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Outspoken Rebel Leader Mozgovoi: 'We Want to Live in Freedom – in a Fair, Equitable Society'

Russian Planet’s correspondent spent a day with the commander of the Ghost Brigade, who has wrangled with the authorities of Novorossiya, criticized the Minsk Agreement and survived more than one assassination attempt.
 

This article originally appeared at Russian Planet. It was translated by Greg Butterfield at Red Star Over Donbass


On the day when Alexei Mozgovoi (“the Brain”), commander of the militia Ghost Brigade, agreed to an interview, he buried one of his soldiers in Lugansk -- another victim of the protracted ceasefire. Grisha -- this was the volunteer’s callsign -- died the night of April 6 during local battles near the village of Zholobok. Such skirmishes near the front occur more often lately, despite the current ceasefire.

<figcaption>Alexei Mozgovoi</figcaption>
Alexei Mozgovoi

After the fight in Zholobok, the Ghosts were very angry. Grisha's body was taken by fighters of the Ukrainian Aydar division -- the same one that human rights activists from Amnesty International accused of war crimes: kidnapping, killings and torture of detainees.

Grisha’s body was only recovered two days later, and in what condition remains a mystery. It is commonly believed that in war everything is easier than in civilian life: there is only black and white. But when, during a truce, shelling and loss of lives continues on the front line, and the only answer to any question is the incantation "Minsk Agreement,” this logic fails.

The only remedy for anger becomes the voice of the commander. For the militias, the voice of the Brain can be a menacing roar. For me, a female reporter who came to the war zone, he was quite different -- quiet, unhurried. And the more severe the night before, the quieter the Brigade Commander's voice is the next day.

‘OSCE are only interested in their salaries’

We ride in the car. Over the hiss of tires, I almost did not hear the Brain. He responds slowly, weighing every word. I do not see his face, as I sit in the back seat, and Mozgovoi responds from the front, without turning his head.

Are the representatives of the OSCE monitoring the situation in Kirovsk?

They're only interested in their salaries. How many days in a row are there skirmishes, during which time they never once get there?

When the incident occurred, and the militiaman died, did you contact them?

What's the point?

To note the violation of the ceasefire.

All violations and so on are noted at certain checkpoints operated by our observers together with representatives of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (APU). And we are constantly in touch with the OSCE. The Ukrainian side has one group, ours another. They just would not have agreed to go to Kirovsk.

OSCE staff in the village of Spartak.

What structures could act as an arbitrator, then?

None.

So you are able to interact with the other side without intermediaries?

Interaction with the opposite side will not work until it includes the financers, those who profit from the war. The fighting is mainly with the private armies of Kolomoisky, the APU participates at a minimum.

With regard to Ghost, complaints were heard that they are not subject to anyone and act on their own initiative. In late March, your team became an official territorial division of the Lugansk People’s Republic. What changed?

Our policy has not changed, we used to interact with all structures, including military. Another issue is that we defend the interests of the people, not the government. Because governments change, but the people -- never. With those who honestly perform their duties to the people, we always found a common language.

But conflicts do arise? For example, in Kirovsk the relationship of Ghost with the local mayor, as they say, is not optimum.

Yes, he does not like us: we exposed his illegal financial transactions. And besides, most of the work in the city was led by our battalion -- determining assistance to refugees, helping people. The mayor only wrote reports. And every day he also demanded money from us.

In an interview, you spoke rather harshly. You said that the most unpredictable enemies of Novorossiya are the governments of the newly formed republics.

In this regard, nothing has changed; as yet the people do not fully control the officials.

Why, in your opinion, can’t Novorossiya be established?

It all rests on money. Tell me, why are there customs between the DNR and LC? Worse than fiefdoms. Passports are going to be created for some reason. How much weight will the documents have without recognition? And for recognition, they’ll have to work. And work together.

‘And who is right?’

