On the 11th of October Jesse and I met with Valeri N., an active fighter with one of the Ukraine’s well-known Volunteer Battalions (The name of the Battalion withheld for security reasons). We had met him the night before in Dnepropetrovsk’s lively Makhno Pub (named after the Ukrainian Anarcho-Communist), and he agreed to meet us again for an interview. It is the intent of this article to share with you our interview with Valeri and his experiences fighting in the east of the Ukraine and on his take of the situation in Ukraine in general.
First of all a little about his person: Valeri N. is 25 years old and a native of Dnepropetrovsk (125 miles from the active frontline) where he was born and raised and still calls home today. He speaks primarily in Russian, although he can understand and speak some Ukrainian, and speaks fluent English as he had studied to become an English Teacher – that is until the current conflict erupted in the east. He tells us that his upbringing was heavily influenced by his grandmother whose values were chock-full of “Soviet Clichés“ that above all gave him a sense of personal duty to protect his country, his Motherland, under any circumstance. He holds the manner of his socialization and family values as central to his motivation for joining one of the Volunteer Battalions, although the Motherland for him is no longer the Soviet Union as it was for his grandmother – for him it is the Ukraine. He personally sees himself as a native Ukrainian, with all the rights and obligations of the land, ever since he first got his Ukrainian Passport at the age of 16. He presents his passport to us and points out that the borders that are illustrated on the passport are the only acceptable borders for him. The Ukraine is his homeland, even if it is full of social inequities and wide scale corruption – it’s the only home he’s got.
For Valeri the primary source of what gives the Ukraine its identity is the people, the Ukrainians themselves. This differentiation between the administration and the civil society is very important to him. The government should not be representative of the Ukraine, rather those who live within the borders, the people. For Valeri the same goes for Russia. He has nothing against the Russian people and nothing against the Russian troops who he fights against. The blame lies solely upon the shoulders of the Russian government who has, with both active and passive force, sought to tear the Ukraine apart. Part of the blame goes equally to the Russian state sponsored media, which has continually sought to whip the people into an anti-Ukrainian frenzy with their endless stream of propaganda. This has led to problems within Ukrainian-Russian families who have drifted apart due to political differences. Decades old family relationships have been destroyed because of differing perspectives of the conflict. He brings to mention a relative in Russia with whom it is impossible to carry on a conversation with anymore because of the political differences. The Russian nation is not our enemy, he says, but the Russian Plutocracy. He mentions that this opinion is widely shared by the around one thousand foreign fighters who fight for the Ukraine, some of whom he fought with himself, from Belarus, Georgia, Chechnya, and even Russia. These fighters are convinced that fighting for the Ukraine is the most effective way to bring about the end of the Putin regime.
He continues in his explanation by emphasizing the difference between “Russian” (русский/russkij) and “Russianness” (российский/rossijskij). The population of Russia is therefore one of Russianness as Russia is a federal multiethnic society that is not only populated by ethnic Russians. It is the agenda of the Russian regime and its president, Vladimir Putin, to disparage this notion and focus solely on the Russian core of the state. He adds that the Russian people deserve better than this. For him the Ukrainian nation is not of this Russian character – even though Russian is spoken by a large percent of the population, this does not lead to a de-facto connection with Russia. For Valeri it is important to distantiate himself from Russia as much as possible. The popular western association of Russia and the Ukraine as one and the same or inexorably intertwined is something that for him must stop. This goes for Russian tourists who come to visit the Ukraine to get to know its people and landscape, they must understand that they are in another country with its own customs and traditions – and no longer in Russia. He foresees a future with a good relationship with Russia, albeit one with a noticeable physical border. Such a next-door neighbor relationship is unthinkable with the current Russian regime.
As for Europe, he can’t really say much himself as he has never been west of the Ukrainian border and he has to guess at what it is like to live there. A major positive for him is the primacy of the rule of law, something that he sees as lacking in his homeland. He sees the growing multiculturalism in Europe as a negative but doesn’t know enough about the idiosyncratic situations in different nations in the EU. When asked how he saw the European support for the Ukraine, he pointed to the danger that too much support could also lead to another danger – dependency upon a foreign power. The current problems in the Ukraine can only be solved by the Ukrainians themselves, not from outside. Valeri makes the point that it is up to his generation to get the Ukraine on the right track for the future. He admits however idealistic that may seem, that to go it alone without foreign aid would make things quite difficult as well.
