Transnistrian Volunteers in the Conflict of Abkhazia

In the first half of 1992, the military operations started in Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova. The separatists, backed by the Russian Federation, fought against Moldova. The political conflict rapidly grew into an armed fight. As a result of the assistance of Russia’s 14th army, the separatists gained superiority and in summer 1992 Kishinev lost control over the Transnistrian region.

    After the end of the armed hostilities, local separatists and Russian combatants did not stay idle for a long time. On 14 August 1992 Georgian government send the governmental army for ensuring the safety of a railway traffic on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia. As a result of armed provocations initiated by the groups of Abkhazian separatists, the Georgian forces were plunged into the war. It lasted for 13 months and 13 days. Overall, more than 40 000 militants took part in it. It is noteworthy that this number as well as other questions related to the military activities remain unclear.

      The ethnic composition of combatants from the Abkhazian sides varied. They were mostly from the post-Soviet republics, although some of them were from the Middle East and other countries. The volunteers from non-recognized Transnistrian region of Moldova were among them. Tiraspol supported the Abkhaz soldiers in Gudauta both technically and logistically. A loyal attitude of the Transnistrian combatants to the Abkhaz separatists, at the first glance, was caused by the similarities between Tbilisi-Sokhumi and Kishinev-Tiraspol conflicts. The latter turned into the full fledged armed hostilities in spring 1992.

     The Transniestrian volunteers got involved into the ongoing military processes on Abkhazian territory on the initial stage of the conflict. In total, 65 residents of the non-recognized republic took part in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict of 1992-1993. As a result, two of them were killed, while six were wounded. It is noteworthy that most of the Transnistrian volunteers were former military service members of the 14th army dislocated in the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Moldova. They had a rich military expertise, gained during the wars of Afghanistan and Transnistrian region. Many of them were officers of the Soviet army and were well acquainted with necessary and specific skills of an artillerist, an anti-aircraft gunner, a scout, a sapper, etc.

     The first group of the volunteers arrived in Abkhazia on 15 August. It was formed by Northern Caucasians – the Kabardinians [The Mission of Abkhazia in PMR, 2015]. This was a 27-member group headed by Vitali Shorov. Earlier, on 21 August, the “Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus” declared war against Georgia. Consequently, around 300 volunteers from Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea moved into Abkhazia in order to support the Abkhaz separatists. The 150-member unit of volunteers from South and North Ossetia were led by Valerie Hubulov – an active participant of the armed hostilities of Shida Kartli [Hubulov, 2016]. As a result, the number of soldiers fighting on the Abkhaz side increased significantly.

     The armed hostilities carried out in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia had a deep resonance in the post-Soviet space. As it was expected, the Abkhazian separatists’ difficulties were whole-heartedly shared by their “friends” - Transnistrian separatists.

     Later, on 22 January 1993 the Abkhaz and Transnistrian separatists signed an agreement on “friendship and collaboration”. Chapter 11 of this 14-point document obliged the mentioned sides to provide military assistance to each other in case of necessity [Treaty, 1993].

      It is noteworthy that during an in-depth interview, the Transnistrian volunteer, who had fought in Abkhazia, stated that the reason for his involvement in the Abkhazian war was not a financial interest. He was inspired by “an ideological proximity and empathy to the Abkhaz people that fought as a small nation against the bigger, aggressive neighbor” [Belousov, 2016].

      Gathering of the groups of volunteers started in Transnistria as well as in various towns of the Russian Federation. They had to fight against the Georgian troops in Abkhazia. Their first group, named “Dolphin”, reached Abkhazia by the end of September 1992. The leader of the mentioned group was Dimitri Vladimirovich Katkov, nicknamed “Luzha”. He was an experienced soldier, who had participated in the armed hostilities in Afghanistan. In 1992 he led the separatists (that fought against the forces sent from Kishinev to an insurgent region) for the restoration of a constitutional order. He left the Soviet army in September 1991 with the rank of Senior Lieutenant. His speciality was a sapper [Belousov, 2016].

         The first 15-member group of Transnistrian volunteers arrived in Abkhazia in the middle of October 1992. The group walked a long way for reaching the zone of conflict. Firstly, they arrived in Odessa, took a ferry to Sevastopol and afterwards, sailed to Sochi. Upon their arrival, the Abkhazian separatists controlled the section of the Psou River of the state border between Georgia and Russian Federation. The Abkhazians received reinforcement without hindrance from that place.

