In Dmitriy Kovalevich, Radhika Desai, Russia, Ukraine

Since 2018, Dmitriy Kovalevich has been writing monthly updates on Ukraine for the New Cold War website, bringing our readers up to date on events in the country as they unfold. To broaden our understanding of what is happening, while the wall to wall propaganda that passes for mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict becomes difficult to penetrate, Radhika Desai conducted a written interview in March with Dmitriy Kovalevich, a Ukraine-based journalist and reporter, activist of a leftwing organization Borotba (Struggle), banned in Ukraine along with other Left or communist organizations.

By Radhika Desai

Published on NCW, April 28, 2022

The wall to wall propaganda that passes for mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict is difficult to penetrate. To aid in this, Radhika Desai conducted a written interview in March with Dmitriy Kovalevich, a Ukraine-based journalist and reporter, activist of a leftwing organization Borotba (Struggle), banned in Ukraine along with other Left or communist organizations.

RD: How do you assess the Russians’ rationale for their actions since February 24? How does this rationale relate to the weeks and months leading up to February 24 and with the longer-term perspective, going back to 2014, and perhaps even further back? Why was the action launched on February 24?

DK: I can’t know the plans or real motives of the Russian government. There are only some suggestions voiced by Russian political experts, why it happened exactly in February. They seemingly received the news about possible Ukraine’s advance on Donbass republics scheduled in March and aborted these plans. Ukraine’s army has been deployed in the Donbass area since 2014 but more recently it reached some 80,000 troops.

Before the Russians’ intervention, Zelensky publicly spoke at the Munich conference about considering plans to make Ukraine’s own nuclear weapon (when talking about the Budapest memorandum 1994). And Ukraine has the technical capacities to do it, because of Soviet-era institutions and nuclear plants. 

I suppose also that non-military Russian preparations took place years ago in the form of negotiations with important Third world countries, China, India etc. And possibly the Russians needed time to secure some of their reserves and deploy their domestic production of some crucial products. 

I think that when Zelensky was elected President in 2019, the Russians had some illusions about Ukraine’s government desire to end the war in Donbass and fulfill the Minsk agreement signed in 2015.  In 2022 the illusions vanished thanks to  several statements from Zelensky about his government’s unwillingness to fulfill the agreements in the form they were signed).

RD: Why did the Russian recognition of the two Donbass republics come when it did? Why did it not come earlier?

DK: The recognition came in the form of a bill from the Russian Communist Party which was pressed for years by their Donetsk colleagues. As I said, Zelensky’s election had given rise to some illusions about fulfillment of the Minsk peace agreements and would have involved  the reintegration of Donetsk and Lugansk back in Ukraine but with a special status (a kind of autonomy). This could have stopped the war in Ukraine, along with the anti-Russian policy of Ukraine. This was, however, an outcome undesired for some Western hawks.

RD: What do you think the Russians are trying to achieve? What are the LPR and DPR authorities trying to achieve?

DK: They stated their goals openly; denazifying (the ban on Nazi organizations and disbanding of their military units), demilitarization, neutral status, recognition of Donbass republics and Crimea. DPR and LPR authorities want to stop the daily shelling of their cities, first of all. West media focus only on Russians’ actions since 24 February, but the war has been going on since 2014. The Russians say they didn’t start the war but are finishing it. 

RD: What is the political makeup of the two republics? Has it changed over the past eight very troubled years?

DK: There are two main political wings inside the republics, both banned and driven out of Ukraine. The first is a pro-Russian wing, though it also includes ethnic Ukrainians, Armenians and Tatars. It is oriented towards Russia as includes those who have close ties with their relatives in Russia. The second is a pro-Soviet wing, represented by communist and antifascist groups. They were banned in Ukraine and largely moved to the Republics from the rest of Ukraine’s regions, escaping persecution and assaults. 

There are also movements like ‘The Donetsk Republic’, or the republicans. They tried to develop a concept of Donbass identity, neither Russian nor Ukrainian. This identity was not ethnically based, but a multinational identity, based on working class identity. 

Comparing it with 2014, the political map there became more pro-Russian – at least we can see this tendency, since the republics relied on Russian supplies. 

RD: What are the principal strategies and tactics of Kiev in all this? What is their end game? How do military activity, media publicity and military action all interact in their strategy and tactics? Do you think they feel betrayed by the West? Should they?

DK: I’m sure that the tactics and actions of our government are imposed by its Western partners (mostly by the UK and US). That’s external governance. Our authorities don’t enjoy complete independence. I’m sure they don’t make autonomous decisions about their own tactics but just voice the West’s instructions. They will surrender when they are ordered to surrender. But still, US and UK tactics aim to make our country a new Afghanistan or Syria – a country that keeps generating problems for Russia in the long term (the Ukrainians don’t matter in this scenario). Our authorities in Kyiv fulfill this job just waiting for a moment when they will be able to leave this country and relax in their mansions in Western countries. 

