“Let the UN Peacekeepers Stand Between Our Trenches”: Zakharchenko About the War, Ukrainian Oligarchs, and Trade with Europe

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



During the FIFA World Cup in Russia an escalation of the conflict in the east of Ukraine isn’t excluded. This was stayed by the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Aleksandr Zakharchenko in an interview to RT. The leader of the DPR described how civilians live in the conditions of war, at the expense of what the government fills the budget, and on what conditions Donbass is ready to make peace with Kiev. Also, Zakharchenko noted that the names of the performers and orderers of the murders of the commanders of DPR – Givi and Motorola – may be soon named.

Many are afraid that during the World Cup there can be an escalation in the Republic. Just how justified are these fears?

“Yes, I am sure that the command of the UAF has such plans. But we are ready for any aggravation on the contact line.”

Will you appeal to Russia if the DPR needs help?

“Believe me, we will have enough forces to deal with any blow and to respond adequately. But if Russia offers help, we won’t refuse it.”

Can you imagine that such a slow conflict, which is what there now is, can last for years?

“Let’s remember Europe – the War of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Thirty Years’ War. These conflicts were of a much larger scale. This, of course, is an ironic analogy. I am sure that here such a thing won’t happen. Time works for Donbass and against Ukraine. The more the conflict will last, the more Ukraine will plunge into chaos. In addition, soon there will be elections there, and some decision has to be made. Most likely, Ukraine will decide to escalate the conflict in order to move it to another phase. The fact that the ATO was reformatted into a military operation indirectly testifies to this. However, we haven’t yet seen a difference.”

The Ukrainian army in the last two years occupied many territories in the so-called gray zone. Do you plan to slow down this process?

“The concept of a ‘gray zone’ wasn’t stated in the Minsk Agreements. However, the OSCE confirmed that Ukraine has the right to occupy these territories. At the same time, in ‘Minsk’ it is clearly specified what such a line of differentiation is — it is those places that mustn’t be abandoned. And if the UAF shift this line towards us, occupying the ‘gray zone’, then they violate the Minsk Agreements. Thus it turns out that the OSCE also violates the agreements. And after all, this organisation is supposed to control the situation and report to the world about the violations of the main postulates of the agreement. The OSCE shouldn’t allow Ukrainian troops to be in this zone. We, for example, in accordance with the agreement between the parties, made Shirokino a demilitarised zone, left it, although earlier we stood there.”

What do you think – did the Minsk Agreements help to restrain Ukrainian aggression?

“The Minsk Agreements is a huge victory for Russian diplomacy, and for the DPR and LPR in general. It is the only platform on which it is possible to maintain what fragile peace there still is. But it is Ukraine that slows down the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. They find the agreements to be unprofitable.”

What do you think – is it possible to achieve peace in Donbass now?

“There are two options. The first — Ukraine capitulates, and we occupy the territory that we consider primordially ours. The second — Ukraine is headed by those people with who it will be possible to sit down at a negotiating table.”

You count on Ukraine giving you all the Donetsk region back?

“Of course, we want to liberate our land. Here in 2014 a referendum on independence took place. And all the cities and villages that participated in the plebiscite is the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Can troops of the UN promote peace-making in the DPR?

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“Name a country where UN troops helped to preserve peace. Yugoslavia? It was simply torn to pieces. What was cooked up in Croatia and Serbia, in Albania, in Montenegro, in Macedonia? But after all, UN troops were present there. We can freeze the situation by ourselves. But if the 5th year, the strongest army in Europe, as Petro Poroshenko said, can’t defeat us, then I don’t think that the presence of peacekeepers will change anything. Their main task is protecting the OSCE mission, which, by the way, once had the opportunity to take up arms for self-defense. Now, in order to enter UN peacekeepers here, there is a need for the consent of both sides of the conflict. If these units appear here without our consent, we will perceive it as international intervention. But if there are agreements, then we aren’t against it. Patrols on the line of differentiation, protection of the OSCE mission, a limited contingent – no more than 1,000 people. Let them stand directly between our trenches, let them sit in the trenches together with us if they want. Just not in the city. We won’t allow any units on our border with Russia — neither Ukrainian units, nor UN ones. If they want, let them stand on the Russia side of the border. They won’t be here on our land.”

Are you satisfied with how the process of exchanging prisoners is ongoing?

“Absolutely not. The largest exchange, which took place in the winter, left more questions than answers. We didn’t put those who we exchanged on the exchange list. We don’t even know who they are. They aren’t military personnel or political prisoners, they aren’t our relatives who were taken hostage. These are people who Ukraine simply caught on the street, accused them of separatism, and then exchanged them for theirs. But we exchange people who to us with a weapon in their hands or those who were arrested for espionage or subversive activities on the territory of DPR. These are enemies. We never arrest alcoholics or malicious non-payers of alimonies. We don’t exchange them. We exchange military personnel.”

But you take them…

“If we took them, then no places would remain in our prisons. Actually we have more of a democracy than in any European state.”

And how many prisoners are there in the DPR now?

“In all the relevant institutions, there are about 9,000 people. For comparison, in 2013-2014 in these same prisons there were more than 18,000 prisoners.”

How does the population endure all this conflict? How do people remain standing?

“We live in a state of war for the 5th year, in the hope that sooner or later we will liberate all of our Donbass. At the same time we aren’t afraid that we will be captured. We fight for our land and for the right to speak in whatever language we want. We believe that one day we will return to Krasnoarmeysk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk.”

As a leader, do you feel that people expect more from you?

“Of course. In the economy, in social policy, and in internal and foreign policy. People wait for the end of war. And this is normal. The people must demand from those who serve them the maximum return. When we went to these positions, we understood what tasks face us.”

For a long time there was a customs and boundary posts between the LPR and DPR. Why?

“We are two different republics. Yes, we fight together, we will always come to each other’s rescue. We have common policies and common problems, but our budgets are different.”

Can you imagine the unification of the DPR and LPR as a confederation?

“We are together anyway. I will remind that earlier there was also a parliament of Novorossiya. I am sure that the common task of both the LPR and DPR is to occupy the territory that we consider to be ours. As soon as we achieve this, we will then think about how to live further — independently or as a confederation, or it will be unification or accession. And on what conditions all of this will be organised. Time will tell.”

Does the DPR receive some external help in order to pay pensions, military and police salaries, and to buy equipment?

“Pensions, like well as monetary allowances for military personnel and law enforcement officers, are being paid from the budget of the DPR. The humanitarian aid that Russia gives is huge. It includes deliveries of industrial equipment, spare parts for power plants and factories, and construction materials. And those volunteers who come here are also a colossal help. These are fraternal people, who come here not on the order of the Russian president or the Ministry of Defence.”

Is the DPR able to provide for itself?

“We are rather independent. Our system of taxation is built in such a way that businessmen feel quite comfortable here. But, of course, it would be better if we controlled all the territory of the former Donetsk region. Because then it is a closed system in the financial and economic plane. I.e., the enterprises that are here and on the territory that is now controlled by Ukraine create closed production cycles. For example, the Mariupol port. However, here from all the large enterprises only one doesn’t work — it is the Khartsyzk Pipe Plant.

And we trade with the whole world. Even with Europe. For example, we buy equipment in Germany, and we sell materials there. The main problem is logistics. Everything comes to us and goes from us along a long road, not directly. But we work with Turkey, China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In terms of business, there is no war.”

What happened to the property of Rinat Akhmetov and other Ukrainian oligarchs in the DPR? It was nationalised?

“We have no oligarchs and there won’t be any. Rinat Akhmetov’s property wasn’t nationalised, it is under external management, like other similar enterprises. But all of them work.”

But Akhmetov now doesn’t receive any profit from this production?


What coal mines continue to work? Who generally buys your coal?

“We have more than 300 coal enterprises. There are mines that work at full capacity, others — at 70%, and some were destroyed. But the coal industry lives, develops, coal is on sale. This is a primary industry that fills the budget of the republic. More than 300,000 people work at these enterprises. We deliver coal to China and Turkey. The Russian Federation is clearly our main economic partner.”

