Invisible army: the story of a Russian soldier sent to fight in Ukraine
Moscow denies its soldiers are crossing the border but 20-year-old conscript Dorji Batomunkuev, who was seriously injured near Donetsk, tells a different story. He talks to Elena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta
Elena Kostyuchenko for Novaya Gazeta
Wednesday 25 March 2015 05.00 GMT
Dorji Batomunkuev, military unit number 46108, is 20 years old and part of the Russian fifth tank brigade from Ulan-Ude, a city near the Mongolian border. He is a conscript and was called up 18 months ago. When we meet at the Central Regional hospital in Donetsk, his face and hands are burnt and bandaged, and his ears are singed and shrivelled. Beneath the dressings, he’s still bleeding.
He says he was injured in the eastern Ukraine town of Lohvynove on 9 February, at the mouth of the Debaltseve pocket, while fighting alongside the separatist militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic against Ukrainian forces.
We all knew where we were going and what might happen
Russia has denied that its forces are fighting in Ukraine, although a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute contests this, suggesting that several units have crossed the border since the conflict began. At their peak in December 2014, they numbered some 10,000 troops, the report says.
Speaking from the hospital burns unit in Donetsk, Batomunkuev tells the story of some of these troops and their involvement in what has become the most serious conflict in the post-Soviet world since 1991.
How did you end up there?
“I was called up on 25 November 2013. As a conscript, I scored well in firing and fitness training. The following year, as autumn approached, they started to pull together contract soldiers from all the battalions in our sector to make up a separate tank battalion. We were all bundled together, got to know each other, lived together for four days and then set we off.
I was already prepared mentally and morally – we would have to go to Ukraine
“They told us that we were going to train but we knew where we were really going. I was already prepared mentally and morally – we would have to go to Ukraine.
“Back in Ulan-Ude, the numbers and emblems on some of the tanks were painted over, and our patches and chevrons were removed when we arrived at the firing range. We took it all off in order to disguise ourselves. Passports were left with the military units and military IDs were left at the firing range.
“Training lasted for three months, as planned. They then gave the signal and we moved out.
“As soon as we left the firing range, they said: ‘hand over everything: phone, documents’. From the Kuzminsky training ground we moved out towards the Russian border and stopped in a strip of woodland. Then the signal came through. No notice was read out to us, we were only told to start the march. Even so, without any words, we all understood.”
So no one, neither the political officers nor the commanders, said anything to you about Ukraine?
“No, because everyone already understood. There was no need for them to chew it over for us. No one shoved any patriotic crap down our throats either.”
When did you find out that you were on your way to Donetsk?
“When we read ‘Donetsk’ on signs, when we stopped in the city and saw the inscription ‘DNR’. Oh, we are in Ukraine! I poked my head out of the hatch to see the city. It is was beautiful city, I liked it. Everything beautiful.
“When we arrived, we went to a shelter and parked. We were taken to a campus for a hot meal and then put into rooms. One of our guys had a phone, and we found Radio Sputnik. There was a discussion being broadcast about whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine, and all the guests were like: ‘No, no, no’. We all listened, and said to each other, ‘yeah, right’.
“Who is prepared to talk openly? Our government understands that we have to help but if they send troops officially, that would annoy Europe, and Nato. Although, you understand, don’t you, that Nato is also involved of course, that it is supplying weapons to the Ukrainians?”
Did they explain to you how long you would be here for?
We understood that the whole war depended on us
“No. But we understood that the whole war depended on us. That’s why they’d beaten the training into us those previous three months. We were well prepared, both our snipers and other troops.”
“There were 31 tanks in the battalion. We went in companies, 10 tanks in each one. We were around 300 men, all from Ulan-Ude, mostly Buryats [the largest indigenous group in Siberia].”
From mid-January separatist forces were trying to recapture the city of Debaltseve which had fallen under Ukrainian control. Did they explain that this was part of your mission?
