Image: Anya Leonova / Mediazona
In late March, scores of contract soldiers from South Ossetia refused to fight in Ukraine and left for their homes. According to our source, all of the objectors’ contracts had been voided shortly after. Still, almost a hundred soldiers returned, and some of them will be sent back to the war zone. Some twenty contract soldiers challenged their dismissals in court. After the return to the self-declared republic, the soldiers had a meeting with South Ossetia's President Anatoly Bibilov. They described insufferable conditions, broken equipment, and the absence of higher-ups at the front lines. Bibilov expressly advised against any recording of the conversation, yet the exchange was recorded anyway. We publish excerpts translated from Ossetian by a native speaker.
"I need one man to stand up and tell me everything about what had happened," Bibilov said.
"Thinking about those 11 days, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy", one of the soldiers begins. "All of the available equipment was straight up unsuitable. When we got there, they had us all lined up literally two kilometres away from the combat zone. A supply platoon and a medical unit should be stationed further back, not two kilometres from the combat zone. No command personnel has been present. And that was the night mortars started firing."
The commander who had sent them there "did not have a clue of what he was doing".
"I didn't go there for the money they pay us. None of us went there to defend our homeland, cause our homeland is here. Then why did they sent us there, so many of the 2nd battalion? Why did they? That doesn't seem right to us. And what if something happens here while we're out there? Some confrontation [with Georgia]? Was it their wish that more people would not come back? Or what were they thinking?" said one soldier.
His fellow soldier concurred: "There are no soldiers here who have failed to prove themselves. When they were sending us away, they said the artillery would work first, then the heavy armour would move in. In reality, the opposite happened: the artillery was firing and missing their targets by a long margin, up to two kilometres".
He said that when the soldiers complained about the coordinates being inaccurate, the commander would wave them off: "I have my own coordinates". "There was no command in place. If the officers don't know what to do, then what is a sergeant supposed to do? My IFV is designed for manual start-up, and while you're starting it, the grenade launchers will pick you up. 99% of the 2nd battalion's equipment is out of order, we told our senior officers so. We warned: our vehicles simply aren't operational, don't send us there. Guys from another company were saying that their guns wouldn't fire. They were told: "Go ahead as you are," the soldier explained.
Russian military had no fallback strategy and no alternate plans, the soldier continued.
"There was this one general who gave us a secret map. God bless him, a true officer. We were stationed at this forest strip on the border. A general told us that there would be shelling at night. And the base commander said: "It's going to be fine." At exactly 3:14 a.m., the shelling started, and three guys were wounded. I have never seen a defence planned so poorly: we had to leave our IFVs and hide in the basements. We ought to have been entrenching ourselves.
The soldier complained that their commanders were frequently issuing conflicting orders: "We learned over the radio that the sixth company had been destroyed. We got in our vehicles and drove towards them, but they wouldn't allow us to go there. And then we met that same sixth company in the city and they said that no, they had not been attacked. One time, we were told to walk one kilometre, and then it turned out that [we had to walk] ten. There were no routes. Snipers were shooting at us. From the first day, we were being lied to. The documents had one destination, but we arrived at a totally different location. The place we were supposed to go to was 800 kilometres away from where they sent us.
According to him, out of ten tanks, three couldn't fire.
"Our base commander was also in the area. 15 minutes into the shelling, he vanished. He was afraid of his soldiers. He even arranged for a small protection detail refusing to talk to the soldiers out of fear of his own men," he described. Later, "some guys from Special forces" actually did "mess up his face".
"We got screwed at every turn. The mortars were no good, their legs were all crooked. We were laughed at by fellow soldiers: 'Are you suicidal or something?' Someone asked: "Are these some kind of salvage?' All vehicles could only be kickstarted manually, we had to tow those all the way back to Vladikavkaz, and then I hear people saying that we got scared of something. Nobody was scared there, it's just that we got screwed at every step.
Other soldiers begin shouting. One demands that Bibilov helps those who are still in hospitals: "A friend of ours is currently hospitalised in Donetsk, we've been in touch with him on the phone. He says he was bandaged on the first day he got there, but some pieces of shrapnel are still inside his body. He says his arm is badly swollen and they do nothing about it, the staff doesn't check up on him. He's been there for five days now, and the doctors are only asking for money. Another guy's eye was injured by shrapnel and for two days nobody even told him to go see a doctor. And now the doctor tells him, "Where have you been? You lost your eye".