How many people now live on the territory of the DPR?

“There are several systems of calculation, and I can say that now the DPR’s population is somewhere around 2.5-2.7 million people. This is much more than the population that is in the rest of the territory of the former Donetsk region under Ukraine’s control, although this is a much larger area. We now own about 33% of the territory of the former Donetsk region. But those who live under the control of Ukraine often move to live in the DPR. That’s why there is such uneven distribution.”

What does the DPR need most of all?

“The political recognition of the world community. We don’t want anything else. We don’t ask for money. If our independence is recognised, then everything will be much simpler in the economy.”

Kiev declared a total blockade of the DPR. However, many inhabitants of the republic have relatives and property in Ukraine. Is there still some connections with the Ukrainian territory?

“Automobile – both inbound and outbound. There are people who live on the territory of Ukraine, but work for us — in the coal industry, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, at schools and in hospitals.”

How are affairs with medicine in the DPR? Do hospitals and polyclinics work? Is there enough medicine?

“Concerning medicine — very big help comes not only from Russia, but also from many European countries. Officials came from Germany and brought medicine in intervals. All hospitals function except the ones that are either on the contact line or were completely destroyed.”

On the topic of education, can you say where graduates will go to further study?

“Our graduates have the right to go to any university in the world. However, I don’t know about Ukraine, because it doesn’t recognise our documents. In the DPR all higher educational institutions remained. Our diplomas are still accepted in all countries. Our educational institutions are featured in all international registers, they are on the books everywhere. Our students, for example, go to the universities of the Czech Republic. Besides this, during war we were able to open an additional five higher education institutions: an agricultural academy, a Ministry of State Security academy, a Ministry of Emergency Situations academy, an academy of tax administration, and a teacher training college. The quality of training didn’t drop. The teaching structure generally remained intact.

The reorganisation of education is being prepared now, we gradually refuse the Bologna system. We intend to take the best from the Soviet Union, and also to use the most positive experience of the education system of the Russian Federation. But as we are in war conditions, we will build OUR education system.”

Does Russia recognise your diplomas?

“Yes, for a long time, last year we eliminated the last differences of interpretations. Russia recognises not only our diplomas, but also our passports, marriage certificates, birth certificates, and driving documents.”

In recent years well-known commanders – Givi and Motorola – were killed. There were assassination attempts nearly in the center of Donetsk. Did you draw some conclusions from this?

“Each of those who put on a uniform, who have war decorations and hold a weapon in their hands, knew already in 2014 where they were going. And we made this choice consciously. In reality guys die here every month, as well as well-known commanders who just communicated with journalists less. But this is war. That’s why here this is a normal phenomenon. But, of course, nobody wants to die.”

How is the investigation into these murders moving ahead?

“Soon the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs — I think, next week [commencing June 11th – ed] — will submit a report on this question. And during this press conference both the performers and organisers will be named – i.e., forenames, surnames, and phones numbers.”

After all, assassination attempts were also made against you. How many, if it’s not a secret?

“I still haven’t reached the level of Fidel Castro in this regard. When I will reach it, then I will tell you, okay?”

Well, do you plan to participate in elections? Are there other candidates?

“Yes, I already announced this. In November there will be a vote. Many people are interested in being a candidate. I think that every second oppositionist would want to sit in this chair. And every first dreams of it – even sleep, probably, with this thought. Although in 2014 nobody wanted this post, everybody was afraid of it.”

In February, 2015, you received a wound during the battle for Debaltsevo. Do you still feel the consequences of this?

“Of course. I by miracle kept my leg thanks to our surgeons. I remember all of them. In total I was wounded in battles for the DPR 4 times. Therefore, of course, I feel discomfort, the wounds don’t completely heal.”

Do you play sports?

“Some hours on the front line is better than any sports hall.”

And you regularly at the front line?

“I try. For me it is very important to see what is happening at the front, to understand what my fighters are going through.”

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