SouthFront is planning to translate a series of interviews with various commanders and liders involved in the events of 2014-2015 in eastern Ukraine.
This spring, in connection with past and approaching anniversaries of the Russian Spring events and the Liberation War of the Russian People in Donbas, there are many memories in the form of interviews and various memoirs, someone remembers, someone highlights their role, and who performs the order… I myself decided not to think twice, but to ask Igor Strelkov, the first Minister of Defence of the Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR; DNR – acronym from Russian] and the founder of the NAF (Novorussiyan Armed Forces), to answer a number of questions, who kindly agreed to answer them. In terms of volume, it was obviously not for the blog, so I divided it into two parts: Sloviansk and Donetsk. Essentially, this is the interview:
1. Igor Ivanovich, the very first question is of course the beginning of the events in Donetsk, what did you expect? Was there hope for a Crimean script? You are now accused of provocation, work at the Security Service of the Ukraine, panicking and other nonsense, and it is with this message that the critics come to the fact that there was no hope and the Russian authorities did not plan anything, but still, were there any real grounds to believe?
Naturally, I had reason to count on the “Crimean scenario” for Donbas and even more so for the creation of Novorossiya. The probability of direct support from the Russian Federation at that time was very high. Let me remind you that a large military group of the Russian Armed Forces was concentrated on the borders of the Ukraine at that time, and there was plenty of evidence that the military was already putting the logo of the “PF”, the “Peacekeeping Forces”, on the military equipment. It was all public knowledge, but I had classified information. At the moment, I believe that it is still a state secret. So I can’t share it, and I can’t (if I can) do it anytime soon. In any case, I was sure that the main task was to ensure the holding of the referendum, and after it, the Russian Federation would somehow provide direct and effective support to the people’s voice. The Kremlin’s “back pedalling” began approximately on April 26 (I remind you that we went to Sloviansk on April 12, that is, two weeks after the start of the armed conflict). As far as I know, a meeting of the Russian Security Council was held in these days, at which a decision was taken to postpone the deployment of Russian troops to the Ukraine. And already on May 7, after “Prosecutor” Bulkhalter’s visit, Moscow completely annulled the plans to overthrow the junta in Kiev. I understood this after the phone call from S.V. Aksenov from Crimea in those days (May 7, 9th, I precisely do not remember), when he directly offered me to return urgently to Crimea, “where all will be well for me”. To my question, “where do hundreds of militia go”, he did not answer reasonably, with that my communication with him was interrupted until autumn. Naturally, I didn’t even think about leaving people who believed in me or telling anyone about such a proposal (it could have undermined the morale of the newly formed militia, which was on an unprecedented rise). From then on, I “carried within me” the understanding that we, the Russian insurgents of Donbas and volunteers, were cynically betrayed. But there was hope that if we could hold on long enough, the situation would change and the support from the Russian Federation would still be provided. It happened later, but it wasn’t days or weeks, but three and a half months. And all this time I had to “carry a heavy stone on my soul”, after all, almost until mid-August hopes for help were scanty and unreliable, and the burden of responsibility for thousands of fighters and protection of the densely populated region could not be taken off my hands. By the end of my stay in Donbas, I was gravelly tired, first of all morally. This explains some of my mistakes in the last period of command. Thus, I was accused of cowardice and panic in vain, I was not burdened by fear for my life, but by an awareness of the enormous responsibility and understanding that I could not die banally, the defence would just fall apart (especially at the last stage of the defence of Sloviansk and until the end of July, when hopes for help from Moscow began to grow gradually). And, as critical as I was of my own “military leadership talents”, I still think I made much more right and timely decisions at all stages than I made mistakes.
2. It is fashionable to say in the near-official circles of the DNR that from the very first day you criticised the Donetsk people and declared their unwillingness to stand up and defend their homeland, all of which is far from the truth, but how did the population of Sloviansk meet you? Were there many people willing to join the ranks?
