Nothing has become so notorious from this Ukraine conflict as Ukrainian military unit, the National Guard. Created in 1991, disbanded in 2000 then ‘rebooted’ in March 2014 (tasked with “upholding the constitutional order and restoring the activity of state bodies”) under the auspices of ultra-national extremist group Pravy Sektor leader turned Deputy of National Security, Dmitry Yarosh, as Euromaidan’s coup government immediately faced the breakaway of Crimea. Despite strong statement at that time of their intention to interve, the National Guard took no meaningful action, as Crimea held its referendum on March 16th, becoming part of the Russian federation on March 18th.
The fact is Crimea had come simply too soon for a Ukrainian National Guard still hastily forming from Interior Troops, members of the Pravy Sektor and other extremist Ukrainian Euromaidan elements. Yet as the Crimea sentiment, characterised by resistance to a non-elected Kiev government viewed as overtly hostile to the east of Ukraine and its Russian connections, spilled over, the National Guard was ready this time, becoming a core component of the ‘Anti Terror Operation‘, as announced by then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov on April 13th, the day after the Slavyansk situation began, with the start of April having seen anti-Kiev actions intensify across the east notably Donetsk and Lugansk. I got into Donetsk late night April 8th –
Then Lugansk on April 10th –
Then Slavyansk on April 12th –
Shortly after this had happened –
In the near 2 months since, the National Guard have been directly linked with the perpetration of an increasing number of atrocities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, evidence linking them with the now mass killing of unarmed civilians, destruction of civilian property, and abductions. On May 18th, in Kramatorsk, the National Guard detained Russian journalists Marat Saichenko and Oleg Sidyakin. On May 20th, leaving the city of Mariupol, I was then detained, spending 9 hours with them before being transferred to Ukraine’s security service, the SBU.
My detention came as I asked soldiers manning the National Guard blockpost if they had participated in the ‘Mariupol Massacre’ of May 9th, when members of the National Guard entered the city and, reportedly with members of the Pravy Sektor, killed both policeman who refused to take part in the Oleg Lyashko instigated action, and then unarmed civilians celebrating Victory Day.
– Some of the soldiers there had taken part in the Mariupol incident of May 9th. Some said they hadn’t. It seemed they were given the choice as to whether they wanted to or not. This soldier, from Lviv, admitted he had taken part, yet denied they had shot unarmed people (there is video evidence, below, that they did). He gave a figure of 4 killed on the National Guard, something I hadn’t heard before.
– No question my line of questioning got me into trouble, but what really got me detained was working for Russian media, RT. That saw me stand accused by the Ukrainian military of being a ‘spy’. Through the course of the time I spent with the soldiers, they asked me repeated questions about why I’d chosen, as a British person to ‘work with the enemy’. I explained to them that I did not regard Russia as an enemy, however the sentiment of the Ukrainian National Guard towards Russian media was near universally, virulently, negative.
– All the soldiers at this blockpost denied being Pravy Sektor, some were new recruits, joining up in March as on the 16th of that month, as the new Yatsenyuk government called for 10,000 to be recruited within the next 15 days (initial strength was to be 33,000 Yarosh called for a total of 60,000, then ratified by parliament on March 13th, the exact number recruited thus far is unknown). Others were already Internal Troops, with some expressing uncertainly to me as to whether they were were still Internal Troops or now National Guard. The senior officer of this blockpost identified himself as National Guard.
– Many of the soldiers came from the west of Ukraine the tall one I spoke to in the videos above told me he did not even speak Russian. Most were young, an average age of around 22-25. Some said they were deployed straight from military service (compulsory in Ukraine), or that they had been serving military service at the time, and volunteered. The senior officer was from Kiev, Ukrainian speaking but able to speak Russian, there was also one from Nikolaev, another from Mariupol itself, both Russian speaking. Those Ukrainian speaking soldiers from the west seemed a close-knit group, although all the soldiers spoke with each other and morale among them seemed quite good. The only one to speak any English, and seemingly the most educated, was the young Nikolaev soldier. The Mariupol one would repeat the phrase ‘best of the best‘ quite often, and laugh.
The military vehicles used on May 9th were BMPs –
2 of these stood at the blockpost (others stand at other entry points to the city). I found it incongruous that on one of these (light) tanks was a sticker honouring the May 9th Victory Day commemoration, which less than 2 weeks before had seem multiple civilian deaths in Mariupol as Ukrainian military entered the city.
Ukrainian military BMPs in Mariupol on May 9th –
– There were a few occurrences during the day, several cars, stopped at the blockpost, expressed negative sentiment to the soldiers. One car, an old Lada with 2 men in it, saw the men stopped at gunpoint only to get out and shout at the soldiers that they should ‘go home’, that they were ‘fascists’. The situation flared up, the car quickly surrounded by soldiers and the sound of automatic weapons racking. The men, unarmed, mid-40s, held their ground even at gunpoint. They were barked the instruction to get in their car and drive on, which they did. The duty of the soldiers there, under baking hot sun that day, is routine, boring, and at any minor event they are quick to react, pull their weapons. Also in the day, at least 2 bags of supplies – food and cigarettes – were given to the soldiers by drivers.
