DONETSK, Ukraine — Those who keep an eye on such developments are no doubt familiar with the clashes between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russia-backed separatists that have taken place in Ilovaisk, Debaltseve, Uglegorsk, and, of course, the Donetsk Airport. They were some of the bloodiest of the war.
And if you read the Russian press you might think the man who wrested all those sites from the Ukranian military is Arseny Pavlov, a.k.a. “Motorola,” along with his “Sparta” militia. Despite heavy losses, this armed group remains the largest, most organized, most experienced and most well armed of all the separatist formations roaming eastern Ukraine.
Today “Motorola” has a lot of authority and influence, both as a combatant and a member of the separatist “government.” He has fans among the local population who consider him a hero. But, in fact, he is mostly a creation of the Russian media, who have turned him into something of a super-hero.
How did Arseny Pavlov end up in Donbass and how did he rise to prominence?
Interestingly, Motorola emerged as a public figure precisely after the Russian Special Forces began removing or relocating the first generation of rebel leaders like Girkin, Bezler, Kozitsyn, Babai, and other notables in what they called “Novorossiya.” Indeed, they disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Apparently, their superiors in the Kremlin decided that they accomplished their objectives and were no longer needed or useful.
Motorola used to fight under the leadership of Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and he claims he has no political ambitions. He says he is in Ukraine only to “protect the peaceful local population from “genocide” by Ukrainians and he considers the Donbass region to be a “rightful part of the Russian World.”
We asked him to tell us about himself. Who is the man behind the nickname?
“Name is Arseny Pavlov,” he replied. “I was born in Ukhta, Komi Republic”—deep in the Russian heartland about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow—“on February 2, 1982. My parents died when I was 15, and then my grandmother oversaw my upbringing. I failed to get an education, so I enlisted in the army. Today I lead the Special Forces Battalion ‘Sparta’ of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s armed forces.”
“I served for four years as a wireman in the army and worked with Motorola-manufactured equipment, hence the nickname. It stuck to me during the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya.”
How did you end up in Donbass?
“What do you mean ‘how’? [he laughs] I just got on a train and came here.”
Why did you decide to come?
“After these fascists at Maidan declared that they would kill 10 Russians for every combatant they lose, I decided that instead of watching all this unfold on TV, I’d rather come here and make a difference.”
You mentioned the Chechen War. Do you see a difference between what was happening there in the 1990s and early 2000s and what is happening here?
“Of course. In Chechnya, there was fighting between two sides, while here Ukrainian fascists try to exterminate the peaceful Russian population and want to cleanse Donbas of Russians. Donbass is Russian land, it is part of the Russian World, and we are here to protect the peaceful population from Ukrainian fascists that are supported by the West.”
But this is internationally recognized Ukrainian territory.
“Ukrainians live in Russia and no one tries to exterminate them, while here they try to exterminate the Russians. This is the reason why the local population has decided, through a referendum, to live independently from fascist Ukraine. This is no longer Ukraine; this is the Donetsk People’s Republic, the people of which have elected their own government.”
What is your final goal?
“We already control 40 percent of Ukraine’s territory and will fight until it is completely cleansed of Ukrainian occupants. We have more than enough resources and ambition for that.”
By “resources,” you mean Russian troops and military vehicles?
“Russia helps us neither with vehicles nor with soldiers. All Russians here are volunteers. All you have heard about is merely a part of information war waged by Ukraine and the West. If we were assisted by Russia’s regular army, we’d be in Kiev already, the war wouldn’t become so stretched out and there would be less civilian victims. Nowadays, Russia is the only country in the world that acts to protect children, women and the elderly of Donbass. It is the only country that provides the region’s peaceful population with humanitarian aid. You will not hear anything about these people in the rhetoric of Western countries that support the Ukrainian government—all they talk about is money, territory and power. This is what their politics are about. They do not care about the fates of the people who live here, while we do.”
You were blacklisted by the European Union. Can you comment on that?
“I do not have a bank account abroad and I do not plan to visit the countries of the EU, so their sanctions against me are misplaced and pointless.”
How long do you think military activity in Donbass will last?
“War here will last for a long time, a very long time. Maybe even five or more years, but it will inevitably result in our victory because truth is on our side. God is with us.”
Where do you think the border will be drawn, then? Do you plan to assume control of the entire Ukraine?
“I can’t comment on that. We live by the will of the people; we aren’t ukrops [a slur for Ukrainians] to impose anything on anyone. People themselves will decide what their country will look like.”
What are you planning to do after the war? Do you have any skills applicable outside the military?
“I’ll work as a rescuer [laughs]. Just kidding, I actually won’t. I am going to raise my children after the war; I want to have six sons and a daughter.”
And so the interview ended.
It took some time to discover what “Motorola” did before coming to Donbass. He offered virtually no reliable information. But with the assistance of some Russian colleagues we were able to pull together what appears to be an accurate, if brief, sketch:
It turned out that he had been living in Rostov near the Ukraine border for the last few years, working at a car wash. He had serious problems with Rostov’s police after he went on a drunken joyride in a car stolen from the car wash. Given a choice between going to prison and going to Donbass, he chose the latter. Virtually all the information about his subsequent adventures in the war appear to be myths cooked up by Russian media: “Motorola” is merely a brand created by the Special Forces.
Today “Motorola” rents an apartment in Donetsk for 2,500 hryvnias (currently about $106) a month and moves around in a Lada Niva that was gifted to him by right-wing Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
P.S.—Right before the interview was published, Ukrainian media declared that “Motorola” was killed by a Ukrainian sniper. We relayed that information to his wife, Elena, since separatist leaders themselves did not comment on the reports. She said that information of his death was merely a rumor released by Ukrainian media, adding that this is hardly the first time they claimed that he was dead. Indeed, the next morning “Motorola” was sighted attending a meeting.
This article is adapted from one originally published in Georgian Journal.