Bibilov tried to reassure the military: "You should know better than me, wars are not always won with equipment. Among you, there are people who fought in 2008, and they had no equipment. Grenade launchers, they had two or three. I, for one, am not pleased with your speech," he addressed the objector who mentioned that fighting in Ukraine had nothing to do with defending their homeland. "If something were to happen here, in our Ossetia, and if you were there... let me tell you: you are not a strategic mind, you have no understanding of tactical planning, we have smart people to think about those things for Ossetia. This should be of no concern to you".
Shouting broke out. Someone reminded Bibilov of the death of Inal Dzhabiev, a resident of South Ossetia, in August 2020: he died on the way to the hospital from jail. Dzhabiev's relatives are sure that his death was caused by torture during interrogation.
"When the Dzhabiyevs were protesting in the square, why didn't you come out to them? Where were you then?" a question from the audience.
"And did you do a lot for Dzhabiev?" Bibilov shouted in response and slammed his hand on the table. "Do you know what happened to him? Shut your mouth a little! Why did you stand up? Did you know him at all?"
Then Bibilov reminds everyone that "many people died, Russians and other nationalities" fighting the South Ossetian cause: "And now you dare to tell me that if something were to happen here, we would be left to fend for ourselves? If those fascists and Nazis roam free in Ukraine, don't you think the very next day they would be here, in Ossetia?"
Bibilov pointed out that if "Russia were to falter," South Ossetia's very existence would "come to an end": "Remember that when we are fighting there, we are defending our land."
"Should have stayed there," he reprimands the soldiers. "Agree or disagree, we should have done everything in our power to stay. Don't get me wrong, whatever reasoning you might come up with, it's war, and everything's different. You think I don't know about the lack of equipment, its quality? We all know this, and we all understand. I can't say I blame you, no, but we should have stayed there."
Bibilov claimed that he was planning to travel to Ukraine and that the servicemen were supposed to wait for his arrival.
Someone noted that there was no talk of his arrival. "I called Radik, he probably could not inform each and every one of you," the head of the republic replied.
Another man asked to speak out: "I've been in the army since 2003, I've been through a lot. There are defensive campaigns and offensive campaigns. In war, communication and supply are paramount, communication with commanders should be always available. When the infantry moves in, the squad leader and the platoon commander must be in touch. There was no communication, and we cannot operate this way. People think that we got scared, but without communication, we could not do anything. We were firing non-stop for 25 minutes, and people with military experience can understand how hard that was."
He described how the soldiers were not aware of their surroundings when they arrived in the war zone: "We knew that the enemy forces would be in front of us, but it turned out that they were also attacking from the sides. They started shelling at us, and we didn't how it happened."
He said the soldiers left Ukraine because they did not want to be "cannon fodder" and "fight tanks with slingshots." "Should have waited for me," Bibilov replied again. "We didn't know that you were supposed to come," the man said. "If I knew I would not have let my guys go either."
One of the servicemen complained about local rumours that they had "brought shame upon Ossetia." "Now they're recruiting volunteers to fight. Let those guys who are spreading those rumours go," another suggested.
"You may not be aware, but there are lots of guys begging to be sent there, and they don't mention money, just say, 'Give us weapons'. Two battalions of volunteers have already been sent there," Bibilov said.
"But we were sent there as volunteers too," someone replied.
"That's not the point, the point is that they aren't afraid to go there."
He then asks the audience if they think Russia will lose this war. "Yes, we think they will," said one soldier.
"Russians have fought many wars, Napoleon came to Moscow, and they burnt down their own city before surrendering it. Don't you ever think that Russians can lose," assured Bibilov.
The servicemen tried again to discuss the lack of weaponry mentioning that the only thing the troops from South Ossetia had plenty of were magazines for assault rifles: "When we arrived, people laughed at us - this is not that kind of war, assault rifles are of no use. What can the infantry do if the heavy armour is not operational?"
Bibilov asked how old this man was in 2008 when the Russo-Georgian war broke out. The soldier was a child back then. "Than's why it's easy for you to throw assumptions," said the head of the republic.
"We have to understand that in this war, anyone can die. But the point is not to die. We must win. Let me be honest with you. I am very disappointed. One could come up with a thousand different reasons, but the bottom line is simple: you are not on the battlefield. Let me tell you as a military man, time will pass, and nobody will discuss the lack of weapons, equipment, and communication. There will be a victory, and there will be a parade in Kyiv, 100 percent!"
Someone replied: "Could be, but at a high price in terms of casualties. If we stayed, we would have been dead by now."
"So what? This is war," Bibilov replied.
By Agatha Scheglova
Editor: Dmitry Treschchanin
Translation: I. D. and Sergey Golubev
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