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Saturday, August 13, 2022

(INTERVIEW) Witold Dobrowolski: “What is happening in Ukraine is a clash between European civilisation and neo-Bolshevism”

By Álvaro Peñas

Interview with Witold Dobrowolski, photojournalist, winner of the Grand Press Photo 2020, who has covered the 2014 war in Ukraine, the Yellow Vests protests in Paris, the revolution in Beirut and the demonstrations in Hong Kong. During the protests against the Lukashenko regime in August 2020, he was abducted and tortured by Belarusian police. Witold has just returned from Ukraine and is in Warsaw for an intensive combat medic course.

What are you doing in Ukraine?

I have just finished my second mission as a medical volunteer. I am helping civilians and Ukrainian army soldiers to save lives as part of a medical team. We have been working in the Mikolayev region, near the front line, where there has been shelling of the civilian population and war crimes with the firing of missiles on civilian buildings where the population lives. So, we have been helping civilians not to go deaf, helping the wounded and evacuating them to the nearest hospital. On the frontline we have done the same, cooperating with soldiers to evacuate the wounded and organising first-aid training for members of the territorial defence and the army. We have been busy.

And for what reason did you go to Ukraine?

I went to Ukraine in 2014 as a documentary filmmaker to follow the Maidan events. Then I was several times on the frontline as a journalist and because of my interest in Polish-Ukrainian relations, and I also followed the activities of the Azov regiment. So, I have a background in Ukraine, but this time the situation is different, I didn’t come here as a journalist because I wanted to do more, I wanted to get more involved because my country, Poland, is engaged in this war. No matter whether we want it or not, we are in a state of war with Belarus and Russia. The aggression started last year with the incidents on the Polish-Belarusian border and this is another facet of that aggression. The Russians have not only invaded Ukraine, they are bombing Ukrainian cities that belonged to Poland 80 years ago. There is still Polish culture and a Polish minority in those regions, and the Russians have attacked them indiscriminately. For example, in Kharkov the Polish military cemetery was destroyed.

We have seen what has happened in the territories occupied by the Russians, not only war crimes and genocide as in Borodianka and Bucha, but also the raising of red flags with the hammer and sickle, the re-erection of statues of Lenin, the renaming of streets with communist names and the neo-Bolshevism of their administration. We have already seen how the militia and administration of the People’s Republics openly use NKVD and KGB symbology. For me, what is happening here is a clash of civilisations between European civilisation and this neo-Bolshevism. In Europe we have this great clash between the liberal left and the right, but on the Russian side we have only the destruction of European culture and an invasion reminiscent of the Mongol horde or the Second World War, when the Red Army left behind chaos, rape and mass murder.

Despite resistance, Russian propaganda presents its invasion as a liberation of the Russian minority. What do civilians think of this “liberation”? 

The Mikolayev region was considered pro-Russian before the war. In fact, 60% of the population voted for pro-Russian parties and especially for Zelensky, because he was not so pro-Ukrainian, before the war. When I came to Mikolayev I thought it would be like in the Donbas, where there were many pro-Russians, but because of these war crimes people have changed their minds. The region is being bombed continuously, every day missiles are falling, killing and wounding civilians. If you live in such a situation, you reconsider your views because you realise that the Russians want to kill you and they don’t care whether you are pro-Russian or not. I remember a rather old man, who was wounded and whose house was partly in ruins, who was very angry with the Russians. Someone who was nostalgic for the old USSR, but who hated the Russians for what they had done to his neighbourhood. The truth is that the Russians have changed people’s opinion a lot because of the way they are behaving. It’s pure terror and it doesn’t work.

Pictures have been published of the first-aid kits of the Russian soldiers compared to the Ukrainian ones. The Russian ones are from the 1970s and the ratio of dead to wounded is one to three. Have you seen any of these first-aid kits?