      In May 11-July 10 of 1993 the volunteers group “Dolphin” fought as a part of the so-called “Eastern Front” [Gamakharia, 2016:130]. The Transnistrians got involved into the military operations very soon. They often functioned as instructors and assisted the Abkhaz separatists in strengthening and preparing the combat positions. At the same time, they took part in intelligence-sabotage raids on the territory controlled by the Georgian forces. They were mining the fields with antitank and antipersonnel mines, etc. There are plenty of photos and videos depicting the presence of the Transnistrian volunteers in Georgian-Abkhazian conflict in the internet-space [Jakhaia, 2011]. You can see the transcripts of their reports, where they describe in details the implementation of their intelligence and sabotage operations. The recipient of these reports was the First Deputy Minister of the so-called Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Transnistrian self-proclaimed government, Major-General N. S. Matveev. Some of these reports of 1993 are provided unchanged:

   “I would like to report that at 18:00 on 25 June 1993, a group consisting of captains K. M. Kamenev and A. S. Butko together with the intelligence-sabotage squad “Bat” launched a rocket from the man-portable anti-aircraft missile system “Igla” towards the military transport aircraft TU-134 (In fact, the mentioned type of an aircraft is a civilian plane. The attack on such plane is considered as a war crime. The similar cases causing the death of civilians were observed several times during this war. It is also noteworthy that all the civilian aircrafts destroyed during combat actions of this conflict belonged to the Georgian side – V. Sh.). The rocket was launched from the area controlled by the adversary. It struck a right engine. The plane was heavily damaged, but the crew was able to land the inflamed TU-134 in the airport (Later, on 23 September 1993 the above-mentioned plane was destroyed by the Abkhaz separatists during the shelling of the airport. Thousands of civilians, intending to flee from the encircled Sokhumi, were on the territory of the airport at that moment. This case also contains the elements of a war crime – V. Sh.). It cannot be repaired. The enemy experienced a considerable material loss.

      After this, at 21:00, the group moved to the bridge over the Kodori River in order to destroy it. However, near Akhaldaba (The handwritten report [the image is available at] clearly shows that it is Akhaldaba village, although in the printed version the non-existing village of “Akhalorsta” is mentioned [Reports, 1995:63] – V. Sh.) the squad was ambushed by the enemy. There was a fire exchange at a range of 15-30 meters. As a result, one member of the squad was wounded. The Georgians received reinforcements. The fire was from the front and right flank. The decision regarding retreating was made. We went to the temporary accommodation point in the village Otara (Should be Atara – V. Sh.) Abkhazskaya together with the wounded warrior”

 Captain of Police I. K. Pimenov [Reports, 1995:63].

     The group “Dolphin” had other military contributions to the success of the Abkhazian side. The Sokhumi-Ochamchire portion of a road was the only a land route connecting Sokhumi to the territory controlled by the Georgians. Therefore, the separatists sought to block the mentioned road in order to attack encircled Sokhumi. They succeeded in this respect in September 1993. Before that, the guerilla groups of the Abkhaz separatists, fighting in Tkvarcheli (on the so-called “Eastern Front”), made frequent attacks on the Georgian forces. One of such episodes was described in Pimenov’s report:

      “01.07.1993 - The group of soldiers - A. S. Terentiev, M. A. Tsurkan, A. S. Kudriavtsev -took part in the intelligence-sabotage operation near the village Akhaldaba on Ochamchire-Sokhumi road. They attacked enemy from the ambush. As a result, the truck “Ural” of the Ministry of Defense of Georgian was captured. Three soldiers were killed. We had no loss  [Reports, 1995:63].

       It is noteworthy that the Transnistrian volunteers sometimes played the role of the law-enforcement agencies, for instance, the report made on 24 May 1993 states:

  “24.05.1993 - During a special police operation, the resident of village Chlou of Tkvarcheli district Guram Ilikoevich Jopua born in 1955 was arrested. He was searched for looting and murder. He guided six residents of the Georgian nationality to village Chlau (should be Chlou – V. Sh.) via promising a safe passage from a conflict zone. Afterwards, he killed them. The suspected person was arrested and handed to Tkvarcheli police” [Reports, 1995:34].

     The group “Dolphin” acted in cooperation with the Russian army. For example, on 18 June 1993 it delivered the humanitarian convoy consisting of 30 Lorries of “Kamaz” type to Tkvarcheli and evacuated 2176 civilians. The Russian paratroopers assisted them [Reports, 1995:62].

