At Vostok battalion’s camp

Members of Vostok battalion operating in Ukraine interviewed
BBC Monitoring Kiev Unit
June 4, 2014 Wednesday

The following is a text of a report by Kateryna Serhatskova entitled "At Vostok battalion’s camp" published by the news and analysis Ukrayinska Pravda website on 2 June:

We were driving to the military unit where the Vostok battalion is based. It is the battalion that engaged the Ukrainian military at Donetsk airport, cleared the building of the [Donetsk] region state administration of barricades and drove out looters after the Metro hypermarket was robbed.

"Who are you? Hurry up and go away!" an armed man at the gate ordered.

"We’re journalists…[ellipsis as published]," we timidly replied.

"Five minutes, and you won’t be here!" he said.

"Meaning what?" one of the journalists said, bewildered.

"The literal meaning. Five minutes – and you won’t exist," he calmly repeated, showing off his assault rifle.

Suddenly someone of Caucasian appearance appeared from behind a KamAZ [lorry] – tall, broad-shouldered, slant-eyed. This was Oleg, an Ossetian nicknamed Mamay. He greeted us and invited us to join him on a trip.

We had not yet grasped what kind of trip this would be before we were seated in the lorry with a group of Russian journalists and the door was closed. The KamAZ inscribed "Vostok battalion" set off for an unknown destination.

"Guys, where are they taking us?" I inquired.

"A good point, yes. Maybe to the airport?" one of the passengers joked unsuccessfully.

"Or this is some sort of relay, and now they’ll shoot us on the way. The Kremlin needs a serious sacrifice in order to send the troops in… [ellipsis as published]," someone else reflected.

In a forest plantation, somewhere in the environs of a botanical garden, not far from where [tycoon] Rinat Akhmetov’s residence is located, armed men greeted us. They lined up in front of our lorry, as on parade. Mamay silently gestured to us to watch the fighters training.

Look, this one was learning to shoot a grenade launcher. Another one was controlling a machine gun emplacement. A little way away several fighters were carrying out attacks with assault rifles. Others were examining new weapons.

In the training camp

"How come you have so many weapons? Who bought them?" I asked Mamay.

"Of course, I can’t tell you that," Mamay reasonably replied. Someone with a rifle laughed: "Write that we found treasure."

Donbass residents make up most of the Vostok battalion that was shown to us. Prior to the shootout in the airport it included quite a few Chechens, but people here claim that they practically all died. The battalion’s backbone is now made up of Ossetians, participants in the 2008 conflict that occurred between Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Russia.

"Russia’s first enemy is America," Mamay replied to my question as to why he had decided to travel to Donbass. "The enemy of my Russia is my enemy. We are Orthodox 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 with Georgia, and they wanted to make us be so by their aggression, but the entire people wanted to be in Russia. It’s the same thing here.

"Nobody helped us then, and now we ourselves have decided to lend a hand. I alone decided to invite everyone. This is how the groups were formed. Lots of people want to come here."

There really were lots of Ossetians all around – tall, strong young guys. They all, to a man, were smiling and transferring their assault rifle from one shoulder to the other easily and carelessly, like a bit of fluff.

While the fighters were conducting show exercises, one of the battalion’s leaders, Oleksandr Khodakovskyy, gave a detailed interview. He is the former chief of the Alfa special subunit of the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] Donetsk regional directorate, who now obeys Igor Strelkov (Girkin), "defense minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic [DPR]. He is being called "head of the DPR security service" and leader of the "Donbass Patriotic Forces."

Oleksandr Khodakovskyy

Khodakovskyy is convinced that until recently Donetsk airport was being guarded by the "Kirovohrad spetsnaz of the GRU [Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate]," and their actions were controlled by "representatives of the nationalist forces, which are present in practically every military unit today as an anti-retreat detachment: They encourage military units that essentially don’t want to fight."

"But someone has to fight his own people," the former Alfa guy said and at once reined himself in. "Although what does ‘own’ mean, for we are different peoples…[ellipsis as published]. Nevertheless – our ‘own.’ We traditionally regard ourselves as our own."

"There is one force – the nationalists," Khodakovskyy continued. "And there is another force – the mercenaries among the snipers and specialists who controlled the hardware that bombed us.