RD: How do you assess the progress of the conflict so far? We in the west are hearing that the Russians are bogged down and that the Kiev forces are bravely fighting back and even inflicting reversals. What is your assessment?

DK: The Russians say that everything is according to their plan. The West’s sources say that their plans were disrupted because allegedly they had hoped to win within a few days. But who knows what the plans were. The Russians and Donbass fighters are advancing every single day – some miles or a few dozen miles a day. 

The NATO countries daily supply Ukraine’s troops with ammunition. Daily, the Russians make missile strikes at the military depots.  A war correspondent working in Donetsk recently commented: ‘I’m to remind you that we started actions against some 600,000 troops (400,000 Ukraine’s army, National Guard plus some 200,000 of territorial defense, armed militias) with some 200,000 troops (the Russians plus Donetsk/Lugansk). It’s not an easy mission, but we are advancing with each single day’.

RD: Are you sure that these numbers are correct? The Western media report very different ones as you can see here, or here. Could you please give some clarification or a rebuttal?

DK: Before the start of the war Ukraine’s armed forces were some 250,000. The National guard  – some 60,000 (notorious Azov neo-Nazis are exactly there). The National police (most of its personnel was also mobilized to the war and police departments actually stopped their routine work investigating ordinary crimes) – 130,000 Security Service (including battalions of special operations) – some 40 000 The Border Guard (its units from eastern southern and northern Ukraine participate in the hostilities) – totally was some 53 000 Territorial Defense (paramilitaries) – the approximate number is about 150,000.

So, totally there were more than 600,000 armed militants and law enforcement services prior to the start of the war. In the end of February there started the first wave of mobilization (conscription of former soldiers). Since March 15 – the second wave. Males aged from 18 to 60 years are not allowed to leave the country. Although there are numbers cases when they illegally try to cross the border unwilling to fight. There are no data showing how many were drafted within the [first – ed] month of the war.

Plus, reportedly, some 6 or 7 000 foreign fighters (volunteers or mercenaries came). West sources usually don’t count the National guard, security service and reserves mobilized within the last month.

The other side: Russian forces – from 175 to 190 000, Donetsk forces – some 20 000, Lugansk forces – some 14 000. See here.

RD: Many say that before the Russian operation began on February 24, 2022, Ukrainians were very disillusioned with Zelensky, but Russia’s actions have united the nation. Do you agree? What were people most dissatisfied with Zelensky about? What has changed since February, 24?

DK: It is very difficult to assess. Our polls couldn’t be trusted even before February – they often provided completely different results on the Ukrainians’ attitude to any issue. We didn’t have even a census since 2001 – so, we don’t know how many people then lived and are now living in the country.

Our people in 2019 had hopes that Zelensky would change the situation. Their desires were mostly relating to economic grievances, but he continued the same West imposed neoliberal reforms. And many Ukrainians still consider him just a popular actor – they don’t see him as a president who may take important decisions. His mission is to entertain and they like this show. Even before February many social protests in Ukraine took place in front of the US embassy instead of the presidential palace or parliament, as workers realized where the real power lay. 

Even now many don’t believe Zelensky is in Kiev – they say he may record his videos anywhere in a safe place abroad. 

RD: Until a year or two ago, the Western Media was full of scary reports about the extent of neo Nazi activity in Ukraine. Now, if Russians mention neo-Nazis as part of their justification, they have a single answer: Zelensky is Jewish. What do you think is the extent of the neo-Nazi threat, to Ukrainians, to the DPR and LPR, to Russians and to Europe more generally?

DK: Since 2014, Ukraine and the US were the only two countries in the world  which voted in the UN against the resolution condemning glorification of Nazism every year. And that was a deliberate choice. They did this even though a UN resolution is not an obligation. 

As I said, Zelensky is just a puppet – an actor acting as a president. He also serves nicely in refuting  the accusation that Nazism is prevalent in Ukraine). Moreover, Nazism or fascism cannot be confined  to anti-Semitism alone. Anti-Semitism existed in various countries centuries before fascism. Earlier versions of the Mussolini’s fascism were initially quite tolerant towards Jews and even included some people of Jewish origin in its leadership (unlike German Nazism). Fascism and Nazism appeared as reactionary movement against revolutionary movements – right after the Russian revolution. First of all, they were anticommunist. They became anti-Semitic only because in the Europe of early 20th century, Jews were an oppressed minority, and were very active in revolutionary movements.  

 Western media say that there are supposedly no Nazis while airing reports from Ukraine’s army – showing insignias of SS ‘Volfsangel’, other runic Nazi symbols. Numbers of our militaries were SS insignia ‘Totenkopf’ (Dead Head), a symbol in the form of a scull once used by German Nazis, now it is widely used by Ukraine’s militants. See here.