     It is worth mentioning that some reports of Transnistrian volunteers sent to their authorities included certain inaccuracies. This makes us think that the information about their activities was sometimes exaggerated. For example, in the letter of 20 June 1993, already mentioned Yuri Pimenov wrote that two combatants of the group “Dolphin” - S. K. Rizhkov and A. M. Kurdiakov -  attempted to destroy T-80 tank of the Georgian army with the antitank guided missile “Konkurs” (This type of an antitank guided missile was not in possession of the Georgian army. However, the Russian military units dislocated in Georgia had them. Therefore, it is interesting, how the separatists received those missiles – V. Sh.) near village Pirveli Okhurei, resulted in killing two and injuring four Georgian soldiers [Jakhaia, 2016]. However, the Georgian army never had any T-80 tanks.

    Here is some information about Captain Yuri Pimenov. He was born in Ufa (the Russian Federation) in 1961. Yuri Pimenov joined Soviet army in 1979. In 1980-1982 he served in Afghanistan, where actively participated in the military operations. In 1991 Pimenov left the armed forces. Before fighting in Abkhazia, he took part in Transnistrian conflict on the separatists’ side. He arrived in Abkhazia in April 1993. In 1994 he became a member of Quick Reaction Department within Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia. Pimenov fought in both wars in Chechnya. Nowadays, he lives in Novosibirsk and is an Officer in Reserve. Recently the documentary videos of the middle of July 1993 appeared in the internet-space. They depict the seeing-off of Transnistrian volunteers from the so-called “Eastern Front” of Tkvarcheli district. Yuri Pimenov leaves Abkhazia together with other members of the group “Dolphin”.

  “I would like to say to the Georgians that the Transnistrians were here and they will stay here till it will be necessary. Until the Abkhazians are asking for help, we will fulfil our international debt. Georgians call us mercenaries, but none of us has taken even a ruble. We came here willfully on behalf of the government of our Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic. The assignment is over. We wish you success” - says Pimenov in the video-recording [Pimenov and Butko, 1993].

     It must be noted that the Constitution of the Russian Federation forbids its citizens to act as members of illegal armed groups and fight on the territory of other states [Criminal Code of Russian Federation, 1996]. Therefore, Yuri Pimenov had to be arrested by the Russian police, but everything happened vice versa in his case: after arriving from Abkhazia, he served for the law enforcement structures of the Russian Federation [Pimenov, 2009]. It is difficult to believe that his commanders had no information about his “heroic past”.

     Why did the Transnistrians arrive in Abkhazia and fought against the Georgians? What were their motivations and reasons? What was their role in this conflict? Asking these questions to foreign veterans of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict became possible in the framework of my research during visiting non-recognized entity of Transnistria. Here is his unchanged story:

   “I went to Abkhazia from Transnistria with three other Transnistrians on 23 November 1992. We took a bus from Tiraspol to Odessa. Afterwards, we travelled to Sochi by ship and then reached Gudauta (Abkhazia – V. Sh.). Our guys were already there. They guided and provided us with everything needed. Our motivation was not money and expensive stuff. The Abkhazians did not have them. They were poor. Personally, I had nothing against the Georgians. I respected this nation and feel respect even today. The reason why I was there was the similar fate of Transnistria and Abkhazia – they experienced the same evil and unfairness. Kishinev and Tbilisi preferred talking with the language of tanks rather than with the human language. It was fascism and I felt obliged to oppose it. Besides, the media sources were spreading information that the Georgians, among them criminals and pardoned prisoners, were abusing the local Russian population. This was the reason why ethnically Russian volunteers from Transnistria as well as from the Russian Federation arrived in Abkhazia. At the same time, similarly to the Moldovans and Baltic peoples, the Georgians  - initiators of the dissolution of the Soviet Union - were not popular among us. A lot of us considered the collapse of the Soviet Union as the reason of the tragedy that we had experienced.

     Luckily for me, I had not taken part in the armed hostilities. I was an instructor, operating the antitank guided missile “Fagot”. At that time, the Abkhazians had several launchers of “Fagot” and several dozens of rockets. I cannot say where they received it. It might be a trophy or a purchase from one of the Russian military units.1 The life was hard and officers sold weapons for feeding their families. I had three-year experience of using this system and it can be said that I was able to use it proficiently. It is very effective weapon against tanks. The well-trained soldier can destroy them even from 1,5-2 km distance.

      The Abkhazians entrusted me 20-member group and I was ordered to train them in two months. It was difficult, because I trained them only theoretically. There were no special simulators and enough rockets for training during shootings on a polygon. Moreover, only five of them had served in army. This also made my task more complicated. Nevertheless, by February 1993, 20 combatants had good skills of the exploitation of the “Fagot”.