"It’s hard to assume that Ukrainian airmen could have carried out actions with a sufficiently high standard of flying. They aren’t necessarily American, but mercenaries! This is a special breed, and it doesn’t matter whether they are American or Russian: they are people who reject all moral norms and are prepared to kill anyone for money. Whether American or Russian, they are mercenaries just the same."

"That is, there are mercenaries here too, are there?" one of the journalists elaborated.

"Well, I’m speaking figuratively," Khodakovskyy shrugged his shoulders. "Whoever does it for money fulfills functions one way or another. These are people who are confined by no rules. There are conventions that imply certain rules – the attitude to the wounded, the attitude to the dead. To this day we have been unable to collect our dead from the airport, can you imagine? The weather is warm, and people are lying on the grass."

"Do you regret going to the airport?" someone asked the commander.

"Do you know whose expression this was – Mark Twain’s? It is better to regret what you did than what you didn’t do. We had no intention of killing anyone. We had an accord. As soon as we occupied the height and informed the military unit controlling the airport that we were there and had no intention of causing any harm, our task was to reduce their activeness.

"We understood the complex moral dilemma of military people who carry out an order and did not want to pressure them either psychologically or physically. But those accords were revoked by the side that employed aircraft."

For some reason Khodakovskyy suddenly reported that it was the "Kirovohrad GRU guys" who were defending Donetsk airport who had fired on activists on the Maydan in February.

"So that there would be a picture to encourage aggression," he believes.

"The military don’t want to serve," the commander asseverated. "They took the oath, and they’re people of principle, but in the normal sense. We didn’t shoot anyone on the Maydan, and we value human life. I told the commander of the Kirovohrad unit that we weren’t interested in shedding blood on their side and that we were solicitous about the lives of the regular soldiers who were obliged to oppose us."

One of the journalists asked Khodakovskyy why, in that case, representatives of the DPR had attacked an army subunit near Volnovakha. He said, without dissembling, that "there are internal difficulties": "This is no secret. Hard times bring not very good people to the surface. Criminally-minded people arm themselves and have their own take on the reason why they are taking up arms. Because of this we recently drove to the oblast administration building and resolved this task. We simply have different ideals."

"We have been labeled terrorists," Khodakovskyy justified himself. "But you can see us. Are we really terrorists?"

I looked around me. Dozens of people armed to the teeth were rehearsing movements with assault rifles. Someone was throwing knives wrapped in a St. George’s ribbon at the trees.

Maybe they are not terrorists, but they are full-blown militants.

At least until such time as one of them decides, for example, to take us hostage.

"Here we are fighting not for ourselves in fact, but for Russia," Khodakovskyy said. "The DPR…[ellipsis as published]. For me personally this is, in general, an incomprehensible formation, and I don’t especially obey it.

"But the most important thing is to fight the enemy. It doesn’t matter as part of what."

Along with his Ossetian comrades Mamay picturesquely lay down on the grass, tore off a tuft of grass, and stuck it in the barrel of his assault rifle. Photographers set about photographing all of this.

"Only don’t photograph me with a cigarette, because Mom thinks I don’t smoke!" one of the fighters said, smiling, and added, seriously: "This is no joke. It’s true, older people at home don’t approve."

The atmosphere in the camp is good-natured, as far as is possible under such conditions, and, in general, not strained. No one here is particularly concerned that Ukrainian fighter aircraft might fly to this base at any moment.

"Have you seen what sort of equipment we have? We will quickly settle them if something happens," one of the fighters commented. "We’re not concerned about our location, for this is a temporary camp. After we’ve been here a while we’ll move on to somewhere else."

The sun was gradually descending from its zenith. Our "press tour" to Vostok’s training camp was coming to an end.

Finally, one of the journalists asked Khodakovskyy: "Are you not stopped by the fact that the presidential election has been held and Ukraine now has a legitimate regime?"

"Well," the commander replied cheerfully, "I congratulate the legitimate regime, and I can wish Ukraine good luck. But we will be separate, if you please. Let them make this a quarantine zone, but we ourselves will handle it somehow."

Source: Ukrayinska Pravda website, Kiev, in Ukrainian 2 Jun 14

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