Maimed partisan says Russia can’t leave Donbas - there are too many witnesses of war crimes for the Hague
Volodymyr Zhemchugov learned first-hand about Russia’s involvement in his native Luhansk oblast and knows how much Moscow has to hide. In a recent Glavcom interview, he said that Russia wouldn’t leave Donbas, as it would be leaving behind hundreds of thousands of witnesses who could provide crucial testimony to the international tribunal at the Hague.
46-year-old Zhemchugov is one of those who is always providing vital evidence, including about the Russian FSB officers involved in his interrogation while held hostage, and Russia’s very active military role in Donbas.
Zhemchugov and his wife had been living and working for several years in Georgia when the war in Donbas began. They had come to visit his mother in Krasny Luch for Easter 2014 and Zhemchugov says he understood what was happening, and had to react. He took his wife back to Georgia, moved his mother to Kyiv and returned, as he says, to defend his country.
He initially wanted to join a volunteer battalion, but was told that as a Luhansk person, he would be much more use undercover. He has dismissed as nonsense the claims made by Kremlin-backed militants about Ukrainian Army or Security Service [SBU] sabotage groups being active. With all files having come into FSB hands, he asserts, such groups would have been swiftly identified and eliminated. Instead, there were local partisans like him. Some were involved in acts of sabotage targeting trains or columns of trucks with military technology, military officers and the telecommunications for military units. Others expressed their opposition in smaller ways – by raising flags in public places, graffiti etc. It should be stressed that any such opposition puts the individuals at risk. Two young football fans - 20-year-old Vlad [Vladislav] Ovcharenko and Artem Akhmerov (19) are still imprisoned by the militants, who appear to be accusing them of ‘state treason’ after a flash-mob with a Ukrainian flag.
Zhemchugov’s partisan activities came to an end in September 2015 when he stepped on a mine, and suffered multiple injuries. The explosion left him almost blinded and both arms from the elbow so badly damaged that they had to be amputated. He was taken prisoner by the militants, and held hostage until finally freed, as part of an exchange, on September 17, 2016 (details here).
He looks noticeably better during the Glavcom interview, and confirms that he is recovering, and is gradually regaining at least some sight. The process is long, however, and he will be undergoing treatment for another year.
Zhemchugov believes that Russia had begun plans to occupy Donbas immediately after the first Maidan, the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’.
In 2014, he says, all began with people paid for attending demonstrations, with this starting around New Year, organized by the local leaders in Krasny Luch. In fact, only some of the ‘demonstrators’ were paid, since many were simply forced by factory or mine bosses to attend.
Zhemchugov divides the “huge crowd who supported Russia” into two categories.. Some were older and nostalgic for their youth in Soviet times. Zhemchugov points out that under the USSR, Donbas was one of the areas where people lived better. That changed radically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially after Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma decided that Ukraine should concentrate on gas, and closed a lot of mines.
The lack of work was one of the factors resulting in the second category of people - those with pro-Russian views. A lot of people started going to work on construction sites in Moscow or St Petersburg, where they were relatively well-paid and saw a reasonable standard of living around (very different from most of Russia).
There were also a fair number whom Russia had recruited. This, Zhemchugov believes, began after the Orange Revolution and the relative failure of the attempted separatist congress in November 2015 organized by Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. Russia understood then, that Donbas was not ready for this pro-Russian ‘federalization’ and began making plans. Zhemchugov says that he had long been aware of this. People he knew, working in the civil service, had expressed their bemusement and asked why the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service] was not reacting. It would all begin with innocuous chats about friendly cooperation, but end with recruitment and money offered for services.
Worth noting that Russia’s activities involving cultivating links between various far-right fringe groups in both Russia and Ukraine, with training camps in Russia. A lot of these people with neo-Nazi leanings, like Pavel Gubarev, were among the first public faces of the supposed revolt in early 2014.
If the first moves in the Luhansk oblast were from locals, recruited or not, the situation changed in May 2014. Zhemchugov says that together with Russian Cossack leader Nikolai Kozytsyn and his band, there were also Russian special force men who brought in weapons and seized control in Antratsyt. They used long-established smuggling routes between Russia and Ukraine to bring in weapons and military trucks, etc.
Zhemchugov was asked why he saw what many others failed to understand, and why he had left his life and family in Georgia and come back to create a partisan movement in Donbas.
“First of all, I am a citizen of Ukraine. As well as that, I didn’t support the Soviet system, I always thought that the Union was a mistake, that people were living the wrong way, that they were being duped”.
He was in Georgia during the Russian-Georgia war over Southern Abkhazia. .
“I saw people’s grief and suffering. I travelled to areas close to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorny-Karabakh, spoke with people and understood what Russia was, and Russian aggression. And when all of that came to my homeland, when war knocked at the door of my mother’s home in Krasny Luch, I saw that it was now my turn to do something for my country”.
Zhemchugov is still unable to speak openly about his partisan activities, and says that there must remain discrepancies in his story until the occupation is over. The reason is quite clear. He was not alone, and if he gives certain parts of the picture, the militants and FSB will be able to put two and two together, which can endanger others.
He had not broken under interrogation, and he was clearly released finally only because the FSB and the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR] decided he could give them nothing. He notes that Olga Kobtseva, the LPR representative in the working group on exchanges of prisoners was wild with rage when it transpired immediately after his release how active he really had been.
Zhemchugov says that when he first started giving interviews, the LPR ‘security service’ even asked the SBU to get him to get his mouth shut, as they were now in big trouble. They swore that they’d now torture people to the end to avoid such mistakes, and that they hadn’t tortured him harder.
“When they say that no locals resisted, that is untrue. That we are not Ukrainian patriots, that’s also not true”
For the moment, however, Zhemchugov says that he acted alone. He had been a successful businessman and had money which he used to buy weapons, ammunition, explosive devices from the ‘Cossacks’ who’d seized control.
He cannot, however, avoid often saying “we” when describing their activities in 2014. They were shelling columns of military technology, trucks, etc. on the road from Rostov in Russia. If, at the beginning, there would be 15-20 cars, by the Debaltseve battle, each day there would be 50 cars, armoured vehicles, military Ural trucks and other technology.
He says that for some time the Russians were convinced that the Ukrainian army was waiting for them in the fields, as they couldn’t understand who was shelling.
The Cossacks were in charge in cities, he says, with the Russians never going near inhabited areas, and setting up camp nearby. It was their camps that the partisans would shoot at in the night.
Zhemchugov explains that there are two aerodromes in Luhansk. One had already, earlier, been transformed into a civilian airport, while the second was the aerodrome for an academy for air navigators. The latter, he says, was seized by Russians who set up the headquarters for Russian military intelligence [GRU]. One of the sources of electricity for this was from Shchastya, the other from Russia. It was the line to the Russian source which he had blown up shortly before he stepped on the mine.
Throughout, it is clear that Zhemchugov understood the kind of methods that would be used to make him talk. After realizing how injured he was, he had tried to crawl out onto the road, hoping that he would be run over. Instead he was taken to the hospital, and then interrogated. This was first by the militants, but then the FSB got involved after they managed to break the code on his messenger and understood what he had been involved in.
They injected him with medical substances to dull his resistance. It was probably then that the harrowing video posted on YouTube and pro-Russian sites was made. He did not, however, provide them with any information, and he was later taken from the hospital to an ordinary prison. The other prisoners, he notes, and even the staff, who had themselves behaved like turncoats, treated him with respect for having withstood and refused to be broken.