The separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine has pulled in foreign volunteers from many countries. Russians rub shoulders with Brazilians, French with Americans. Some come for money; some for politics; some for adventure.
A well-informed observer of the situation got in touch to talk about Serb volunteers who joined the secessionist east. He prefers to remain anonymous. His opinions are his own.
The first part of our conversation covered a small group led by Bratislav Zivkovic which served in the Crimea and returned with stories of battlefield glory. Unhappy ex-members later called the unit’s achievements into question. Despite this, Zivkovic made the separatist cause a major talking point in Serbia. Not long after the group’s return, Serbs became aware of another of their countrymen serving in the east.
Here is part two.
1. The sniper Dejan Beric became well known in Serbia due to his Youtube videos from Novorossiya. What did the public think of him?
Public opinion about Beric was somewhat mixed. Many observers felt resentment towards him, arguing he was a dog of war, a paid killer, and a terrorist. For others he was a true Serb, someone willing to sacrifice everything in life to defend Orthodox Christians in Eastern Ukraine.
2. What was Beric’s background?
We know he was born in the village of Putinci, in Serbia’s wealthiest region Vojvodina, near the town of Ruma. From all available sources we know that he was a veteran of the 1999 war in Kosovo. He also claims that he was involved, for a brief period of time, in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts. We can’t verify these claims, but we know he was a highly trained and well experienced soldier when he arrived in Ukraine. After the war in 1999 he lived a peaceful life and became a champion in sport fishing.
3. How did he end up in Ukraine?
Looking more closely into his personal life we find that he was going through difficult times. First, the company he owned in his village went bankrupt and he could not pay employee salaries. The financial trouble affected his marriage and he separated from his wife with whom he’d spent 18 years. He signed divorce papers giving everything to his young child and the ex-wife. Now there was nothing else to do but to leave the village and look for employment elsewhere.
Sochi in Russia was the perfect place. Promised salaries were high from the perspective of the average Serbian, somewhere north of 2,000 euros. With that kind of money he could save enough to pay his debts and to support his teenage son. Life in Russia proved to be a very difficult. Brutal conditions shared with other Serbian construction workers became even worse when employers refused to pay them promised salaries. Beric only got a portion of his money and was fired from his job after he complained about it.
Now we have one angry and possibly suicidal veteran. He is mad at everyone and everything. For the loss of his comrades in the war he blamed NATO and for his financial difficulties he blamed EU laws that forced him to shut his company down. Events in Ukraine gave this man a chance to get even with his enemies and also a reason to live.
4. What did Beric do in Novorossiya?
He went to Crimea in 2014 and met up with locals and foreigners who supported the referendum to become part of Russia. This is where he made his first contacts with other veterans. After the referendum he joined the volunteer group called ‘Northern Wind’, a small unit which included soldiers from the Chechen wars, two Russian veterans from the Kosovo conflict, and former members of Russian and Ukrainian military. The unit set off to the city of Sloviansk on the Ukrainian mainland.
A Russian war veteran named Igor Ivanovic Streklov (whose real name is Igor Girkin) was already in Sloviansk with a group of 300-400 men, many of whom were veterans or former military men. They set up good defensive positions helped by military infrastructure already in place from the Soviet period. The entire operation was crazy as they faced an army over 250,000 strong.
Beric later claimed that two well trained battalions with armoured vehicles could have wiped them out in no time.
‘The Ukrainian side needed this war to last much longer than necessary,’ he said in an interview. ‘Please tell me in which country a group of 400 men would not be wiped out in days? If Ukrainians had decided to send well equipped Special Forces with armoured vehicles we would be all dead. But instead they sold weapons to us. I personally paid with my own money for an armoured vehicle and loads of weapons. They were so cheap, we are talking about only several hundred dollars.‘
Beric claims that in some instances he had to use the force to make his opponents sell weapons. He would kill one or two men, sending a message to other soldiers who were really reluctant to even be in this conflict, let alone fight and die. Beric is a psychological warfare expert and in his interviews he usually repeats well thought out answers. Some of his comments are probably intended to deepen the discord between regular Ukrainian troops and the motivated volunteer battalions.
5. What happened at Sloviansk?
Strelkov’s small but experienced battalions set up good defensive positions. Beric and his men set up their own defensive positions preventing Ukrainians commandos from outflanking Strelkov. They were all vastly outnumbered, but used this to their advantage by inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainian side.
Not all Ukrainian soldiers were inexperienced and unmotivated. They sent some well-trained units with war experience to Sloviansk, but still faced huge challenges and losses despite having many troops than the separatists. On the night of 4-5 of July 2014 Strelkov decided to retreat from the city.
Someone turned on a truck’s lights during the move and thus alerted the Ukrainians who immediately opened fire. Losses for Strelkov’s men were horrific.
6. What happened to Beric?
Beric and his small unit were abandoned by the high command. In interviews, he has claimed that Strelkov is a coward and traitor who could have held off the Ukrainian army for months.
‘Northern Wind’ had no choice but to abandon its positions as well and head towards secure territory. Conditions were terrible. They had move at night on foot, had no water or food, and on top of all their troubles faced small Ukrainian volunteer units. Beric claims that they inflicted many casualties while retreating. This is very unlikely because they were deep in enemy territory and any shoot out would reveal their positions. But the Ukrainian war was a big mess at that time and communications between troops loyal to the Kiev regime was weak. Maybe Beric was speaking the truth, we will never know for sure.
What we do know is that many separatist media outlets published stories about 6 men from Sloviansk who finally arrived in Donetsk on foot led by a Serb.
Find out more about Beric in part three.
Check out part one if you missed it.
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