After the events took place on the Crimea, the idea of volunteering became self-evident, it was his duty to defend against this attack on his homeland. Before this situation, the idea of military service had never been of any significance. When his call up at 18 to compulsory service in the Ukrainian military came, he found a way to be classified as unfit for duty and was enthusiastic about it. A little extra assistance from a friendly doctor did the trick, after all what was the use to be yelled at and maybe get to shoot the AK-47 a couple of times? He could begin his English studies right away and work on becoming a translator and English teacher. After Russia annexed the Crimea he broke off his studies and went to volunteer, but because of the medical document from years back, he wasn’t inducted into the military. But his desire to defend his country led him to the Volunteer Battalions and there he was accepted. The events in the Crimea also had a personal consequence for Valeri, his former fiancée lives on the Crimean peninsula and this new ‘border’ in effect severed their relationship. He elucidates that life can be lived upon the greater stage or the personal realm. The latter for him is the starting of a family, getting married, and having children to raise and look after. The former is the dedication of ones labor and efforts for the nation and the society. He had always ruled the larger stage out, and figured himself for a family man living a straightforward life. But with the end of his relationship, he decided that life as part of a larger stage was intertwined with his desire to fight for his nation and defend the civil society.
His military training for the Volunteer Battalion took place in both the Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk Oblasts, where exactly he could not say for obvious reasons. Here he was trained and prepared for deployment in the east of the Ukraine. After the completion of his training he was sent into the ATO (Anti-Terror-Operation) area in company strength as reinforcements. There he was deployed for 60 days and was involved in three engagements. The first was in the Luhansk Oblast between Lysychansk and the Mizhnarodni Highway 03. The second was in Donetsk Oblast not far from Debaltseve, and the third action was in the region of Mariupol. Their light arms and field equipment were comprised of primarily soviet design, most volunteers equipped with the AK-47 Kalashnikov etc. In the region of Lysychansk he was assigned to a checkpoint doing vehicle stops and inspections. Thereafter he was assigned as crew gunner on a “Sergey” ZU-23-2 (23mm) anti-aircraft gun. Here he was to stop the encroachment of enemy transports or APCs (see picture 2). In Debaltseve and Mariupol his battalion took part in the defense of both of the cities against the Russian-backed separatists. When Debaltseve fell by overwhelming numbers into separatist hands, he was already redeployed in in Mariupol and the cities defenses held. When we asked him to tell us to what extent the Russian military was complicit, he told us what he had seen with his own eyes. He said that they used white thin armbands (See Simon Ostrovsky’s reporting) on their uniforms as a sort of ‘asymmetrical substitute’ for conventional national identification. He also pointed out that they were much better fighters than the Separatists themselves. In addition they were equipped with modern firearms and equipment, current issue to the Russian military. He is convinced that these men were active Russian military servicemen.
Valeri’s goal, he says, is to fight until his country is completely intact again as had indicated by the outline on his passport; this includes Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea as well. To achieve this goal he is prepared to fight to the end. “We aren’t fighting for the interests of the Oligarchs, we are fighting for the defense of our homeland,” he says. This opinion is shared by the leaders of the other Volunteer Battalions as well, amongst them Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor) leader Dmytro Yarosh. In November he will be cleared to return to fight “at the front” in the ATO. Currently as a reservist he earns 900 UAH (approx. $40), during active duty 3,000 UAH ($125), and combat pay of 12,000 UAH ($525) a month. The Volunteer Battalion of which he is a member has been recently incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, a part of the Ministry of the Interior. If he still finds bureaucratic difficulties with that medical document from the past, and he not reactivated for duty with his old unit, he said that he would join up with the Right Sector. This wouldn’t be quite the same for him, but comparable and better to the alternative, that is not to fight at all. However he points out that under no condition would he fight against the Ukrainian people. He doesn’t want to be a part of the Right Sector if they take up arms against policemen within his own country, and the inverse he would not join the police force if they shot at Right Sector members, as the deadly incident in July in Mukacheve illustrates. As our evening begins to wind down he adds with a sense of conviction and closure to our discussion: “Those who we are fighting against at the moment aren’t Ukrainians, they are people who are trying to tear my country apart.”