Troops from Russia’s Pacific Far East Region Are Prominent in a War 4,200 Miles to the West
The Russian island of Sakhalin, in the Pacific Ocean just north of Japan, is fully a continent away from the war raging in southeastern Ukraine. But Konstantin Gorelov, a 22-year-old, active-duty Russian naval infantry commando, made the 4,200-mile trip as a “vacation” to join other members of his force in the intensive battle this month over the international airport in Donetsk.
Gorelov’s account, in an interview with a Sakhalin-based website, CitySakh.ru, confirms reports by Ukraine, NATO, and news media that active-duty Russian troops were key in the seizure of the airport from Ukrainian forces. In the Donbas war, “there are a lot of Russian military, they are not very visible, but they are working quietly and effectively,” Gorelov says. He gives few details about how he took leave from his marine unit in the Pacific to join the battle, saying simply that he was recruited by a fellow marine to go “help out the guys.” (See the full text of the interview below.)
Gorelov and other Russian marines fought in a Donetsk-based militia unit, called Sparta, commanded by a stocky, Russian ex-marine named Arseniy Pavlov. (Pavlov, who is better known in Ukraine and on the Internet by his nom de guerre, “Motorola,” has gotten press coverage not only for his fighting, but for taking a day off last July to get married in his camouflage uniform.) Sparta integrates the active-duty Russians so efficiently that, Gorelov says, the militia received him in Donetsk on December 25 and sent him, armed, to the front line the next day. Russian marines were filmed fighting the airport battle in their Russian uniforms.
While the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin characterizes the war in Ukraine as a spontaneous uprising by local residents against Kyiv’s rule, the rebellion has been led, armed, funded and fought by Russians who, like Gorelov, often proudly tell their stories to Russian local and regional news organizations. Last month, the main news website of Yekaterinburg, a Russian city in the Ural Mountains, interviewed a recruiter there for the war who said he was part of a nationwide network recruiting Russian ex-servicemen through veterans’ groups.
In Sakhalin, CitySakh.ru also has reported recruitment of army vets through an extreme right-wing Russian Orthodox paramilitary group, Russian National Unity (or Yedinstvo). While Russia’s Far East is distant from the Ukraine war, news agencies and war monitoring groups have reported a regular role in the fighting by Russian troops from Sakhalin and nearby regions. In July, amid the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the Associated Press quoted a Donbas rebel leader about a rebel unit near the shootdown “about half of which was made up of men from far eastern Russia, many from the island of Sakhalin off Russia’s Pacific coast.” A volunteer war-monitoring group run by Ukrainians, Georgians and others, InformNapalm.org, noted this week a continued presence of Russian units from the Far East in the Rostov region, which serves as Russia’s arena for positioning, training and inserting Russian troops into adjacent Ukraine.
In his interview, the Sakhalin marine, Gorelov, echoes the Kremlin’s official position that Russian soldiers like Gorelov may fight in Ukraine individually on their vacation time, but that Russian military units are not deployed in Ukraine. However, Russian women with the Mothers’ Soldiers’ Committees, and reports in local media such as the regional newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya, have confirmed that Russian units also have been ordered into the Ukraine war—and that the Russian army covers up details of those killed there. And Ukraine has captured Russian troops fighting with their units in the Donbas region.
“No one is fighting on the side of the militants by orders,” Gorelov said. “That’s a lie.” Other interviews with Russian troops, and news reports from Russia, say Russian active-duty soldiers are indeed ordered, pressured or tricked into signing up for combat tours in Ukraine.
Back at home in Sakhalin, a photo shows Gorelov relaxing on a sofa with a glass of beer and smiling as he displays a war souvenir—a street sign for the Donetsk airport. The Ukrainians who defended the airport, referred to by both sides as “cyborgs” for their tenacious fighting, were drug users, Gorelov insists: “They took some kind of drugs and could only be killed by shooting them in the head.”
Asked why the Russians finally were able to oust the Ukrainians, Gorelov says they did so by fighting under rules that would not “stand up in court.”
Inside the Russian-backed offensive in Ukraine, “materially the situation there is normal,” Gorelov said, “but militarily, not so good.” Despite the help from Russia, many among the mish-mash of pro-Russian militias—which have included Cossacks, Chechens, locals, Serbs, Russian veterans, and active-duty troops such as himself—are not fighting efficiently. “If everyone fought like Sparta, they would have knocked those ukropy [a disparaging term for Ukrainians] out of the Donetsk People’s Republic a long time ago.”
Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.