Politician Viktors Birze: The war in Ukraine is not some romantic adventure
What were your first thoughts when Russia attacked Ukraine?
It was a complete conviction that we had to help. I just didn't know how. I discussed it with my comrades. Of course, the support was unanimous. At least two were ready to go at once and take up arms if necessary, reasoning: "The Russian empire must be defeated, and it must be done on Ukrainian soil: if it is not done there, the war will come to Latvia."
This thought was very logical. I also knew that my old friend and colleague, Gundars Kalve from Jēkabpils - as the first and at that time the only Latvian - had already done so: he had already left for Ukraine. We would call each other sometimes, Gundars was very much waiting for Latvians. At that time, I had not made a concrete decision myself, I only knew that I had to help those who were closest to me ideologically and who had proved to be the most effective force in the practical defense of Ukraine already during the anti-terrorist operation.
Who are you talking about?
The nationalists of the National Corps and its military wing, the Azov regiments. Contacts with them had been established for a long time.
Agris Purviņš, a member of Justice, a retired officer of the National Armed Forces, had once organized the arrival of Azov people in Latvia and their welcoming by our armed forces. This was followed by a series of smear articles by the leftist propagandists Re:Baltica and their collaborator, the "journalist" Leonid Ragozin, who is close to the Kremlin.
The left's hatred of nationalists sometimes manifests itself in quite animalistic reactions...
But it must be understood that it is the nationalists who, in critical situations when the country is in danger, are able to mobilize and do the possible and the impossible to save the situation. Azov was the strike force that saved the situation in many places in Eastern Ukraine in 2013/14, and it was thanks to their actions that no more territory than the small patches near Donetsk and Luhansk fell into separatist hands.
But this did not change the attitude of liberals towards nationalists: they are enemies to be beaten and demonized. And even now, it is the Azov regiment, fighting like Spartans, which is keeping control of Mariupol, the most heavily bombed, strategically important Ukrainian city, which is being reduced to rubble and where an absolute humanitarian catastrophe has developed.
Is that why you chose to help these people?
Yes, for me and for my like-minded friends, these people, who are ideologically close and have been tested in practice, seemed the most deserving of support. We realized that we cannot help the whole of Ukraine in the abstract, but we have to help specific people, specific structures. We contacted them, found out what they needed, spoke to people we knew, and I have to admit: the response was really unexpectedly positive.
I cannot mention the names of all the people who contributed, because there were many, and I thank them all very much! Just to mention a few: I would like to thank: doctor Artūrs Tereško, manager of the cooperative Mežsaimnieks Mārcis Seklaurs, representative of King Coffee service Vilmārs Vjaksis, whose donated WV Caddy is now serving the Azov Civil Corps, supportive pharmacist of Taurene pharmacy Zane Zilvere, head of the association of beef cattle breeders Raimonds Jakovickis, Lauris Tolstovs from Ikšķile, who donated personal equipment worth at least 1500 euros, but the list of helpers is actually much longer.
In the end, the truck was loaded with medicines, equipment and other necessities, ready to go.
My colleague Normunds Sakalovskis, an active National Guard, wrote an application to leave the National Guard so that the law could not prevent him from taking part in hostilities, and decided to go with his personal Toyota Hilux, which could be used as a combat car in Ukraine. Finally, two days before departure, my right-hand man in the party, Vilnis Strods, called and said that after much thought he had decided to go because his medical training could be useful at the front. So I too decided to go to Ukraine.
What happened next?
Thanks to our friends at Azov, we crossed the Ukrainian border under the "green corridor" regime, which meant that we did not have to queue and were not checked by Ukrainian border guards. However, even in those few hours, at least five buses with refugees crossed the border with Poland. And these were indeed genuine refugees, unlike the crowds of African and Middle Eastern migrants, which are mainly made up of aggressive young men who brazenly storm Europe's borders. Only women and children were to be seen here. Ukrainian men working abroad, on the other hand, are returning in large numbers to defend their homeland. I saw them at the border and later in Ukraine.
In Lviv, we were welcomed in the Azov Civilian Corps. The next day we went to the barracks where part of the newly formed Ukrainian Foreign Legion was accommodated. There we were met by Gundars Kalve and another Latvian, whose name I do not want to mention. There were four of us in the group of newcomers.
Only one of us was really sure about his desire to go all the way. Normunds. Seeing how nationalists of different nations come to Ukraine to fight against a common historical enemy, he thought that our group of six Latvians could be the basis for a separate Latvian unit.
On the Ukrainian side there are already almost a thousand Belarusians, who have three national units, the first of which was formed under the auspices of Azov, there are Georgians, and the Chechens, who are dispersed in Western Europe, are starting to form something. The Foreign Legion is not a nationalist battalion, however, but a part of the armed forces organized by the government for foreign nationals who want to fight on the Ukrainian side, whatever their motivation for doing so. At least in this part, the core was made up of Georgians, but there were also very many Anglo-Saxons. As I said, people of different motivations, a lot of professional French Foreign Legion types.
We were taken to the regimental commander, then we had our papers taken, background checks took at least half a day. Later on, an American officer called us in for an interview, mostly about motivation and political views. Then they gave us a room to sleep in.
There was probably a lot of reflection before going to sleep...
It was a heavy sleepless night for me. Common sense was literally screaming: go home, there's nothing for you to do here, you can be useful in other ways! I won't lie, I'm no hero. I don't think war is some romantic adventure, and I don't get riled up when I see a flag flying, I don't want to grab a rifle and run to the trenches. I think of it this way: war is a terrible, physically and psychologically very hard, dirty and infinitely risky business, and there is a very high chance of losing one's life, being seriously injured, being crippled for life, losing one's ability to work and being a burden on one's family. I also realized that we would be cannon fodder in the truest sense.
