that came to fight in the Donbas, including former members of the Continental unit, later joined the battalion of the Don Cossacks, stationed in the Luhansk Oblast – a group known for its non-compliance with the cease-fire and its troublesome independence from the self-proclaimed “government.”
The behavior of some Frenchmen has also been widely criticized, even in the separatist camp. The Facebook page of LaGrega Ghislain, a Frenchman stationed in the Luhansk Oblast since late 2015 suggests unlawful actions. His passion for Ukraine and especially its inhabitants did not start yesterday, as evidenced by his profiles on many dating sites. He also told StreetPress he visited Kyiv four times before the start of the conflict. However, the sweetheart seems to have been tricked her virtual “conquest” into giving money (possibly, through a fake profile).
“I’ll find your family [name of the young woman] in Luhansk. I’m not stupid, I’ll find quickly. A woman is paid to find the address of his family. (…) give my money back, or you will work for me as a prostitute in France.”
And ended it with a threat:
“This story will end very bad for me or your family.”
The former pastry chef, originally from the French Riviera, told StreetPress that he came to the Donbas in revenge for the young woman and “for fun.” He will not be disappointed. Another French “volunteer” denounced him as a “spy” because of his “nationalist spirit close to Nazism.”
“It cost me 35 days in prison in the dark, and three months without a passport,” Ghislain said.
He had not suffered abuse but says he “heard Ukrainian soldiers being tortured for more than 1 hour 30 minutes” by the third battalion of the Republican Guard. “People disappear after that,” he added.
He explained he is ready to return to France “in 10 days” to StreetPress – the case is not closed so far:
“I have come here for the girl and for Philippe [the Frenchman who denounced him – Ed]. I do not forgive, never.”
Ghislain LaGrega is not the only one to return home. “There are less than a dozen French fighters in the Donbas,” says Christelle Neant, working for the press service of the “DNR.” An email dated January 2016 also lists the names of some “French who want to go home.“
Not all returns are smooth. Erwan Castel is still stuck there. The former officer had his passport stolen while trying to renew his visa in Russia. The Embassy of France in Russia that he contacted to get a new one explained it can’t help – the Donbas is Ukrainian territory. It is to the embassy in Kyiv that the chancellery suggests he go solve his problem. Thanks! The fighter can’t seriously think of crossing the frontline without being captured by the Ukrainians. As shown in this letter in the leaks, he decided to write to Putin himself. We do not know whether the strongman of Russia has deigned to respond. Jacques Clostermann, a supporter of Marine le Pen, explains to StreetPress that he has interceded on his behalf to the Russian ambassador to France. This is expected to break the deadlock.
Meanwhile, Erwan Castel continues to re-inform via his blog and started reading the works of the Bard of Eurasianism, the “brown-red” intellectual Aleksander Dugin. “His thought inspires me a lot,” told Castel to StreetPress.
Others seem to not want to return to France. This is the case of Guillaume Cuvelier that after falling in love with an American journalist in the Donbas, decided to go to fight in Iraq with his girlfriend, accompanied by Mickael Takahashi. The trio took up arms against the Islamic State with the Peshmerga for a few months until March 2016, before disappearing. The French-American couple has now moved to the United States. Now Cuvelier is actively trying to eliminate any traces of being in the various conflict zones.
He is not the only one who found love in the East. The former member of La Troisième voie, Renault Regeard, launched a prize pool on the site “le pot commun” to finance his wedding.
2. Politicians, researchers, and “humanitarians” go for a ride to the Donbas
The “volunteers” are not the only Frenchmen to come stretch their legs in the Donbas. At regular intervals, Laurent Brayard, a member of the press service who often quoted in these emails, makes sure special guests receive official invitations to stay in the new self-proclaimed “republic.” The largest contingent of visitors is still on the far-right. In early January 2016, it is a supporter of Marine Le Pen who arrives there: the former fighter pilot, Jacques Clostermann, a candidate to the parliament in the Bouches-du-Rhône under the label Mon Pays la France– a small party allied to Rassemblement Bleu Marine, which he founded with his friend MP Gilbert Collard. He “wanted to come, but unfortunately, he could not break free,” the former fighter pilot told StreetPress. Finally, he brings another buddy of Collard with him, the former barrister of the French town of Beziers, the lawyer Josy-Jean Bousquet. “A man from the left political side,” says Clostermann, defining himself as a Gaullist.
