In Yekaterinburg, the main city of Russia’s Ural region, retired army officer Vladimir Yefimov organizes army veterans to fight for Russia in southeastern Ukraine, more than 1,000 miles away.
While Russia’s deployment of army troops and non-official Russian “volunteer” fighters in Ukraine is not news, Yefimov describes in new detail how Russian army vets are selected, organized and paid to join the war. His account underscores that the army of Russian “volunteers” is run with at least the tacit help of the Kremlin.
Yefimov is a former special forces (spetsnaz) officer who now heads the Sverdlovsk Oblast Fund for Special Forces Veterans. In an interview with Yekaterinburg Online, a local news website, he told of sending between 150 and 250 fighters to Ukraine’s Donbas war zone this year.
While he says his fighters are “volunteers” rather than mercenaries, they are paid salaries: from $1,000 per month for a low-ranking enlisted man to $2,000 to $4,000 for officers. Yefimov did not answer the reporter’s question about who pays the salaries.
Ukraine’s government says more than 10,000 Russian mercenaries form the bulk of the Russian proxy forces that the Kremlin has used to sponsor the creation of the separatist “people’s republics” in parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. Many fighters are motivated by the propaganda of the Kremlin-controlled media, Yefimov says.
“Our press and television present the dramatic facts. The Russian people cannot tolerate the terror that the fascists have staged there [in Ukraine]. Killing women, children and the elderly. Most of those who go [to fight] are sensitive and empathetic; they want to help. This is especially true for people from 40 to 60 years of age, who were brought up under Soviet traditions.” Other fighters go because they miss the adrenaline of war or to earn money, he said.
Russian fighters were first sent into Ukraine as “escorts” for Red Cross aid trucks, Yefimov says, and they now are sent via “humanitarian aid” convoys supervised by the paramilitary Ministry of Emergency Situations.
In an interview published the day after Yefimov’s, the director in Moscow of the Red Cross, Igor Trunov, says the dispatch of Russian “humanitarian convoys” to Ukraine is a violation of international humanitarian law, and says the “Putin convoys” are likely to have carried weapons to the [separatist] militia-controlled area of Donbas.
“I do not want to throw stones in the garden of our institutions, of our state…. But there is international law. What is the Ministry of Emergency Situations? It’s a paramilitary organ of the Russian state. And as a paramilitary structure it entered the territory of another state? … This is an invasion. This is a violation; it cannot be done.”
With Yefimov’s interview, “a Russian has confirmed what Russia has done,” writes Eurasia scholar Paul Goble, noting “the level of detail he provides, the photographs of those involved, and the reproductions of the forms he and his comrades use” in running their operation.
Yefimov’s points include these:
The Kremlin is quietly supportive but is keeping all deployment of fighters unofficial. Yefimov wrote to the office of President Vladimir Putin to ask for official status that would let recruiters open bank accounts. Putin’s regional representative wrote in reply that “At the moment, consideration of the initiative is not possible. Thank you for your patriotic impulse!”
Russian veterans’ associations form a broad recruitment network. “I’m not the only one sending,” Yefimov says. “Others doing it are the Afghan veterans’ groups, the Chechnya veterans. We don’t discuss with each other the numbers, but we keep in touch by phone about those who have been rejected—for example for criminal records, for objective reasons, so that they don’t go to war through others. Still, to fully control the flow of departing volunteers, of course, is impossible: The border is open.
The casualties among Russian volunteers are uncounted. “I think no one has it,” Yefimov says, referring to a tally of deaths among “volunteer” fighters. “There is no central coordination in the sending of people, there is no general assembly point, so there are neither statistics nor an understanding of the scale.”
The interview below was first published in Yekaterinburg Online on December 24, 2014
Head of the Sverdlovsk Fund of Spetsnaz Veterans: “I Help Volunteers Go to Fight in Ukraine”
By Ilya Kazakov
Sverdlovsk residents are traveling to Ukraine to fight and are dying in the war; this is already a fact. In August, we recall, Alex Zasov, a contract soldier from Novouralsk, was killed in southeastern Ukraine; the Russian president recently decorated him posthumously with the Order of Courage.
