Businessman Yuriy Biriukov(know as volunteerPhoenix) told about what is happening in the East of Ukraine and for how long the war will last.
Kievan Yuriy Biriukov is at war for the 5th month.
He got there right after active participation at Maidan. An ordinary businessman left everything for the sake of helping Ukrainian army – thankfully the financial status of the family allowed to do that. Eventually he became the most effective volunteer who gathered around 20 million hryvnyas(approximately 2 million usd) with the help of few dozens of assistants and social networks.
Phoenix and his «wings»(the foundation is officially called «Wings of Phoenix») – patronise around 10 brigades and a few special divisions, fix airplanes, build headquarters, buy cars, print maps, bring thousands of kevlar helmets, reliable bulletproof vests and tons of products.
Yuriy himself, who has never even served in the army currently every week is visiting the most dangerous zone of ATO(anti-terrorist operation) and almost lives there with countryman from 79th aeromobile squad – gets under bombardment, cures, equips, buries. Few days ago together with deputy commander evacuated 75 ukrainian soldiers near the border with Russia.
We(journalists) met with him right after he came back. Yuriy was waiting for us without his usual uniform(light camouflage, that was previously owned by some British sergeant), but in shirt and jeans at the cafe on Khreshchatyk. That was easy to spot his jeep at the entrance – by dirt and black plates in honour of his favourite squad.
Phoenix has a young voice, but he is around 40. He laughs a lot, makes mean jokes, whips ATO and army governance, you can see tiredness and what he came through only when you look into his eyes. At some moments you see tears in his eyes.
Yuriy, how is it – to come back from ATO zone, where they shoot from «Grad»(soviet rocket launcher system) to Kiev?
You usually «freak out» until Melitopol, you startle when you see a car, by habit look into a forest. After that it gets better, but then it starts to «break a pattern» – you look at those discos/restaurants/bars and you want to kill them all for some reason(laughs). Or to explain in ultimate way that the war is 40km away and you have fireworks here.
Tell us please, how many wounded soldiers you managed to evacuate from the border in your last trip?
75 people from 79th, 28th, 51st and 72nd squads. We gathered all severely wounded. They are all stretched along the border with Russia. They all had more than hundred contused and wounded, extremely tired and demoralised soldiers, which had to be evacuated. So we found a way out. Deputy commander sent a report to ATO governance about number and condition of wounded soldiers with a request to give instructions on further actions. There was no answer in 3 days, so he could make his decision. My task was to find a pathway to get away. We found it and vehicles managed to get away – 6 BTRs(armoured personnel carriers), scout jeep and UAZ(utility vehicle) with weapon. He(UAZ) was driving first as usual and of course as usual stalled. We had to blow it up. We had minutes. The last BTR actually was hit a bit. Separatist tank was chasing us.
Was that scary?
Of course. Especially, when you realize that it’s 122mm mortar shooting and a bulletproof vest is like a sheet of paper for it. A tank fired at our convoy twice. That was funny(laughs). And scary of course. And after that we were close to be killed by our military forces. That was really scary. But was it scary to come back to Maidan on 19th after 18th? Yes. But I came back. Fear is a usual phenomenon. No one wants to die. The boys out there are scared as well.
You criticised ATO governance in interviews about this operation, which is considered to be unacceptable…
Why should I hesitate to criticise ATO? For Gods sake, are there any other people except general Ramazin, who claimed that everything is fine, which don’t know that we have a weak army?
After that, did anyone from Ministry of Defence tried to contact you after that or in general?
Yes, yesterday Heletey(new Minister of Defence) called. Invited to meet. Or actually no, the first one to invite was Kabanenko(the deputy head of General Staff). It was when Koval was a Minister of Defence but the meeting was about nothing, Heletey said he wanted to know the current situation. I asked if he is ready. Since the higher person is the less real information he gets. They filter out everything – what to report, what to avoid reporting, for what you can get punished. So imagine how many levels of filtration does the information goes through from lieutenant and up. Everyone misrepresents a little, misrepresents a little, lies a little.
What is the real situation like to your opinion?
Depending on what we’re talking about… Cereal and canned meat – ok. We don’t bring food. The same with ammo if they can deliver it. Infrared imagers? That’s a rare thing. It’s not foreseen by statute. Socks-underwear, helmets, vests, uniform are not foreseen as well. The situation changed a bit, but mostly because of volunteers. Oh the vests are also given by army.