Additionally, Ukraine officially pursues the very policy of glorifying Ukrainian WW2 Nazis and Nazi collaborators. The official greeting in Ukraine’s army was changed some years ago into ‘Slava Ukraini’ (Glory to Ukraine) – a slogan of WW2 fascists. Our school curriculum glorifies the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – fascist organizations which pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler in 1941. Fascism in Ukraine is not only about the Third Reich but more about its Ukrainian WW2 allies. The OUN organized in late 1920s on the model of West European fascist organizations. It has its military wing – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA in Ukrainian). They were headed by Stepan Bandera. In 1941, after the Nazi occupation of Ukraine they declared: “The newly formed Ukrainian state will work closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany, under the leadership of its leader Adolf Hitler which is forming a new order in Europe and the world and is helping the Ukrainian People to free itself from Moscovite occupation” See here.

And that was one of the main causes for uprising in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 – their relatives had fought against Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in West Ukraine throughout 1940s and 1950s. Actually, in some important ways, the Donbass war was a continuation of the civil strife of the 1940s when two sides of Ukraine were mostly on different sides. 

The point is that Ukraine has always been connected with Russia culturally and historically. To cut those ties Western authorities could only use Ukrainian fascism and anti-Semitism. What is valuable or significant in Ukraine’s history is necessarily connected to Russia and the Soviet Union. Soviet Ukraine accepted and celebrated almost all the important figures and phenomena of Ukrainian history – with the only one exclusion – the history of Ukrainian fascism and Nazi collaborationism was thrown into a dustbin. Therefore, you can’t disassociate Ukraine and Russia without relying on fascism – because there is no other historical ground for that.  

RD: We have also seen reports of atrocities, including public humiliations by the Azov Battalion and similar forces, against many, including on the Roma. What are the attitudes of the LPR and DPR forces towards minorities in their jurisdictions?

The Ukrainian language remains the official language in the Donbass republics along with the Russian but they speak mostly a Creole dialect, a mix of the two.  These Republics promote a non-ethnic policy. Donbass was a region almost unpopulated till the end of the 18th century. When coal was found there, the region started to experience intensified industrialization becoming the ‘ heart of Russian industrialization’. People from dozens of ethnic origins came there mixing, merging and developing their own Creole dialect. Donbass coal-miners have a saying: ‘It doesn’t matter who are you or where you are from, only your hands and skills matter’. The so-called Donbass identity was actually a denial of ethnic identity. A typical Donbass coal-miner is a Greek-Russian-Armenian-Turk or something like that. That’s also why they were mostly hated by Ukraine’s nationalists who considered them ‘bastards’ – people of ‘non-pure origin’. I didn’t hear any stories about abuse of the Roma people in the Donbass republics, unlike in other Ukraine’s regions. 

RD: To what extent do you think Kiev’s ‘resistance’ is the work of the neo-Nazis? How powerful are they? How much help have they received since the call for people from around the world to come and fight for Ukraine was received?

DK: Ukrainian Nazis and far-right nationalists resist as strongly as they can, particularly because Donetsk and Lugansk militants promised not to be merciful towards them in avenging for 8 years of shelling. So, that’s a matter of survival for the Nazis. They also were appointed to leading positions in many regular army regiments, as military governors of regions or heads of territorial defense units. Far-right militants come from all over the world to fight for them, including neo-Nazis from Russia – since Russia began to root out its Nazis in 2013-2015 – numbers of them migrated to Ukraine and joined Azov. The Russian authorities organized a large-scale crackdown on its neo-Nazi groups. Some hundreds were imprisoned, Hundreds or thousands fled from Russia including to Ukraine. It was reported here at the time.

Currently there are approximately six or thousand thousand foreign fighters on Ukraine’s side – both neo-Nazis and paid mercenaries. Some hundreds were reportedly killed very quickly right on their bases soon after arrival – Russians fired  missiles at them because they knew for certain where they were. Their intelligence network includes  agents in each Ukrainian  detachment. 

RD: This past week Zelensky banned several left and Centre left parties. What motivated that, do you think? What did these parties stand for and could they really be a problem for the government in the conflict context? What about the arrest of Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Opposition Platform for Life party?

DK: These parties couldn’t pose a threat for Zelensky. For years since 2014 they were attacked by the far-right militants and many of their members migrated to Russia or Donbass. Some parties like the Socialists, or Left opposition had already ceased functioning in Ukrainian politics because of such crackdowns and witch hunts. Their official ban was rather a sign to please the neo-Nazi fighters amidst the war as our government requires their loyalty and pleases their desires.

RD: Has there been a similar crackdown on the media?

