By Jane Letova
I.B. Khlebnikova Worker University
Aug. 27: News of the Armed Forces of Ukraine shelling the villages along the front line of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics disappeared from Russian state TV channels long ago. Almost nobody believes in a resolution of the military conflict in the Donbass region. But there are people who keep doing their job, without illusions. Our conversation with Alexey Markov, the commander of the “Ghost” battalion (military codename Dobriy) — about military and civil life, about uncertainty, luck, and hope for a better future.
What is the current state of affairs in the republics? What changes have you seen over the past few years?
The war has been virtually unchanged since Debaltsevo. In principle, Debaltsevo was the last major military operation; since then the situation can be described as a sluggish military conflict. There are losses, there is shelling, there are casualties among the civilian population, but there are no movements of the front line or major offensive-defensive operations.
As far as I know, the Alchevsk Iron and Steel Works was partially launched, and a plant was launched in Stakhanov. In Kirovsk, “CentroKuz” started working. People live – it’s hard, but they live. Unfortunately, we get used to everything, including what we shouldn’t get used to.
Of course, it is very frustrating that the formation of statehood in the republic is very slow, and, in my opinion, is mostly spontaneous and unplanned. But I suspect this is due to the fact that there is an understandable uncertainty about our future. That is, it is obvious to everyone that the future of Donbass will not be decided in Lugansk, not in Donetsk, and not even in Kiev, but most likely in Moscow or, perhaps, even in other capitals. Therefore, we can make some plans of our own, but unfortunately, no one knows how it will be in reality.
The fact that Russian passports began to be issued encouraged people a little. On the other hand, fears immediately began: now they will give us Russian passports, and then Ukraine will say — go to your Russia. If it were clearly stated — what are we striving for, what are we fighting for, what we should expect in the future — I think it would be easier for many people. For now, a large amount of uncertainty remains.
What is your forecast about the issuing of passports? Is there a chance that people will leave in large numbers?
I think that by the end of the year everyone who has this opportunity will receive their passports. Moreover, now in many big cities there are a large number of people from the “other side” who come to get an LPR passport first, and then get a Russian passport based on it. Passport desks are clogged, queues are long, for two weeks people are waiting in this queue to get to the passport desk. The same goes for the State Bank: to pay the fee for obtaining a passport, eighty, ninety people wait in line – spilling out on the street. That is, the hype is quite high. But I think that over time all this will subside a little: the first wave will subside, the procedure for issuing passports and obtaining documents will be worked out, and it will become a little more routine. Now there is a lot of excitement.
And how long is it from filing documents to obtaining a passport?
Three months. Within three months, they review the documents and either give a refusal or issue passports. The first soldiers in the corps have already received passports, they have handed over about two and a half thousand.
We have a different problem: the whole battalion is on the front line, and in order to issue the correct documents, you need to remove a person, send him to collect a birth certificate, copies of all documents, a photograph; you need to go to a neighboring city for two or three days where the correct passport photo can be taken. It’s all very long and slow. Nevertheless, work is underway, and what has been talked about for so long — the need to obtain Russian citizenship — has finally begun to be realized. This, in my opinion, is a positive sign.
Moreover, the population here is absolutely Russian. There are ethnic Ukrainians for whom the Ukrainian language is native, yes, but they feel completely tranquil here. Many of them serve in my battalion. This is not about some kind of inter-ethnic conflict, it is a purely ideological difference.
Many people had some hopes in connection with the elections in Ukraine. Has the situation here at the front changed in this connection?
I said before the elections that no matter who wins, there will be absolutely no difference for us. Moreover, it would be more beneficial for us if Poroshenko remained the president. Because that one would have been guaranteed to turn Ukraine into a prison regime, and then, perhaps, there would be a chance to really solve something, to agree on something. The credit of trust that Ukrainians have now issued Zelensky is very similar to believing in a good king who will come and fix everything. The phenomenal result that Zelensky received, on the one hand, shows general fatigue with professional talkers — politicians who solve only their own problems — and on the other, the hope that fresh people will come from outside who are not burdened with corruption and they’ll do better. The trouble is that every time people hope that someone will come and do well for them, usually someone comes and does well only for himself.
In military and political terms, there will be absolutely no difference for us. It’s enough to look at Zelensky’s first steps: there was a joint speech with the Nazis of “Azov,” statements that Crimea and Donbass are part of Ukraine, pursuing a policy of “one language for one country,” widespread degradation of the Russian language, imposing fines for its use.
