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Coffins and Questions about Russian nationals fighting in Donbas

05.06.14 | Halya Coynash

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has told French journalists that there are no Russian soldiers in the South-East of Ukraine, and no Russian instructors. He may be hoping, unfortunately, not without justification that western countries in their eagerness to avoid hard-hitting sanctions will focus only on the presence or otherwise of formal troops on the border.  The presence of large numbers of Russian nationals among the fighters has become too overt to be ignored, but so too have efforts to explain away their involvement.  These have included a surprising willingness to communicate with journalists who have up till now been treated with hostility. 

Although there had been reports of truckloads of armed fighters and weapons from Russia for many weeks, the change was first seen around Election Day when Chechen fighters proved more than happy to talk to western journalists.  According to an interview discussed below, there were a lot of Chechens among the first fighters of the Vostok Battalion, but they were mostly killed during the attempt on May 26 to seize control of Donetsk airport. 

31 coffins were transported by ice cream refrigerator truck across the border into Russia a few days later.  The mode of transport and fact that “not one Russian TV channel showed the coffins of Russian Federation nationals killed in Donetsk” were most highlighted by those who summarized or reposted Maria Turchenkova’s blog on Ekho Moskvy.  There was no attention to why militants, until now friendly only with Kremlin-loyal media, had suddenly changed their attitude.

Turchenkova was among journalists approached by a person close to Alexander Borodai, Russian national, former PR manager and now the ‘prime minister’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR].  They were asked if they would accompany two trucks with bodies to the border.  The journalist says that they were stunned at acknowledgement of the deaths of Russian nationals in the fighting.  Since the Ukrainian authorities immediately reported that a number of Russian nationals were killed in the airport attack, this may not be so staggering, but Russian TV did indeed avoid the subject altogether.

The journalists agreed to Borodai’s request, the drivers whose trucks were commandeered were not asked their opinion, and simply knew that they couldn’t say no.  Turchenkova suggests that maybe the militants thought that journalists were needed to make sure the Ukrainian border guards didn’t touch them.  Both Borodai and Denis Pushilin, another of the DPR leaders appeared initially.  Both claimed that the bodies were of volunteers who had come to support the DPR’s struggle, and that they didn’t want any provocation and were sending the load without armed accompaniment.  It all sounds very humane except that they left soon after, together with most journalists who were eager to see the Vostok battalion’s purging of the militant ranks in Donetsk. No DPR members were there to pay their respects to supposed volunteers who had lost their lives fighting their cause.

Why, as the journalists understood, the 31 coffins with DPR flags on each would not move without them is less clear. The Ukrainian military who stopped the procession near the border were convinced not by the car with four journalists, but by the vehicle in front with police officers, one of whom got out and said something to the military. It was then that the load got waved through without any checks.

The journalists were only fleetingly shown the list of names, and the four Slavonic names which Turchenkova mentions seem to have been already discussed on social networks.  The fact that an officially retired Russian security service [FSB] spetsnaz instructor, Sergei Zhdanovich, was among those killed was scandalous, but known before. 

The potent image of 31 coffins does not, in fact, gel with the various estimates including those from civic activists driven out of Donbas by the militants that there may be as many as 10 thousand Russian nationals. There have almost certainly been far more casualties, and it seems unlikely they were returned home in separate coffins. 

The element of show involved in the transportation of 31 coffins was seen also in the visit Kateryna Sergatskova describes to a Vostok Battalion camp.  The journalists were treated to quite some tour by an Ossetian known as Mamai.  Most of the Vostok battalion fighters they were shown were Donbas residents.  They were told that many Chechens had died during the attack on Donetsk airport.  Now the fighting core of the battalion was made up of people from Ossetia who took part in the Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia in 2008.  Asked why he had come to Donbas, Mamai replied: “Russia’s first enemy is America. The enemy of my Russia is my enemy. We are Orthodox [Christians] and have come to fight for those whom the people who want to take away their land want to kill.  We were in the same position in South Ossetia when our people did not want to be in Georgia, they wanted to force us with their aggression, and the whole people wanted to be in Russia. I decided alone to call everybody. That’s how the groups were formed. Many people want to come here”.

There is a no less garbled and contentious version of the situation from one of the leaders of the battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky, a former leader of the Alpha special unit of the Donetsk region SBU [Ukrainian security service] who now answers to Russian national Igor Strelkov [Girkin], the DPR’s ‘defence minister’.

The problem with any ‘meet the players’ journalism is that we hear those players’ version of events only.  The advantage is usually the insight it gives into people’s motives, and greater understanding at a human level of who is involved.

Here, As with the 31 coffins, caution seems called for.  Whether they are genuinely committed to the struggle, or in for the money, is not really the issue. The crucial question, joked away, is not about people at all. 

“Where have you got so many weapons from? Who bought them?”, I ask Mamai.

“That I of course can’t tell you”, Mamai answers sensibly. Someone with a rifle laughs: “Just write that we found a treasure trove”.

Hundreds – or thousands – of men with sophisticated weapons and seemingly endless supplies of ammunition are able to devote all their time [and some have paid with their lives] in a part of the country where most of the population have difficulty making ends meet.   Even if money which former president Viktor Yanukovych took with him when he fled to Russia is being used for these purposes, it cannot buy the Russian military technology – and the military know-how from people like FSB instructor Sergei Zhdanovich – provided to the Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas.  This is the issue, not any particular group of so-called insurgents who are only pawns in this dangerous game. 

see also:
Mufti: This is our Homeland. Tell your ‘soldiers of fate’ to stay away!
The Kremlin’s Propaganda Coup in Donetsk
Where are the sanctions?
So who is sabotaging Ukraine’s presidential elections?
Kremlin-backed militants chain and beat young civic activist in Luhansk
Pro-Russian militants abduct Luhansk school head
Putin’s Referendum Win
Russia, the improbable human rights crusader
Putin’s selective terrorism
Pro-Russian thugs beat up Ukrainian unity demonstrators – except on Russian TV
Armed men cut off Ukrainian channels in Donbas