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18/09/2008

"Local wars ahead "

An interview with former soldier and journalist Arkady Babchenko on the Russian military action in South Ossetia and Georgia.

NZZ: You were the military correspondent for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta during the fighting in South Ossetia. How did you manage to get in?

















Photo: Arkady Babchenko courtesy Rowohlt Verlag

Arkady Babchenko
: It was unclear whether or not I would be able to get into South Ossetia. I went to a collection point in North Ossetia in military uniform and registered as a volunteer. On the border to South Ossetia no one controlled our convoy of 10 buses and 200 soldiers. We only had to hold up our passports. "Through you go boys" they said. "Fight for Russia!" It was only as we were returning four days later that I was stopped by the Russian security service, the FSB, and asked why I had no exit stamp in my passport. Volunteers were not allowed into Tskhinvali. So I decided to make my own way and travelled alone to Tskhinvali by car. The city was badly destroyed.

After the Georgian army's attack on the Russian battalion there?


The battalion was stationed in only one garrison. The attack was on the entire city. The battalion was wiped out, there were heavy losses.

You served as a soldier in the Chechen war. What was different in Georgia?


In Chechnya Russia was fighting against partisans, bearded men with Kalashnikovs. In Georgia the enemy was a professional army of another state with state-of-the-art equipment. The Chechen wars were certainly more gruesome. But the Russian army managed to make exactly the same mistakes again: once again an infantry convoy marched into Tskhinvali without proper cover and was promptly annihilated; once again they were poorly equipped. The soldiers had no water or diesel for their vehicles. We have a saying for this: the whole world fights with Russian weapons but Russia fights with its boys.

Why did this war happen?

The reason for the wars in Chechnya and in Georgia is identical: Russia has superpower aspirations and is hell-bent on realising them at any cost, using military violence if necessary.

What do you say to the official Russian position about the genocide in South Ossetia and Abkhasia?

There were no signs of genocide in the area. The president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, says that 2000 civilians were killed in Tskhinvali. This is simply not true. As I see it, there were probably between 150 and 200 deaths, perhaps 300, but never thousands. But every house in the city was damaged by Georgian artillery fire.

You have written that Russia should never have marched into Georgia.


The stationing of the Russian peacekeeping forces was contractually regulated. Russia couldn't just look on as their peacekeepers were shot at. It had to march into Tskhinvali to rescue the soldiers and stop the Georgian shooting. If it had stopped at that there would have been no questions. But why Russia had to occupy Georgian territory and bomb Georgian cities I still don't understand.

Didn't you just give the explanation - that it wants to establish itself as a superpower?


If Medvedev wants Russia to be a superpower that stretches from the Fiji Islands to Gibraltar, then he should take his Kalashnikov and take on the world himself! But he shouldn't sit in his warm office and send 18-year-old Russian boys to do his dirty work! When Yeltsin wanted to be president of a superpower and attacked Chechnya, little Babchenko was sent to do the job. Now Medvedev wants to be the president of a superpower and is fighting in South Ossetia - and Babchenko is sent off again to photograph burning soldiers. I've had it up to here! Russia is like Germany in the thirties. It is fantasising about world domination and rolling up its sleeves.

Is the action against Georgia a further attempt by Putin's people in the KGB and the security forces to secure their own power, using external conflicts to create pressure on the domestic front?

Yes probably. The last three presidents started wars. Yeltsin, the first Chechen war, Putin the second - and public support for Medvedev has risen from 40 to 80 percent through the Georgian war. Two TV programmes in Russia show nothing but propaganda. There is a steady stream of reports about American war ships in the Black Sea and the Nato missile defence base in Poland. The Kremlin foments fear as distraction. Russia is rich, it's swimming in oil and gas billions. So why is the average income 385 and not 1000 dollars?

Russia's action in Georgia has sparked fear in Ukraine in the Baltic and the Caucasus? Do you think this is exaggerated?

A short while ago, I would have said that these fears were unfounded. Today I have no clear answer. Especially as Crimea is much more important for Russia than South Ossetia. I don't understand what Russia is up to. I don't understand why the west is provoking confrontation. What does it think it will achieve? Both sides are contributing to the escalation at the moment.

You mean US engagement in Georgia?


No Georgia is an independent country and is free to pick its friends. But just as Russians have spent years encouraging the South Ossetians to take action, the west has been encouraging Georgia. If you deliver weapons to Georgia, you're not playing games.

So the Kremlin's fears of being surrounded by the west are justified?

Perhaps. But I don't believe in a third world war. What we face are small local wars. The Kremlin knows this and it's trying to mentally prepare the population. In the current situation even the smallest step can have unforeseen consequences.

There is talk in the west is about a new Cold War. Would you say this is applicable?


The Cold War has already begun. It won't get as cold as in the days of the Soviet Union. There will be no Iron Curtain, but Russia will not be integrating into Europe.

Three journalists from the Novaya Gazeta have been murdered, one of them was Anna Politkovskaya. Do you worry about this happening to you?

No. I don't fear for my life. The ruling powers in Russia are so established that they don't care what Arkady Babchenko writes. Putin said that Politkovskaya was not an influential journalist and unfortunately it's true. Every article Politkovskaya wrote should have led to criminal investigations but there is no independent judiciary. In Russia you are treading on someone's toes if you ask them how they earn their money. I am not involved with this sort of investigative journalism. And if Anna Politkovskaya was not an influential journalist, then I'm certainly not.


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Arkady Babchenko was born in Moscow in 1977 and calls himself a "war child". At the age of 19 he fought in the first Chechen war and he also took part in the second one. The first short story he wrote was named after the Chechen village of "Alchan Jurt" (2005). His highly acclaimed autobiographical novel "One Soldier's War in Chechnya" was published in English by Portobello Books in 2007 and in German as "Die Farbe des Krieges" in 2005. Babchenko is a journalist, he runs a veterans association and the internet site "Art of War" (www.navoine.ru) where over 400 former soldiers, among them former enemies, write about their experience of war. Arkady Babchenko is currently working at the Literarische Colloquium in Berlin on a reportage novel about his days in the Georgian war.




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The article was originally published in German in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 10 September, 2008

Jörg Plath is a journalist and literary critic based in Berlin.

Translation: lp
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