Zelensky is not a fool either. Although he does not have political experience, he understands that it is enough for him to oppose the ultra-right nationalist agenda, and they will simply trample him. All the dogs would immediately be brought down on him, and not only by the nationalists themselves, but by Poroshenko, Yulia [Tymoshenko], all the politicians of the “old school,” as they say. It would be an excuse to say: “Yeah, look, Zelensky betrayed Ukraine, he just became the president and immediately began to sell us out for the sake of Russia, let’s trample him.” Everyone will attack him, regardless of what he really wants. And an attempt to negotiate with Russia, an attempt to negotiate with Donbass — this would be exactly the excuse to give the go-ahead to everyone who wants to trample on him.
He is not a fool, he understands that. Therefore, there will be no attempt to agree on peace. We are ready for it, we didn’t expect anything else.
They laugh at it here. Donbass made its choice long ago in the referendum. Everyone! And there’s no need to ask anyone else. Every time another civilian dies, when another house is destroyed – well, how can you explain it to a person? He lives here, he was born here, he grew up here, his parents were born and raised here, his grandfather and grandmother too … A shell flies into his house, kills his wife, rips his child … A shell fired by the Ukrainian authorities. And they say to him: “You must somehow negotiate with the Ukrainian junta.” No, he does not want to negotiate anything! The minimum program is: forget about Ukraine and never think about it again.
There are those who are absolutely determined to reach Kiev, to sweep the Nazis out of power, that is, they are quite determined. But for most ordinary people, as elsewhere — here the Donbass is no different from the Kuzbass or from the Yaroslavl region. Eighty percent of the population wants to be left alone and allowed to live a normal, quiet life. That’s it. Who will rule in Kiev, who will sit in the Rada, or in Lugansk, or somewhere else — by and large they don’t care. But as a rule, political change is made by the ten to fifteen percent of the most politically active people. It was the same with us in the Civil War, it was the same during Perestroika, and so on.
Why did this initiative appear right now?
I don’t know. Frankly, to think about what goes in the heads of our politicians is a thankless task. Someone said something to someone — here, let’s show that there is such an initiative. Maybe it’s just an imitation of activity, maybe an attempt to cast a fishing rod toward the other side and see how they react. In my opinion, the attempt is completely meaningless. I say again: the conflict in the Donbass will not be solved in Donetsk, not in Lugansk, and most likely not even in Kiev.
What are the challenges now facing the “Ghosts”?
The same as in 2014. Do not allow the enemy to advance, hold our positions, inflict maximum losses. We’re a military unit. Since the summer of 2015 we have been engaged only in war, we are doing well. At the end of last year, the battalion was recognized as the best territorial defense battalion of the Republic. Now we have first place in combat training. Militarily, we are at one of the highest levels in the LPR. And the task, as in any military unit, is to correctly and without losses follow the orders of the higher command.
But there is still a nuance: our unit has always been distinguished by a very large number of ideological fighters. The people who came here did so not only to serve, or to earn money, or from general despair, but for a definite purpose, like all of us who came here in 2014. That is, not just to spend five years of your life. I want to make sure that power changes in Ukraine — from ultranationalist, Nazi, to more or less sane. It’s clear that under the oligarchy there will be no normal regime. There are open cannibals, and there are cannibals who buy a man already packaged in the supermarket. It’s not that some fundamentally differ from others. But if here, at least, they stop killing civilians and stop destroying houses, I can say that my task here has been fulfilled ….
And for many fighters in the Ghost the task is not just serving, but changing the world for the better, let’s say. If Ukraine succeeds in cleansing itself of the brown plague that has invaded it for the last five years, this is a task for which it is worth risking your life, your health, and spending years of your life. Maybe, due to the fact that a large part of the fighters are ideological, we have a good professional level and training of these fighters. They know why they came here, why they are fighting, what it takes. Honestly — I’m proud of my fighters.
How has the composition of the battalion changed in recent years?
First, of course, there are fewer Russian volunteers, although we have enough of them now. We have the largest number of Russian volunteers in general, probably in the LPR. But if earlier they totaled up to half of the personnel, now it’s less. Now, of course, there are more and more local residents. There are fewer people looking for an interesting, fun war. There are people who are able in difficult conditions, month after month, year after year, to burrow into the ground, hold their ground under fire, not snap, not let the enemy in, to constantly be under stress, at the distance of a thrown grenade. Our trenches are so close that you can throw it there.
And I’m more confident in these people. Because it is one thing to come for adrenaline, knowing that you are there for a month, two, three, then you will return to your normal life. It’s completely different — three annual contracts, to serve on the front line without rotation, without change, under constant fire, under constant threat to life. This is much harder, much harder … And the people who are now in the Ghost are stronger. They survived, persevered, and I am sure of them.
Who is helping you now and what kind of help is most needed?
I’d say not a lot of people. If in 2014, 2015, the topic of assistance to the Donbass was popular, and almost everyone was engaged in it, now only a small number of people are engaged in providing real help to the Donbass units. But they don’t do it for PR, for popularity, but because they are passionate about it.
The Union of Donbass Volunteers assists us. It helps a lot, especially in terms of treating the wounded, and producing some very necessary and valuable parts for us. The Union of Soviet Officers helps. A lot of work is being done by the Coordination Center for Assistance of Novorossiya, but this is their only job. Plus, there are a number of, let’s say, individuals who do not want to advertise their participation for various reasons: many have businesses, many have some kind of connection. But their help is truly invaluable, because war is a very expensive undertaking, very expensive.
When we start to knock down the monthly estimate, how much does it take, then 70-80 thousand is worth only one spare part in order to keep our vehicles running. Armored vehicles require completely separate funds, plus repair of weapons, purchase of medicines, treatment of the wounded — the sums are large. I don’t have big chunks of money to introduce secure digital radio communications, buy optics, night sights, thermal imaging sights. It’s only thanks to the help of these people that we now have the opportunity to hold our position and at be at least partially equal in technical terms with our opponents. Because it’s useless to compare the 2019 model of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the AFU of 2014. Now they have grown technically very much, thanks, of course, to the help of their Western friends. They are saturated with UAVs, including those with night channels, they have a fairly good counter-battery firing station, they have quite a lot of night sights, and the training itself has grown quite a lot. Therefore, without the help of our friends, it would be incredibly difficult for us.
In your opinion, what is needed to achieve peace in the republics, for a peaceful life, in the short term?
I wouldn’t expect it in the near future. In fact, there is only one condition – that the regime in Kiev should change radically. And if this does not happen, under no other conditions will there be peace here.
The modern Ukrainian government is not so much a subject of politics as an object of politics. The future of the republics is largely determined by the desire of the authorities in Washington, in London, to which any strengthening of Russia, or expansion of the Russian world, is extremely unprofitable. I suspect that in the next few years there will be no resolution to the conflict in the Donbass. It will be a frozen conflict such as it was in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which will last for years: Ukraine will not be able to achieve victory here by military means, but at the same time, no one will give the republics the opportunity to legitimize our sovereignty.
One must understand that international politics is based on hypocrisy and cannibalism, at least if we mean the West generally. The same bandits in Kosovo who massacred the Serbian population immediately gained their statehood contrary to all laws, because it was profitable. And Abkhazia and Ossetia will not be recognized by the West, again for one simple reason: it is not profitable. The same goes for the republics of the LPR and the DPR. So, don’t look back at those who are far away. Our task is to establish life here and now.
To live here, we, in principle, can do without Ukraine if conditions are normalized. Already, nothing connects the republics with Ukraine. I’ve told a joke more than once that Poroshenko did not work for a military award, but he earned his medal or certificate. That is, the man purposefully did everything possible and impossible to completely cut off the Donbass from Ukraine. Each step of the economic blockade of the republics led to only one thing — every time a thread broke with Ukraine, the same thread appeared connected with Russia. They banned mobile communications here — other mobile operators appeared. Disconnected from a single registry of notaries — a local notary appeared. The hryvnia was banned — everyone switched to rubles. They imposed an economic blockade and banned the import of products here, hoping that we would starve to death — they simply started to transport products from Russia. The same thing with gas, water, electricity — everything now comes from Russia. And practically nothing connects the republics with Ukraine at the moment, except for partial payment of pensions and some documents. But after most residents get Russian citizenship, we can say that this chunk is completely cut off.
Therefore, we must prepare for the fact that we will live in this status for at least a few more years, until some radical changes take place either in Ukraine itself or in the world. A period of large disturbances is a chance for small but well-organized groups. I hope we take this chance.
We live in perfect harmony with the civilian authorities in Kirovsk. The difference between the front-line cities and the cities that are more in the rear is very noticeable. People who hear the cannons firing every day treat the military very well. And we have complete understanding with the city administration. We constantly help each other. They need to allocate some equipment, or take out the garbage or bring water to those villages where there is no water supply, and we, as the military, always help.
Accordingly, on their part there is help in organizing various celebrations. Concerts are constantly arranged for us. The children of military personnel go to rest on holiday trips. This is the nuance of the front-line city when every day they hear what can happen to them tomorrow if we suddenly do not hold onto our piece of the front. I can’t speak of the cities more in the rear simply because I rarely go there. I’m not going to get away from the front. In Alchevsk, in Lugansk, many have already forgotten that the war is going on. They can’t hear it, don’t see it, it practically does not concern them. And there is a little bit of a different relationship.
At the very least, we have no problems with the civilian authorities – there’s complete mutual understanding. Plus, more than half of my troops are residents of Kirovsk and the surrounding villages. For them, this is their hometown, their own native land.
Do you have any interaction with communist organizations in the LPR?
In the LPR, not really. Earlier, we spoke often with the Communists in Lugansk, they came to us quite often, I went to visit them. But now the specifics are this: I can hardly get away from our positions, from Kirovsk. I visit Alchevsk very rarely, and Lugansk only when I’m summoned by the command. And I don’t have the opportunity to just go to Lugansk physically. It’s an hour-and-a-half to two hours one way, the same amount back. Even if you spent an hour in Lugansk – the day is gone. And here literally every hour counts.
There is another caveat: as far as I remember, the Lugansk Communists have not been able to officially register their party and their organization, so they act on a voluntary basis more. We have very good, close relations with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Personally, Gennady Andreyevich [Zyuganov] helped us repeatedly and very significantly, Kazbek Taysayev helps us, Rodin helps us. In this regard, we have developed good, normal relations.
The political field in the republics is quite badly trampled. There is no political life as such here. There are public organizations that exist somehow on their own, but it is clear that no one will let them go near the real levers of power. The republics largely live on manual control. You can play politics here, but no one will engage in it. Even so, we have always had good relations with the Communists, given that most of the command staff in the battle are Communists themselves, including me.
Is there a class struggle in the LPR now, has something happened to people’s class consciousness? Or is it just not up to it right now?
Yes, I’m afraid that … How to say it frankly? By and large, the oligarchs in Ukraine, in Russia, and in the republics are the same. And it is always much easier for oligarchs to agree among themselves than to make some concessions to the workers, the laboring population. A large number of big industrial enterprises either stopped or were destroyed during the war. People mostly survive through pensions, some through small-scale trade, others travel to Russia to earn money. There is no powerful labor movement and, unfortunately, there is no force that could organize this movement, lead it, set any goals and tasks and achieve them. Here people just survive, and in such a situation, as a rule, there is no time to talk about a bright future. When you live in a dark present, your task is to live until tomorrow, to feed something to your children. They are no longer up to the organization of rallies or strikes. I am afraid that until the situation settles down here, there will be no possibility to create a powerful labor movement.
Again, it’s enough to look at Russia — it seems that there is no war, it seems that we are living better, but there are no fighting trade unions that could organize truly all-Russian actions. I know there were some general strikes at the VAZ, at the Ford factories, but these were local actions. A general all-Russian movement still does not exist. Moreover, there is a constant squabble between the communist parties that are more faithful to the classic principles. Plus, of course, 1917 forever imprinted their worst nightmare in the subconscious of all parasites. We have already shown once that a state can exist without professional corrupt politicians, without oligarchs, without capitalists — and this state can achieve global accomplishments. It’s clear that no one will just give us a second chance. We have shown a “bad” example to the whole world. But this is a separate topic of conversation, and it concerns not only the republics, but rather, what is happening now all over the world.
The revenge of capitalism in the 1990s, of course, hit everyone hard, but there’s one thing: history never ends. And the people — you might say, non-humans — who jumped for joy when the Soviet Union fell apart, who said, now everything will be only our way — they rejoiced very, very prematurely. Capitalism cannot live without a crisis: previously, it always pushed its crises to the periphery, to third countries, dumped surplus money there, took cheap labor from there, but in the end the Earth turned out to be too small a planet. Now that capitalism has become globalized, when there is no longer any fundamental difference for a multinational company where it has an office — in Malaysia or in Washington – it’s getting harder and harder to dump problems on third countries. Sooner or later, capitalism will begin to eat itself. It’s inevitable.
And I would very much like to have some kind of organized force by then, with its own plan for building the future, with people who can follow this plan, and ideas that millions can pick up. One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks had all this. It was incredibly lucky that at that moment in London, and in Paris, and in Washington there was a huge fatigue after the First World War, and they were not up to the suppression of the revolution. In this regard, we were more fortunate than the Paris Commune, which was trampled by joint efforts. They failed to trample us.
Whether we are as lucky next time — who knows … In any case, if you do nothing, then nothing will work. Let’s hope for the best and do our best to prepare.
Nowhere. Honestly, I want to sleep incredibly. When the war is over, I’ll probably just sleep for a few weeks. There is practically no strength left, just some kind of ferocity, stubbornness and anger that if I lay my arms down now, you know, I wasted five years of my life without achieving anything. I can’t afford to let all those guys who are now in our memorial cemetery give their lives for nothing. At least for their sake, I must win this war. Not because I want to, not because I like it. I hate war; I am a pacifist and humanist. War for me is savagery. But the alternative to this war is even worse. Therefore, as a true humanist, I believe that it is better to kill ten people who would not allow ten thousand to live. So, I must see this war through to its logical end. I’ll walk through Kiev, look at Khreshchatyk, admire the beauties of the city — and go home to Moscow.
Translated by Greg Butterfield