A Russian tank commander injured in battle has exposed his country’s involvement in Ukraine, amid US claims that the Kremlin has 12,000 troops fighting the Kiev government.
Speaking from a hospital bed in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, 20, told a reporter from the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that he had served in a rebel unit that was “90 per cent Russian”.
On February 19, the gunner and his comrades were engaged in combat with Ukrainian army tanks at Debaltseve, a key railway junction captured last week by the Russian-backed separatists.
“I hit an enemy tank, which exploded,” he told the paper. “Got on another tank, but . . . we pulled back to a different location and they shot us up.
“There was a deafening crash. I opened my eyes and could see only fire, a very bright light. I could hear the sound of cordite charges exploding.” The tank’s hatch would not open. He continued: “The only thought I had was that we would all die. I felt my face on fire, headset burning, I put my hand to take off the headset and saw, mixed with leather, skin from my hand.”
Rescued by comrades in an armoured car, Gunner Batomunkuyev was taken to an intensive care unit. Since his interview with the paper last week, he has been moved to a military hospital in Rostov, southern Russia.
Like all Russian regular soldiers fighting in Ukraine, Gunner Batomunkuyev volunteered to be sent there. He had signed up under a three-year contract last June after completing his service as a conscript. Some men refused to go to Ukraine and although he did not know their fate, he suggested they did not face punishment.
It was clear from the beginning last autumn, when preparations began for them to move out from their Siberian base to a collection point in the Rostov region, near Russia’s border with Ukraine, that secrecy was paramount: divisional signs on the battalion’s tanks were painted over, identifying uniform patches and badges removed and paybooks left behind at base.
Units from Siberia and Russia’s far east rolled through the vast country by rail, greeted by cheering locals at villages and towns.
His unit crossed the Ukrainian border under cover of darkness early last month and, after a stopover in Donetsk, began to fight its way to Debaltseve. Although he said that no one in his unit was killed in the fighting, he described men losing limbs and, like him, being burnt in tank battles.
He claims that they avoided contact with Ukrainian civilians and did their best to minimise casualties, although he nearly shot a woman wearing white, mistaking her for a Ukrainian soldier in winter camouflage.
He told the paper he had no regrets and did not blame President Putin, who continues to insist that Russia does not provide military help to the rebels.
“I have nothing against him,” the young soldier said with a laugh. “He is certainly an interesting person and cunning — telling the entire world there are ‘no troops here’.”
Ben Hodges, the US Army Europe commander, said that Russian forces in Ukraine consist of military advisers, weapons operators and combat troops. A further 50,000 are massed on the border, the general claimed. He has urged the White House to arm Kiev.