Actually, quite good ones. Well…. not very convenient from ergonomics perspective, but it’s a classical mistake made by vest constructors. Even my 79th has got vests and 25th received them as well. Vests come from TEMPO. That’s why we decided that we can pay less attention. State stated to finally execute it’s functions… in 2 month.
What is the most needed thing in ATO zone?
Aid kits. By NATO standards in the warzone a soldier can’t leave military camp/location to go to a shop without having an aid kit with Celox(styptic) .
Military doctors recently criticised this medicine…
I don’t want to comment this delirium. Do they like, when we do their job? Of course not. Since without us they would buy Hemostop which leaves burns on your body for 4x price. If they had at least this one… So I don’t care what do they say. We will produce the aid kits until I will see one on each and every soldier.
You have a very sceptical attitude towards army governance…
In general almost all current army commanders are a*holes. There are some good people, but there are only few of them. I just left an escape route for myself if there will be any, since I haven’t seen any as for today. I hope that I will meet one on Saturday(editor a meeting with a Minister of Defence did not take place).
Is there any reaction on your harsh remarks?
After I called them a*holes during some interviews they were seriously discussing if they should deny access to ATO zone for me(laughs). They can try. It’s really interesting if anyone will stand in my way, will I jump over him or not. But in general – no, they didn’t. Did not help, but did not stand in a way.
Have you been offered help?
Yes, they offered a few times. But with a strange flavour. For example, «don’t bring it yourself, pass it to Ministry of Defence and we will take care of it, because you should not tell that it was you, who helped – it will undermine patriotism».
Do you think that you can tell it?
I have to. The country withstood only because it rose at volunteer and other levels. That’s why we need to tell it. We do not disclose any military secrets. Moreover there can’t be any secrets from Russia – we have plenty of spies in ATO General Staff. Everyone knows it and they catch them all the time. Should we conceal it? From whom? From country? Country still lives with a feeling, that there is some strange anti-terrorist operation in the East, but not war. It’s difficult to understand it in Kiev. For this to happen you need Grad’s to start falling down. God forbid this to happen. I will never forget this rustle – they fall very quietly.
Tell us about something good. For example, about your wards from 79th?
I don’t idealize them. They are different. Good and bad. But they are my brothers. I live in the same tent with them. Their wives read my Facebook. It’s the only source of information for them about what is happening.
It was hard for them until they lost a first one. Now everything fell into place. At first they were doing work of traffic police, can you imagine, elite was inspecting the car trunks. After that they were brought to Slavyansk. First combat on June 3rd, first perished, first funeral. And it all came together in their heads.
How many people did they lose?
More than 20.
Were there any whom you knew personally?
Yes. But let’s change the subject.
Does losing your comrades mobilize you?
Losses mobilize. Standing at the same place without any single tree and working as a target doesn’t.
After 5 months of war seeing that there are lots of things not done, which should be, seeing that people, which you could save die…. do you lose heart?
No. Lots of people will die. After I buried a tenth soldier I understood that it will be a conveyor. This is war. Now I have one of the most weird tasks I’ve ever had, which should be done. Our army does not have ID badges yet. After Grad shelling in Zelenopillya there are still remains in morgue, which are not identified. It would be easier with badges. But now relatives sit and wait for DNA test. Now I need to make such badges for the whole squad. So that you can identify corpses. By psychological stress this task is the same as to bring 100 bags for corpses… Brought them. Because in Zelenopillya they were collecting remains in what not.
It’s a popular point of view, that death of our soldiers is a reason to stop the war, because human’s life is more valuable than territory.
I’m strongly against it. I don’t want to live in Russian Federation. Do you mean that if 100 soldiers died we have to give away the whole country. Lugansk and Donetsk? My Nikolaev? Kherson? My wife’s Odessa? Only for the reason, that we don’t want soldiers to die? But it’s their duty. It’s our, man’s duty in general.
Would you go if they would call you for military service?
But I’m there anyway. To serve – no. I got out of it. My(squad) was joking «We will call you for service. We’ll give you a gun». But no – then I will be given orders and I don’t need orders, I am different case.
