‘We All Knew What We Were Going For and What Could Happen’

September 9, 2015

The following is an interview by Elena Kostyuchenko of the independent news site Novaya Gazeta with a Russian tank gunner, who was ordered to fight for Debaltsevo along with his battalion. The article in the original Russian has already received more than 1.8 million views.

Dorzhi Batomunkuev, 20, 5th Separate Tank Brigade (Ulan-Ude) army unit No. 46108. Draftee, summoned November 5, 2013, in June 2014 completed his contract of 3 years. Personal ID No. 200220, army card 2609999.

His face is burned, bound with gauze, blood seeps from behind the bandage. The fingers of his hand are also bound. His ears have been singed and have shrunken.

I know that he was wounded in Logvinovo. Logvinovo is the choke-point of the Debaltsevo kettle – early on the morning of February 9, a company of special forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) (consisting of 90% Russians — organized volunteers) cleared and closed the kettle. The kettle was closed so quickly that the Ukrainian soldiers inside Debaltsevo did not know about it. In the next hours, the troops of the self-proclaimed DNR wantonly burned the vehicles coming out of Debaltsevo. That was how the deputy head of the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) was killed.

The special forces withdrew, and the positions taken by Cossack militia were blanketed by Ukrainian artillery fire. Meanwhile, Ukrainian soldiers began organizing a break-out from the kettle. A Russian tank battalion, which had been on the territory of Donetsk Region for several days already, was sent to hold the positions.

We spoke in Donetsk, in the burn center of the regional central clinical hospital.

On February 19, I was blown up. It was twilight. The 19th according to the Buddhist calendar was considered New Year’s Day. So the year started out hard for me. (He tries to smile, blood quickly flows from his lips.) Yesterday they bound my face up with gauze. My face has completely dried up. They aren’t doing an operation yet, because I will tolerate the trip worse. When I move my fingers, they also bleed. I hope to get to Russia as quickly as possible.

How were you wounded?

In a tank. It was a tank battle. I hit the enemy’s tank, and it exploded. I hit another tank, but it had defenses, it’s defenses worked well. It turned around, then hid in a strip of forest. Then we withdrew to another location. And it whacked us hard.

The sound is so deafening — “diinnngg”. I opened my eyes – I see fire before my eyes, a very bright light. I hear a sound like “trrts, trrts,” that’s the powder exploding in the cartridges. I try to open the hatch, but I can’t get it open. The only thing I could think was, that’s it, I’ll die. I think, what, this is it? I lived 20 years — and that’s it? Then, right away there was a defensive reaction in my head. I moved, I could move, that meant I was alive. If I was alive, that meant I could crawl out.

I tried again to open the hatch. It opened. I crawled out of the tank, and fell from the tank, and I rolled around to put the flames out. I saw a little bit of snow — and I crawled toward the snow. I rolled around, and loosened up. But how can you loosen up? I sense that my whole face was on fire, my helmet with mufflers was on fire, I took my helmet off with my hands, and I look and see the skin from my hands was peeling off along with the helmet. Then I put the fire out on my hands, then let’s get going, find some snow. Then a BMP came and the driver ran out, “Bro, bro, come here.” I look and I see he has a red fire extinguisher. He doused me, I ran toward him. He shouted, “Lie down, lie down!” and he lay down on me, still putting the flames out. The commander of the platoon fished out some promedol [anesthetic] — I remember exactly, and I was immediately stuffed into the BMP. And we fought our way out of there. Then they transferred me to a tank, and we went to some sort of village in the tank. then some man shot me up with something there, and said something to me, and talked with me. Then we left for Gorlovka. They shot up my legs, and injected promedol into my muscles so that I would not lose consciousness. In Gorlovka, I was placed in intensive care, as far as I recall. Then early in the morning, I was brought to Donetsk. I woke up from feeling hungry. I woke up on the 20th. Well, they fed me, as best they could.

The Trip

How did you wind up here?

I was drafted on November 25, 2013. I came voluntarily. Only contract soldiers are sent here, but I was sent to Rostov, as a draftee. Well, as a draftee, I gave good results — in artillery training and physical training. I was drafted in fact from Chita, I passed a course in Chita, and I decided to stay in Ulan-Ude. In June, I wrote a report with a request. I ended up in the second battalion. But the second battalion — in the event of war — was always the first echelon to move out, in any army unit there is such a division. Of course we had contract soldiers in the battalion, but mainly it was recruits. But closer to fall, in October, they began to gather the contractors from all the battalions of our unit in order to create out of them one battalion. We didn’t have enough contractors in the unit in order to make up a tank battalion, therefore they threw in some contractors for us from the city of Kyakhta. They got us all together in a bunch, we got to know each other, we lived together for about four days, and then that was it, to the echelon.

My draft term was supposed to end November 27. But when we came to Rostov in October, my draft term was still going on. So my contract began here already. We are the fifth separate tank brigade.

You weren’t discharged?

No, I wasn’t discharged.

You went for training?

We were told that it was for training but we knew where we were going. We all knew where we were going. I was already prepared morally and psychologically, that I’d have to go to Ukraine.

Back in Ulan-Ude, we had painted over the tanks. Right at the train. We painted over the numbers, if someone had unit markings on their tank, those too. We took off our patches and chevrons when we got here, to the training ground. Everything was taken off…for the purposes of maskirovka [camouflaging]. We left our passports at the army base, our army card at the training ground.