– There were groups within the soldiers, and different levels of commitment to the cause. Those soldiers from the west of Ukraine spoke Ukrainian, seemed most active. A soldier I spoke to there, I won’t give his hometown so as to protect his identity, but it was not the west of Ukraine, was perhaps the most conflicted about his role there, showing me photos on a phone of a girlfriend back home and him, just over 2 months before in a nightclub I’d been in myself.
He said he’d not taken part in the incident on May 9th, spoke only Russian, said he was Internal Troops and been ordered to come there. In private conversation he expressed sympathy with the cause of those in the east, said he had family in Russia. He was the nicest to me, and prepared me a generous serving of borscht for lunch. There was no sign of the widely reported US ration packs of dry food here, as soldiers prepared their own meals, and denied receiving any aid from the US.
– They are not doing this for the money, despite a higher reported salary (officially $300 a month) these soldiers are paid $150 per month. The most told me they were ‘patriots’ doing it for ‘patriotic reasons’ to ‘free Ukraine from Russian terrorists and separatists’. Perhaps surprising, the most committed soldier was from Mariupol itself, though he told me he was ‘half-Greek’, on his father’s side (a sailor) and seemed to be drawing his inspiration from the Greek Civil War he cited, of the 1940s.
– There seemed to be no clear shift pattern, rather they man the blockpost in between snatched spells of sleep, either in the nearby woods or the 2 portacabins. There is electricity there, but no wifi, and a feeling that despite some having internet on their phones, the soldiers are somewhat cut off from news. On such days off they have, they are free to go into Mariupol itself, several told me they had. I asked if they had met those ‘on the other side’, and they seemed to have no clear idea who they were, repeating that they were ‘little green men‘, although I challenged them on this point.
– None of the soldiers expressed any admiration of Stepan Bandera, the main ‘hero’ seemed to be self-styled Radical Party leader and then presidential candidate Oleg Lyashko, a man whose extremist, anti-Russia actions have brought condemnation from official bodies, with accusations further that the 42-year old from Chernigev is a paedophile, while he himself has taken credit for murder. The tall soldier from Lviv telling me he had met him personally, seeming honoured at having met the man who went on to score 8% in the May 25th presidential election.
Oleg Lyashko promotion poster –
Dmitry Yarosh was popular with some, but not all. Neither Poroshenko nor Tymoshenko were popular with any, with Yatsenyuk and Turchynov similarly not generating any positive sentiment (perhaps needless to say Putin and Yanukovych strongly disliked). Some soldiers defended the Kiev government against my charge to them it is a ‘junta’, others did not and I represented all my views as they are, there was little choice as on my driver’s phone had several of my pieces on it (including, in between my news reports, some hardcore pornography which caused a welcome distraction as the soldiers passed that around).
I explained that I supported the validity of the Crimean referendum, and the will of the people in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions not to be a part of the ‘post-Euromaidan Ukraine’. They seemed not to understand this late point, repeating to me that ‘Ukraine must be one country’. I told them they should watch some footage of the people themselves, however they declared that was all ‘Russian propaganda’.
Mariupol referendum footage –
– With a couple of exceptions, the soldiers at Mariupol were all ok, and even friendly with me. I was friendly to them, while defending my position, and more than anything I think their having a ‘guest’ broke the monotony somewhat. In any case, they were less interested in discussing politics than asking me how much I earned, how life was in the UK, if I liked Ukrainian girls, equally curious about why I worked for a Russian tv channel as to why I wasn’t married. My bullet proof vest, a high-quality ‘Press’ one, was confiscated as I was initially detained, along with a helmet. They were immediately taken away with the soldiers fawning over them.
Every soldier was dressed in different equipment, seemingly free to assemble their own outfit. My feeling was that they were enjoying being soldiers, and proud that they were effectively an autonomous unit (Kiev later said the blockpost I was taken at ‘does not report to them‘). Some of them had high-grade equipment, others low grade and seeing their reaction to my own I never entertained any real hope of getting it back.
The important thing, obviously, for myself, family, friends, was that I was freed. The experience saw me put in a car with 3 soldiers who would not say who they were, at gunpoint, with a black bag on my head, handcuffed behind my back, yet in the end I was unharmed. All the support, the #SaveOurGuys campaign helped me, and Oleg and Marat who were released 2 days after me on May 24th. And now, concerning news that the National Guard have detained more journalists, this time channel Zvezda’s Andrei Sushenkov and Anton Malyshev. I was very pleased to read that Andrei and Anton have reportedly been transferred to the SBU, which in my experience at least seems to answer to some official body, and will be hoping for their imminent release.
My own experience with the National Guard shed some light on this military outfit, many of whom barely trained as soldiers, essentially a brigade of guerrilla fighters waging a bloody war against an ‘enemy’ they don’t know, but have been told is their enemy, fighting for the idea of country, in a part of the country many of them had never even been to before nor spoke the language of.