Do you spoil your wards?
We don’t collect enough money to spoil them. And what does «spoil» mean? When they first wrote me «We need 5 Jeeps» I though «Holy sh*t». But then we buried a soldier who was shot from grenade launcher in UAZ(military utility vehicle)… and bought first 5 Jeeps. Or, for example, thermal imagers, is it spoiling? Spoiling, which I allow myself is second hand NATO uniform. I have an idee fixe – to dress the whole 79th squad. I’m pleased to see that they get rid of Ukrainian camouflage «oak». We already have new colours of camouflage approved, but the only person I’ve seen wearing it – our President, that’s it.
What else did you bring to ATO territory?
Armoured vehicles. But it looks like it will happen sooner or later. For now I have a simpler idea – to find 3 crews for Bulats(Ukrainian tank T-64БМ).
Did anyone try to threaten you?
Every day. Separatists are ready to pay 100,000 usd for me. When it will be a million I will surrender on my own. Each and everyone is threatening – starting from police officers and SSU(Security Service of Ukraine) to General Staff colonel, who recently said: «Watch out Yuriy. You’ll find a trouble someday» and maliciously smiled.
How does family react?
Oh, how…. it’s difficult for them… But they help as much as they can. Was the uniform, so that it will be clean all the time – I have only one set. Parents, unfortunately, have a Facebook account. They are proud of me, but they worry a lot. And I can’t rebuke them for that.
What is the most valuable acquaintances did you gain during this period?
Hundreds of people. All of them are unique. Tanya Rychkova, for example(volunteer from Dnepropertovsk). I don’t even know how to measure the how much I’m proud that I know her. My squad of course. Girls, that got married with them in the hospital. My major from 79th.
Those are all ordinary people, not some famous ones or politicians, right?
I try to avoid acquaintances with powerful people, since I understood their false long time ago. I don’t want to waste my time.
Have there been not a single person(among them) who would offer their help?
They tried. With a condition of promoting them on my Facebook page… One candidate right before presidential elections. I cussed him out and told to f*ck off. Will not tell whom.
What is the biggest donation you’ve ever got?
25,000 usd per one transfer – is it a big sum? How about 50 hrn from 83-year old grandmother, who asked a girl to transfer money – she had my Facebook status printed out on a sheet of paper. 200,000 usd – is a maximum, what I’ve got from one person, but it was stretched in time.
Are you ready to pay 17% of tax from gathered millions in the beginning of the next year?
I won’t pay anything. They can summon me. I dream to see this moment. I want to go there. I have 30 thousand advocates in Ukrainian army and they will all come to defend me.
They already initiated criminal proceedings against me for smuggling vehicles – I bought 15 cars already. They can try to gather evidences. I can even show them where there are 4 of them already charred. I ignore it and recommend others to do the same.
How do you react on next wave of mobilization?
Mobilization should be constant. We do everything through the ass – we drafted people in March. Ue, not the state, bought them clothes and shoes. They zeroed in, learned to work together, then they burnt to a frazzle and now they will do a rotation – soldiers will be given 10-day leave. 80% will not come back. That will be the biggest desertion in the history of armed forces. And the new portion of cannon fodder will be sent out.
What scheme do you think will work?
You can’t compare Ukraine with Israel or Ukraine with Switzerland. It’s a crazy idea. Neither first model nor second one will work for Ukraine. Ukraine needs American model – 100% contract army.
Do we have money for this?
We will have them if everyone will stop stealing. Do you get wages «in envelope»?
Eveyone, who gets wages «in envelope» is a jerk. Since he continues to kill our country stealing money from our army. We’re trying to plug multiple holes with one finger. To change our country we need to do it ourselves and not to waste time. You don’t have to transfer me money, you’d better go and demand from your employer to stop dodging taxes. I evaded taxes as well and when soldiers say that they fill uncomfortable to ask me for something I answer them, that I feel uncomfortable for stealing from them for 20 years.
We’re far behind US and Israeli armies, but we will win, right?
We will win this war only by personal initiative of people. Not systematically. I think it will last for 2 years. Active phase will last for 2-3 months. If we are lucky. If we will kick out a half of a*holes from General Staff and will manage to neutralize the second half. But in general I am ordering winter uniform and recommend you to do the same.