    We, Transnistrians, served mostly as instructors. It was very important for the Abkhazians as their absolute majority had not possessed basic military skills. The war cannot be won with boldness.

    In April 1993 due to problems in my family I left Abkhazia. I can swear that while being there I did not sign any kind of a contract and did not receive any salary. Moreover, money for returning to Tiraspol was borrowed from my friends. We received only food and accommodation from the Abkhazians” [Belousov, 2016].

     It is noteworthy that the first combat action with the participation of the Transnistrian volunteers was an unsuccessful attack on Sokhumi, organized by the Abkhazians in January 1993. As a result of the mentioned attack, more than 80 separatist soldiers were killed. One of Transnistrian volunteers from Bender, Anatoly Semionov, with nickname “Lovki” was badly injured (the lower left limb was lost as a result of an explosion of an antipersonnel mine). He lives in Bender. Till 2003 he had served for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Republic. He holds a military rank of Major [Belousov, 2016]. The next serious military action, in which the Transnistrian volunteers were involved, was the landing operation in Tamishi on 2 July 1993. The goal of this operation was to encircle Georgian forces in Sokhumi. Despite an initial success, the Abkhazian separatists and their allies could not succeed further. After the coordinated actions of Georgian artillery and heavy armed vehicles, they suffered great losses. The survived paratroopers were split into small groups and moved towards Tkvarcheli controlled by the separatists. The remained paratroopers joined the so-called “Eastern Front”. Among them was the group consisting of 10 volunteers from Transnistria. They attacked Georgian military convoys, which moved on the road between Sokhumi and Ochamchire. On 8 July 1993, one of them, Konstantin Tsigankov with nickname “Moshchni,” who had served in the antiaircraft unit during his service in the Soviet army, shot down helicopter MI-8 of the Georgian air forces by the man-portable infrared antiaircraft missile “Igla” [Pachulia, 2005:16].

      The soldiers, who had fought in Transnistria were also active during the attack on Sokhumi in 1993. Kazak from Don, nicknamed “Gena”, led the separatist group attacking city from Achadara. His group occupied the Achadara Bridge over river Gumista. This gave the separatists an opportunity to use armed vehicles in their operation and occupy Sokhumi more nimbly. It should be noted that Sergey Blokhin with nickname “Gena” was an active participant of military actions in Transnistrian region. He had served in the Soviet army and ended a military service with the rank of Junior Lieutenant in March 1990. In 1987-1988 he paid the so-called “international debt” in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. In the army he was a sapper and put mines near enemy’s positions and strategic objects. According to the existed information, he died from cancer in 2000 in Taganrog in Russian [Belousov, 2016].

       The volunteers of distant Transnistria arrived in Abkhazia according to a rotation principle. In total, 60-90 Transnistrians took part in the armed hostilities. Twelve of them were wounded and three were killed in action. Twenty of them were awarded orders of  different levels (“for the participation in fight for independence of the Abkhaz nation”). One of them, 23-year old Roman Radkovsky, posthumously received “Leon’s medal” – he was killed at the so-called “Gumista Front” on 17 April 1993 during the Abkhazian separatists’ special operation on the territory controlled by the Georgian army [The Mission of Abkhazia in PMR, 2016].

      On every 14 August and 30 September, Tiraspol celebrates the “day of independence and victory of fraternal Abkhaz nation” [First Pridnestrovian, 2013]. Despite the opposition from Tbilisi and Kishenev, these two self-proclaimed separatist “states” have close social and political relations with each other.

      It should be concluded that there is a substantial evidence that the Transnistrian volunteers fought in Abkhazia during the armed hostilities. The in-depth interviews with the participants of the war show what was their goal and purpose for fighting along with the Abkhazians. It becomes clear that the Georgian army was defeated due to the fact that it had to fight not only against the Abkhaz separatists, but against the foreign combatants, who were well-trained and experienced in various wars and conflicts. The foreign combatants arrived in Abkhazia for the implementation of the imperial interests of the Russian Federation. They did not aim at assisting the Abkhazians. Their participation and the interference of the Russian military machine was a determining factor. Therefore, the claim of the Abkhazians – “Our independence is our accomplishment” – is not in accord with the reality.

1 The Georgian army had few antitank guided missile “Fagots”, but at the initial stage of the conflict did not use them due to the fact that the separatists had no heavy weaponry. It is a proved fact that in August 1992 the Russian units near Eshera destroyed two T-55 tanks of the Georgian army with the help of the “Fagot” systems [Aladashvili, 2005:38].


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