August 22, 2017 – Fort Russ News –
This is the second installment of an interview by Russell “Texas” Bentley with a former Monitor of the OSCE SMM in Ukraine. You can find the first part here.
KOT has emphasized throughout the interview that his observations are based on his personal firsthand observations alone. Neither OSCE or any OSCE personnel are involved in any way, and what is said in this interview in no way reflects any OSCE positions or views, or any of those by OSCE personnel. No OSCE documents have been used, referred to, or divulged.
All responsibility for the information published is his and his only. The publication of this interview series is the work of “KOT” and Russell “Texas” Bentley and no one else. KOT is no longer working for OSCE and is no longer in Ukraine. Any retribution against other OSCE personnel for the info published here is unwarranted and misdirected.
Russell Bentley (RB) – In the first part of our interview, you mentioned being a first-hand observer of the initial confrontation at Cathedral Square, and then the mass murders at the Odessa Trade Union on May 2nd, 2014, in your official capacity as an OSCE Monitor. Can you tell us more about your other experiences and observations in Odessa?
KOT – When in Odessa, we were able to penetrate (develop reasonable relationships) with the Ukrop “self-defense” (самооборона) groups (some of which, in the “east” we called “the Battallions” [BN’s]); we needed to know both sides, and determine their objectives, motives and actions. Some of these were rather dark, and of course reported by us, but not much found its way into Kiev reporting, which was no surprise.
The self-defense individuals were usually not very bright, but very violent and aggressive. In Odessa, there was a mixture of local types and some “western” Ukrainians – probably both as service types and as liaison with other militant nationalists in the west (my assumption).
The “chief of staff” (CoS) of the “Kanatnaya Str.” group kept saying how he wanted to go the “east” for Christmas – to kill a separatist, then go back for New Years, to kill another separatist: he wanted that as his holiday “presents”, so you get the picture of some of the types of persons we were dealing with. (Which, by the way, I never found in the “east” on the rebel side. They were ready to fight, but not hateful and vengefully mean.)
There was another major group on Grecheskaya Str.: the leader, could barely tie a sentence together, and a “deputy”, smart and quite reasonable, their legal advisor, now in politics. These groups had weapons, even an armored car (BRDM type); they were completely outside the law; they conducted para-military training in the city, and on some of the army ranges just outside of Odessa. A lot of the training focused on propaganda and “hate” type orientation against the separatists.
All groups had fund drives for the “Ukrops”, clothing and uniform collections, food, equipment, etc.
They would patrol the city and whenever anyone would be spotted with a St. George’s ribbon, or saying, doing, publishing against this regime they would be burned out, and people would disappear – in the best case, beaten and thrown into dumpsters (they liked that – would often show up to some of the rallies with dumpsters – this would also apply to city hall and Oblast Admin. meetings). We would patrol all this continuously and report accordingly.
We had a fine working relationship with the Odessa Oblast police, including the commanding general, good man, and his staff (also good officers). They said that there was nothing they could do to control these groups, despite, anyway, trying to talk to them and keeping social order reasonably intact.
They used to report how the troops and self-defense types, “Ukrops”, etc., would smuggle huge amounts of weapons, explosives and munitions from the east to the troublesome areas like Odessa. Once the flow statistics started to drop off, we asked if it was due to the MVD effectiveness, but the staff officers said that, no, it was more due to complete area “saturation” – there was so much weaponry everywhere, particularly among the criminals (good money there) and self-defense people.
Another thing the self-defense people did earlier on in 2014, was to set up road blocks and check-points throughout the city and its main avenues of approach; they would stop anyone they pleased: search, temporarily detain, etc., even with police present (often they would turn the “suspects” over to the police (the police were not happy with any of this). In 2015 the check-points were removed, due to the area considered to be “pacified”.
RB – These Ukrainian “Self Defense” Battalions also worked in the east on the front lines and ran border crossings too; can you tell us about your observations of them there?
KOT – In the “east”, there was a mix of “self defense” BN’s and others from various origins (including, reputedly, funded by “private interests” [unconfirmed]). We did not have direct information on many of these such as “Dnipro (1 & 2)”, “Tornado”, some “right sector” (red and black flags with their symbols), et al. They were a mess: uniforms varied, generally sloppy. Tactically, they were thoroughly inept – frankly, observing how they reacted to incoming fire, I was amazed that their casualties were not greater (disorganized actions: clustering, milling, uncoordinated, dangerous).
