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Q&A: Ukraine’s Donbas Battalion Commander Seeks US Support

Semеn Semеnchenko, commander of the Donbas battalion, a volunteer paramilitary unit in Ukraine’s National Guard, seen during a lobbying trip to Washington, Sept. 16, 2014 (Elizabeth Pfotzer/VOA)

The commander of Ukraine’s famed Donbas Battalion, Semen Semenchenko, is in Washington this week to lobby U.S. officials for stepped-up non-lethal aid and possible West Point training for his men.

Semenchenko, who was recently wounded during an attack on the eastern city of Ilovaysk and walks with a cane, arrived just ahead of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Thursday visit to the U.S. capital, where he will speak to a joint session of Congress and meet with his counterpart, Barack Obama.

The Ukrainian leader will make the case to lawmakers and the president to expedite assistance for his badly outgunned armed forces, which recently suffered severe losses after sustained progress through the summer months, when they defeated pro-Russian rebels in a number of key battles and threatened Donetsk, the regional capital.

But all that changed during the last week of August, when the Kremlin sent in regular Russian army troops and artillery units, which, together with the poorly equipped and ill-disciplined rebels, devastated Ukrainian forces in less than a week, according to NATO and the government in Kyiv.

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dire situation for Ukraine’s military effort, the Donbas Battalion was formed only months ago as an all-volunteer militia supported by private donations.

It quickly became one of the country’s most effective military units and is now part of Ukraine’s National Guard, the majority of its recruits from eastern Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known together as Donbas.

Semenchenko, who speaks in the strategic terms of a senior military leader, is running for parliament on the Samopomich Party (Self-Reliance Union) list in elections scheduled for October 28.

Snowiss: What’s the purpose of your visit to Washington?

Semenchenko: "I have three goals. First, to see what kinds of dual-use technologies – those not prohibited from export to Ukraine – that we can purchase.

"When I say 'we,' I mean volunteer units financed directly by the [Ukrainian] people. We are the most motivated resistance fighters. We are now officially registered [in Ukraine], and I command a battalion in the National Guard. We are actually more pro-active than the government. That’s the first reason [for my trip].

"Secondly, we would like to help strengthen our political leaders, to present the real situation in Ukraine to the U.S. officials, including members of Congress and the president, [since] the situation there endangers the entire world. We need help, first and foremost from the United States, since Europe and Russia have close relations and [Brussels] is blocking a lot of things. It’s clear that with U.S. participation, these questions get resolved more quickly.

"Third, I want to deepen ties with the Ukrainian diaspora [in order to] organize international support, in particular, financial assistance. For example, we are buying remotely-piloted surveillance drones which can be put to [immediate] use."

Snowiss: What’s the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk at the moment?

Semenchenko: "It’s pretty straightforward. Without question, there was a direct Russian invasion. Our battalion clashed with a paratrooper regiment and a motorized division [sent] from the Russian Federation.

"On the other hand, negotiations are ongoing and [the Ukrainian government] is trying to reach a deal with terrorists who recently shot down an airplane from the unrecognized DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic].

"But we have a different take: we need to use the cease-fire to reinforce and rearm. We’re losing the information war. That is, in [Ukrainian] society, the idea of giving up, of curtailing our resistance, is [gaining ground]. An information campaign is underway to discredit the leaders of the resistance movement.

"I think the situation is dangerous not just for Europe, but the whole world because these enclaves could remain unstable for many years and become a potential base for international terrorism. It’s a difficult situation, so we’re using all the levers we can, we’re patriots.

We don’t want our country under terrorist control. We have seen the face of the 'Russian Spring.' We have seen the methods they use, including murder and torture. We would like to build a normal society. This conflict is a clash of civilizations."

Snowiss: Why are you running for parliament?

Semenchenko: "People are tearing our country apart, spouting myths in [the east] about Ukrainian nationalists and in [the west] about 'Moskali' [a derogatory Ukrainian term for Russian great-power chauvinists].

"While these two sides are arguing, [others] are using the opportunity to enrich themselves while picking people's pockets. I can’t allow this to continue. We have stich this country together, change the government from inside. The more people immune from bribery, who don’t engage in corruption, the sooner the system will change.

"I want to make Ukraine into another Israel. I mean, a country that has seen the type of danger [Israel] has must drastically change its approach to national security and create a modern military with special forces to protect itself.

"But If fighting resumes in east, even if I’m an MP, I will pick up my weapon and go to battle again."

Snowiss: What's your response to allegations of fascism among Ukraine's volunteer brigades?

Semenchenko: "I have a very warm feeling toward the Russian people. I’m Russian by nationality but also a patriotic Ukrainian. I haven’t seen any expressions of fascism in my unit. But I did see [fascism] on the other side, the terrorist side.

"They engage in aggressive propaganda, political killings and use other terrorist methods, which are the attributes of fascism. They propogate the notion of the superiority of Russian people, and justify everything they do if needed to protect their interests.

"On our side, I saw ethnic nationalists too. But they don’t engage in aggressive propaganda or fascist methods."

Snowiss: What about the videotaped footage obtained by a German news agency that shows Nazi symbols on the helmets of members of Ukraine’s volunteer Azov Battalion?

Semenchenko: "We have to see what these people have done, and judge by their deeds.

If the ones wearing those symbols have committed crimes, and there is evidence to support this, they should be tried in court. If not, we'll have to ask directly why they wear these symbols and explain that there’s no place for fascism in our units."

Snowiss: Its evident you’ve suffered some sort of injury or wound recently. What happened?

Semenchenko: "About a month ago, I was wounded during an attack on Ilovyask. I took shrapnel here [in my back] and a couple more in the legs. Unfortunately, the majority of our forces were surrounded, including the part I was commanding, the National Guard. I could have stayed in the hospital, but I recover faster when I have [important things] to do.

"We should have freed the town. We had all but succeeded until Russian forces blitzed us. Thanks to this snap attack, and the unprofessional actions of many of our generals, we were surrounded, and that was the last step and the beginning of negotiations. A lot of people are demoralized.

"I’m not indifferent. I represent people who are prepared to resist. I’m not an enemy of the Russian people. My roots are Russian. My wife is Ukrainian. It’s just that I see how [Russians] are being deceived by very serious propaganda.

"It’s clear they themselves don’t understand what’s going on in our country. Thanks to this propaganda war, they think that fascists were [in control of Ukraine] and people need to be liberated.

"There’s a serious disconnect between rhetoric and the reality. Many [Russian soldiers] didn’t even know they were in Ukraine. Russian forces suffered heavy losses, [but] their dead weren’t buried, and they weren’t allowed to be repatriated.

"I think the Russian people are being deceived by the current authorities in power. This is all bad, so many losses. We need it to end. I think our country should negotiate from a strong position, otherwise they will destroy us."

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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus