Donbas battalion commander: “Our format is a compromise between state agencies and the voluntary movement. We want to change our country”

Semen Semenchenko talks about voluntary special forces, the Chechen trail in Eastern Ukraine and inevitable terror
Bohdan Butkevych
The Ukrainian Week | June 11, 2014

Some call them heroes, others accuse them of anarchism. In more than a month of armed action, they have had victories, and a terrible uneven battle near Karlivka against the separatist battalion Vostok when more than six Donbas members were killed. Many military experts already compare the current situation in Eastern Ukraine with Croatia during the Balkan War, where such volunteers took the main burden of the most difficult initial phase of the war against the Serbs. These detachments are made up of people, who only yesterday lived a regular life, but who can no longer simply watch as bandits and terrorists tear their land apart. The Ukrainian Week speaks with Semen Semenchenko, the leader and organiser of the Donbas battalion and a native Russian, about the future of his military unit, the war and the entire Donbas. Semenchenko’s prognoses are quite bleak: he, as did Churchill in his time, expects nothing but blood, sweat and tears.

U.W: What are the short-term plans for your battalion? You previously said that Ukrainian police and military are very weak, which is why the entire burden of the war is often placed on the shoulders of voluntary units such as yours…

– Literally two days ago, we agreed with the Minister of Internal Affairs (Arsen Avakov – Ed.) to create a special force unit, made up of the battalion’s fighters. After all, we have our own state. If we are dissatisfied with the way it is fulfilling its functions, we have to become part of it and correct the situation from within. Moreover, we no longer want to resist Chechen hordes and all other terrorists with only rocks, clubs and small and light arms. So a decision has been approved to supply us with heavy weapons, provide three weeks of training and new tactics – then, off we go. We have a very simple purpose: to do everything possible to throw this separatist riffraff out of Ukraine. I think that our partners in the authorities have finally understood: we are volunteers and must kill our enemies. We do not have to be tortured with bureaucratic procedures, we are not interested in money, we are not mercenaries. And we want to fight for our country. If we are not given this opportunity – we’ll just turn around and do it ourselves.

U.W: How will you create your special forces and will you get heavy weapons? Will you become subject to the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Ministry of Defence?

– I don’t think so. We shall continue to exist as a voluntary unit and we shall be used wherever it is convenient and effective: in other words, our functions will include policing, maintaining civil order, as well as sentry duty at checkpoints. But our special forces, which we are in the process of establishing, will be used in places where it is necessary to break up enemies with force and work against saboteurs. This format is a compromise between state agencies and the voluntary movement. We want to change our country ourselves.

U.W: You said that the commanders of the Anti-Terrorist Organisation did not help the battalion when it found itself in an ambush in Karlivka. Was your operation approved with the military in advance, or was this an independent action? How would you estimate the combat capacity of the Ukrainian Regular Army, particularly taking into account the latest effective operations against terrorists at Donetsk Airport?

– We passed several of our checkpoints along the road to Karlivka.  So, the military clearly knew about our plan. And anyway, you have to understand that this failure to help us is not the only one.  There was a very similar situation several nights ago at the frontier post in Luhansk, where militants were trying to break through the border. In my view, the problem is in the structure of the military, which is archaic and clumsy, and in the absence of normal communication and coordination between different units. All of this must be immediately changed and cooperation between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the military must be organised. This is better than to cry “no one helped us”. Okay, so we didn’t get any help, what now, do we shoot ourselves? Let’s be honest. If a person is flat on his back, the fact that he made a couple of effective moves does not mean that he can win a lengthy and systematic war. Thank goodness that there are commanders that are conducting effective operations. But I would like to reiterate this: in order to win and discourage the enemy from further intrusions, Ukraine needs a complete reboot of its entire security structure.

U.W: How do you see the current developments in the Donbas? Is it a civil war, a war against Russia or a rebellion of the local elites? Have there been any changes in the last two-three weeks and is Rinat Akhmetov, who is often accused of organising the riots, controlling the situation?

– Yes, there have been changes. Unfortunately, the developments in the region remind me of a nuclear chain reaction. Initially, everything was done with the efforts of Russian special forces: they prepared everything for the bonfire, then lit it. But now, the reaction is going under its own steam – the local leaders of cities, home guards and gangs have felt empowered, they believed in their political future and are acting completely independently of their former patrons in the Party of Regions and even Russia. Also, Moscow, which sees the weakness of the Ukrainian state structure, continues to actively help the terrorists with arms and people, generally under placating statements that they are playing absolutely no part in the conflict. All of this is leading to a serious war, and it is necessary to prepare for the fact that the level of brutality during such war will escalate, because it is now clear that it will be conducted with terror. Neither Akhmetov, nor Yefremov (Oleksandr Yefremov, the Party of Regions’ MP and arguably the most influential figure in Luhansk Oblast – Ed.) will now be able to cope with the situation, which they themselves created. The terrorists include people who are better prepared and equipped than Rinat Akhmetov’s structures. Anyway, he himself is not doing anything in the oblast to stabilise the situation, neither is Taruta (Serhiy Taruta, an oligarch recently appointed Governor of Donetsk Oblast – Ed.), who recently, all of a sudden, expressed the desire to help us. He promised to help the families of the fighters who died near Karlivka and to provide the latest arms, but so far, these are merely words. And the main thing is that the opposite side now has the motivation emerged to fight for ideals, not money. I personally stand for knightly rules of war, similar to those at the start of World War I, when mass butchery had not yet begun between enemies in the trenches. But when Bezler (Igor Bezler, aka Bes, the leader of the Donbas separatist militants – Ed.) himself called me and promised to hang me in the square, it was unrealistic to even dream about noble confrontation. It is the other side that has increased the level of brutality; they are the ones counting on terror and intimidation. Very soon, we will simply be forced to respond in kind. This is why I repeat: first we will have a long and very bloody war, followed by many years of an Ulster-like scenario.

U.W: One of the most unpleasant aspects of this conflict was the huge number of traitors among local security forces, who, in the view of many people, do not even deserve the right to be taken prisoner. Do you agree with such a view?

– Let’s look at what our enemies are doing. The servicemen taken prisoner by them are released without arms and in civilian clothes. Officers, Security Service employees are exchanged like military prisoners of war. But volunteers, in other words, the soldiers of the National Guard and our battalion, are immediately killed and their bodies are returned to their families, literally in pieces. So you can deduce what we’ll do with collaborators and traitors that fall into our hands.

U.W: A noticeable force among the terrorists, are people from the Caucasus. How centralised is the process of casting them into the territory of Ukraine? What do you think about Russia’s role in this conflict?

– These are volunteers who are hired using Yanukovych’s money. But I’m concerned that when they start dying in large numbers, which is already happening (from the point of view of the Chechen clan system and the responsibility of family members for one another), in time, even official Chechen structures could be brought in, in the name of revenge. I absolutely don’t understand why the heck Chechens are getting involved in the conflict. After all, Ukrainians helped them in the war against the Russian Federation. I simply cannot fathom when we became enemies. I am not an enemy of Russia, because I myself am an ethnic Russian. I constantly wonder how quickly and deeply the abyss opened, from which such terrible manlike monsters have emerged. They have no nationality. I think that Putin, together with Yanukovych, have committed the most terrible of sins: they have sowed the seeds of hatred between countries.

U.W: How do you see your own future? Will you go to police, government or politics?

– Most of all, I want to rear my children. But I am currently receiving numerous threats against my family. For this reason, I first have to destroy the people that have blood, medieval brutality, dead bodies, terror and the like, on their hands. Once this task has been fulfilled, I shall make a decision as to my plans. But for the time being, my task is to lead my unit.

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