Sporadically, they ran many of the “contact-line” crossings in our AOR: Stanitsia-Luganska, Popasna, Shchastiya; they would occasionally alternate with regular UA units.
On the main artery [your area] between Uglegorsk and Artemovsk [now Bakhmut], in the area of Oputne and Otradovka), the regular forces and UA Border Guards set up a full-blown border crossing on the “contact line”, with inspections, paper checks, etc. The vehicular lines would be many Km long and some people would be in line overnight. The DNR CP was more defensive in nature and there was rarely any wait, with people checked through relatively quickly.
At the “pedestrian” crossings like Stanitsia-Luganska, lines would also be long, but measured in hours. The delays were always on the UA side, The LNR processed people quickly, and often did not check them (later, they started using a computer – and that, of course, delayed things). The UA side would fire upon the LNR side relatively often (we would check the effects and craters (if any) in the morning (went there every day). Occasionally (very infrequently), the UA side would fire while we were there – we would withdraw. However, they would not like to do this, since we would report directly, and justify patrol withdrawal – which Kiev would report!
One time in 2015 a woman crossing over was hit by a fragment (shrapnel) while we were there – we reported it (with thorough corroboration), but Kiev refused to print it – we fought for a week, and they eventually added a “non-attributed” casualty a week later.
The BN people running the crossing CP’s were usually quite young, sloppy, hostile, vulgar to the old folks, and very disrespectful – one would never guess that these were people from the same country, dealing with their own countrymen/women.
If one was to surmise that they had a Nazi bent (never reported by Kiev), one only had to look at many of the troops’ tattoos (they often sat with their shirts off – somewhat out of uniform – but, we could never accuse them for having any measure of discipline: swastikas everywhere); their patches, their flags, their signs. And, really, all you had to do is talk to them – they made no secret of it.
Many elderly people would complain that they would often scream at the elderly, sometimes inadvertently discharge their weapons next to an old person, they would insult them, shove them around, etc. Quite often, many people would come over to the LNR side weeping and beside themselves (if allowed to pass – contact line crossing rejections were common).
RB – As an official monitoring agency of the EU (and USA) with Ukrainian “government” authorization, wasn’t there anything you could do about these outrages and crimes?
KOT – You mentioned the uselessness of OSCE – well – we heard that from many sides, truly. However, our Mandate specifically outlined what we could do legally, and implicitly, what we could not do. That being said, the people were actually more often happy we were there, because the UA side tended to pass people more with us around (the idea was that they didn’t feel comfortable pulling their usual antics [including shooting] with “witnesses “ around – and people would ask us to stay as long as possible – which we tried to do.
RB – Can you tell us more about your observations of the area of the contact line crossings?
KOT – Both sides were heavily mined in the areas around the “contact line” crossings (and in many areas along the “contact line” in general). At Stanitsia-Luganska the adjacent RR bridge was blocked by RR cars and covered 24/7 by snipers; the LNR set up a “strong point” at the Prince Igor monument (a high point overlooking Stanitsia-Luganska area) and would often take fire from the UA side (they would return fire as well; by far most of this activity took place at night). The river there had significant wooded cover on the UA side, and we were never allowed to go there, but locals would report a LOT of heavy engine noise and heavy “equipment” movement, again, mostly at night.
Being former military, I know that the military moves at night, and I often argued for night patrols, but that did not work – OSCE correctly felt that the risks were too high – again, the make up of our mission was mostly with people who were poorly suited for military type of night patrolling and would either get really frightened, or get themselves into trouble.
(Note: This is not to disparage the OSCE; the selection of personnel started before the conflict began, and this is an unarmed(!) “civilian mission” – not “peace-keeping” or military observer per se.)
I tended to try getting LP/OP set-ups with proper fire cover, or equipment, sensors, recorders, etc, to help monitor night activity, but OSCE never had the resources for this (or so they said), but they started to look into the possibility of technical surveillance means. [ NOTE: The OSCE SMM Ukraine budget for 2016 was $117 million. – RB]
Each “contact line” crossing area had its separate problems and issues – as you undoubtedly know first hand.