Clostermann had planned a second trip to the Donbas. On the occasion of 2 years of “independence” of the “DNR,” a large delegation from France was supposed to visit Donetsk. Through the emails (with passport copies) we learn that, alongside Clostermann, Thierry Meyssan, known as a lover of conspiracy theories, Samy Merlo-Cavaillon, candidate for European UPR [Right-wing french micro party], Alexander Latsa, columnist for French versions of several Russian media, Alexis Troude researcher, lecturer at the University of Versailles-Saint Quentin and author of Balkans: a scheduled break (book prefaced by former ally of Marine Le Pen, Paul-Marie Coûteaux) were invited.
Beautiful people…. Finally, a handful will make the trip. Migault Philippe, a former journalist with Le Figaro, now director of research at the French international relations institute IRIS, explains to StreetPress that he is coming – on his holidays at his own expense – “with [his] friends” Xavier Moreau* and Nikola Mirkovic.*” The first, former paratrooper officer, changed into economic intelligence in Russia, is at the heart – according to the French news site Mediapart – of the Russian networks of Marine Le Pen. The second is a member of Solidarity Kosovo, a satellite association of Bloc Identitaire in which there is the boss of the movement Philippe Vardon and his putative candidate for president in 2012, Arnaud Gouillon.
There, the trio met Emmanuel Leroy, who was also a very close advisor to time Le Pen. Today he chairs the association Emergency Children of Donbas. He is not the only representative of highly politicized humanitarian NGOs: Nikola Mirkovic is a member of Vostok France Donbas Solidarity. Early June, another member of this structure made the trip with Gilles Emmanuel Jacquet, representative of the Swiss association Peaceful Don and contributor to the website of Xavier Moreau, a close ally of Marine Le Pen.
Politicians, humanitarian activists, and researchers are also seen as relays for the media. In Donetsk the press service follows track and uploads online videos of their trip. On their return, the French version of Sputnik and Russian state media have no shortage of relaying their stories; neither do many far-right media: TV Libertés, Boulevard Voltaire. And even the more mainstream newspapers Figaro or Valeurs actuelles.
The Donetsk press office, however, has yet failed to attract big fish. It’s not for lack of trying, as Christelle Neant explained. The Frenchmen who collaborated with the press office sent invitations to the left and the right parties. Only the deputy Thierry Mariani, member of Les Republicains Institutional right party – Ed.], would spare a response. According to her, he has promised a visit. There is also a letter from Pascal Ellul, President of the Youth Movement of the same party and a current member of the National Council of Les Republicains, flirting with the separatists. Excerpt:
“The People’s Right and Thierry Mariani have always had in mind a different position on the Ukrainian crisis having understood the real issues and struggles of games influences (sic) between imperialism of the US and the Russian Federation, true defender of our civilization and Christianity.”
In a comment to StreetPress, Ellul explains he is lending his support to the “fight that is carried out there against some form of imperialism.” But due to a lack of funds, the project of the visit failed.
Meanwhile while waiting for larger fish in his nets, the Donetsk press office starts activities of war tourism. But “without voyeurism,” says Christelle Neant. After the arrival of a group of Finns, she organizes a holiday booked for Francophone “friends of Donbas.” For a few hundred euros you can from October 16 to 22 discover the “bombed cities, villages in ruins,” “meet the locals” but also “soldiers, the authorities.” Not to mention still some museums. Any volunteers?
3. Tracking journalists
The leaks also reveal a gigantic tracking system dedicated to journalists covering the conflict. A list comprising the names of more than 6,000 journalists, translators, and fixers who worked in the “DNR,” regularly updated, was found in the attachments. Names are embellished with color codes: red for journalists deemed hostile. “Suggestion: not to issue accreditation,” is said in another email. Yellow is for “medium” journalists. Green for the nice ones, and finally white for the “neutral.” Evaluations of journalists sometimes come with comments. “She’s very aggressive towards Russia,” “He is Poroshenko’s circle (Ukrainian President)”, “He has been reporting on neo-Nazi battalions”...
