The Daily Beast interviews pro-Kiev militia commander Yuriy Bereza


pro-Kiev militia commander Yuriy Bereza


In an exclusive interview, one of the top pro-Kiev militia commanders talks about the cowardice of some of Ukraine’s regular army officers and his need for U.S. weapons.
DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine—When skirmishes began in this corner of eastern Ukraine earlier this year, Yuriy Bereza decided to use “direct action” (read fists and clubs), threats, and incentives to ensure this fourth largest city—and a mainly Russian-speaking one—didn’t slide into rebel hands as DonetskandLuhansk had done.Bereza, a veteran of the Orange Revolution of mass protests against Russian-backed governments, joined forces with a group of local businessmen, including billionaire oligarchIgorKolomoisky, to make sure this city stayed on the Ukrainian side of the political divide.The strategy seems to have worked. In the Dnipropetrovsk’s regional administration building on a frigid Saturday morning, I waited for him along with members ofBereza’sDnipro Battalion, a motley militia that has been in the forefront of a weeks-long battle three hours away at Donetsk airport. They wanted to welcomeBereza back from a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C.This stocky 44-year-old grandfather with a neatly cropped beard arrived in an ebullient mood, laughing often and easily as, behind closed doors with some of his lieutenants, he narrated his adventures in America to a chorus of loud guffaws. But make no mistake, this former officer in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies is a man on a mission—to take back the Donbass region from the separatists and to exorcise Russian political influence on Ukraine. 

Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty

Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty


“During the Orange Revolution we were all romantics—we were all romantics being shot at—and now we are determined to be free of Russian oppression,” he tells me in his office decorated with maps and Ukrainian flags and crests, two removed from Crimea before it was annexed by Russia last spring.

Bereza took the same message to U.S. lawmakers in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, telling them they need to do more for Ukraine. “I tried to explain that World War III has started and is being fought in east Ukraine and there is no way the U.S. cannot be involved in the fight,” says Bereza. “It can delay but it will have to intervene some time or another—later in the Baltics when Moscow is threatening them and maybe Poland.”

Bereza’s views about World War III and American reluctance to engage offended some of his audience on the Hill. “Democrats didn’t like what I had to say and at one meeting they tried to get out of the room because I was being very harsh on President Obama,” he laughs. He said that on the whole he got a better reception from Republicans, especially the pugnacious Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “He’s a huge man,” said Bereza.

On Tuesday, amid alarms about a renewed invasion threat by Russian forces, the Arizona senator once again urged President Barack Obama to take more action. “The United States and the European Union must provide Ukraine with the arms and related military and intelligence support that its leaders have consistently sought and desperately need,” McCain said in a statement.

Last week, the Pentagon announced delivery of three lightweight, counter-mortar radar systems to the Ukrainian army—part of a $118 million package of “non-lethal equipment and training” the U.S. has committed. Moscow has warned the U.S. not to supply weapons to Ukraine, saying it would amount to an escalation and breach the ceasefire accord reached two months ago in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Ukraine’s militiamen ask “What ceasefire?” According to the United Nations, almost 1,000 people have died since the Minsk truce agreement was inked—an average of 13 dead a day. Fighting remains intense in flashpoints in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces. Artillery and mortar duels all around the outskirts of Donetsk rumble angrily every day.

At the weekend, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded, according to security officials in Kiev, who claim Russia now has 7,500 troops deployed on Ukrainian soil to back pro-Moscow separatists.

Bereza says what the U.S. is giving is not enough. His shopping list includes surveillance drones. (At the moment, his troops are flying small amateur ones that have a short range and can’t cope with harsh weather conditions). And he would especially like American FGM-148 Javelins, man-portable anti-tank missiles to hit at Russian armor.

But the 500 men in Bereza’s militia are not the Ukrainian army. Most have little military experience. They are shop managers, salesmen, students, and accountants. “I have no idea how many of them have had military training before,” he tells me later with a chuckle.