On October 15, two Urals residents—Vasily Zhukov from the Sverdlovsk village of Belokammeniy, and a 37-year-old native of the village of Novoutkinsk, Gennady Korolev—were killed after being hit by an explosive shell from a Ukrainian tank. Another man in that battle, wedding photographer Mikhail Laptev from Kamyshlov, lost a leg.
On October 30, Donetsk airport police shot and killed former Yekaterinburg policeman Paul Bulanova, and for almost a month and a half, his relatives were unable to bring his body back from Ukrainian territory.
On December 14 in Yekaterinburg, Urals-region volunteers were solemnly decorated, having distinguished themselves in combat in Ukraine and returned home safe and sound.
We found the man who organized this award. He works, as he states himself (and by the accounts of several relatives of the boys who have died over there), to send Sverdlovsk’s men to the civil war.
Who is he? Why does he do this? And is it true that volunteers get a lot of money? The answers come in an exclusive interview with the head of the Sverdlovsk Fund of Special Forces Veterans, Vladimir Yefimov.
Q. Why do you head up the special forces veterans’ fund? What issues do you work on?
A. In 1993, I commanded a combined detachment of the Sverdlovsk region in the storming of the White House in Moscow. At the direction of Boris Yeltsin, I participated in the suppression of the “red-brown” coup.
In 1994, the cossacks elected me ataman [head] of the Isetsky Line Cossack Army [a prominent Cossack paramilitary organization based in the Urals region]. In 1998, I became the head of the oblast Fund of Special Forces Veterans. Since 2000, I’ve been retired.
About 1,500 people from throughout the Urals participate in the work of the fund. We engage in military-patriotic education, the socioeconomic rehabilitation of war veterans. But now, given the situation in the country, we have no time for social activities. We help with sending volunteers to Ukraine.
Q. When did you begin to help in sending the Urals men to the war?
A. After the Maidan, but before the reunification of Crimea [to Russia]. I called up the veterans themselves, and said, “Dmitrich, what’s going on?! Let’s go, it’s necessary to restore order!”
I took time to weigh everything. And they could not resist and they rushed off at their own risk. There is a good old saying: If it’s impossible to prevent a chaotic situation, then it’s better to lead it. After that, I began to prepare the first group to go to Crimea.
The first to go were the guys from Khanty-Mansiysk: special forces veterans. Cossacks. They themselves worked in shifts to prepared the GAZ-66 [military truck], and three jeeps equipped to the nines. They paid for it all out of their own pockets. They took me and we drove off. In Crimea, I have many relatives and friends.
When we reached Kerch, I organized everything—gave the fellows responsible guys who connected them to the base, and in the end they were “polite people.” [This is a label used for the armed men in uniforms similar to the Russian and unmarked; they participated in Crimea until its formal re-unification to Russia—author’s note.]
When Crimea became Russia, they returned. They received great satisfaction. Some went for the adrenaline, some went just not to be bored. From that moment I seriously took up sending volunteers to Ukraine, including to Lugansk and Donetsk.
Q. How are the volunteers selected?
A. People come to us at the fund. They write to me a declaration: “Please provide me with support in sending me to provide help to the struggling people of Novorossiya.” Together with this declaration, the man fills out a questionnaire with his data: who he is, where, where he is from, where he served [in the military], what combat experience he has. If he is a member of the Fund, such a profile already exists in our database.
After we read his application we conduct an interview. If a person is suitable as a combatant, I include him in the group to send. To all such people we give a “volunteer’s pass.” That is, specifically, “volunteer,” not “militiaman.” This is an official paper with the stamp of the Fund, so that no one later ties us to mercenarism.