RB – Indeed I do. What about border crossings between the LNR and Russia? OSCE monitors these crossings too, right?
KOT – OSCE has a separate “observer” mission on the Russian side, based at (and restricted to) RR stations on the border. Although this is a completely separate outfit within OSCE, we managed to get some contact and information from them. They typically heard night-time train activity heading to or near the border each night, but had been unable to actually see or check the trains – so they did not actually know what is on them.
We always observe the “humanitarian convoys” coming from RF, and have never witnessed military materiel on any of them. For me, it is logical that the convoys would be “clean”, to both actually help people, and also to be publicly transparent in the open.
We have also conducted a lot of coverage of the LNR RR system, and have never found evidence of heavy weapon transport on the system (our coverage was necessarily limited to daylight hours).
The RR system there is dense given the territory, but this is because of the large number of mines – each with its own spurs, the steel mills (Alchevsk), Lugansk “Teplovoz” locomotive factory in the city, etc. Most tracks are in reasonable condition, gradually repaired after the UA forces messed a lot of them up on withdrawal. The area around Debaltsevo-Chernukhino (big RR nexus-switchyards) is still in bad shape. The UA forces had a tactical field HQ there, so there was a lot of fighting in the area, and there are about 15 trains burned out at Chernukhino, and the UA forces completely gutted the switchyard control center (3-floors) of all equipment and controls.
There are no passenger trains crossing the “contact line”, but there is some coal and a very small amount of pig iron and steel moving across (legally), but it is still often problematic. The reason for some cross-“contact line” coal movement, is that the UA coal-fired power plants are set up for the type of anthracite mined in LNR: clean, sulfur and gas free, with a high caloric characteristic (they also have some really good coal enrichment plants in LNR, so the product is refined and very fine). The UA apparently tries to buy from South Africa and Poland, but that coal is both more expensive and lower quality (their plants deteriorate from that stuff, even though they will never admit it).
The RF does not buy much LNR coal (they have a lot of their own), but there are a number of “privateers”, usually small mines that (essentially illegally) sell in RF at very low rates. You can usually identify them, because they transport by truck, rather than RR, and are more easily seen at the border crossings. The LNR authorities usually don’t interfere with the privateers, but I don’t know if there is any payola involved in that – if there is, it is small (in correspondence with the low profit margins). Clearly, this is very much against the “official” UA position, thus these people would be in serious trouble if UA regained control of the region (as would as a very large number of other LNR people in virtually all spheres, to say the least). However, the economic situation being what it is with the “UA blockade”, there is a lot of “survival mode” business conducted in LNR.
RB – Thanks to you and to all the sincere OSCE field monitors who are trying their best to report honestly and to do the right thing. And thanks to you, personally for this illuminating glimpse into what you witnessed as an OSCE Monitor and Team Leader in the field. It is far more interesting, honest and educational than what Hug and the OSCE Kiev HQ reports. But that’s no surprise, You were on the front lines, in the thick of it, while Hug spends his time in luxury hotels in Donbass or in Kiev. We are really looking forward to your next installment in this series. Hopefully, your honesty and courage will inspire other current and former OSCE field Monitors to come forward with the facts Hug and Kiev have tried to hide.
KOT: OSCE field teams from around the UA report a lot of good information on a daily basis. There is also a “weekly report” from each that summarizes and partly analyses the information gathered that week. Clearly, not all of it can make it into the HQ reports. The real issue is extracting and obtaining the right balance (and lack of “bias”) in the information provided. It is my opinion that this has been the weak spot in Kiev HQ reports.
END OF PART 2
Russell Bentley is a former marine of the US army, but has been fighting in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine since 2014. From January to June 2015, he was a soldier in the Essence of Time combat unit of the Novorussian Armed Forces (NAF). He served at the Donetsk airport and Spartak as a rifleman and RPG gunner. Russell believes that the war in Donbass is only the front in a global war; Fascism has again raised its ugly head, and he is on the ground to defeat the oligarch junta. “Truth is one of our most powerful weapons, and my job is to get the truth to the people of the Western world.”