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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
September 12, 2015

Publication: Russia This Week
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
"They Shot At Our Own People, and Sold Weapons to Ukrainians": TV Rain Interviews Russian Fighter Back from Ukraine

During his trip to the LNR, the author of this report lived in the camp of the August Tank Battalion. Besides local residents, there was a group of Russian mercenaries was found deployed there. They were fairly terse, and tried to keep in the shadows -- only one of them, a fighter with the call sign "Isa" was ready to talk.

"If I stay alive, I'll give you an interview," he told me, and kept his word.

And recently in the middle of the night, my phone rang. Isa had kept his word. In a few days in the center of Moscow, he gave an account of why he had gone to the Donbass.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Please introduce yourself.

Vyacheslav Isayev: My last name is Isayev, my first name [and patronymic] are Vyacheslav Yuryevich. I'm from the city of Sosnovy Bor in Leningrad Region.

Georgy Aleksandrov: You and I got acquainted about a year ago in the Lugansk People's Republic. Tell us, please, how you wound up there and what did you do there?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Well, like everybody else -- from the desire of my heart to help Russian people. Russian people are dying. I applied at a private military company.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Did they come across you or did you come to them?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Through friends.

Georgy Aleksandrov: What were the terms? Did they promise you money?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Yes, they promised to pay me, they even put out some sums: $4,500 per month. I was so supposed to go there as an instructor, to train the militiamen in military tactics, and in general to help Russian people. We gathered together in St. Petersburg in an office. We were kitted out. Then we received our weapons in Rostov. We got armored vehicles there.

And we cross at the Severnoye checkpoint, not through the checkpoint itself, but through a little section of the border which was open for entry, and we went through.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Did a lot of people go there for cash?

Vyacheslav Isayev: All of them went there for money. The majority of them.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Were they paid or were they ripped off, like you?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Likely some were paid. Some were ripped off.

Georgy Aleksandrov: They didn't give you anything.

Vyacheslav Isayev: They didn't give me anything at all.

Georgy Aleksandrov: And further, accordingly, you ended up in the August Battalion. What tasks were assigned to you?

Vyacheslav Isayev: We guarded the commander of that battalion. His last name was Kostin, his call sign was "Batya," we got acquainted with him in Rostov at the training group. In order for this division to be allocated modern weapons, we had to round up people. It got to the point that we took people out of the prisons.

They were all locals. No one was forced. People wanted to, I don't know, perhaps start their life anew, perhaps something else. Perhaps they wanted to fix their further destiny somehow. But on the whole they were good guys, nice guys. We drove them to the training ground. There we made up the crews for tanks, for SAUs (self-propelled artillery systems). Sometimes it simply came down to one of them being just a tractor driver, but he could drive a tank.

There, they let us shoot one time. Some of them ran away from that training ground to Moscow, to construction sites. And we had to constantly make up the crews again. There was an unspoken agreement that the armor that we took from the Ukrainian side we would send back to Russia and they would exchange one of ours, the 60s, the 70s for a damaged tank...At first ammunition was delivered, and then the armor started coming in. I think it was sufficient in order to take Kiev with these forces.

[Note: In the first, shorter version of this interview, Isayev is quoted as saying, "That is, the ammunition was delivered along with the vehicles -- with the KAMAZ and Ural trucks." This is a good example of when the Russian word tekhnika can mean either armor, as in tanks and BTRs, or vehicles, as in trucks, so we have used both terms depending on the context--The Interpreter]

Georgy Aleksandrov: Is there an option where something heavier could come from the Russian side. I'm asking now about the Boeing. [His reference is to the Buk that shot down MH17, which was a Boeing--The Interpreter.]

Vyacheslav Isayev: I doubt that that was done from our side. I doubt that something like that was brought over there.

Georgy Aleksandrov: How did events develop further with the August division?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Well, you know, it was sad, it was sorrowful. At that camp where you and I met, there was a big raid, they took the ammunition back. Rumor has it that when there was a big recount of who got what. Three or four local divisions -- Batman's, the GBRs [rapid-reaction groups], what else was there...they crushed everybody there and took back all the ammunition, all the KAMAZ trucks. And they divvied them up among themselves.

Georgy Aleksandrov: There were cases when you perhaps traded in the arms? I have heard such things.

Vyacheslav Isayev: Well, of course. I think it all went to Ukraine.

Georgy Aleksandrov: to the other side?

Vyacheslav Isayev: It's not just that it went to Ukraine, I think there's more, that more than half of it never got there in general. That was what was really done by our guys. I don't know who really sits there at those warehouses. Perhaps, traitors. How else can you call such people? Scalpers.

Georgy Aleksandrov: How many people were killed then?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Rumor has it that about 30 people at any rate were put down. They threw them in the river. They mopped up the blood on the ground and picked up the casings. We were already gone by then.

Georgy Aleksandrov: I've heard a lot of stories about how the militia pinched cars and apartments. Did that all really happen?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Such things happened. There are investigations underway now. I thin these people will be called to account. Under the condition that they are still alive.

Georgy Aleksandrov: And what can you say regarding the murder of the commanders of the militia divisions of Batman and Mozgovoy.

[See The Interpreter reports of the assassination of these commanders here and here.]

Vyacheslav Isayev: In Ukraine, perhaps there are such professionals but if they are there, they sit deeply in clandestine locations and don't crawl out. I think it's our own Russian guys. Specially-trained people.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Was that done in order to unite all of them under one element?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Yes, so as to make one leader. Each division had their own fixers who came and helped with weaponry, and gave some advice. Sometimes they butted heads among themselves so much that we'd go crazy there. The Cossacks, who answer to no one, and some sort of special divisions. There were even such divisions that didn't fight there, but were

just involved in taking out the metal. That is, they were getting rich. They were robbing people, can you imagine?

Georgy Aleksandrov: Why?

Vyacheslav Isayev: What do you mean, why? They extracted money, property out of them.

Georgy Aleksandrov: So it was just gangsterism?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Let's put it this way: yes, under the guise of the militia were gangs about which there are still criminal cases being investigated by the LNR prosecutor general's office.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Did they kill people?

Vyachelsav Isayev: I think so. I cannot say unambiguously -- I was not present there, but judging from everything, yes. And many of them will not be found for a very long time.

Georgy Aleksandrov: And how many Russian citizens were killed?

Vyacheslav Isayev: There are enough tears for everyone. On their side and ours.

Georgy Aleksandrov: We are told a lot about how there are fascists, Banderaites fighting on the Ukrainian side. Did you talk to these people?

Vyacheslav Isayev: I talked a lot with these people. Some of them, leaving Lugansk, went over to the other side. They changed their views, that is. I will come back again to the August division. I helped one guy there. He was named Seryoga I think, I don't recall his last name. So he had two sons. They were killed [fighting with] the militia [the separatists]. One son, the last one, was young, he was 17 years old. Do you remember him, the young boy?

Georgy Aleksandrov: The machine-gunner.

Vyacheslav Isayev: The machine-gunner, yes. He was simply shot in the back.

Georgy Aleksandrov: His own men shot him in the back?

Vyacheslav Isayev: Yes. His own men! So what is he, the father, to do? Which regime should he follow? So what of it? Well, did that ammunition really cost the lives of those people? I understand: if they had buried the boy humanely. But to just throw them in the river, and then somewhere outside of Rostov we'll fish them out in horror, why are there so many people floating here?!

Georgy Aleksandrov: Were there greater losses from our side? For example, they say Debaltsevo went rather well for the militia. But I heard other information as well, that a tank was burned in August [Battalion], and there were a lot of men killed.

Vyacheslav Isayev: Practically the entire August division was destroyed. The remnants were broken up to other divisions.

Georgy Aleksandrov: How many people, in your view, have died in this conflict? I mean both civilians and military?

Vyacheslav Isayev: I can't answer that question for the simple reason that for many years, analysts will argue with one another how many were killed and who. But I think a lot were killed. Lugansk was shelled by the Ukrainian forces and the militia themselves made a bunch of mistakes. Well, imagine, shooting a Grad off from the center of town? That is, understanding, that return fire will be coming right away. With that, the division immediately goes away. And later it's every man for himself.

Georgy Aleksandrov: If at the very beginning, Strelkov and his whole team from the Crimea had not arrived, would the local population have staged this revolution here?