There were many professionals here for whom the army and even war had been a professional routine for many years, but we with our two weeks' training would still be greenhorns with little chance of survival. I was also well aware that I had a huge responsibility for my three children, the eldest of whom will be only seven this year, and that I would be doing my wife a great disservice by joining the Legion.
I think that is something you can decide when you have no other option, for example, when you are going to die in your own country. Even before I left, some very young members of Justice were considering going and enlisting, and I was the one who said: don't, we must save our blood, because there may come a time when Latvia needs it. And now I'm sleeping in Ukrainian barracks, one step away from going to war...
In the morning I said I was ready to join the Legion. We all said so, and the commander agreed to take us in. We were getting ready for the first day, but then the news came that a higher authority would not allow us to join. I don't know what the reasons were, but inwardly I was relieved, although I was very sorry that I wouldn't get to go through the training under excellent instructors.
Thank you for your honesty... I think that many people would not have the courage to say that there were doubts and even fears.
Perhaps... We returned to the routine of the Azov Civilian Corps. There was a lot of work: receiving cargo, loading, unloading.
There would have been prospects for military service, because in another Foreign Legion regiment the commander had his own verdict: I need people who want to serve, and especially those who are motivated, but with clear rules: a contract for a year. You could also get into the Azov territorial defense. At first deep behind, then closer to the front when there is some readiness.
Some useful things can be learned from the instructors, and it is most valuable if you look from a somewhat selfish position. There, learning useful things, seeing, feeling the proximity of war, the side effects of war, being involved in voluntary aid work, even waking up in the night from a missile strike, I would feel more psychologically prepared if, God forbid, such a disaster were to strike Latvia too.
Unfortunately, we cannot choose our neighbors.
I have always lived with the feeling that Latvia is the weak link in Eastern Europe. We do not have enough people who are able and, above all, willing to fight in defense of their country, because for 30 years the political elite has not pursued a national policy that would allow Latvians to feel secure in their own country without looking behind them all the time. This is what I mean by the potential of the Russian 5th column in our country. Latvian nationalism has been consistently fought, hated and marginalized all these years, although, forgive me for repeating myself, it is the nationalists who any nation can count on in its most difficult moments.
It's fine if some people don't like nationalists, well then, go and beg the Americans at least three times a day to deploy a missile defense system in Latvia. But our rulers are not even capable of doing that! So I am a pessimistic realist: if the agonizing convulsions of the Russian Empire hit our country, we can expect a ritual shot in the air and a Latvian government in exile. And the only thing we will be able to rely on clearly will be our own skills, our own readiness and the structures that the few nationalists will be able to create.
Have you personally gotten acquainted with any Azovian?
Yes. I had the honor to meet Valery, an Azovian from the very beginning of the movement, first injured in the same Mariupol, in 2014. 58 years old, an erudite Kharkivite, a perfect example of a nationalist, ready to defend his values both in discussion and with weapons if the need arises. He learned of the war while on holiday in Turkey, and then tried with great effort to get home, which was already in ruins... But for the tears of his three-year-old granddaughter - after her spending three nights in the Kyiv metro - he wants to shoot the invaders like dogs.
And I understand his hatred. We talked a lot about everything, and I want to retell a little some of his insights. First of all, he believes: the war brings a kind of benefit to the Ukrainian people because it has united the nation. Western Ukraine with Eastern Ukraine. In the past, nationalists were almost exclusively in Western Ukraine; now they are also in Eastern Ukraine and even more fierce, even those who still speak Russian. Putin, with his bloody actions, has turned even once inert Soviet people into fervent Ukrainian patriots. Valery believes that the Ukrainians are now a very strong people, capable of defeating Russia, and all they need is arms, equipment and resources to provide for their soldiers and their families while they fight. And this war, in his view, is a historic opportunity to smash and beat the empire so that it does not rise again and so that neighboring nations can live in peace and security for at least a century. He believes that Ukraine will come out of this war much stronger and will be able to guarantee the security of the whole region together with Poland.
Valery was not the only one. I met many people like him. Ukrainians want to defend their country en masse, there are more potential warriors than weapons. For example, two paratroopers from the armed forces, who have been left behind as a reserve by order, arrive. Now they are looking for a chance to get to the front through Azov, even if it means officially deserting their post.
And all this also made it clear to me that our best contribution there may be precisely to supply resources so that the Ukrainians themselves can fight. Or, as Valery, the Azov veteran, told me: if the Latvians want it badly, they will get the rifles, even if they are not enough for the Ukrainians, but you can destroy many more invaders by helping to provide the resources that Ukraine needs.
Does that mean there enough warriors for Ukraine?
That's about right. But they do not have the means to cooperate with European institutions, they do not have the necessary contacts in Latvia, and they cannot do what we can do.
That is where we leave it. For the Ukrainians to fight and win, first and foremost, they need armaments. We, as private individuals, cannot help with that, only at national level, and I think that even the leaders of our country are beginning to understand that. Arming the Ukrainians also provides security for Latvia.
But there are many needs that can be addressed on a small scale, by helping specific people, specific structures. SUVs, pick-up trucks are very much needed. Also vans, especially with diesel engines, because petrol cars are potentially explosive.
Equipment, helmets, bulletproof vests, night-vision equipment, first-aid kits are very much needed. If anyone wants to help or has an offer, feel free to contact me by text or Whatsapp message (phone: +37126420306). We'll make sure that the things they need end up in safe hands.