At different moments of the militia development, the situation with local volunteers developed differently. At the outset, we were acutely short of even the simplest small arms and ammunition. And that is why, for example, in Sloviansk, until the very end, there were no people in the units who were not ready to perform tasks “in any place and at any time”, but who were ready to serve near their homes. They were brought together and attached to law enforcement and upholding the commandant’s duty, but there was nothing to arm them, so until the very end they carried out their voluntary service with hunting rifles, etc, with “improvised means”. At one point, there were many more such people than those who decided to join the militia “on general grounds”. It was to them that I addressed my appeals in the first place. Naturally, if we had any opportunity to dress people and provide them with a minimum wage, there would be many more volunteers. But we did not have that. Many were stopped by our relative lack of organisation; there was a catastrophic lack of junior commanders and even more, of middle-level commanders… There was an acute shortage of transport. Everything was acutely lacking, people saw it and many people were naturally concerned about their future and the future of their families. As we can see now, these fears were not groundless at all… Unfortunately…
I could not wait for the Donetsk people to “mature” and “swing” on their own in order to join the militia for the direct purpose of fighting (and the war was unfolding rapidly, especially after the Kremlin’s recognition of Poroshenko’s legitimacy, from that moment on, the Ukrainian Armed Forces began to carry out his orders and attack us more and more actively.) It was necessary to get as many people as possible ready to fight as possible. Therefore, I was not shy of expressing myself and do not doubt the correctness of my actions until now.
As for the support of the population, we had it all the time. Up until the very last moment. People fed us free of charge and voluntarily, helping us with what they could. They themselves identified the Right Sector saboteurs and detained them. Even when serious shelling began, the overwhelming majority of the population still supported us, considered us and called us defenders. It was precisely the general support that helped maintain the militia’s high morale, if it hadn’t been for it, I would not have been able to maintain order and discipline in the very raw guerrilla formations.
3. How long could Sloviansk have lasted without breaking the blockade from the outside? Was there hope of waiting for the personnel on leave? Have you been informed of any further plans?
I can’t tell for sure. Everything depended on how intensely the enemy would be ready to attack us in the city. But I can say for sure, we would have been driven into the city quickly, because we had almost no ammunition for heavy weapons (not to mention the fact that the weapons were very few compared to the enemy’s). We had one and a half stowed ammunition (about 40 shells) for two working tanks and a little more than fifty mines for nine mortars. There were 40 shells for two serviceable Nonas. There were virtually no shots fired by TOWs, and the ones that did were unreliable (they worked “every second day”). The same problem was with the RPG shots and disposable grenade launchers.
There were almost no anti-tank mines and no anti-personnel mines at all. The enemy had more than 40 guns and even more mortars, no less than a hundred tanks, BMPs and BMDs, not counting the APCs, and other light armoured vehicles (together with the Kramatorsk garrison, we had two tanks, five BMPs and two trophy BMDs). Heavy enemy artillery shot the city and our positions from a distance completely out of reach of our weapons. Perhaps, the enemy would not have stormed the city at all until mid-July, gradually squeezing the ring and shooting the city with impunity. At the time of the release, the enemy was actively fortifying along the perimeter, laying mines and wire fences. I think we could have “waited out” even the fall of Donetsk without the slightest sense of purpose (I think it would have almost certainly fallen by mid-July). In any case, even if we assume that the “on leave personnel” would have come in with such a development of the situation at the same time, until mid-August we would not have lasted in Sloviansk. We had enough ammunition for small arms only for a couple of weeks at most (that is without an assault, otherwise for 3-4 days at most).
No one informed me of any plans.
4. Did the garrison commanders of other cities obey you? Did you, as Minister of Defence of the Republic, coordinate your actions?
You have to understand that “minister of defence” was a formal title. There was neither a minister nor even a joint staff through which I could lead troops outside Sloviansk. I couldn’t establish such a headquarters from the few officers available and I couldn’t do it with almost no closed communication. And I doubt anyone else could. In fact, before I left Sloviansk, I was able to manage only those garrisons that were directly formed “from Sloviansk” and locked into my supply line. That is: Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Semenovka, Nikolaevka (before the “Owl” and “Miner” betrayal), Drushkova, Konstantinovka and Seversk (before the defeat near Yampol). Also, Mozgovoi voluntarily coordinated with me his actions, later, during the Donetsk period, for some time transferring under my direct command (until the moment when with the fall of Debaltsevo we were cut off from each other). The small garrison was in Popasna, a small detachment obeyed me in Dokychaevsk (formally). Later “Batman” and the “205th” (Izvarino garrison), when a connection was established with them, were subordinate to me.
I couldn’t leave Sloviansk without risking giving up the city to the enemy; there was no one who would have the same authority as me (and in guerrilla, in fact, the authority of the leader is extremely important, it’s not a regular army). The attempt to appoint a deputy and leave for Donetsk in early June ended with the meeting convened on this occasion; I realised that even the possibility of my departure would lead to stupor for all company commanders and other comrades-in-arms.
Besides, to be honest, I wasn’t eager to go to Donetsk myself, there was too much information about the endless squabbles there among the “people’s leaders” and local “commanders”.
I understood that if I went to Donetsk I would have to transfer the command of the units to other people (as I myself would have to deal mainly with a lot of other “belligerent” issues), and I wasn’t considering my comrades-in-arms “ready” for it at that time.
hen the egress anyhow took place and I decided to move the group of former garrisons from Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Drushkovka and Konstantinovka concentrated in the Yenakiievo district, directly to Donetsk (as I came to the city I made sure that it was unprepared for defence “from the word in general”), a dilemma arose: to take “for granted” the current “seven commands” by joining forces to try to urgently organise the defence of the city and the rest of the territory of the republic on their own, or “to lead the way”, losing a few days on this process, the necessity of which was not at all obvious to the population.
chose the first one, trying as soon as possible (because in a completely peaceful city the natural decomposition of the units that had escaped from the trenches and their surroundings began) and directing them to form a defensive ring around the city.
This is how the line “Petrovsky district – Ilovaysk – Snezhnoye” was formed, only on account of the Sloviansk brigade and the weak “Kerch” battalion in it. In the city itself, the Kalmius battalion, a few (smaller) numbers of people from the Russian Orthodox Army (ROA) and small independent groups and units came under my full command.
Later, all the remaining forces had to be thrown on the defence of Shakhtarsk, then, down to the military police company, reconnaissance unit and commandant’s company, to throw forces on Stepanovka-Marinovka, directions to Krasnyi Luch-Miusinsk, and cover the communications to Gorlovka in the area of Zhdanovka from the north. By the time the enemy slammed the ring around Donetsk on August 6, I had 60 unarmed volunteers (there was nothing to arm them with) in the building of the Donetsk SBU Directorate, and no units were left. In total, along with the headquarters, there were 2-3 dozen people armed with small arms.
Now about subordination. The Cossaks almost all refused to obey categorically. They did not participate in the defence of Donetsk. The Kozitsyn consistently abandoned their positions when the enemy approached. From the Red Lyman (from where they escaped without a fight, leaving the local militia, which just had a fight), through Popasnoye (escaped without firing a single shot), through Debaltsevo (escaped when the enemy approached the city at 10 kilometres) and up to Krasny Luch (“Kozitsyn Cossack” garrison escaped, and when the city was occupied by two companies from Sloviansk, returned, but refused to go to the position).
I voluntarily transferred to the operative subordination to “Strongman” Zakharchenko. At the same time, I did not have any real power over Zakharchenko himself or his army, because they were “another department”; Zakharchenko was considered to be “the commander of the internal troops”. Therefore, all joint actions had to be coordinated.
The fighting ability of his forces was low, but since he had five tanks (the crews of four of which, though, diligently avoided taking part in the battles for any reason but one – the valiantly died in the battle at Marinovka), we did not have to spread out by a single armed man, “thank you for this”. They provided some help in Shakhtarsk and near Dmitrovka, at least the enemy’s attention was distracted and some losses were inflicted on it.
Khodakovsky immediately and until I left categorically refused not only to obey, but also even to establish any coordination (about which I repeatedly conveyed requests to him through anyone, up to and including Borodai). His garrison barely covered Yasinovata (which the enemy never attacked in my presence, though). I believe that if it were attacked, it would have been surrendered without a fight just like Avdiivka. However, thanks to his men and for the fact that they did not surrender the station and even captured a tank when Ukies of a small armoured personnel group came to him.
The worse thing was that Khodakovsky was constantly trying to agitate among our fighters. For example, in the midst of the Shakhtarsk battles, he “lured” a mortar platoon from the former Konstantinovsk garrison to himself, lying that we were “abandoning” Donetsk (while the platoon was directed to strengthen the group that fought for Shakhtersk, our only communication with the “big land”, without which the city would quickly fall). As a result, this platoon did not take part in any battles until mid-August.
Some members of the “Vostok” took part in the defence of Karlovka (for the surrender of which I am regularly “doused”, although at the same time to fight at Snezhny and Shakhtarsk and Karlovka, the “Sloviansk” could not do anything, which did not prevent me from sending there a company that was defeated and barely came out of the encirclement, along with all the others.
It was impossible to keep Karlovka with the available forces. And I was not ready to “swap” Karlovka for Shakhtarsk.
The situation with Bezler was more complicated. He first obeyed me and regularly came to Sloviansk for help. And he received it. Up until the moment I sent him the “Ataman” group with 40 fighters so that he could take full control of Gorlovka. Immediately after that, he set up his own supply chain, and forgot to think about subordination. On the contrary, he practiced “luring” people and units not only in the case of Nikolaevka (when at the most serious moment the company “Miner”, which had never been in battle before, left its positions and fled to Gorlovka, having exposed the front). He made similar attempts in Konstantinovka, for example.
After leaving Sloviansk, I came to his headquarters with minimal security and tried to smooth the misunderstandings, thinking, “better a bad peace than a good quarrel, and someone has to defend Gorlovka.” If necessary, he had to coordinate with me some of his activities during the defence of Donetsk (before his departure at the end of July). We have several times helped each other with different weapons and ammunition. In reality, he did not defer to me. After his departure, coordination with the commandant “Botsman” (and then his successor “Major”) has improved significantly. (Although my order to leave Gorlovka and move to the defence in the Shakhtarsk region was not followed by Botsman, for which I thanked him a few days later. However, I am almost sure that even if he started to carry out the order, I would have had time to cancel it myself, after I personally got acquainted with the situation in Shakhtarsk and understood that the city can be kept by its own forces).
5. A popular trend in propaganda is that, Putin asked to postpone the referendum, the Donetsk people did not listen to it and suffered for it. I judge by my Donetsk impressions, anyone who would try to carry it out would simply tear it up. Was this question seriously considered at all? Was there any official appeal from the Russian authorities?
Allegations of this kind are blatant, insolent, hypocritical lies. Destined to justify the betrayal of Russian Novorossiya, who counted on the Kremlin and Putin personally. As for the technical side of the negotiations between Moscow and Donetsk on the referendum, I know only by hearsay, since I did not organise the referendum even in Sloviansk, focusing on military and military-organisational issues. I did not have enough time for that.
6. In one interview you mentioned that the former political elite of Donbas did not have the forces ready to support the uprising; is it possible to explain in more details, these forces did not exist at all, or did they demanded any guarantees?
I write about my impressions and conclusions (in which, however, I am quite sure), I have not been “engaged in the political part”, as noted above. I thought that there was a leadership of the Republic for this purpose.
But some negotiations with local politicians, managers and owners of enterprises, of course, had to be conducted. The general impression was that they were waiting. If the Russian authorities had clearly and timely outlined their position, the transition of the “elites” to our side would have been swift and massive. But “Moscow was cautious at first, and then “backtracked” altogether. Alas, there were no sincere Russian patriots among the representatives of the business structures, politicians and local “authorities” like Chalom and Aksenov in Crimea; in Donetsk and Lugansk, alas, none were found… as I like to say “from the word in general”.
Unfortunately, I did not have any serious resources of my own to persuade them to take our side. It would be doubtful to force them by armed force, because they would just run away (closing down enterprises and offices) and then would definitely be in the ranks of our enemies.
7. The question about the surrender of Donetsk and retreat to Snezhnoye is repeatedly asked, alas, it comes up every time, were there any such plans? And if there were, what were the motivations?
I have already partially answered above. I will add the following:
In fact, only the opponent’s wrong assessment of the general situation and its lack of energy in the actions saved us from complete defeat in the middle, second half of July. In place of the enemy command (even taking into account the relatively low morale of their troops), I was (sure) able to completely block Donetsk long before the notorious “northern wind”. The enemy’s main mistake in the operation in the area of Shakhtarsk -Snezhnoe-Saur Mogila was made by the fact that they got in with insufficient forces (although equipment-wise they considerably exceeded all that we had in that area) directly into the city.
It was relatively simple for them to “saddle” the road in any flat, undeveloped place, or on the Torez-Shakhtarsk site, or Shakhtarsk-Snezhnoe and to dig in. And that’s it; with the available BTG “25”, we couldn’t do anything. We could not take them in frontal attacks, desperately lacking artillery (and, most importantly, ammunition).
I was able to anticipate their manoeuvre on the city. Immediately after receiving reports of Debaltsevo’s fall, I quickly withdrew from other sections and sent to Shakhtarsk (where even three dozen fighters at that time were not available, there was only a poorly armed checkpoint on the road towards Snezhnoye) three companies, one from the Petrovsky district of Donetsk, one from Ilovaysk, one, from the Snezhnoye district (from the “Tora” assault battalion). By the time the Ukies arrived in Shakhtarsk, one company was already there and did not allow them to take full control of the city. And the other two were already on the move and arrived very soon. As soon as I received the news about the beginning of the battles, I sent two more companies at once, all the available equipment and artillery and everything that “Strongman” (Zakharchenko, to give him credit, went there too) could send. At the same time, I (putting myself in the shoes of the enemy) believed that what is taking place is not a “raid”, but a decisive attack with far-reaching goals (all the military logic “yelled” about it).
I overestimated the enemy’s strength (if I were in their place, I would have sent everything to Shakhtarsk that was possible and impossible). And decided that what it used there was no less than a reinforced battalion (actually there was a battalion with reinforcement there, just very poorly staffed with personnel and not enough equipment).
Based on this view, I decided that I would not limit myself to hitting the enemy from the north for one Shakhtarsk, I would send 2-3 more strike teams to Zugres and Torez (not even covered by roadblocks from the north). Thus, having sent everything possible from the non-attacked sections to Shakhtarsk (and as a result having achieved a serious, triple or so, numerical advantage there, which allowed us to win the most important victory for us as a result), at the same time I began to look for ways to cover the Donetsk-Shakhtarsk-Snezhnoye route from the north to other sections. I had no forces left in Donetsk anymore. For this reason, realising that if Shakhtarsk falls both Donetsk and Gorlovka will be doomed, I decided to “donate” Gorlovka to save Donetsk by throwing the garrison to cover the roads. The example of Debaltsevo’s fall (to which I also managed to send a company of recruits of the Shakhtarsk Division (another formation that unconditionally subordinated to me in Donetsk, although we should not be deceived by the word “division”, its maximum number by mid-August barely reached 400-500 fighters armed with small arms), scattered after short skirmishes with the superior forces of the enemy).
I repeat once again, if the enemy had acted in any adequate manner from a military point of view, the failure of Botsman (Besler was no longer in the city, he was “behind the line” until mid-August) would have led to the surrounding and subsequent defeat of both garrisons. But the enemy made a serious mistake, which “cordoned off” my own garrisons.
And Botsman, having disobeyed me (purely on the basis of his “Gorlovka” considerations), was correct. Meanwhile, believing that the enemy is trying to “close the trap” behind Donetsk (which will make further resistance virtually impossible, without bullets nowadays is impossible to fight), I really raised the question of moving the command post closer to the epicentre of battles, to Snezhnoye (by the way, further battles proved that it was the neighbourhood of this city that became the main point of the enemy’s efforts at the end of July and beginning of August). Headquarters was partially scaled down, and I went with it to Shakhtarsk (the deployment option was also considered there). The Ex-O (E. Khasanov) and some of his staff members were left in Donetsk until additional instructions were received, as the transfer of the entire headquarters was still pending. Having got acquainted with the situation on the spot and made sure that the enemy behaves passively and there is a good chance to knock it out of the city, I decided not to interfere in the leadership of the battle (which was chaotically led by commanders of various companies and units under the common, as is now clear, purely nominal, leadership of Kononov (“Tsar”). Simply because I was in a state of serious nervous and physical exhaustion (sleeping 3-4 hours every day for three months, is not conducive to health) and I was not sure that I would be able to lead the field fight with enough energy. Did I think about the possibility of leaving Donetsk? Yes, I’ve been thinking. In particular, I shared these reflections (in private) with two or three people, whom I thought I could trust, including, unfortunately, with Borodai. But such thoughts were not evidence of “panic” at all, only an honest analysis of the situation in mid-July. The balance of forces with the UAF punishers was already “impossible” for us and was becoming more and more depressing every week. The increase in the number and armament of the militia could in no way compensate in the enemy’s forces. The front was a rare chain of posts with “gaps” sometimes of tens of kilometres. When the situation was used correctly (the enemy, thank God, continued to make mistake after mistake), we could have been “ripped to shreds”. Sooner or later, without the “northern wind”, this would have happened (preparing the “victory parade” for the “day of Ukraine” on August 24 in Kiev, Poroshenko proceeded from quite objective preconditions for the development of events).
In such a situation, as a commander of thousands of people, I had to think about their future (after a probable defeat) fate. Thus, I knew very well that “for me there is no earth behind the line” and I saw my own future in the darkest light. I was really (theoretically) thinking about the possibility, in case of a complete defeat (and it was frankly ripe), of evacuating all the surviving forces somewhere close to the border, so that they could then take refuge on the territory of the Russian Federation.
No specific plans or guidance have been developed in this regard. Along with that, already during the battles for Shakhtarsk, I completely abandoned such thoughts, having assessed the scale of possible evacuation and remembered the much smaller scale of evacuation from Sloviansk, I decided that in case of our poverty and disorganisation, any attempt to withdraw the units would turn into a chaotic escape, terrible chaos and complete defeat, even without the direct influence of the enemy. So, it was only necessary to take the fight in the occupied positions and fight to the end, as God wills.
In the evening, after taking some organisational measures, I returned to Donetsk with an understanding of the real situation. Until the very end, the question was not raised about leaving any settlements (without a fight), nor about the relocation of the headquarters.
As for my “cowardice”, I can give a small example; I went to a meeting in Krasnodon in the early morning of August 6 (this was one of the three times I went there in July and August). In the morning we drove freely through the city, on the outskirts of it I even met a small column, which was on its way to reinforce us and which we had been waiting for for a long time, it was the last one in my existence.
But on the way back, the road between Kraskny Luch and Snezhny was already cut by the enemy. You couldn’t go straight down the road. Realizing that my absence from the surrounded city would have a very negative impact on the morale of the surrounded units and would disrupt even the weak management, which I managed to establish, I ordered to go around the intercepted section along the field roads. For several hours we could hardly find a detour, several times we pushed out our heavy “collection” GAZelle, which got stuck in the mud, but by nightfall we had slipped into Snezhnoye and at night into Donetsk. I don’t think that a hardened coward would be so eager to return to his surroundings, with rather shady chances of getting out of it later.
At a meeting in the narrow circle of the headquarters, I announced upon my return that we would not be in Donetsk until the very end, until and including street fighting at the headquarters.
8. A little bit about your resignation, as you mentioned the guarantees and promises of your subordinates. Can I get more details?
It is impossible, unfortunately. There are people who may suffer from my honest and detailed answers. Therefore, I would rather be showered with all kinds of verbal and written crap, than me justifying myself (it would be before whom), “framing” comrades in arms.