Yes, I have seen these kits. I don’t know the statistics, but it’s true that the standard Ukrainian soldier’s first aid kit has a tourniquet, gauze, bandages, chest seal that prevents pneumothorax, and so on. The Russian soldier has none of these, except for the Spetsnaz and other special units, and has outdated equipment: the tourniquet is very basic and difficult to use for inexperienced soldiers, the bandages almost fall apart in the hands, and the basics are lacking.

I imagine that the equipment distributed to the People’s Republic troops will be even worse.

Sure. These troops are worse equipped than the regular troops of the Russian army. The Ukrainian side has the advantage of having a lot of international aid from the West. So, they have tourniquets and basic elements coming from the United States. For example, the unit I was assigned to had a high level of first aid, they had some medics and we trained their soldiers to learn. They have the knowledge and the equipment, that’s a very high level compared to the Russians.

Have you had to treat wounded Russian prisoners?

No, because in my area of the front there are the Ukrainian positions, two kilometres of no man’s land and then the Russian positions. Ninety-nine per cent of the fighting is artillery exchanges.

How is the morale of the Ukrainian soldiers?

They are highly motivated, their morale is very high and they believe in victory. A few weeks ago a poll was published, 90% of Ukrainians do not want the war to end until Ukraine regains all its territory. On the Russian side there are no volunteers, there is a serious problem to find volunteers, however, on the Ukrainian side there is not enough armament and equipment to give to the volunteers. Therefore, many volunteers who do not manage to be enlisted come to the front to serve “illegally” and sometimes die for their country anonymously. For example, a quarter of the men in my assigned unit had no contract and were there to help their friends and were waiting to be officially recruited.

Was the medical team you served in made up of foreigners or was it Ukrainian?

The founder of my team is Damian Duda, a Polish paramedic with previous experience in Iraq and Syria. The rest were Polish and we had an American.

Have you encountered foreign fighters?

Yes, foreigners who want to fight in Ukraine have enlisted in special operations units, intelligence and the army. They are grouped into platoons and companies and integrated into larger units. There are many foreign volunteers and not all of them can get a contract because they do not have military experience. Some are accepted and receive training, but others do not have enough contacts.

What about Belarusian and Russian volunteers?

The Belarusians serve in two units, the Kastos Kalionuski battalion, which is very well known propagandistically, and the Pahonia battalion, which is a special operations unit. For me it is natural that Belarusians want to fight the Russians, and they form their own units because at some point in the future they will try to liberate their country. Belarus right now is a prison state where everyone has to obey like in Orwell’s dystopia, 1984. A book that a month ago was banned in Belarus.

As for the Russians, I met nationalist Russians before the war and now they are all fighting in the Ukrainian army. I also heard the story of two Russian twins (Roman and Leonid Butusin) who fought with the Ukrainians and were killed in combat. I think this is an important story for Russians and Ukrainians, two Russian brothers who died for Ukraine fighting against the Kremlin.

How do you think the war will evolve?

Ukraine depends on the West and its political and military support. Russia is alone and has serious economic problems because of the war, for example, its car industry is dead. These are details to be taken into account. Regarding the front line, in the south, in Zaporozhye or Kherson, it is very static and the Ukrainians have made small offensives in which they take one village after another, liberating territory very slowly. In the Donbas it’s very different because the Russians are concentrated there to finish the war, because they can’t get any more. We have heard about towns like Severodonestk or Lisyschansk, towns taken by the Russians, but we all knew they would take them. The Ukrainians have beaten them there and retreated to new defensive positions avoiding an encirclement, and I think they have done very well and will beat the Russians again. The next few months will be crucial, we will see if the Ukrainians can make a bigger offensive to retake Kherson, but what is certain is that the Russians are in serious trouble because they do not have enough units ready to defend all their lines. The problem for the Ukrainians is that they do not have enough artillery, but perhaps this will change with Western support.

We see that the liberal governments of Germany or France only want to negotiate with Russia, they don’t care what this neo-Bolshevism does as long as they continue with their business. This is a serious mistake. I think we should all support the Ukrainians in one way or another because it is a war in Europe, it is a war that concerns us all, not only Poland or the Baltic countries, but the whole of Europe.

Source: El Correo de España




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