Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko in an exclusive interview with “GORDON” described who goes to fight in the Donbas, what makes the parents of dead Russian soldiers proud, and why this war is the last one for Russia.
By Tatiana OREL
Unlike most Russian journalists who perform the dull function of cogs in a powerful state propaganda machine, Arkady Babchenko has his own, distinct opinion on the war in Ukraine. As a man who fought in Chechnya, he knows modern war “a la Russe.” He came to the Donbas in the beginning of the summer to understand for himself who is fighting whom and for what reason. Since then his personal blog, “Journalism Without Intermediaries,” has featured honest content about this war. In this sense, his help to Ukraine might be more important than humanitarian aid with grain and water. Even a small drop of truth in the barrel of lies sometimes saves someone’s life; and not just one: it gives someone hope, or a slight last minute shift of the sight of a submachine gun – such that no one noticed. When in a war, people quickly realize what is what, only it is harder to stop a war than to start one. After nearly 20 years of journalistic work in the hottest spots – Chechnya, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Türkiye, the Ukrainian Maidan – Babchenko, who is considered, by the way, one of the founders of modern Russian prose, studied wars only too well and knows that even after a war ends, its impact endures.
“It will be just a frozen conflict. I think over the years it will resume, as happened in Chechnya.”
– Arkady, in the early summer you came to Sloviansk to understand, without the “help” of Russian media, what is happening in the Donbas. According to the posts in your blog, you were convinced that this war was supposed to end in two months. So, what do you think now?
– I really believed that this war would last only a few months, no more. Nobody then thought that Russia would dare openly invade militarily.
– But dare it did…
– Yes, and it is now clear that this war will last long. Even if we “freeze” the situation as it is right now, it will still have to reach its logical conclusion sometime. It would just be a frozen conflict. I think that through the years the conflict will resume, as happened in Chechnya. When a peace agreement was achieved after the First Chechen war and the Republic of Ichkeria gained independence, peace endured only to 1999 when the second war started. It is clear that “DNR” and “LNR” do not exist as states – they are artificial pro-terror structures, and they will have to be dealt with. Either Ukraine will cease to exist, or the DNR and LNR republics will. In any case, the conflict will endure for a long time.
– Do you think Ukraine should sign a peace treaty? This, in fact, is “a humiliating peace,” as Viktor Shenderovich said…
– Everything is simple here: If you can win – win; if you cannot – agree to a truce. Ukraine currently has neither the strength nor the means to complete this operation victoriously; therefore, it is necessary to sign a truce and use this time to regroup.
– Even among thieves, there is a concept of honor when an agreement, as they say, is worth more than money. But Russia behaves as an ultimate lawbreaker and does not keep its word – the shelling of the Donetsk airport and near Mariupol still continue…
– And yet, there is some easing of the conflict. Russia does not need a truce that much, because, in contrast to Ukraine, it has some strength.
“In Russia, there will be new gangs, there will be more shooting, many people will continue to live under the same laws they got accustomed to during the war.”
– During the Second Chechen war, you served as a professional contracted military agent. I do not know what reason they had to go to the war, but in the Donbas today too, there are many professional Russian military personnel. However, Russia seems to have nothing to do with it – supposedly, they take time off from their service, and instead of sunbathing on the shore of the Black Sea, which, now after the annexation of the Crimea, Russia has a lot, spend the vacation in trenches and tanks – 15,000 lovers of extreme tourism according to statistics of the Ukrainian NSDC.
– The reason for those who go to a war, as a rule, is the same. 99% on each side fight for the good and justice. They go to Ukraine not to kill the locals and crucify children on billboards, but to protect Russians from the damned “fascists.” Another thing is that some have the true information, while the others are fooled by propaganda.
– But this is not a boy scout game. Adults understand that war is a threat to your life. You can get back home with a satisfied sense of justice, but you can return without senses at all – as “cargo 200” [Russian military term for “dead” – Translator]…
– Understand, war draws you in. A soldier is interested to go and witness the scene with his own eyes. Yes, two weeks later the person understands what he got himself into. But if the war was declared officially, there would be many volunteers. Russia, like it or not, is a belligerent nation. It has never seen a lack of adventurers, romantics, idealists or just mongrels.
– But when they send a boy conscript to war, whose unsuspecting mother marks off days on the calendar in anticipation of the reunion with her son, we no longer talk of adventurism, but of the villainy of the commanders. Isn’t conscience eating at these officers?
– Yes, it was never a problem in Russia. They also sent conscripts to Georgia, even though they said that they are not there. But half of the army there was composed of conscripts for sure. Even since the First Chechen War there are mothers who cannot get official recognition of their children’s death in action in order to receive a monthly pension of $40. This time it’s the same thing too – well, they’ll issue some presidential battle pay to some people by a secret decree, but that will not be to all. That will be the end of the conversation.
– But to those who returned, they will probably have to be paid – for their silence?
– What for? Let them talk. They will drink alcohol in their courtyards and tell everyone how they killed Ukrainians. Whom does it bother?
– But not everyone who knows the feeling of power provided by a machine gun on his shoulder will be able to stop. And if the Russian regiments will be withdrawn from the war, won’t there be an addition to the regiment of Russian gangsters?
– Of course there will be an addition. Soldiers returning from eastern Ukraine will certainly come back with firearms, and the FSB [secret police] will not be able to block this flow completely. In Russia, there will be new gangs, there will be more shooting, many people will continue to live under the same laws they got accustomed to during the war.
“There will be no impeachment in Russia. And there will never be its own Maidan. Here will only be another Russian revolt, senseless and merciless, another Pugachev rebellion.”
– But even if the entirety of Russia will be silent, soldiers’ mothers probably will not keep quiet. If their children die, mothers have simply nothing more to lose. After all, they will demand an investigation, call aloud the names of the guilty. Grief overrides reason and fear. Following the mothers, Russians will begin to see clearly, and then, maybe, even an impeachment would not be that far-fetched. Is that possible?
– That thinking is in vain. In Russia, no one sees clearly. Here everyone has long since received his sight and society does not slumber. Whichever interview you read, soldiers’ mothers and fathers say that they are proud of their son who went to the war in Ukraine, even if he lost his legs, because he saved the Russian people. There will be no impeachment in Russia. And there will never be its own Maidan. Here will only be another Russian revolt, senseless and merciless, another Pugachev rebellion.
– In your blog you wrote that this war is the last war for Russia. What do you mean?
– If all goes according to the worst case scenario, and it is clear that events are developing precisely this way, Russia will not survive this war. Because war tends to go beyond the boundaries in which it began. War demoralizes the nation absolutely. The war in Afghanistan was hard on us, then Chechnya crippled Russia, but this war will finally finish us. I have a feeling, God forbid, that we might even come to World War III.
– In a comment to your blog someone wrote about Putin, “A rat in hysterics, and it’s scary.” Do you think he is really hysterical, in a panic, not knowing what to do now with this war that has gone too far? Or is he guided by a cynical, cold calculation?
– I do not think he is hysterical. This is a man who is not accustomed to retreat. Not once in his career did Putin back down. He may be aware that things did not go as smoothly as he planned, but in any case he always goes forward, and he cares nothing about anything, and about people’s lives – even more so.
– And even the lives of his own people …
– For him, there are no “his own.”
Translated by A. N.
Edited by M.K.B.