Mozgovoi says that at the very beginning of the conflict, after one of the air raids on their company, all the Ukrainian websites claimed that "a large group of Russian troops was destroyed, and all died." During the war, this message was repeated five or six times. Thus the team got its name – Ghost.

What is the secret of discipline in the Ghost Brigade?

There is no secret. And there is no discipline. Look, sit, do nothing – Mozgovoi smiles. For the first time, it seems. 

And what is the main motivation for Ghost?

The same as it is for everyone: we want to live in freedom -- in a fair, equitable society.

What is the biggest injustice you have encountered in the war?

War is the greatest injustice. We're not at war with their soldiers. Those who pay, who heat up, who set people against each other through the media – that’s who we must fight. Yes, everyone has their own ideas, but by and large, we and those on the other side are fighting for the same thing -- and yet we kill each other.

And what about the Ukrainians, do they want the war to end? Will they listen to such arguments?

And here perhaps they will listen? From outside it appears that there are two simple guys chasing a coin and hammering away at each other in vain. And who is right?

Isn’t it the side that doesn’t attack anyone?

At Debaltsevo, who attacked whom?

The opinion of the people is also important: the locals did not like to be under the Ukrainian military.

In the village of Donetsk residents do not like it when there is a division of the 4th Brigade militia stationed there. That's the whole point -- as with one, so with the other. There are idiots, and there are soldiers. For example, only one militiaman dared to write the truth and publish it on the web after taking Debaltsevo. And there's a lot to be said about looting. When we went into the city, the locals wanted us to protect their homes and catch looters. But we had to deal with the war.

Humanitarian-inclined mission

The vehicle stops. The Brain has a meeting scheduled with the employees of one of the poultry farms of Alchevsk, a large city whose population before the war was over 100,000 people (now, according to some estimates, there are about 80,000). The owners of the enterprise went to Kiev, the factory closed, and the staff was left without work and does not know what to do.

On the premises there are no chickens, between factory buildings wind blows interspersed with sudden gusts of snow. All that recalls that this was a poultry farm are pieces of eggshell in the mud underfoot. Evidence of the war-- a few ruined buildings and a shell sticking out of the ground in the middle of the road. The employees are asked return to work now; Mozgovoi says it will recover. The workers are wondering whether they will be paid salaries. The brigade commander replied that this issue will also be addressed.

What structures could act as an arbitrator, then?

None.

So you are able to interact with the other side without intermediaries?

Interaction with the opposite side will not work until it includes the financers, those who profit from the war. The fighting is mainly with the private armies of Kolomoisky, the APU participates at a minimum.

With regard to Ghost, complaints were heard that they are not subject to anyone and act on their own initiative. In late March, your team became an official territorial division of the Lugansk People’s Republic. What changed?

Our policy has not changed, we used to interact with all structures, including military. Another issue is that we defend the interests of the people, not the government. Because governments change, but the people -- never. With those who honestly perform their duties to the people, we always found a common language.

But conflicts do arise? For example, in Kirovsk the relationship of Ghost with the local mayor, as they say, is not optimum.

Yes, he does not like us: we exposed his illegal financial transactions. And besides, most of the work in the city was led by our battalion -- determining assistance to refugees, helping people. The mayor only wrote reports. And every day he also demanded money from us.

In an interview, you spoke rather harshly. You said that the most unpredictable enemies of Novorossiya are the governments of the newly formed republics.

In this regard, nothing has changed; as yet the people do not fully control the officials.

Why, in your opinion, can’t Novorossiya be established?

It all rests on money. Tell me, why are there customs between the DNR and LC? Worse than fiefdoms. Passports are going to be created for some reason. How much weight will the documents have without recognition? And for recognition, they’ll have to work. And work together.

‘And who is right?’

Mozgovoi says that at the very beginning of the conflict, after one of the air raids on their company, all the Ukrainian websites claimed that "a large group of Russian troops was destroyed, and all died." During the war, this message was repeated five or six times. Thus the team got its name – Ghost.

What is the secret of discipline in the Ghost Brigade?