DK: Definitely, we and our media experienced many attacks since 2014. First pro-Soviet or pro-Russian media were banned. Then social networks like Vkontakte [an online social media and social networking service based in Saint Petersburg]. Then Zelensky closed 6 TV-channels by a decision based just on a secret report from the Security service (without a trial and without providing any evidence). In March Kiev authorities announced there should be only a single information policy – that is each media source has to comply with the official narrative. 

RD: What do you understand about the attitudes of civilians in Ukraine to the war? What do you know about the organization of humanitarian corridors by both sides and Russians’ claims about Ukrainian forces’ use of human shields and civilian infrastructures?

DK: The Ukrainians differ in their views of the situation.  Some wait for the Russians, some support the fight against them. But these two types of civilians are rather minorities. The majority are scared. They try to escape and do not care so much about politics but are concerned with their family members’ survival. 

As for humanitarian corridors, civilians are not, as a rule, let out by forces that are weaker technically and can’t survive in a field battle. That describes the Ukrainian army best. They do not permit civilians to leave and the presence of thousands of civilians restricts the Russians’ abilities to fight with their technically superior means. The Russians don’t need them in those cities – as it would be easier for them to fight without civilians in-between. Moreover, Ukraine’s authority acts on behalf of Western authorities – and the latter require media pictures of suffering to gain sympathy among Western audiences and make them to accept further cuts and neoliberal reforms necessitated by increased military expenditure. 

Many Ukrainian cities are besieged. But authorities in Kyiv refuse to permit civilians to be evacuated on Russian-controlled territory. They even call it ‘deportation’. They even claim that refugees on Russian-controlled territories will be deported all the way to Siberia. Kiyv authorities also require Russians to apply officially by filling out official forms, to our government bodies to agree about a humanitarian corridor. This is possible in peace time but impossible in war time. 

RD: How have the Russians dealt with the cities they control? Have things gone as expected? Have there been mishaps or mistakes? We hear of the appointment of mayors and senior officials, the replacement or otherwise of local leaders where the places fall to the Lugansk and Donetsk. In Melitopol, we hear that the Russians put a new local government in place.

DK: This aspect is one of the Russian failures. It seems as if they have not yet managed to organize control over seized cities. They have no administrative bodies there. Sometimes they supply the locals with food. Yesterday they started to pay pensions and salaries in some cities (just some $120). Some Ukrainian deputies or local authorities who agreed to cooperate with the Russians or Donetsk were killed by Ukrainian security service members dressed as civilians in the seized cities.  A day ago, they kidnapped a daughter of the mayor of Kupyanks who cooperated with the Russians. Kyiv security services promise to kill the locals who dare to cooperate with the Russians. In this context, only some Ukrainian communists dare to do it. 

RD: Another important question concerns the extent to which water, electricity, telecommunications work in different settlements that have been/are being surrounded (a kind of siege tactic). What do you know about this?

DK: In the besieged cities the situation is grim. Often there is no water, electricity or communications – infrastructure is often seriously damaged there. 

RD: How are neighbouring countries reacting to the conflict in Ukraine? We read in some reports for instance that Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk has questioned what she has described as Hungary’s “pro-Russian” rhetoric, suggesting that the desire for “cheap Russian gas” or even a potential land grab of Ukrainian territory. And of course, Poland may be interested in parts of western Ukraine and may try to take it cover of a ‘humanitarian intervention’? How do you view this situation?

DK: In recent  years Ukraine’s government had problems with almost all its neighbors due to its nationalist policy and its banning of education facilities or media of ethnic minorities including Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks etc. Still, what happens now in relations with neighbours depends very much on the position of the US – since Poland follows US policy it tends to forget about the cult of our Nazi-collaborators of OUN/UPA (the Banderites) hated in Poland for massacre of ethnic Poles in 1943-1944 (the Wolhynian massacre). Hungary is a bit more independent in its stance and insists on the right of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine and blocks Ukraine’s entry into NATO. 

RD: At this stage in the game, what do you think is the most likely outcome? What might a possible peace agreement look like & how might we get there. What role, if any, might there be for China and influential countries of the Global South, such as South Africa or India.

DK: To a significant extent, what happens now will be not only about Ukraine but also about reshaping world policy – undermining the positions of the First World countries and strengthening that of the interests of countries like China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and many others. 

A world map showing the division between the countries that supported sanctions against Russia and those that did not support them coincides with the map of countries that voted against (or abstained) and for the UN resolutions condemning the glorification of Nazism. 

Basically, it’s a division between the First and Third World (Global South) countries. From this perspective there is too much at stake – the very fate of the West’s financial and economic system, its ability to impose prices and tariffs, buy up natural resources for cheap. So, I suppose the struggle will be much more intensive and may involve other countries as well. I can only hope that it will not lead to a nuclear conflict. 


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