Original by Yevgeniy Norin published by Sputnik and Pogrom; Translated by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
Arseniy Pavlov, better known as Motorola, the commander of Sparta Battalion of DPR militia, was killed in still unclear circumstances. The Republic lost not only a brave soldier, but one of the best and most successful tactical commanders. One often hears that Motorola was overrated as a commander, that he was liked by the media, but did not distinguish himself on the battlefield. That is incorrect. Sparta, with Motorola at its head, is a hard-fighting unit, the “fire brigade” of Novorossiya’s armed forces, fighting on the most important sectors of the front.
On May 20, 2014, Ukrainian journalist Aleksandr Gorobets announced that a separatist unit near Kramatorsk is being commanded by a…LifeNews reporter. The idea was crazy, and it soon became evident that the voice in the video belonged to a militiaman. That was the first time the public heard the “Motorola” callsign.
Little is known about the insurgent commander prior to the Donbass war. Born in Komi, he served in the Naval Infantry and fought in Chechnya long before the Donbass. He came to Ukraine already in February of 2014, spent some time in Zaporozhye, Nikopol, Donetsk, and Kharkov. He was one of the first to come to Slavyansk in April 2014, where he quickly headed up an independent unit.
His rapid advance to a command post was due to a whole range of circumstances. First of all, Motorola was one of the few militiamen to not only have served in the army, but also fought. Militia had few cadre officers, and the logic of the insurgency naturally elevated people possessed of individual charisma and fighting abilities.
Motorola’s unit operated as a mobile anti-tank reserve. Slavyansk garrison had very few heavy weapons so creating a separate mobile unit able to counter armor wherever it appeared was a natural and necessary decision. The unit parried UAF attacks, moving up and down the line. That’s when the backbone of the future “Sparta” was formed. The unit played a crucial role during the fighting around Semyonovka and Nikolayevka. Semyonovka is a village on the eastern periphery of Slavyansk, while Nikolayevka is even further to the east. Since efforts to break into Slavyansk through frontal assaults failed, Ukrainian command wisely decided to bypass the city and encircle it. The way to Slavyansk from the east passed right through Semyonovka, which is why it was a site of a pitched battle on June 3.
The battle started with an artillery bombardment, with guns of every caliber, from mortars to heavy artillery, hitting the village. Then infantry and tanks attacked. The operation’s aim was self-evident: the capture of Semyonovka would quickly isolate all of Slavyansk. The attack was carried out by a battalion from the 95th Airmobile Brigade, supported by National Guard, attack aircraft, and helicopters.
But the steamroller assault did not result in a breakthrough. Infantry was pinned down by fire, however, the tanks literally crushed militia positions, destroying individual field fortifications. The arrival of the anti-tank reserve, with Motorola in command, helped stave off disaster. The attack was repelled, tanks were stopped by RPGs, anti-tank missiles, and even sniper rifles targeting the optics. Seven militiamen were killed, and these were very heavy losses by the standard of the early phase of the war, but the village was held. Militia’s defeat and UAF’s breakthrough into Semyonovka would have made the rapid fall of Slavyansk inevitable.
Motorola’s troops were fated to appear in the right place at the right time on one more occasion. It was in early July, when the UAF nearly surrounded Slavyansk. The anti-tank unit was holding Nikolayevka, some 12km east of Slavyansk. Since one militia group, under the command of “Minyor”, abandoned positions without being ordered to do so, Nikolayevka’s fate hung in the balance. There was a desperate fight in the village during all of June 2, with Motorola’s troops, the unit commanded by “Machete”, and one other small militia group, succeeding in retaining control over the village but with UAF bypassing and outflanking both Slavyansk and Nikolayevka. Further defense made no sense, and Motorola’s unit, which covered the retreat, found itself encircled. But Motorola managed to find a way out by a different way, preserving the unit and its weapons.
The Endless Summer
The fall of Slavyansk did not mean the end of the war and did not change Motorola’s men status. The offensive by the fully deployed UAF required swift reaction, particularly since the militia could not perform a large-scale mobilization and was not very numerous. Motorola was wounded in July but soon returned to the front lines. The early August was spent in the fighting over Minusinsk, a town through which the UAF wanted to advance in order to reach the road linking Donetsk and Lugansk. But the cruelest of all was the fighting in Ilovaysk. In August, after the smashing of the UAF southern cauldron, UAF command modified its plans and tried to advance bypassing Donetsk through Ilovaysk. This was a realistic plan, and a very dangerous one to DPR: if it succeeded, UAF would have surrounded Donetsk, which would have been fatal to the people’s republics. The first attempt to break into the city using volunteer battalions failed completely, but that did not discourage UAF commanders. Interestingly, UAF staffs did not consider taking Ilovaysk a difficult task. One battalion commander was literally told “enough work for one day.” UAF started the operation on August 12. Pitched street fights commenced on August 19. Ukrainian forces were a stew of various brigades and volunteer battalions. Motorola’s unit marched to aid Ilovaysk’s garrison. Nearly all UAF forces present in the area were drawn into the street fighting. The offensive was stalemated. The assault group was not very numerous, there were no reserves. Both sides relied heavily on artillery and Grad rockets. Nobody counted on receiving quarter from the other side: one side was represented by Motorola’s troops and what would become the Somali Battalion, while the other side by volunteer battalions. Interestingly, all the talk (or, rather, screaming) about “treason” began already during the street fighting phase, when there was no discussion of Russian forces operating in the area at all. Ukrainian troops fortified themselves in the school building, railcar depot, and the firefighting unit, which gave them control over a sizable portion of the city, but could not advance further. Militia’s constant counterattacks made it impossible for the enemy to move. Moreover, Azov and Shakhtyorsk troops at some point simply left the battlefield and ran away to Mariupol. There was no clear front line running from the city, UAF did not completely blockade Ilovaysk, so militia could bring reinforcements. Ilovaysk is cut in two by a railroad and, at risk of some oversimplification, one could say that on August 24 the UAF held the northern part, and the militia the southern.
The role of Motorola’s force and other forces consisted of, in essence, holding out until the “cavalry”, or forces enveloping UAF units from the flanks, arrived. In late August, the militia and Russian forces carried out a swift operation that crushed the flanks and rear areas of the Ukrainian force at Ilovaysk. Militia units broke UAF resistance in the city itself. This was the culminating event of the whole war: within a few days, the UAF suffered the heaviest losses in the entire period of its existence and for a while lost the ability to offer organized resistance. Motorola’s contribution to this battle cannot be overestimated. Even though only comparably small forces operated in the city, a few hundred troops on each side, the resilience of Ilovaysk’s defenders pinned down UAF forces around the city and allowed the flanking envelopment to be prepared, against which the UAF’s resistance proved very weak. August was the turning point: the UAF did not conduct any other major offensive operations after that.
One of the heaviest tests the battalion passed was the Donetsk Airport battle. The actual beginning of active operations against this UAF defensive stronghold was in the fall, with only sporadic attacks taking place earlier. But the defeat of Ukrainian forces at Ilovaysk and a series of operations between Novoazovsk and Lugansk totally changed the situation. Now this UAF redoubt, wedged into Donetsk city boundaries, became the main point of confrontation. Fighting here never stopped, in spite of the declared ceasefire, and its intensity remained high throughout the fall and winter. Various UAF airmobile brigades occupied positions at the airport. They were located in the terminal buildings, while all the approaches to the airport and its unoccupied buildings were mined. Since the UAF had both the buildings and the flight control tower, it made it possible for them to effectively direct artillery fire which was the mainstay of the lengthy defense. Supplying the garrison became an insoluble problem: UAF units had to travel a long distance, in the open, in order to deliver fuel, food, munitions, and reinforcements. These caravans, naturally, defended themselves well, they were accompanied by tanks which fired on the move, with artillery providing suppressive fires on militia positions. Sparta was assigned a most unpleasant task. Since the outskirts of the airport were under constant observation and fire, assaulting the terminals was not an easy task. Militiamen gradually fortified themselves around the terminals and made several attempts to storm them. But they were not able to maintain their gains. Nevertheless, they gradually encroached on the positions from the flanks, isolating UAF troops from the outside world. Motorola, as battalion commander, participated in these events and suffered at least one wound, from a machine-gun bullet to the arm.
Even though the UAF controlled airport’s main buildings during September and October, they were gradually destroyed by artillery and tank fire. Although the terminals were sturdily built, they were becoming less and less suitable for defense. Ukrainian positions were fired on by rapidly maneuvering tanks which terrorized the defenders. Although the UAF was formally in control of the airport in September and December, by winter UAF troops found themselves in mortal danger. The old terminal collapsed from artillery damage, and only the new terminal and tower remained. Naturally, it was clear on the Ukrainian side of the front lines that the danger was increasing. UAF commanders would later claim that a new defensive line was being prepared behind the runway, but they simply did not manage to withdraw the troops there. On the other hand, the multi-month control of the airport gave birth to the legend about “invincible cyborgs,” while the UAF command pursued ambitious plans to expand its zone of control by capturing Spartak (north-east of the airport) and buildings to the west. But neither initiative came to pass, because Sparta and Somali put an end to the UAF’s airport defense. The assault teams carried out lengthy training sessions before the attack, rehearsing cooperation with tanks, assault engineers, artillery, and one another.
On January 13 came the decisive assault on the airport. Militia blew up terminal roof using a demolition charge, tanks topped the tower, and assault teams entered the new terminal.
If autumn fighting brought Sparta and Somali heavy losses on the approaches to the terminals, now the success was bought at far lower cost. Militiamen instantly reached passenger wings on the other side of the building, isolating the garrison from reinforcements. Soldiers on higher floors could still leave the building at night, but for still unclear reason most of Ukrainians remained inside. As a result, after several days of attacks and counter-attacks, the militia ended the assault using a classical methods. Sections with Ukrainian troops were mined, using several tons of TNT. The explosion killed or wounded all the remaining defenders. A little more than a dozen wounded were found under the wreckage, it took several months to discover all the corpses.
Donetsk airport was the site of the last major battle by Sparta. After the winter campaign of 2015, there were no more decisive operations in Novorossiya, though positional fighting went on along nearly the entire front. The battalion continued to actively train, however, the burst of activity during the winter of 2015 is so far its last major battle. Sparta still exists, though very many of its troops, veterans of not only Slavyansk but also the airport battle, already left the Donbass or left service.
Motorola, Arseniy Pavlov, provided an irreproachable example of a military career during a time of troubles. While not a career officer though a talented fighter, he was able to create one of the most battleworthy units of Novorossiya Armed Forces. One of the peculiarities of irregular warfare is that command posts are quickly occupied, thanks to their personal qualities, by people who could have never made a brilliant career in peacetime military. Motorola, of course, was a tactical commander, he lacked the training to command larger bodies of troops. But he never aspired to command large formations and was successful at commanding smaller ones. As a tactical commander, Motorola was in the right place. Moreover, he always commanded units that suffered from shortages of everything: heavy weapons, communications, even boots and camo. Motorola was a commander who could, using a few single-shot RPGs, an AT rifle, and an ancient ATGM launcher, organize an effective anti-tank defense. He later demonstrated the ability to organize an offensive operation pursuing a decisive outcome. No matter how hard the opposing side is trying to demonstrate its contempt for this auto-didact without a systematic military education, during the winter fighting of 2015, it was the career officers who were thoroughly trounced in battle–and they lost to, among others, this man.
It is characteristic that war, judging by everything, was home to Motorola, an environment where he felt the best. Pavlov not once tried to make a political career or to find a warm spot in the boss’s cabinet. He was, first and foremost, a soldier, though one who looked out of place in the regular army–such commanders are invariably elevated by revolutionary wars and insurgencies. Jokers who are making anecdotes about a car washer heading a battalion simply don’t know history. Nobody jokes about Jean Lannes, a peasant who became a Napoleonic marshal, or about Nathaniel Greene, a blacksmith and a famous general of the US Revolutionary War. Motorola justly belongs among those commanders who made their own name.The militia lost one of the best and most extraordinary fighters.