The Dnipro Battalion is one of 37 pro-unity militias—they are formally known as territorial defense battalions—which were formed this year as exasperation mounted at the inaction and ineffectiveness of the Ukrainian armed forces up against the pro-Russian separatist forces spreading across Donbass. Moscow paints them all as far-right groups such as Right Sector, calling them terrorists, a term the Kremlin doesn’t apply to the separatists. But the 15,000 militiamen come from a variety of political backgrounds and formally, at least, the battalions are legal forces subordinate to the interior ministry.

Dnipro has become a vanguard militia, along with the Aidar, Azov, and Donbass battalions, and last month the unit claimed the slaying of the highest ranking Russian soldier to die in the war in the Donbass, Gen. Sergey Andreychenko, who was killed in a firefight in Telmanove.

Despite its creditable fighting performance, Dnipro relations with army commanders can be tense and in August they nearly flared into a firefight. Bereza says he thought about shooting Gen. Petro Lytvyn, the Ukrainian army officer commanding on the ground during the battle for Ilovaisk, an engagement that left at least a hundred Ukrainian militiamen and soldiers dead and possibly as many as 500 taken prisoner.

Bereza accuses Lytvyn of abandoning his post along with many of his men as Russian reinforcements poured across the border at Amvrosiivka and made for Ilovaisk, a rail hub that Ukrainian forces were attempting to wrest from the separatists. The covert invasion by thousands of Russian troops backed by tanks hardly was registered by an international media focused on the sweeping offensive of jihadist forces in Iraq and Syria. And Western capitals sought to play down the Russian invasion.

According to Bereza and other militia commanders, Lytvyn’s flight left militiamen encircled. In the end he told the general he should shoot himself for his cowardice. Bereza suffered a concussion in the subsequent fighting, the commander of the Donbass battalion was wounded and his counterpart in the Kharkiv militia was killed. A withdrawal agreement for the encircled Ukrainians, made with the Russians and separatists, was not honored and a column of retreating Ukrainians was wiped out as it came under mortar and heavy machine-gun fire.

The defeat at Ilovaisk, the worst reversal so far for Ukrainian fortunes in the war in the Donbass, prompted Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to agree to the Minsk ceasefire and led to the resignation of Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey. But a criminal probe into the actions of top Ukrainian army commanders appears to have been shelved and the incident remains a nagging sore, adding to militias suspicious of the politicians in Kiev and whether they can be counted on.

The Minsk agreement rankles. “It would be possible to capture Donetsk. But it is only Ukraine that restrains itself to abide by the accord,” says Bereza. “We are fighting in the east and we still have traitors in our parliament,” he frets. “But we can’t have another revolution, that would fall into a Russian trap.”


Four Myths About the Bowe Bergdahl Swap That Must Be Destroyed

Don’t believe everything you hear when it comes to the return of the highest profile American POW in a generation.

A video still shows the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (right) to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video Read more: Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

A video still shows the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (right) to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.
AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video 


June 5, 2014 1:55 PM ET

The return of U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Guantanamo-held Taliban of varying importance has become the most important foreign policy story in the country this week. As a result, there has been a lot of great reporting on what the swap does and doesn’t mean, how it happened, and how it could affect the war in the future.

Read Rolling Stone‘s 2012 feature on Bowe Bergdahl, written by the late Michael Hastings

Unfortunately, there has also been a lot of reporting that is either sensationalistic, simplistic or straight-up inaccurate. In trying to grapple with how the U.S. conducts matters of war, peace, and international law enforcement, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. Below are four examples of things everybody seems to know, which just happened to be either incorrect or far from certain.

MYTH: This sets a dangerous precedent that the U.S. will negotiate with terrorists

In the first minutes after Bergdahl was released on May 31st, various media and political elites took up the all-too-predictable rallying cry that the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. The claim – in this context – is absurd for at least three distinct reasons. Though the White House recently said the Taliban is on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists by executive order, the Taliban is not actually on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The distinction may be somewhat academic, but confusing or conflating the Taliban with Al Qaeda (as John McCain recently did on CNN) is bad analysis and bad policy. The Taliban is primarily a local political and military organization, and has demonstrated little or no interest in attacking U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

Second, the U.S. – and many other countries – in fact do negotiate with terrorists and other unseemly figures and organizations. This prisoner swap is far from unprecedented, and as President Obama said, this is what happens at the end of a war.

