In Background, Ukraine

Interview by André Ortega, published on Revista Opera, April 2, 2015. Translation from Portugese by Tarcisio Praciano-Pereira.

André Ortega is a Brazilian journalist who publishes his articles on He traveled to eastern Ukraine for forty days in February/March, 2015 in order to report on the war there. Much of his time was spent reporting on the Che Guevara Internationalist Brigade, a brigade formed largely by Brazilian volunteers fighting with the Donbas self-defense forces. His reporting trip was made possible by the fundraising effort of Revista Opera, an online publication in Brazil.

Cossack artillery in eastern Ukraine

Cossack artillery in eastern Ukraine

Cossacks are centuries-old, distinct communities in the border regions of southeast Ukraine and Russia. In the past, they had deep traditions of military service, notably for the Russian Tsarist empire. 

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Introduction by André Ortega: Commander “Richard” of the Grand Army of the Don is a native of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. He is a retired major of the former army of the Soviet Union and the commander of artillery batteries of the 1st Regiment of the Grand Army of the Don (Cossacks) in Donbas, eastern Ukraine.

He was interviewed in the second half of February, 2015 and proved to be a man of considerable education with a calm personality. Over the course of two weeks, I watched him act as a commander well respected by his subordinates. He was very serious, even a little distant, and showed a certain paternal authority with the troops, perhaps because of his age and experience.

His quiet stance contrasted with that of a typical military man–authoritarian, histrionic. Commander Richard’s his eyes were fixed, his voice calm and his beard neatly trimmed, unlike most of his subordinates. He is about 1.75 meters tall with a medium body and his uniform stood out, especially his beret, displaying items probably acquired during his past military service. I must say that his calm demeanour is an impressive merit considering that his troop was one of the busiest I came across.

What led you to join the war in Ukraine?

In World War II, my grandparents fought against the fascists. One of them fought here against ‘banderism’, a criminal movement that served Hitler. The other grandparent defended Moscow.

Also, I grew up watching and reading of the heroism of World War II in books and movies, which inspired me a lot. In 1981, I graduated from the military academy of the USSR and served as a major in a conflict in the Caucasus that I do not want to specify. This is not my first war, so when the conflict started, I had to serve my country.

What did you think of the cease fire reached in February?

It is not the first ceasefire agreement. Every time we have significant gains, a ceasefire happens. The ceasefire is a demonstration of good will by our government to show to the West that we are neither terrorists nor separatists nor all the other criminal figures they paint us to be. It is always the Ukrainian army that breaks the ceasefire because it uses them to reorganize, restructured and turn to the offensive again.

The West claimed the capture of Debaltseve was a rupture of the ceasefire by rebels. What do you think?

Debaltseve was not a breach of the agreement because it was expected that this would be our territory. It was a corridor which Ukraine used to supply the city and bombard us from there. It is interesting to note that for every militiaman in the Debaltseve pocket, there were 21 Ukrainian soldiers, but we nevertheless managed to take the city and solve an internal problem of our boundaries (according to the terms of the ceasefire).

Remember that the Ukrainian Republic consists of 25 oblasts, so this war is 23 states against two states. [Note: Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts are not currently under the full control of the rebels.] Observe that now, Ukraine’s stock of weapons from the Soviet era are captured or destroyed, so it will be evident that future fighting will be waged with Western support. If Europe wants to get into the war, Putin has said that this does not mean it will be a one-sided war [meaning that a Western intervention could create a Russian intervention].

What do you think about the future of Ukraine?

My parents are Ukrainian, I speak Ukrainian, but I also speak Russian very well. Though I consider myself Ukrainian normally, I consider myself above all a Russian. Currently, there is much conflict in the Slavic world, involving Slavs who do not consider themselves Slavs, aggressive nationalism, etc. I am in favor of a reconciliation of the all these people, a community on the borders of the former Russian Empire.

Russia never started an aggression, but we have dealt with several aggressions–the Tatar invasions, the Mongol invasion, the invasion of 1812 [by the France of Napoleon Bonaparte], the war against the Japanese [1904-05], the First World War and the Great Patriotic War.

What do you mean by this reference to the borders of the Empire?

This is not about restoring the Empire in itself but restoring a cultural and political community between those countries with a common past. We are brothers despite the different nationalities. I am for all nationalities living well together. What is happening here today reminds me of what happened in Spain in 1936. We ourselves are an international battalion, we have people from Western Europe, South America and Eastern countries that were never part of the Soviet Union.

And you think you are here setting an example for these countries to the Slavs or at least for Russian communities living outside the Federation?

Above all, every people is the master of their own destiny. Then it is up to each of them to decide their own future, but there is no problem in having a hub in Russia and another at Western Europe, at South America, and so on. I am in favor of a multipolar world, of having good relationships between peoples, of the importance of voluntary cooperation with normally occurring trade and no political blood.

What do you think of the future of the war?

I spoke with a friend from Kharkov and he gave me a report of the economic situation, a total crisis–the sugar that was sold by 5 grivnas now costs 20, there is no meat on the market, the economy is destroyed. Ukraine has to prepare an offensive and is betting on a victory or else it will cease to exist because the situation is unsustainable.

What is the political future of Novorossiya?

I have my political opinions, but they have no importance. I just hope that all workers, intellectuals, businessmen and military work together for the greater social good. The military’s job is to defend its people, its land and not get involved in politics disturbing the decisions of citizens. For example, the Cossack military command was invited to join the government but categorically refused because our job is to defend our country only. The political functions relate to the people and should be exercised by civilians.

Would you like to add a few words?

I want to thank Brazil for your interest in what is happening here and sending such a volunteer as Rafael [referring to Rafael Lusvarghi, who served in his unit for about a month]. For me, he is already is someone of us, besides being a great soldier.

The Ukrainian people do not want war any more. Of course, there are fanatic nationalists, but most of those are now mercenaries of the European Union. The people in general are tired and do not want to fight.


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