There is no secret. And there is no discipline. Look, sit, do nothing – Mozgovoi smiles. For the first time, it seems. 

And what is the main motivation for Ghost?

The same as it is for everyone: we want to live in freedom -- in a fair, equitable society.

What is the biggest injustice you have encountered in the war?

War is the greatest injustice. We're not at war with their soldiers. Those who pay, who heat up, who set people against each other through the media – that’s who we must fight. Yes, everyone has their own ideas, but by and large, we and those on the other side are fighting for the same thing -- and yet we kill each other.

And what about the Ukrainians, do they want the war to end? Will they listen to such arguments?

And here perhaps they will listen? From outside it appears that there are two simple guys chasing a coin and hammering away at each other in vain. And who is right?

Isn’t it the side that doesn’t attack anyone?

At Debaltsevo, who attacked whom?

The opinion of the people is also important: the locals did not like to be under the Ukrainian military.

In the village of Donetsk residents do not like it when there is a division of the 4th Brigade militia stationed there. That's the whole point -- as with one, so with the other. There are idiots, and there are soldiers. For example, only one militiaman dared to write the truth and publish it on the web after taking Debaltsevo. And there's a lot to be said about looting. When we went into the city, the locals wanted us to protect their homes and catch looters. But we had to deal with the war.

Humanitarian-inclined mission

The vehicle stops. The Brain has a meeting scheduled with the employees of one of the poultry farms of Alchevsk, a large city whose population before the war was over 100,000 people (now, according to some estimates, there are about 80,000). The owners of the enterprise went to Kiev, the factory closed, and the staff was left without work and does not know what to do.

On the premises there are no chickens, between factory buildings wind blows interspersed with sudden gusts of snow. All that recalls that this was a poultry farm are pieces of eggshell in the mud underfoot. Evidence of the war-- a few ruined buildings and a shell sticking out of the ground in the middle of the road. The employees are asked return to work now; Mozgovoi says it will recover. The workers are wondering whether they will be paid salaries. The brigade commander replied that this issue will also be addressed.

Photo: Elena Gorbachev

Back in the car, Mozgovoi takes his seat in the front. But now during the conversation, he sometimes turns his head to me, and his voice sounds louder.

Have the local authorities done anything to help the factory? I'm curious.

The people are the authorities. Do you mean officials or what? No minister has appeared to take charge of this enterprise.

And what can you provide the factory?

We have contacted representatives of the Russian agricultural sector who have expressed willingness to support the factory. In this there will not be nationalization – the contact is supported by the owners of the factory. Caravans of humanitarian aid are not able to fix the food situation in the Donbass. We need to work not only on markets and shops, but also the actual production.

In addition to military service, Ghost has also been a humanitarian mission?

Humanitarian-inclined, so to speak. We are always dealing with the problems of supplying hospitals, schools and social cafeterias. Now everything has become too serious, too “public,” with smuggling creating a lot of problems. When customs says: your cargo exceeds tonnage restrictions, I was surprised. How can humanitarian goods exceed tonnage? Besides, now you need to register all goods in Rostov-on-Don at the MOE [Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations]. Isn’t it easier to put the controls directly at customs? Such measures do not work to stop smuggling; on the contrary, in these conditions it expands. After all, humanitarian aid is also a business.

‘If you say you’re not afraid, it’s a lie’

In Mozgovoi’s office, on one wall hangs a Novorossiyan flag. On the other, a red flag with the hammer and sickle. Calling himself a monarchist, the Brain sees no contradiction in this. He says that it is wrong when people are separated by ideology -- the red, white, "fifth column" and so on. And there is nothing left of the people.

Do you remember your first performance? -- I ask the brigade commander, who was once a soloist of the Svatovskaya male ensemble, and who now often has to speak in front of people.

Of course I remember. I was still in high school. Some communist holiday at the agriculture club, a velvet curtain, with Ilyich, with wheat. All together, we were wearing ties and reciting rhymes. And then we were done.

Are you afraid of performing?

