Russia

For Russian Fighters, Ukraine Is Very Different Than Chechen And Afghan Wars

Motivations and expectations of Russian volunteers in Eastern Ukraine are nothing like those who were sent to fight in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Maybe even more is at stake now.

A Russian military unit parades in Donetsk on May 25
A Russian military unit parades in Donetsk on May 25
Viktor Loshak

MOSCOW — “Weary and angry as devils ...” is how the singer Aleksandr Karpenko described the soldiers returning from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

That war was very different than the current situation in Eastern Ukraine, but then as now political leaders tried to play off the desire in many Russians to become heroes, as some kind of antidote to the mundane of everyday life.

This current war is under the media spotlight in Russia like never before. How much do the reports on Russian television reflect reality? How is it that, in spite of foreign reports about lawlessness, pillaging and cruelty, our soldiers are never in the wrong on our TV screens?

Meanwhile, the role of the most important and often invisible heroes of the war, the field commanders, has been dramatized in an unprecedented way: People know their faces, they give interviews and hold press conferences.

Even more importantly, this is not an army of terrified conscripts, like the soldiers who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan. These are men who have made a conscious decision to fight — and men who were also chosen themselves. There are several reports that not all volunteer fighters are accepted, and are enlisted based on their military expertise, with a particularly acute need for intelligence officers.

According to research from the German Science and Politics fund (SWP), there are around 15,000 fighters in Ukraine. While the Ukrainian army’s biggest problems are loyalty, corruption and financing, the pro-Russian "separatists," as the researchers call them, don’t have internal unity or wide support among the public — which is an explanation for the separatists' problems recruiting from the local population.

The researchers don't say what percentage of the fighters were Russian citizens, though it’s clear without any research that the separatist soldiers are expecting war spoils from Russia.

After 200 days

Here in Russia, it’s likely that the daily television broadcasts that glorify the war will not lead to the best outcomes for the veterans, once they come back home. They will return expecting a sympathetic society, and some kind of payoff — material and otherwise. If veterans are even partially correct that, “you go crazy after 200 days of war,” then the people coming back to Russia will not be easy people to handle, from a psychological point of view.

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A Russian helicopter shot down by Chechen fighters during the First Chechen War in 1994 — Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev/GFDL

We would prefer not to think about all of this. But the magazine Novaya Gazeta has been running a series of interviews with the leaders of the rebellion in Donbas, and the idea that they will eventually “come back for what is theirs,” seems to be a recurring theme.

I’m afraid that these kinds of military men will think the country's political parties are too weak. They get their adrenaline from a totally different kind of public life, the kind where a nationalist credo is combined with an idea of social equality, “progress for everyone.”

It's always best not to oversimplify things, and we shouldn't conclude that the soldiers returning to Russia are middle-aged miners, who took part in the war because they were overwhelmed by emotion at the political coup in Kiev.

There will also be intelligent, self-assured and assertive individuals, such as Alexander Borodai, who served as Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic until recently. He knows everything about Russia’s "enemies," the "fifth column" — and that, in general, all liberals work for the West. Borodai is absolutely convinced that a people has the right to rebel, at least as long as the "people" in question is ours, and not, for example, Chechen. It’s naive to think that Borodai is going to come back to Russia to be a middling political consultant.

A couple of months ago anyone who suggested Eastern Ukraine would be whacked into pieces would have been sent to a mental hospital. Now it’s impossible to understand what ideas are really worth the suffering and victims we’ve seen there. Federalization? The right to use the Russian language? Local residents running the cities and the regional governments?

The war in Donbas is bound to be a serious trauma for all who fought in it. The people who have watched it unfold on television will also be traumatized. It seems we are all veterans, and veterans always need to learn how to forgive.

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