In an interview with the Russian news outlet Znak.com on August 15, 2019, Russian author and right-wing radical Zakhar Prilepin talked about his experience fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas region. He bragged about killing large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers and denounced “attacks” against him, claiming that “not one field commander got such results as I have.” However, an examination of his time with a battalion in Donbas quickly belies the Russian author’s claims.
Prilepin has a rudimentary military background, having served with the Russian Interior Ministry’s OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Detachment) unit in Chechnya and Dagestan in 1996 and 1999. However, when Prilepin was in Donbas in February 2017 to July 2018, allegedly serving with the 4th Reconnaissance Assault Battalion of the Army of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” he was often identified as a “deputy commander” or “political instructor.”
The Digital Forensic Laboratory (DFRLab), the Atlantic Council’s investigative reporting project, identified the battalion’s actual commander as another Russian citizen from Smolensk named Sergei Fomchenkov. Listed as the battalion’s “commandant” was a man named Oleg Barminov, also a Russian citizen from Yaroslavl. In the DFRLab’s source, Prilepin is listed as deputy commander. This is followed by a long list of personnel with accompanying photos. Many of them are listed as being from cities and towns in Russia, and some come from other states such as Latvia and Serbia.
The formation and composition of the battalion is crucial to verifying Prilepin’s claims for several reasons.
First, for a “battalion” it was small - just under 200 men, and the DFR Lab does describe him as being in charge of a “large number of men.” Yet documents have been posted listing the names of the men. In unit photos there are rarely more than a few dozen men visible - more often much fewer.
Second, it was based in rather comfortable accommodations within Donetsk’s four-star Hotel Praha. Most damning of all was the time of its founding, documented as October 2016. The battalion allegedly deployed to the front only in December of 2016. Major combat operations in Ukraine ended in the summer of 2015. Since then, while there have been many ceasefire violations sometimes on a daily basis, the number of casualties on the Ukrainian side have been slight. Offensive operations in recent years have been almost exclusively carried out by the Ukrainian side, typically involving the seizure of minute territories within what is known as the gray zone.
Then there is the question of Prilepin’s actual involvement in combat. While there is footage of him in the trenches during a segment on Russian state TV, it is impossible to tell where he is or who is actually firing. What is known is that during his time with the battalion, Prilepin supposedly worked as a “political instructor” and even managed to host a weekly TV program on the Russian state-owned TV network NTV. He also may have served as an advisor to the late leader of the “DNR” Alexander Zakharchenko, who claimed to have personally given Prilepin the rank of major in his armed forces. Curiously, Prilepin left his battalion and returned to Moscow in late July 2018, nearly one month before Zakharchenko was assassinated by a bomb placed in a Donetsk café. Naturally Prilepin’s sudden absence shortly before the assassination, as well as his closeness to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point-man in Donbas, led to some speculation about the novelist’s departure at a time Zakharchenko’s grip on power was weakening. After the assassination, in September, members of the battalion were surrounded in their HQ in the Hotel Praha by armed men loyal to the “DNR’s” new leader, Denis Pushilin. After a short “siege” the unit was disbanded.
Polygraph.info video fact check by Nik Yarst.
Based on the 4th Reconnaissance-Assault Battalion’s unit history, originating long after the last major battles of the war, and based on Prilepin’s known activities during his time with the unit, it’s clear his boasting about killing large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers and getting better “results” than any other field commander on the Russian side are likely an invention. Based on his numerous TV appearances it would be more apt to refer to Prilepin’s sojourn in Donbas as a PR stunt.
In fact, that conclusion is backed up by a Facebook post made by one of the battalion’s former members, the aforementioned Oleg Barminov.
“The battalion, was not a combat unit,” Barminov wrote in late September 2018.
“It always occupied positions on the second and third lines of defense, that is, it guarded lines of communication in Donetsk. The command was always striving to be closer to the leadership of the Republic and further from the front. In Donetsk they openly called us a PR battalion,” Barminov posted.