“No, they didn’t explain anything. But we understood: we don’t let anyone out. Whoever moves will be shot dead. Shoot to kill.
“We played carousel, a tactic of tank fire. Three or four tanks would go out to the edge [of the area] of open fire, shoot, and when they ran out of rounds three or four tanks would take their place while they reloaded. That’s how we rotated.
“But our battalion commander wasn’t in luck. A tank is a very capricious machine – you try to shoot but not a God damn thing comes out. The stupid things wouldn’t fire.
“The ‘ukropi’ [‘dill people’, a derogatory term for Ukrainians] pounded us. The battalion commander responded by jumping into his tank and was off, destroying first one tank, then another.”
How were you injured?
“There was a tank battle. The sound was deafening. I opened my eyes and there was fire, a blinding glare. I heard the sound of gunpowder exploding. I tried to open the hatch but it wouldn’t budge. The only thought that crossed my mind was ‘that’s it, I’m dead’. Then my defence mechanisms suddenly kicked in.
“I tried again to open the hatch. This time it worked. An infantry vehicle arrived and the driver jumped out: ‘Mate, mate, come here’. My whole face was burning, my tank helmet was burning. I saw he had a red fire extinguisher, so I ran towards him and he sprayed me. ‘Lie down, lie down’ he shouted, and doused me again. Early the next morning, I was taken to Donetsk, and I regained consciousness.”
Did some of the tank crew die?
“No. There was a guy whose foot was torn off though. It was severed with its boot still attached. Our battalion commander was burnt, as was the gun layer Chip, and Spartak... It’s all seared into my memory.”
Did you fight alongside pro-Russian militias?
Did you kill civilians?
“There was an occasion when a pick-up went by and they all said ‘Shoot, shoot’. ‘Wait a minute, wait’, I said. At the last moment, I looked out and saw a guy with a white bandage, a militiaman, one of ours. I thought, if I had blown him away I would have killed one of our guys.
“The [separatist] militiamen didn’t tell us what their movements were. I shouted to our guys ‘They’re ours!’ That was the first time I got scared that we’d end up killing our own.”
So you didn’t coordinate at all?
All the villages looked the same – devastation everywhere, everything bombed out
“No. The militia are strange types. They fire and fire and then stop and if they’re going off to work – there’s no organisation, no leaders, no battle command, it’s all disjointed.”
Which settlement was this in?
“I don’t know where we were. All the villages looked the same – devastation everywhere, everything bombed out.”
And how many villages did you pass through?
“Four maybe. There was one time when we recaptured some villages, and others we simply stopped off at… I am not proud of what I did, that I destroyed... killed people. But, on the other hand, I feel more at ease when I remember that it is all in the cause of peace, civilians… children, the elderly, old women, good guys.
“But I’m not proud of this, the fact that I fired and hit …”
“Subconsciously, you know you’re fighting the same sort of person as you, in the same sort of tank. Made of flesh and blood. But on the other hand, you understand that he is your enemy. The people I killed were far from innocent. They killed civilians and children. The scum sits there shaking all over, praying that he won’t be killed. He starts to ask forgiveness. God alone is your judge.
“We took a few Ukrainians prisoner. Everyone wants to live when you’ve got their back against the wall. But they are the same sort of people as you, they have mothers too.
“Each person has a destiny of his own, sometimes an unfortunate one. But nobody forced them to do this. With conscripts, it’s a different kettle of fish. Two- or three-thousand out of the 8,000 Ukrainians we were fighting were conscripted soldiers. I thought also about how I would have acted if it had been me in the place of those 18-year-old boys. I think I would have gone too. If you don’t kill, they say ‘we’ll kill you and your family’.
“But those mercenaries from Poland or Chechnya who are driven solely by ideas, who itch for war: it’s them we must wipe out.”
Did you see Polish mercenaries?
“No but we were told that they were there.”
Did you have contact with civilians?
“No. They came up to us many times but we tried hard not to talk to them. When we were in Makiivka [in the Donestsk Oblast province], they told us that 70% of the civilians there were supporting the ‘ukropi’. When we stopped in Makiivka, we hid in the town park, covered up our equipment and used camouflage, but literally within an hour mortars started raining down on us. I just climbed into the tank, I didn’t care. Mortars can’t damage a tank.”
You have to respect the people’s choice. If Donetsk wants independence, it must be given independence
And that didn’t make you tense, that 70% of locals in Makiivka were supporting Ukraine?
“Of course it made me tense! Mentally, you’re expecting everyone to trick you. They brought us things to eat and drink, tea or whatever. We took it but we didn’t drink it. It could have been poisoned. But as they say, ‘You can’t beat Russians, you can only bribe them’.”
But didn’t you have doubts? If it’s true that 70% were against you, then why did you go?
“I had doubts. But, for me, 70% of the population of one village doesn’t mean much. You have to respect the people’s choice. If Donetsk wants independence, it must be given independence. I talked to the nurses and doctors there. They said, ‘we want the sort of independence and government that you have, we want Putin’.”
Will there be any [injury] pay-outs to your family?
“I don’t know about that. In Russia, it’s like this – when it comes to money, you can never be sure. On 27 November last year my time as a conscript expired, so I might be made out to look like someone who went on my own to Ukraine. So, I’m a little concerned.”
Do you have regrets?
“It is pointless to have regrets. I don’t bear any grievances because I know that I fought for a good cause. I went with a feeling not of duty, but of justice. I saw how they kill people. They do whatever the hell they like. When we were travelling in the tanks, the ‘ukropi’ would sometimes intercept our radios. I distinctly remember a man’s voice saying: ‘Listen carefully, you Moscow, Petersburg, Rostov degenerates. We are going to kill all of you. First we will kill you, then we’ll kill your wives and kids, we will even get at your parents. We’ll stop at nothing’.”
How do you plan to live from now on?
“I’ve had my fill of war. I served, fought for the DNR. It’s time to live the life of a civilian, to study and work. My body will recover, it will fight back.
“The only thing I still want to visit before I return home to Ulan-Ude is Sensation, a dance event which takes place each year in St Petersburg. The dress code is that everyone wears white. The best DJs come. My sister went…”
Do you have any questions to ask of Putin?
We’re on the rise again, we are being treated with contempt again but we haven’t disintegrated yet
“I don’t have anything against him. He’s a very interesting person, of course, and crafty: he’s sending troops, but not sending them. ‘There are no troops there’, he tells the world. But then he says to us ‘Jump to it!’
“But if Ukraine enters the European Union and the United Nations, the UN in principle can deploy its rockets and weaponry there [Ukraine was one of the founding member nations of the UN]. Then we’ll be in their crosshairs. They would be closer to us, no longer separated by oceans but by land. That would suck, you know? We have to defend our position so that we are not affected. Like in the cold war, if you remember.
“Today, Russia is concerned. From what I’ve read and the history I’ve studied, Russia’s opinions have started to be reckoned with in recent years. Nowadays, we’re on the rise again, we are being treated with contempt again but we haven’t disintegrated yet.”
Batomunkuev and two other injured soldiers were transferred a couple of days later to the regional military hospital in Rostov-on-Don, where they were treated without being registered on any admissions list. Neither Batomunkuev nor his family were contacted by anyone from his military unity or the Ministry of Defence.
After much persistence his mother got in touch with her son’s military unit where she was told that he was registered on the list of soldiers sent to Ukraine, so the Ministry would fulfil its obligations and pay for his treatment.
“They said that they wouldn’t turn their back on him,” his mother said. For now, Batomunkuev keeps in touch with his family thanks to his neighbours on the ward, who lend him their mobile phones.
A longer version of this interview first appeared in Russian on Novaya Gazeta. Translation by Cameron Johnston