Q. Who goes to Ukraine?
A. All kinds of people. Guys from 35 to 55 years are the most seasoned age group. There are younger guys, too. Since June I’ve sent six groups, each of 15 to 30 people, to Donetsk and two groups of 30 people to Lugansk. There are also the well-off guys who can equip themselves. They were completely useless. Some of them hadn’t even served in the army.
There were even some who said, “Take me—I’m a drug addict. Maybe there I can get off the needle under the stress of that situation.”
I’m not the only one sending. Others doing it are the Afghan veterans’ groups, the Chechnya veterans. We don’t discuss with each other the numbers, but we keep in touch by phone about those who have been rejected—for example for criminal records, for objective reasons—so that they don’t go to war through others. Still, to fully control the flow of departing volunteers, of course, is impossible: The border is open.
Q. It’s said that guards of private security firms are sent there in an organized way. Is that so?
A. First time I heard about it. But I don’t rule out that they can go there. They’re not connected with the state; their status as volunteers is assured. But, of course, they have few skills. Not everyone can be qualified. Over there they need guys with combat experience
Q. And active-duty military, Emergency Situations (Ministry) personnel, or police—during their holidays, can they go?
A. Russian legislation does not prohibit this. If there is a specific, direct prohibition [from the agency or unit commander], then they can’t. If not, they can go. The need for professionals there is great. But you understand that within the government, everything has been thought through. If someone gets caught over there, he will have long before that already have been dismissed, and it’s possible even that the documents for that eventuality will have been prepared in advance. That’s what I think [laughs].
Q. Do you somehow divide up the professionals and useless? Or they are on the same team?
A. I immediately separate the flies from the cutlets: Special forces and elite go to Donetsk. Cossacks and newcomers without combat experience—to Lugansk.
Q. How much does it cost to provide one volunteer?
A. On average, a soldier with equipment and salary, which I estimate will hold in the future, goes for around 350 thousand [rubles; at recent exchange rates, equivalent to $5,500 to $6,500] per month. This is the cost of special forces work. One armored vest costs [$1,200]; night-vision binoculars are $1,500. And there is more winter clothing, footwear, food, medicines. This is really the market price.
Q. Of that amount, how much would be salary?
A. Now there are even informal wage standards. I am told that Pyatigorsk Cossacks get paid somewhere around 60,000 to 90,000 rubles a month [$1,000 to $1,500] for enlisted personnel; and 120,000 to 150,000 [$2,000 to $2,600] for officers. Now, they say, salaries have grown as high as 240,000 [$4,000].
Q. And why a salary? After all, they are all volunteers, as you say.
A. I think that people have to be paid. After all, they are risking their lives. With the help of a salary, the professionals can be attracted to the war. They come, and their eyes sparkle. They accomplish their mission and they don’t feel mistreated. [He pats his pocket.]
Q. Who pays all of this?
A. We get help, for everything except for the salaries, from volunteers and activists. They find and organize KamAZes [cargo trucks] with humanitarian aid. They find people willing to help with equipping the fighters. We don’t have a formal [bank] account for assisting the volunteers. So often, this is the mechanism we use: We bring our sponsors with the bills for what we need. After it’s paid, we get a chit for the goods with which we pick them up. It also can happen that someone will have 100,000 rubles [$1,700] and will call me and say, “Let’s go buy them something.” Then we’ll take him with eight volunteers and each one can choose what he needs.
Q. Do you also buy weapons?
A. No, we don’t buy weapons. How would we buy them here? All of that is handled on the receiving side. You arrive, you sign, you receive. You’re coming back, you hand it over. They’re very strict with this.
Q. Our government is sponsoring you?
A. So far, it doesn’t help at all. In June I wrote a letter to the [Russian] presidential representative for the Urals Federal District, Igor Kholmanski. There I clearly explained that it is necessary to create a [government-registered] social organization to support the volunteer movement in Donbas. Officially.
