Today, 9 May 2022, marks an important day for Russia and President Putin. In Russia, this day is known as Victory Day, which commemorates the formal surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945.
However, whereas 9 May 1945 marked the end of years of bloody war, many fear that 9 May 2022 will be the day that Russia will officially start a new one and declare war on Ukraine.
One of our editors, David Mendelsohn, is a project manager for an NGO operating near the Ukrainian border, providing humanitarian aid and assisting refugees in the area. There, he met a foreign fighter who was willing to sit down with him for an interview for the JASON Institute. The identity of the interviewee has been anonymised.
David: The day is February 21st. Putin recognises Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics. What goes through your head? What are you thinking?
Interviewee: Oh, good question. I already knew what would happen. I think I did not want to know it, but I knew it. I just had this feeling – it is going to happen and the world will change from how we knew it, especially here in Europe. I was a bit scared because I already knew that what is happening right now [the war] would happen, all these war crimes and horrible things. That was the beginning, it always starts like this. It is the same old method that Russia uses. I remember being at home, watching TV and I think for five hours I did not turn off the news because every ten minutes something new happened, some news came up, someone said something and it escalated so quickly. But I think all in all, it was scary.
David: It did go very quickly. In a week’s time there was war. We went from the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk to a war quite fast. Again, what are your thoughts on this?
Interviewee: It is crazy. At the beginning, when Russia started gathering troops at the border, I was okay. I thought they just wanted to show some power and do their ‘normal Russian stuff’. But when Luhansk and Donetsk were recognised, I realised it is happening. But for me, that week, my whole life already changed even though the invasion had not started yet. But all I knew was okay, if it [war] is going to happen, I will be on my way. So yeah, quick change of life.
David: What do you mean “quick change of life, I will be on my way”?
Interviewee: Before, I lived a normal life. I was just studying, doing normal stuff, going out with friends. And I knew if it happens, I would go into Ukraine and fight for Ukraine and defend Europe. Defend Poland, defend our way of living. Yeah, I knew it. And then when it happened, I could get to Ukraine quickly, very quickly. I had 15 minutes to pack my things because via a Facebook group, I found someone who was going to the Polish Ukrainian border, and they were going with humanitarian aid. I found him on Facebook because he wrote a post. I answered and phoned him and then he was like: “Where do you live?” And then we found out he was living in the neighbouring city, and he said: “Okay, I’m leaving now”. And I was like: “What does this mean?” “In 15 minutes I am at your house”. Then I had 15 minutes to pack things that I thought would be good for war. I thought the lighter the better, because I would walk a lot. In the end, it was good that I did not go directly to Ukraine, because I forgot my passport so I could not cross the border. But I found work as the coordinator of a logistics centre, here in Merdeka. We are sending out all stuff that comes from all over Europe into Ukraine, especially Eastern Ukraine, where it is needed at the moment. For a long time, in my opinion, that was helping more than me just going to war. But now the times have changed, and there is just not that much coming anymore. So now it is time for me to go and to do my work.
David: Is there a specific reason you are going now? 9 May, the celebratory day for Russia is almost around the corner, so you are really picking your moment.
Interviewee: It was not even my decision. My plan before was to go on the 30th [of May], at the end of the month. However, also because I know the situation in Chernihiv. They said okay, you can come earlier and decide and the transport will be there on the 15th. At the beginning it was the 16th. Now, two days ago, I got information I am already leaving on the 15th of May.
So many Polish people think the same: now it is the time to finally solve a big problem that was already here for hundreds of years, the Russians. A legionnaire that I met two days ago said, every Russian less in the world is a better world.
David: And on a tactical level, do you know if you can talk about this? Are you staying in the same city? Are you going to move around a lot? Have you received any information about what you are going to do?
Interviewee: I will have two weeks of training with my unit. And then there are two options that I am not deciding. The thing is once I’m in the army, I cannot decide. I cannot decide that I want to go there, but I do not want to go there. Wherever they send me, they send me and if they send me to the front line, I have to go to the front line. That is just how the military works.
And there are two options, like I said. Staying in Chernihiv at the Russian Ukrainian border, around 20 kilometres from it, maybe 30. And fighting back those 20 or 30 kilometres to the official border. Or what is happening right now, the troops from Chernihiv are getting transported to Kharkiv. It is not far and in Kharkiv there are huge battles right now. So they need everyone. In the end, I do not know exactly what will happen. But I am ready for everything.
David: Are you going by yourself? Or are you with a group?
Interviewee: I am going by myself. I am sending out a transfer of my logistic work and then getting into the car with my goods. And when I arrive in Chernihiv, I will have an apartment sorted there. I will even meet the Mayor of Chernihiv. I am pretty well-known there because we were sending a lot of stuff there. The people are always sending out videos to say thank you.
I think it will be kind of nice to meet the people that I was helping out for over two months. I will have one and a half days getting to know the city and I will get a tour around the destroyed city. Then I am going to the military point. I already know where I am sleeping, I got some pictures from there. And then I am in the military.
David: Do you know anything about the equipment and the weaponry you will be using?
Interviewee: AK-47 is the normal weapon there. Everyone is using it. The Russians are using it, the Ukrainians are using it. For a while I heard some rumours because they knew I have a German passport and they have one G36. And they were like okay, if a German guy comes here to fight for us, he is getting this weapon. But whatever, someone else got it already, so I will just use the AK-47. I am fine with it.
I know the weapon because I have been shooting a lot before. I am going to a shooting range tomorrow. And there is an extra AK-47 waiting for me so I can have a last time training with it. Everything else I had to organise myself, all my tactical gear. I have everything here. The only thing that is waiting in Chernihiv – what I also arranged already – is my bullet proof vest and my helmet. And the only thing that I am getting from the army is a Ukrainian patch, an AK-47, three magazines and then ‘go for it’.
David: Are you willing to commit war crimes?
Interviewee: Wow, that escalated quickly. Of course not. The thing is, it is war. If someone is shooting at me, I will shoot back. I know that in this situation, I am ready to kill someone who is ready to kill me.
But I know – and I will do so – if you would get Russian soldiers to surrender, we know that those guys have nothing to do with Russian politics. They are soldiers, they are doing what they are told. I know a lot of war crimes happened with people who surrendered on the Ukrainian side and on the Russian side also. It is war and there will always be war criminals and war crimes happening, it is just war. Sometimes I understand it. If someone murdered three families without any reason, and the Ukrainians catch him and murder him. It just is how it is. But I would prefer to get more Russians to surrender. Because the more Russians we have, the more information we get. And maybe even for [military] exchange or something like that.
And I do not know, maybe I will have to surrender one time. And if I was good to the Russians, maybe the Russians on the other side will have some understanding for that and maybe do not kill me instantly, but I am pretty sure they will because the Russian government already said that every volunteer not from Ukraine has no right through the international law. So that is going to be tough. But it is not my plan to surrender.
David: Are you scared?
Interviewee: Yes. I think there is no soldier who is not scared, going into war. I have no experience; I have never been in combat. But I am saying, “Oh God, I have to do what I have to do”. The possibility is 90% that I am going to piss myself the first time someone will be shooting at me. But from what I have heard, that is pretty normal. But you get used to it. I think the longer I will be there, the more normal it will be. I think you will get used to things.
I think the worst part really is getting into the car and driving out, saying bye to all the people I met. The family that I am staying with has taken me in like a son. I think that will be the hardest moment. I am already scared of this moment. But once I am on the road, I will be fine.
David: Do you think the NATO members are doing enough?
Interviewee: No. I am sure Russia will not stop. And that is also the reason I am going into Ukraine, because I am pretty sure that if they get Ukraine, they will get the Baltic states. Earlier or later they will get Poland and I do not want war in Poland. I’m ready to join the front line in Ukraine and fight there for Europe because I know if we win this war, the other countries are safe.
So the earlier we stop them, the better. It makes no sense waiting twenty years until they have got Ukraine and the Baltic states. They will go further and further because everyone knows what Putin’s plans are. So in my opinion, it is better to fight him now. And I am sure that this whole conflict will escalate more. And then we will be like: “Why did you not do something earlier? Why did so many people have to die without a reason? Before you finally did what you were supposed to be doing?”
David: What is the endgame here? How will this all end?
Interviewee: There are two options. We get destroyed. Like we are all going to die. And the Russians will conquer Ukraine, pause for some years and then go further. Or we will be able to stop Russia first, get the Ukrainian territory back.
And then there is just the question how far Russia will escalate it, if it will use nukes or not. But that is something no one can change. If they will use nukes, it makes no difference if I am there or here, we are all going to die. So I would rather be there and be fighting for freedom, fighting for something good. Doing something important with my life and not just sitting around and doing nothing and then saying: “Oh no, something bad has happened and I did not do anything”.
David: Will Putin survive this war?
Interviewee: I hope not, in my opinion. But I think it is kind of impossible that after everything that happened, he will just stay as the President of Russia and everything will remain the same because the sanctions will destroy Russia. Not now, the sanctions are still way too soft right now. But over time, Russia has no chance. And the only way they can remove the sanctions is if Putin goes or dies. Someone else needs to be president and say “Oh, we’re sorry” and we will start a new decade and a new history of Russia. The sanctions will go away then. So I do not think Putin will survive this war.
David: What will you be doing on your last days at home?
Interviewee: I will have some good food. I will have a good bath. I will go to church. I will call my friends at home, say goodbye. And then I will spend the day with my newfound family here. Seriously, they are like my family already. So I will spend the day with them. Just an easy day. Nothing special, just having some time together, some last time. I think many people will come to us and say goodbye. I am pretty sure the last week will not be that nice because there will be a lot of tears. But that is just how it is. And then it is going to be – let’s go.
Interested to read more about the situation in Ukraine? Then make sure to check out this article by JASON editor David Iakobidze on the shortcomings of the Russian military performance. In addition, if you want to read up more about the importance of the 9th of May for Russia check out this article by CNN.