Until June 2015, the decision to issue these accreditations was taken by the “Ministry of Information” in cooperation with the “Ministry of National Security.” But later, rebel authorities decided to delegate some work to DONi, “an international news agency” financed by Russian businessman Andrei Stepanenko and headed by former Finnish nationalist party activist IPU Janus Putkonen. In a letter found in the leaks, he details the role of “information protection system” DONi:
“Tracking and preventing the arrival of foreign agents and propagandists, enemies hiding behind international journalism, and curb their activities in the context of information warfare.”
They pass information to the “Ministry of National Security” who then decides whether to issue a certification.
Two Frenchmen assist DONi in monitoring the French journalists. First, it is Brayard Laurent, whose name often appears in these leaks, which is responsible for this task. This self-proclaimed historian is a member of the UPR, a small conspiratorial party, whose StreetPress has already spoken about. He was recruited in Moscow by Svetlana Kissileva, who invited him to a conference organized in Donetsk where he joined Novorossia Today and DONi. This frankophone is one of the main connections between the French extreme right and the separatists. Just after the events of Euromaidan, he participated in the creation of the “reinformation” site Novorossia Vision and chairs the Paris association Novopole, founded by André Chanclu former GUD (student union extreme right) and Alain Benajam, with road companion Thierry Meyssan and chairman of Voltaire Network France.
Brayard is then joined in March 2016 by Christelle Neant who arrived in Donetsk by car after a trip of “over 4,000 km,” accompanied by her dog. The former activist of the UNEF-id (student union center left, integrated today in the UNEF), tells StreetPress having “sided with the oppressed.” Like Brayard, she publishes articles and videos of “re-information” for the site DONi and collaborates in the “information protection system” of the agency.
The news agency did not take their role lightly. It lists the publications of journalists wishing to visit “DNR,” examines their accounts on social networks… No information considered disagreeable must escape the eye. They write a weekly report, classified as “confidential” and sent to the press service of the “DNR,” gathering all this information and repeating the color code Red-Yellow-Green-White of listings. An email dated 5 May 2016 even evokes “a Moscow officer” to which members of DONi must report. Christelle Neant takes up this job of monitoring journalists:
“There is a propaganda worthy of Goebbels in the media. Some journalists do crappy work. They distort reality so that it sticks to their scenario. It is normal that they be denied access.”
Emails show that some media sometimes fall through the cracks, like the BBC:
“The BBC is not friendly with Russia and the DNR. But it is better to give him accreditation because they are very influential.”
If in doubt, a meeting with Janus Putkonen or Laurent Brayard is potentially foreseen. This is what was proposed, for example, to a journalist working for the French media. The Labour party did not convince them 100%, and the idea of a meeting in Donetsk was launched.
“I’ll meet him when he arrives in DNR. Then we will monitor their work closely,” wrote Putkonen to his colleagues.
No luck, the reporter will not come.
Despite all these difficulties, obtaining accreditation is not a synonym of staying out of trouble for journalists. Once there, the authorities continue their control. “I had four pairs of eyes watching me,” says a reporter who recently visited “DNR.” On the frontline for example, “there were members of the ‘Department of Defense’ who checked my work in the late afternoon,“ she said.
Janus Putkonen can’t stop boasting about his service and his role to “protect information,” whose work is judged as “very reliable.” However, about a year after it was created, he announced DONi’s closure (effective 1 July 2016) in an attachment letter to the “Ministry of National Security” and “administration” of the “DNR.” He denounces the lack of the rebel authorities’ “official support” to DONi, which has had to drastically reduce its budget. He also explains that Christelle Neant lives through private donations. [In later correspondence, however, DONi is said to be given support, and plans to close it are reversed – Ed.]
Laurent Brayard left the Donbas for holidays. The recent months have not been easy for him: many Frenchmen engaged in Donbas don’t fancy him, to the point of reporting him to the FSB as an enemy of Russia. He may have recently come out clean of an interrogation with Russian secret services. This case prompted him to leave: emails reveal that he might have requested information from the Russian Foreign Ministry concerning a possible request for political asylum. Unless the matter is solved with a wedding, which he would be preparing in Russia.