Third, as the Kabul-based journalist (and Rolling Stone contributor) Matt Aikins pointed out, “It’s a war, not a hostage crisis, dummies.” In a war, it’s generally better not to give an enemy an incentive to kill your side’s captured soldiers – which would be the perverse outcome of taking a strict “don’t negotiate” stance.

MYTH: These five Taliban are the hardest of the hardcore

Just as predictable as the first myth, this one will be even more difficult to destroy. Despite the 13-year occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. media and political establishment continues to see the country primarily through the black-and-white lens that George W. Bush so clearly laid out: “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” One needn’t defend the Taliban to acknowledge that political and military allegiances in Afghanistan are often tenuous and shifting, and clear distinctions between friend and enemy are even more fraught in that country (especially under U.S. occupation) than in more conventional conflicts.

A post from the Afghan Analysts Network actually describes all five talibs and their relative significance in the Taliban, and casts serious doubts on the U.S. intelligence that was used to justify their detention.

“Fazl is the only one of the five to face accusations of explicit war crimes and they are, indeed, extremely serious. One would also want to say that Wasiq was deputy head of an agency which carried out torture – except that torture has always been carried out by Afghan intelligence whoever has been in charge and, indeed, this has been no bar to close cooperation with it by the U.S. and other countries since 2001. There is no or little evidence of criminal wrong-doing against the other three men.”

The same piece from AAN details how four of the five surrendered at the beginning of the U.S. invasion, “in return for promised safe passage home or had reached out to the new administration in Kabul.” In fact, virtually the entire Taliban surrendered within months of the invasion, leaving the U.S. military with a war but not an enemy.

Anand Gopal, who lived in Afghanistan for years and traveled to areas of the country few journalists go, details in remarkable clarity how that happened and then how the Taliban reconstituted itself in his new book, No Good Men Among the Living.

MYTH: Six to eight U.S. soldiers died looking for Bergdahl

Again, this talking point has incredible resonance, because it feels like the kind of thing that really could be true. But as The New York Times has noted, the facts are actually far less clear. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has commented that “I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. solders dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl.” And blaming Bergdahl’s disappearance for every death in Patika province during one of the most deadly periods in the war simply doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. (As an aside, part of the reason we know what we know about Bergdahl’s disappearance comes from the Wikileaks trove provided by Army leaker Chelsea Manning – further evidence of how valuable that leak was and continues to be.)

MYTH: The swap shows Obama’s willful disregard for the law and his embracing of an imperial presidency

This is a tough one, because by virtually all accounts Obama did violate the law by negotiating Bergdahl’s release without Congress’ express permission. That’s a big deal, and a legitimate criticism of the swap – as opposed to the “don’t negotiate with terrorists” line, which is opportunistic, disingenuous and terrible policy. Recent reports from the Associated Press that the Taliban threatened to kill Bergdahl if news of the swap leaked certainly bolster the administration’s claims for the need for secrecy (even if they likely wouldn’t change the legality of ignoring the law).

But the real problem with seeing the swap as an example of Imperial Obama is that there are so many better examples that highlight his expansive interpretation of executive authority. Take, for instance, the extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki in 2011. Though that killing raised considerable levels of concern from human rights groups – and eventually some politicians – the controversy never rose to the level that the prison swap reached almost immediately this week.

Or take an even more troubling and recent example of Obama’s vast theories of presidential power – a Congressional hearing wherein two top lawyers couldn’t give clear examples of what powers the president would lose if Congress repealed the AUMF (the law passed immediately after 9/11 upon which virtually all military action since has rested). The administration seems to be claiming that under Article II of the Constitution, and under an incredibly broad and expansive definition of self-defense, they could continue to carry out drone strikes in Yemen and perhaps even continue to hold people in Guantanamo Bay even if the AUMF were repealed.

That’s all a way of saying: Obama using his claimed powers to free Guantanamo detainees troubles Congress greatly. Using those same powers to detain or kill people, apparently, isn’t nearly as concerning.