Vyacheslav Isayev: I think that if all these people hadn't arrived, the revolution would have been strangled at its root, everything would be normal and no one would have known anything.

Georgy Aleksandrov: And the OSCE, do they really monitor, do they see the real picture?

Vyacheslav Isayev: We live now in the 21st century, yes? The world of technology and space. There is the satellite system of oversight, communications. Well, tell me, what OSCE, what is it needed for? You can see everything from satellites. And somebody sees all that, do you understand?

Georgy Aleksandrov: They have begun to hand out pensions and salaries in the LNR. In rubles. Where are these enormous sums coming from?

Vyacheslav Isayev: From Russia. I think that this is all brought in legally, through [the checkpoint on the Russian-Ukrainian border at] Izvarino.

Georgy Aleksandrov: Why needs this war, and for what?

Vyacheslav Isayev: I don't know who needs this war. If it is simply to break in our own people -- well, understood. But to lay your head on the line so simply there, as they say, for the sake of our brothers, well it isn't worth it. There is that famous poem, "We will never be brothers." You know, that's real. That girl, really, she wrote it truthfully. We really are not brothers for them.

[The reference is to a poem by a Ukrainian poet, Anastasiya Dmytruk, titled "We Can Never Be Brothers" which was also put to music by a Lithuanian singers Gitautas Litinskas and others. It is best known for the lines spoken by a Ukrainian to a Russian: "You are huge, but we are great"--The Interpreter].

We are Moskali [Ukrainian pejorative term for Russians--The Interpreter] for them anyway, no matter how good or bad we are, even so we are for them potential Moskali.

Do you think that when the KAMAZ trucks full of corpses drove away, that they at least paid their respects? You will see, we will still heap a lot of sorrows on. And all of that struggle will turn against us. And they will come to an agreement between themselves, believe me. They will be coming to an agreement for their whole lives. They will simply remove the unfit ones and put the fit ones in place. Russian and Ukrainian generals studied in the same academies together! Half the General Staff is Ukrainians. They have grandmothers, grandfathers, they used to go there every summer.

Georgy Aleksandrov: A lot of the guys will come back from the war, a lot of them have blood on their hands. How will they behave themselves? Today, thousands of people are returning from the Donbass to Russia. How soon will they be able to adapt to civilian life? And can they ever do this?

Vyacheslav Isayev: The majority of people who have already come back from there have either gone over to the side of Kiev, or they are sitting in prisons. Because their mentality -- it's not that it's disrupted. It's a kind of anything goes, you know? And you come back here and you realize that's not acceptable here. And as a rule, who do the clashes occur with then? With police, or with someone else. People try to prove, here, we've returned, we're heroes. But if you get down to it, what are we heroes of, after all?

Georgy Aleksandrov: A sniper from the August Battalion was detained the other day, his call sign was "Medved'" [Bear]. He shot dead the policemen in the Moscow suburbs.

Vyacheslav Isayev: That man stole a weapon from his division. And how many other weapons are stockpiled there and are awaiting their hour. Because everything thinks that this will be a continuation of Rostov Region. Although it seems to me that this will hardly be the case. I think that still and all that they will come to an agreement that they will be in Ukraine. And that still and all, they will unite, you will see. And they will say that this was simply a battlefield between Russia and America or the European Union.

I appeal to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Vladimir Vladimirovich, really, they aren't worth it. Our lives, of Russian people, are not worth all of that. Let them figure it out among themselves. Why? Because it's stupid.

Well, it's just why? For that Donbass? But wait: we have Rostov next door -- it's all the same thing. I am telling you, if this comes here, it will be so bad. I would not want that for my country. Let this be a big lesson for us.

PS. After the show was broadcast, former militiamen from the same battalion as Vyacheslav Isayev got in touch with me. In their words, "Isa" is a traitor who tried to flee to the Ukrainian side, a drug addict and in general a bad and dishonest man. Perhaps that's true. However, the story of the raid on the camp of the August Battalion, about the numerous crimes of people who operated under the guise of the militia and other terrible moments of the war in the Donbass, I have had occasion to hear from many other sources. So this interview is only the extremely subjective opinion of one of the witnesses of the drama unfolding on the territory of a neighboring and until not so long ago fraternal country—Georgy Aleksandrov.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick