Babchenko: The war in Afghanistan was hard on us, Chechnya crippled Russia, but this war will finally finish us

Arkady Babchenko, Russian military expert and journalist (Image: Facebook)

Arkady Babchenko, Russian military expert and journalist (Image: Facebook) 

2014/09/11 • Analysis & Opinion, Featured

Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko in an exclusive interview with “GORDON” described who goes to fight in the Donbas, what makes the parents of dead Russian soldiers proud, and why this war is the last one for Russia.

By Tatiana OREL

Unlike most Russian journalists who perform the dull function of cogs in a powerful state propaganda machine, Arkady Babchenko has his own, distinct opinion on the war in Ukraine. As a man who fought in Chechnya, he knows modern war “a la Russe.” He came to the Donbas in the beginning of the summer to understand for himself who is fighting whom and for what reason. Since then his personal blog, “Journalism Without Intermediaries,” has featured honest content about this war. In this sense, his help to Ukraine might be more important than humanitarian aid with grain and water. Even a small drop of truth in the barrel of lies sometimes saves someone’s life; and not just one: it gives someone hope, or a slight last minute shift of the sight of a submachine gun – such that no one noticed. When in a war, people quickly realize what is what, only it is harder to stop a war than to start one. After nearly 20 years of journalistic work in the hottest spots – Chechnya, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, the Ukrainian Maidan – Babchenko, who is considered, by the way, one of the founders of modern Russian prose, studied wars only too well and knows that even after a war ends, its impact endures.

 “It will be just a frozen conflict. I think over the years it will resume, as happened in Chechnya.”

– Arkady, in the early summer you came to Slovyansk to understand, without the “help” of Russian media, what is happening in the Donbas. According to the posts in your blog, you were convinced that this war was supposed to end in two months. So, what do you think now?

– I really believed that this war would last only a few months, no more. Nobody then thought that Russia would dare openly invade militarily.

– But dare it did…

– Yes, and it is now clear that this war will last long. Even if we “freeze” the situation as it is right now, it will still have to reach its logical conclusion sometime. It would just be a frozen conflict. I think that through the years the conflict will resume, as happened in Chechnya. When a peace agreement was achieved after the First Chechen war and the Republic of Ichkeria gained independence, peace endured only to 1999 when the second war started. It is clear that “DPR” and “LPR” do not exist as states – they are artificial pro-terror structures, and they will have to be dealt with. Either Ukraine will cease to exist, or the DPR and LPR republics will. In any case, the conflict will endure for a long time.

– Do you think Ukraine should sign a peace treaty? This, in fact, is “a humiliating peace,” as Viktor Shenderovich said…

– Everything is simple here: If you can win – win; if you cannot – agree to a truce. Ukraine currently has neither the strength nor the means to complete this operation victoriously; therefore, it is necessary to sign a truce and use this time to regroup.

– Even among thieves, there is a concept of honor when an agreement, as they say, is worth more than money. But Russia behaves as an ultimate lawbreaker and does not keep its word – the shelling of the Donetsk airport and near Mariupol still continue…

– And yet, there is some easing of the conflict. Russia does not need a truce that much, because, in contrast to Ukraine, it has some strength.

 “In Russia, there will be new gangs, there will be more shooting, many people will continue to live under the same laws they got accustomed to during the war.”

– During the Second Chechen war, you served as a professional contracted military agent. I do not know what reason they had to go to the war, but in the Donbas today too, there are many professional Russian military personnel. However, Russia seems to have nothing to do with it – supposedly, they take time off from their service, and instead of sunbathing on the shore of the Black Sea, which, now after the annexation of the Crimea, Russia has a lot, spend the vacation in trenches and tanks – 15,000 lovers of extreme tourism according to statistics of the Ukrainian NSDC.

– The reason for those who go to a war, as a rule, is the same. 99% on each side fight for the good and justice. They go to Ukraine not to kill the locals and crucify children on billboards, but to protect Russians from the damned “fascists.” Another thing is that some have the true information, while the others are fooled by propaganda.

– But this is not a boy scout game. Adults understand that war is a threat to your life. You can get back home with a satisfied sense of justice, but you can return without senses at all – as “cargo 200” [Russian military term for “dead” – Translator]…

– Understand, war draws you in. A soldier is interested to go and witness the scene with his own eyes. Yes, two weeks later the person understands what he got himself into. But if the war was declared officially, there would be many volunteers. Russia, like it or not, is a belligerent nation. It has never seen a lack of adventurers, romantics, idealists or just mongrels.

– But when they send a boy conscript to war, whose unsuspecting mother marks off days on the calendar in anticipation of the reunion with her son, we no longer talk of adventurism, but of the villainy of the commanders. Isn’t conscience eating at these officers?

– Yes, it was never a problem in Russia. They also sent conscripts to Georgia, even though they said that they are not there. But half of the army there was composed of conscripts for sure. Even since the First Chechen War there are mothers who cannot get official recognition of their children’s death in action in order to receive a monthly pension of $40. This time it’s the same thing too – well, they’ll issue some presidential battle pay to some people by a secret decree, but that will not be to all. That will be the end of the conversation.

– But to those who returned, they will probably have to be paid – for their silence?

– What for? Let them talk. They will drink alcohol in their courtyards and tell everyone how they killed Ukrainians. Whom does it bother?

– But not everyone who knows the feeling of power provided by a machine gun on his shoulder will be able to stop. And if the Russian regiments will be withdrawn from the war, won’t there be an addition to the regiment of Russian gangsters?

– Of course there will be an addition. Soldiers returning from eastern Ukraine will certainly come back with firearms, and the FSB [secret police] will not be able to block this flow completely. In Russia, there will be new gangs, there will be more shooting, many people will continue to live under the same laws they got accustomed to during the war.

“There will be no impeachment in Russia. And there will never be its own Maidan. Here will only be another Russian revolt, senseless and merciless, another Pugachev rebellion.”

– But even if the entirety of Russia will be silent, soldiers’ mothers probably will not keep quiet. If their children die, mothers have simply nothing more to lose. After all, they will demand an investigation, call aloud the names of the guilty. Grief overrides reason and fear. Following the mothers, Russians will begin to see clearly, and then, maybe, even an impeachment would not be that far-fetched. Is that possible?

– That thinking is in vain. In Russia, no one sees clearly. Here everyone has long since received his sight and society does not slumber. Whichever interview you read, soldiers’ mothers and fathers say that they are proud of their son who went to the war in Ukraine, even if he lost his legs, because he saved the Russian people. There will be no impeachment in Russia. And there will never be its own Maidan. Here will only be another Russian revolt, senseless and merciless, another Pugachev rebellion.

– In your blog you wrote that this war is the last war for Russia. What do you mean?

– If all goes according to the worst case scenario, and it is clear that events are developing precisely this way, Russia will not survive this war. Because war tends to go beyond the boundaries in which it began. War demoralizes the nation absolutely. The war in Afghanistan was hard on us, then Chechnya crippled Russia, but this war will finally finish us. I have a feeling, God forbid, that we might even come to World War III.

– In a comment to your blog someone wrote about Putin, “A rat in hysterics, and it’s scary.” Do you think he is really hysterical, in a panic, not knowing what to do now with this war that has gone too far? Or is he guided by a cynical, cold calculation?

– I do not think he is hysterical. This is a man who is not accustomed to retreat. Not once in his career did Putin back down. He may be aware that things did not go as smoothly as he planned, but in any case he always goes forward, and he cares nothing about anything, and about people’s lives – even more so.

– And even the lives of his own people …

– For him, there are no “his own.”




Translated by A. N.

Edited by M.K.B.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • Dirk Smith

    Len-in, Stal-in, Put-in. He’s truly mentally ill. Living in USSR-land.

  • albertphd

    In my view, there is practically only one real option (besides total war!) to resolve the armed conflict in the Donbas area (the parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts that are occupied by Russian terrorists), and that is through a Lease Agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

    For this Agreement to be effective, Russia needs to agree to the following points:

    #1: that their troops are officially present in Ukraine (whether in the Crimea or in the Donbas areas);
    #2: that Russia agrees to recognize both the Crimea and those parts of the Donbas occupied by the Russian invaders as Ukrainian territory;
    #3: that Russia agrees at the termination of this International Lease Agreement (say, in the year 2050, or whatever year both sides can agree upon), to return the lands to the Republic of Ukraine;
    #4: that Russia agrees to spend the necessary money to rebuild the parts of the Donbas that will be leased to Russia (until 2050 A.D., for example) in order to rebuild the infrastructure, cities, homes, industries, agricultural and mineral resources now destroyed largely by Russian mercenaries, as a result or this illegal invasion into Ukraine;
    #5: that Russia agrees that 10% of the Leased areas will be maintained by the Republic of Ukraine throughout the period of the Lease as reserved land that cannot be sold, or traded or occupied by Russia or the peoples of the Regions, but is to remain only as lands owned and controlled by the Federal Government of Ukraine (which 10% of reserved territories may be occupied by Ukrainian troops or an International military presence as determined by the invitation of the Ukrainian Republic);
    #7: that Russia allows the free integration of the Ukrainian language, culture, traditions, and businesses within these Leased areas alongside the Russian occupation during the term of this Lease [Ukrainian peoples would be allowed to live as Ukrainian residents within these Leased areas without interference from Russia];
    #8: that the peoples who reside within these Leased areas would be allowed to create their own Government and to determine their own laws, rules and regulations within the Executive, Legislative and Judicial sectors of their own free society, a society that is not determined either by Russia, or by the Federal Centralized Government of Ukraine but that is free and independent, as an Autonomous Special Administrative State of the Republic of Ukraine;
    #9: that neither Russia nor Ukraine proper (that part of Ukraine that is outside these Leased areas) would receive or demand any taxes from these peoples living in the Leased areas but that all taxes so received are to be used to rebuild, refurbish, and maintain the infrastructure of these Leased areas. [Loans from Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere can be accepted and repaid through the taxes collected from the peoples, but there is to be no direct taxation by either Russia or Ukraine proper upon these indigenous peoples.]; and
    #10: that the Russian military not be allowed to act as military units within these Leased areas but that the local residents may form their own Law Enforcement units as a Police Action only [Russian military posted within these Leased areas are to behave only as guests or visitors within these conclaves and have no legal jurisdiction whatsoever! Their numbers are to be limited, as agreed upon by both parties.].

    In exchange for these 10 ‘Commandments’ or points of agreement, Russia can expect to have their economic sanctions lifted, they can have their business relationships with the West restored to ‘business as usual’ and Putin can be praised as a hero in his own land, thereby saving face and having a sensible exit to this conflict that currently has no other option.

    The gas deal between Russia and Ukraine can be renewed, as well as trade between these two countries, and Russia for the next 35 years can enjoy these Leased areas (which currently it occupies). Ukraine can have the land returned to it (upon the expiry of the lease) as it was between China and England in the British occupation of Hong Kong, and as it was between China and Portugal in the Portuguese occupation of Macau. Both Hong Kong and Macau are now recognized as “Special Administrative States of the Republic of China.”

    And so it shall be with the Crimea and the parts of the Donbas area now occupied by Russian invaders: both areas can once again return to Ukraine upon the expiry of this Lease Agreement. [To enforce this Lease Agreement between Russia and Ukraine, the nations of NATO, EU, the USA, Australia, Japan and so on can co-sign the Agreement and set the terms, conditions, and procedures that will be executed should Russia default in any way.]

    Without such an International Agreement between Russia and Ukraine, I frankly fail to see how it is possible to resolve this conflict without the cold harsh reality that many more lives will certainly be lost, as well as long-lasting damage to the entire infrastructure of Ukraine as a nation will surely follow

    . Ukraine currently is surviving on borrowed money from International countries. These loans can cease at any time now, especially if the lenders of credit begin to lose their belief that Ukraine is able to repay them for these loans. And this credibility gap would certainly occur should Russia officially attack Ukraine with its greatly superior Air Force, Navy and Army. (As much as I love Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as a friendly, civilized, and understanding nation, I realize that the horrors of a long protracted war can demoralize and devastate even the most resilient sectors of the Ukrainian population.) Now is not the time to play ‘Russian roulette’ with the future of the Ukrainian civilization as a free and Independent Sovereign nation.

    Perhaps now is the time to read, to re-think and to apply the words of a very wise Master who said: “What king, going to make war against another king, sits not down first, and consults whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an ambassage [delegation], and desires conditions of PEACE.”
    [Luke 14: 31-32 New Testament of the Bible]

  • Jim

    Maybe it is time to start thinking about another passage: “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” (Rev 13:4)

  • Fidelis

    Yeah. Ukraine should lease its own land from Russia… give me a break!

    • albertphd

      Ooppss! I think you misunderstood me. It’s RUSSIA that leases the land they currently occupy (Crimea & parts of the Donbas area) from Ukraine.I agree it would be idiotic for Ukraine (or any country, for that matter!) to lease it’s own land back to itself!

      My point is that it will require a great deal of bloodshed (probably, a blood-bath!) to wrestle Crimea back from the military arms of Russia, as it is is now proving to be in the Donbas.

      Hong Kong was taken from China by the British, and Macau was taken from China by the Portuguese. But the Chinese were clever people. They realized that they could not militarily (at the time) fight England or Portugal. So they allowed these lands to be leased to their ‘enemies’ for a period of time. Then, when the lease agreement expired, the lands returned to the Republic of China–without bloodshed!

      All I am saying is to give PEACE a chance! Let’s be realistic about this scenario: If Ukraine wishes to fight for the Crimea and for the Donbas, to spill thousands (perhaps, tens of thousands?!) of lives on both sides, that is one option. But to do so will not necessarily guarantee that Ukraine will win the war against Russia.

      Let’s not forget 2 key points: #1, Ukraine is no longer a nuclear power but is 100% dependent upon the wishes, whims and weaponry from the West; and #2: Russia is a nuclear power and as a Rogue Regime cares little for the laws of Western civilization, but claims to not have any dependency on the West at all?!).

      Granted that sane people will not use nuclear weapons (or even low-grade nuclear weapons, such as the weapons Russia has recently moved to Kaliningrad?!), and granted that Russia is simply bluffing when it claims that the economic sanctions will not destroy Russia as a people, we have little to worry about?! or do we?!

      My point is simply to say: why play ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives and future of Ukraine as a nation independent from Russia (for the time being?!)?! Why not begin dialogue (along the lines I suggested perhaps?!) not with the low-life terrorists but directly with the Kremlin. Any meaningful ‘Cease fire’ can only occur if Russia publicly admits that it is as a nation, as a military power, illegally inside the Ukraine and actively fighting against the Ukrainian military self-defense forces. (To achieve this agreement with Russia would fulfill my 1st Commandment!). And then follow through with the rest of the ‘Ten Commandments” that Russia needs to agree to, to abide to and that will be enforced by the entire Western World to legitimatize this International Lease Agreement.

      For, what is the alternative?! Total War?! If so, What is to keep Putin’s finger off the nuclear button should he see a total capitulation of his country? On the other hand, who will step in side-by-side with the Ukrainian military, once the medical supplies, weapons, and means of defense are greatly diminished?! Can Ukraine simply trust its fate to these sporadic handouts from the West? We see that officially the USA will never send ground troops to help Ukraine (at least under the current Obama administration?!) and neither will any other country, it appears?!

      Ukraine stands alone!

      Perhaps as David of Old, Ukraine can defeat this Russian Goliath?! But that is a matter of pure faith: a slingshot and 5 smooth stones against the military armor and defenses of Putin?! But more realistically I think there is good sense in the words of the Master: perhaps one should consider during this fake truce real “conditions of PEACE”?!

      • C Monk

        Albert, there is only one problem with your idea. It’s Russia we’re dealing with here, not Britain. Russia sign, then breaks agreements. It’s who they are. Agreement-keeping is for stupid people in Moscow’s view.

        • albertphd

          Thanks for the thought-provoking feedback! I realize that Josef Stalin was a mass murderer and killed more Russian citizens than Putin ever has, yet the civilized world was obliged to make Agreements with him (i.e., with Soviet Russia). Lack of trust in these Agreements led to the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, as you well know.

          Today, we have V.V. Putin and his twisted FSB propaganda: his Ministry of Truth is actually that of “Lies”, his claims for cease-fire and PEACE are actually overt and covert attempts for continued conflict and subterfuge, his professed desire for a better Ukraine is actually an intention to intern all Ukraine into a Soviet-style concentration camp!

          So, I hear you loud and clear: Putin’s Russia obeys only the dictum of their dictator (the Russian Dictatorship rules Yanukovych tried to impose upon Ukraine last 16 January 2014, remember?), and not International Law, except when it suits Putin to do so.

          And I think that RIGHT NOW ‘it suits Putin to acquiesce to this International Agreement’ because I think that at this time Putin desperately needs to save face among his fellow macho thugs who now run this Rogue Front (RF) also known as the Russian Federation. What is there for Ukraine to lose, quite frankly–that it has not lost already?! Crimea is already occupied by Russian troops as are several Districts within the Donbas Oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk?! To propose that Russia hold on to the areas that they already occupy —as an International Lease Agreement (enforced and co-signed by virtually all the rest of the Civilized World) until, say, the year 2050 A.D.— allows Putin to be hailed as a ‘Czar’ among his own people. [And upon expiry of this International Lease Agreement, these lands–now occupied by Russian forces–will be returned to Ukraine without the need for further bloodshed at this time!]

          The conflict ceases. Peace is restored. Demarcation lines are drawn. A wall is built along the borders between Ukraine and Russia, Russia pays for the repair and restoration of the war-torn areas (as mentioned in my ‘Ten Commandments” from Ukraine to Russia) and Ukraine is able to buy the necessary time it needs to build up its military, nuclear resources, etc.

          Quite frankly, the only other alternative–total war–is totally unacceptable, as we are then playing Russian roulette (in my view) with a pretext to a nuclear winter?! A chilling thought! An absolutely asinine alternative, to say the least?! [Can anyone else come up with a more reasonable and suitable compromise?! I wish to God that there was one!]

          • LorCanada

            I see no reason anyone should feel obligated to placate Putin and allow him to strut the world stage as a winner, which he is not. Ukraine is a sovereign nation with every right to decide its own destiny, without the interference of Russia or any other country, according to international law.
            If Putin feels the need to arrange an Agreement let him start with returning the stolen goods – Crimea – and live up to his lease contracts that were in place before he invaded Crimea unnecessarily. That 1994 Agreement was broken by Putin, let him fix it and start by respecting the integral borders of Ukraine/Crimea.
            Putin steals and yet wants to arrange further agreements with the country he stole from? How idiotic is that!

          • albertphd

            I agree in spirit with the ‘sense of Justice’ that you portray (that ‘Putin should return the stolen goods, Crimea, and live up to his contracts, etc.’. The difficulty with that approach in International Politics is that the world we live in is a rather imperfect one. We need to be ‘street-wise- to some extent. “Poetic Justice” (whereby the Good are rewarded and the Bad, punished) doesn’t seem to be the theme of the day?! But I agree it should be!

            All I am saying in my proposed Lease Agreement model is that there does not appear to be any other ‘more reasonable’ way to broker a compromise between Ukraine and Russia over the areas pro-Russian terrorists now occupy.

            I agree that we should not negotiate with terrorists (the self-assigned leaders of the terrorist pack), but instead with Russia, with Putin, but what does one do if Russia itself becomes a Rogue Federation (RF) or in effect behaves as such?!

            I agree that Putin’s track-record for keeping International Agreements is rather dismal (to say the least!). But Putin intends to keep the 30-year oil and gas Agreement with China, now would you not agree?! So, then, when it suits Putin, he will adhere to this or that Agreement–is it not fair to say?!

            Okay, then why not present a Trojan Horse of sorts, a Lease Agreement with terms and conditions (enforced by the world community as co-signers) that is agreeable to Ukraine and to Russia until, say, the 2050 A.D. expiry date I propose (or whatever other date is equally agreeable to both sides)?!

            Then, after 35 years, the lands return to Ukraine. There is a real need for Putin to find a solution to this conflict (to save face, as I put it), so I think this Lease Agreement may be a contract Putin would like to show to the World Community that he can adhere to. (As an added incentive to adhere to these conditions, there can be an option to renew this Lease Agreement under this or that term of condition?! Nothing definite, simply a promise to consider Russia’s request to renew 35 years from hence?!).

            Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this conflict is really not between Ukraine and Russia per se, but between two different mindsets: the Western way of thinking and that of the old Soviet-style Russian militarism. It is vital that Putin agree to halt his expansionism and what better excuse for Putin to do so (to appease the Kremlin) than through this Internationally accepted and agreed upon Lease Agreement between Russia and Ukraine?! This Agreement can make Putin think he has achieved a Victory of sorts, wouldn’t you agree?! And to completely cease this armed conflict in Ukraine would be no small victory for Ukraine either, wouldn’t you agree?! Otherwise, what is the alternative?!–Total War?! Now, THAT would be truly idiotic–wouldn’t you agree?!

            Quite frankly, to refuse to think of a compromise, of a way to resolve this conflict diplomatically is playing Russian roulette with Ukraine’s future. In my view, it is better to lose a battle than to lose the war.

            To agree to this compromise may be seen by some as defeatist. But in the general scheme of things, it is only one battle that is lost:

            The ultimate war with Russia can still be won; but Ukraine desperately needs to buy precious time to rebuild it’s military (and possibly it’s nuclear?!) defenses–wouldn’t you agree?!

            So, there really is no other way (that I can think of) to defeat this Russian Bear than to delay the Final Battle until Ukraine is prepared, ready and able to win this War!

  • RR

    May Putin pay for his sins! May the Lord Almighty treat Putin exactly like Putin treated his neighbors. Putin lied to his “partners”, schemed against the west, deceived his own people with propaganda and plausible deniability, envied what his neighbor owned, murdered his “fraternal brothers”, and was completely prideful and arrogant. Putin creates a corporate culture of corruption, murder, destruction, and stealing. And Putin calls himself an Orthodox Christian. May he stand before Jesus Christ and answer to his actions!

  • LorCanada

    What happens when Russia does not live up to its agreements? Putin ignores International Law, criminals also ignore the law, so Putin is a criminal too. Why should anyone place their trust in Putin? What has he done to deserve anyone’s trust? Think twice before acting, in other words, know your enemy.