Everyone is afraid. It's like a battle to perform. If you say you’re not afraid, it’s a lie.

Do you remember when you first appealed to the people?

Also in school. I was engaged in clandestine activities. Then came an election – we even had those in Soviet times. And I realized: why did we have to choose the same? I got a few people, and at night we went into the office of the head teacher, drawing leaflets with pens. I was the soloist, we were there rehearsing. I do not remember the text, but the general meaning was limited to: What good is it to choose the same? Well, when I finished school, the director crossed himself.

What prompted you to leave Lisichansk? (In June-July 2014 Ghost defended the area around that city, then retreated to Alchevsk. - RP).

Necessity: it was necessary to save the city and the civilian population, and the brigade. That's why I led people away. Heroic death only looks beautiful in the movies.

The brigade commander smokes a lot. On the table are his four pipes. Once, says Mozgovoi, he tried to quit, but failed. On one pipe is carved a portrait of Taras Shevchenko. A trophy.

We know that you write poetry. Who is that woman with a bouquet in your poem, "Write me a letter, mademoiselle?"

No one you’ll ever meet. A collective image.

Did you write it for someone in particular?

Piiiiishut. I'm trusting and kind. And you women, insidious.

‘Even better’

What kind of criticism do you often hear?

That I am a satrap. And yell at everyone.

Is this untrue?

I don't know.

When will you know that your job is done?

That’s an interesting question. Suddenly it’s over, and I didn’t realize it? Seriously, we now plan to focus a bit on raising agricultural production to reduce dependence on humanitarian aid. That will help us and Russia. Then it will be possible to divert aid in other, more appropriate directions. And what will happen next, only time will tell. When the war will be over is unknown.

Has the war changed you?

I was good, and got even better -- the brigade commander laughs. Yes, actually, I became angrier. And tougher.

What are you angry about?

The fact that we were too slow, and we have nothing.

And when the war is over?

It will continue. We cannot survive on these pieces of land that we have now.

Then why should you observe the Minsk Agreement?

It's still too early to attack. The truce is a plus for us if we use the time properly.

The dreams of some who said ‘To Kiev’ were premature?

Well, we should go to Kiev. Another issue is that this should be done consciously, not with sword unsheathed. Well, after we come to the banks of the Dnieper, and what's next?

What’s next?

Continue to Lvov.

And then?

Warsaw.

And then?

Luxembourg – the Brigade Commander smiles. Oh, and small hamlets -- London, Paris.

And Washington?

I'm considering offers.

And what happens when you have established control of the territory, and they tell you: thanks, you are no longer needed?

Well, I’m not doing this for myself. Even if they say, okay, leave, someone should stay, after all. But if something goes wrong, I’ll be back. After Oklahoma!


The Ghost Brigade, which now includes more than 1,000 soldiers, was formed in Lugansk in April 2014. It was initially a platoon (less than 100 men), and later expanded to battalion (500 men).

In the spring and summer of 2014, Ghost participated in the battles around Lisichansk, Lomovatka and Pervomaisk. In January, it became an active participant in the battle for Debaltsevo.

The composition of the team is international – volunteer fighters include natives of the Lugansk region, Russians, Slovaks, Bulgarians. There are professional military and civilians, including some who never before used arms.

Ghost Brigade Commander Alexei Mozgovoi was born in 1975 in the village of Lower Duvanka, Voroshilovgrad region (now Lugansk). Hereditary Cossack. He served under contract in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

During the civil war in southeastern Ukraine, Mozgovoi distinguished himself as one of the most prominent militia commanders. He openly criticized the government of Novorossiya, called the DNR and LC "separate principalities,” came into confrontation with the head of the LC Igor Plotnitsky (though formally reconciled later).

In March 2015, a car carrying Mozgovoi was hit by an explosive device in Alchevsk. The brigade commander was wounded in the head and later called the incident an assassination attempt, without identifying its organizer. Some media suggested that the “hit” on the willful brigade commander could have come from someone close to the authorities of the LC.
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