And we had experienced guys in our battalion. Some had already been a year or a bit more on contract, some had been 20 years. They said: don’t listen to the command, we’re going to bomb the khokhly [pejorative term for Ukrainians–The Interpreter]. If they even conduct exercises, even so you will still be sent to bomb khokhly.

Really, a lot of echelons were travelling. Everyone spent the night in our barracks. Before us, there were guys from the spetsnaz from Khabarovsk, from various cities, only from the east. One after another, you know? Every day. Ours went fifth, on the 25th or 27th of October.

The offload ramp was in Matveyev Kurgan. While we went from Ulan-Ude to Matveyev Kurgan, we saw so many cities. We travelled for 10 days. The closer we got, the more people welcomed us. They waved their hands, they blessed us. We’re mainly all Buryats, see. They were blessing us [i.e. Christians were making the sign of the cross over Buddhists–The Interpreter]. (He laughs, and starts bleeding again.)

And here, too, when we were moving around. Grandmothers, grandfathers, local children would bless us…The old ladies would cry.

What Training Ground?

Kuzminsky. There are a lot of such training grounds. Tent cities. Some would move in, others would move out. We would meet the previous echelons there. The Kantemir Brigade from the Moscow suburbs came after us. They have paratroopers there and one tank company that is not so powerful. But our tank battalion has 31 tanks. You can do something serious with that.

Could you refuse?

Of course you could. No one forced us. There were some who refused back in Ulan-Ude, when they could felt they could smell smoke. One officer refused.

Did you have to write up a report?

I don’t know. I didn’t refuse, see. And in Rostov there were some who refused. I know one from our battalion, Vanya [Ivan] Romanov. He and I had served together in one company and gone through the course together. He was a person of low priorities. Lt. Gen. Surovikin, commander of the Eastern Military District came to visit our training ground before New Year’s. He came to our tank company. He shook everyone’s hands… He took Ivan back with him, to the homeland, in Novosibirsk. I don’t know what happened with Romanov. But the fact is that you could leave.

Did Surovikin say anything about Donetsk, about Ukraine?

He didn’t say anything. (Laughs.)


How many of you went over?

We ended up with 31 tanks in the battalion. We went in in companies. Ten tanks in each company. In addition to the ten tanks were three BMPs, a medical MT-LB and five Ural trucks with ammunition. So this is the composition of a tactical company group. The tank battalion is made up of around 120 people – three tank companies, a support platoon and a communications platoon. Plus infantry, of course. Approximately 300 people went over. All from Ulan-Ude. The majority were Buryats. The locals looked at us, they say “you’re audacious guys.” But we Buddhists are like that. We believe in the almighty, the three elements and reincarnation. If you die, you’re bound to be born again.

Did they explain to you on the ground that you were to seal the kettle?

No, they didn’t explain anything. There’s the position, there’s the fire cover position, watch it, don’t let anyone through. Anyone that moves, take them out. Fire for effect. .

Did your commanders go with you?

Our commanders are all great guys. Not one of those commanders lost their nerve or backed away from anything. We’re all on the same level. Regardless of whether you’re a colonel or a private. Because we fight side by side. The commander of my battalion… He is now in Rostov, he got burnt in a tank just like me… My battalion commander, a colonel. Was sometime around the 12th or the 14th. Because we had to liberate one village. I can’t remember what it was called. We won the village back… everything was good…

We played at carousel. This is a tactical method for combat firing with tanks. Three or four tanks go up to the front-line firing position, shoot, and, as they run out of ammunition, another three or four tanks go forward to replace them as they are reloaded. That’s how we alternated.

But our battalion commander was unlucky. While operating in a carousel, when you shoot from the tank… a tank is a very temperamental machine, sometimes a shot is delayed. It seems like you’ve fired, but it hasn’t shot a damned thing. The tank simply does not fire, it flat-out doesn’t fire at all. The first tank fires – bang, the second, the third tank – hangs up. And the dillweeds [Ukrainians] pound them. That’s that. The battalion commander jumped into his tank, set off – he destroyed one tank, the second destroyed him.

The gunner of the battalion commander’s tank, Chipa, was burnt too. The driver, the drivers are generally OK. You sit inside the tank, you have all this heavy armour around, you’re completely covered from everything. It’s much easier for drivers to survive. If a shell strikes the turret, the gunner and commander are usually set on fire, but the driver doesn’t burn, if they’re clever – there’s a button in the tank – emergency turret rotation. It turns to the other side – swoosh – and you can calmly climb out. My driver climbed out like that, the battalion commander’s driver climbed out like that.

I look at mine, he’s unharmed, unscathed. I look at my commander… Spartak – he’s lying there, in the corridor. But he wasn’t as badly burnt as I was. His hatch opened immediately, but mine was shut… I’m the gunner, next to him. A tank burns for a long time.

Was anyone killed?

No. There’s Minakov, whose leg was torn off in a tank. Was torn apart at the top of his boots. And he has no toes on his right foot, also torn apart. The battalion commander was torched, the gunner Chipa, Spartak… This is from my memory.

Did you go into combat with the militiamen? Did your roles overlap?

No. They’re just…