Man Tells Full Story of Being Recruited in Moscow and Sent to Invade Ukraine

Pro-Russian armed men walk past activists hanging up a "Donetsk Republic" flag outside the mayor's office in Slaviansk
Pro-Russian armed men walk past activists hanging up a "Donetsk Republic" flag outside the mayor's office in Slaviansk / Reuters

A 24-year-old Armenian man that was recruited in Moscow to be part of the shadowy separatist force that invaded Ukraine says that his group was "betrayed" by nameless bosses in Russia and sent to certain death in the Donetsk airport, according to an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Artur Gasparyan spoke in detail during the interview of his experience from the moment he was recruited to invade Ukraine to his long escape back into Russia after he "survived by a miracle."

Gasparyan says that he was told to erase every scrap of his identity upon joining the force, and also that he was not given the name of a single person he was taking orders from, or fighting along side.

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Artur Gasparyan: About 10 guys showed up at a meeting somewhere near VDNKh [the All-Russian Exhibition Center in northern Moscow]. We spoke in the entrance arch of a residential building there. A Slavic man in civilian clothes who didn't give his name met with us. […] They insisted that we destroy all our online accounts and, in general, remove any personal information from social networks. I deleted my accounts on  [Russian social-media sites] Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.

Garparyan says he was taken to a military camp that he believes was near the border (all road maps were confiscated) and spent two weeks training. Everybody remained anonymous.

They taught us to communicate using gestures and signs in order to recognize each other, to communicate silently at night, to give commands like back, forward, stop, get down, danger, and so on. Now I can speak with my hands like a deaf person. All this was taught by an instructor in civilian clothes. He, like all the other big and small bosses, didn't give his name. We didn't even know one another's real names—just nicknames. Even now I don't know the names of most of the guys who were killed beside me in that hell.

Most of the individuals recruited had nearly no military training before being sent to invade the Donetsk airport in what Gasparyan explains as a poorly planned and even more poorly executed operation.

What was the point of seizing a civilian airport in Donetsk?

Gasparyan: To prevent them from sending in troops from Kyiv. They told us no one would fire at us. Just pose for the cameras and that's all. They would see us, get scared, give up. We'd disarm everyone and send them home. The airport would be ours. 

Who do you mean?

The Ukrainian troops around the airport. There was gossip that supposedly we were so tough and everyone was afraid of us. But it turned out just the opposite. At 2 P.M. the helicopters came. Then the airplanes, and they started bombing the place. I was on the roof and with my aide, I managed to get to the sixth floor. It was a big attack—I counted four helicopters and two planes.

They were completely unprepared for the battle that they found themselves in, due to a commander that "naively" thought that Ukraine "wouldn't use heavy weapons" on the airport that was newly built for the 2012 European soccer championship tournament.

Eventually, the group was forced into trucks for an escape and told that they would be killed if they didn’t follow the order.

We made our way down to the first floor and were just sitting there, waiting to be killed. We couldn't go outside. Someone contacted the commander—a guy called Spark—and we were given the order to get into the trucks. It was nearly evening. The trucks were standing inside—in the terminal. I didn't want to get in. I knew how risky it was. Spark told me, "If you question the order, I'll shoot you here." I took my weapon and got in. 

There were two trucks with about 30-35 men in each one. A covering squad remained in the airport. They went out on foot at night—they all got away. Spark gave the order to drive out of the terminal and to fire in all directions at anything that moved. We lifted the covers—they were open trucks stuffed with volunteers. Our truck flew out of the terminal and we begin to fire on both sides, up in the air, everywhere. We proceeded along a road for about 4 or 5 kilometers. The trucks were about 500 or 600 meters apart. Two trucks speeding along, firing without stopping. It was terrifying.

Gasparyan eventually ran away back towards Russia, and after avoiding a death squad that was sent to find him and many other travails, he has made it back. He had all his belongings and his identity returned to him and was sent home.

We ended up at the same base where we'd been trained. They gave us back our clothes, documents, telephones, some money for the road, and sent us home.

Gasparyan says that much of what is being said about the Russian invasion into Ukraine right now is a fiction, especially regarding the presence of a large group of separatist Ukrainians that are involved in the fighting.

RFE/RL: Journalists who have been in the region say that about 20 percent of those fighting are Russians and the other 80 percent are local militias.

Gasparyan: I'd say exactly the opposite. Most of them are Russians, Chechens, Ingush. There are also Armenians like me. I spoke to some locals and they say that they did what they'd been told. I said, "What did they tell you to do?" They answered: "We voted. The rest is up to you." That is, they participated in the referendum on DNR independence but they don't intend to fight. One guy told me, "I want to get my pay and then drink until my next payday." In general, they have no experience. Don't know how to handle weapons. No one had been in the military. I'm talking about in Donetsk.

The full interview with Gasparyan can be read here.