That would let us open a bank account, to which businesses could transfer money. We could then establish official relationships with our volunteers—negotiated contracts. Not to fight, but to provide humanitarian assistance [laughs].
The law is like a post—you cannot step over it, but you can step around it. Officially, the organization would select candidates for humanitarian service. We need our own training center, where it would be possible to train people and, in the course of training, assign each person a military specialty.
Q. And what did the presidential representation say to you?
A. “At the moment, consideration of the initiative is not possible. Thank you for your patriotic impulse.”
Q. And how do the volunteers get to their duty station?
A. The first time they went under the guise of the Red Cross. They would get from the local branch a document that they were escorts [for a convoy]. When they arrived, they just stayed there. They were given weapons and put into combat missions.
Now we also load the boys into the trucks with the humanitarian aid and send them. On average, they go for a month. Some do it while on vacation, some probably just to earn money. I ask them not to tell me how much they receive. It doesn’t concern me.
Q. After that, you are no longer responsible for their fate?
A. We don’t have the money to bring the body back to Russia or to help the relatives. I immediately warn all those who are leaving about this. They have no illusions. But where we can, we do provide help.
Q. And how many Russian volunteers were killed in the Donets Basin, including the Urals? Do you have this data?
A. I don’t have it. And I think no one has it. There is no central coordination in the sending of people, there is no general assembly point, so there are neither statistics nor an understanding of the scale.
Q. Don’t you consider it necessary to investigate the killing of each volunteer? To clarify the reason for his death?
A. It’s essential to understand. The commander of a normal unit keeps a log of operations in which he puts the intelligence information, each battle, all the plans, and the particulars of all irretrievable losses. But it must be understood that under the conditions of war, it’s not always possible to establish the exact cause of death.
Q. Can the relatives of those killed get access to this information? Can they learn how and where their relatives were killed?
A. We tell them what happened.
Q. So why do all these volunteers still go there?
A. Our press and television present the dramatic facts. The Russian people cannot tolerate the terror that the fascists have staged there [in Ukraine]. Killing women, children and the elderly. Most of those who go are sensitive and empathetic; they want to help. This is especially true for people from 40 to 60 years of age, who were brought up under Soviet traditions. My blood boils when I see an artillery explosion upon a woman with a child. What are those swine doing?
Such sentiments were aroused especially by the events in Odessa, where a lot of guys were burned alive. Some people also go for the adrenaline. Especially those already have fought previously and who feel pulled back to it.
Q. You are helping people to go to war. Do you not feel sorry for them?
A. Do you think it doesn’t make me sad? I’m sorry, of course. Don’t imagine that my goal is to send as many as possible there. No, my goal is to send as few as possible. And for those I send, that they’re the ones best prepared for combat, and those who can’t be stopped in any case. Those will go, if not through me, then through others, or even on their own.
I see a special forces guy with experience. Yes, he drinks, but he has no family, no children. He wants to fight.
For the inexperienced, I try to dissuade them. I say, you’re not a professional; you’ll be the first in combat to fall. Not long ago, a very young boy came to me. He hadn’t served [in the military]. He declared he wanted to go make war in a United Ukraine. With a trident on his arm. I really let him have it. …
Q. Now in Ukraine the situation is relatively calmer. Are new groups of volunteers preparing to go?
A. Most recently, Russian volunteers have been squeezed out of Novorossiya under various pretexts. Commanders are calling guys who are already there and saying, “Go home, you’re not needed here.” So for now, I’m not preparing new groups. They’re just not needed. But there are reserves.
Q. Are you afraid of what will happen, as in Kazakhstan, where volunteers who fought in Donbas are on trial? That suddenly you might be charged? For example, for mercenarism?
A. For myself and for those volunteers who went to fight on my voucher, I am calm. If someone finds that we are working to fulfill some order [from anyone], let them put us on trial. But you cannot prove something that’s not there. People are going there voluntarily.
James Rupert is an editor with the Atlantic Council. This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council website.