Ukrainian film-maker turned soldier: ‘I don’t think there is such a thing as heroism in war’

Oleh Sentsov has traded his movie camera for an assault rifle and shoulder-launched missiles

Oleh Sentsov, the award-winning film-maker, former political prisoner of the Russians and laureate of the European Parliament’s Prix Sakharov, has traded his movie camera for an assault rifle and shoulder-launched missiles.

Sentsov (45) is fighting alongside Ukrainian special forces near the town of Bakhmut, which he describes as “currently the hottest spot in Donbas, where the Russian offensive continues”. He spoke to The Irish Times via video link.

Sentsov portrays Russia’s completion of its takeover of Luhansk, the most northeastern part of Donbas, in early July as “a tactical victory which is nothing compared to Putin’s losses”.

On July 31st, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged some 200,000 civilians remaining in Donetsk, the lower part of Donbas, to evacuate, which could in effect turn Donetsk into a free-fire zone.


Sentsov was a leading figure in the February 2014 “revolution of dignity” on Maidan square in Kyiv. Russian forces seized his native Crimea four days after the Maidan protests ended.

He was arrested in Crimea in May, and charged with plotting to attack bridges, power lines and public monuments. Amnesty International described the conviction of Sentsov and three co-defendants as a fabrication.

Sentsov’s imprisonment provoked an international outcry. He served five years of a 20-year sentence in Moscow and in a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, and was released in a 2019 prisoner exchange.

He joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces on the first day of the February invasion and helped to defend Kyiv. Once the capital was secured, he transferred to the special forces in Donbas.

War is not what people imagine from television news, books or cinema, Sentsov says.

“Close combat with guns is rare. War is often repetitive, regular steps that are needed by the army. You get used to this. You get used to people being wounded and there are a lot of people being wounded and dying here.

“People become hardened in a way, but you cannot put a lot of emotions into what you see around you because then you will not be able to control your thoughts.”

Sentsov’s unit was assigned to shoot down helicopters, “but the Russians are very careful about using their air force. They are trying to preserve aircraft and rarely use them. Any helicopter that approaches us is at risk of being shot down, because we have an anti-aircraft system”.

Sentsov speaks to me from his home base, about 10km-15km from the battlefield.

“Every day we go to the first line of defence, or beyond it into the grey zone. Today, we were doing reconnaissance of a particular area near Bakhmut, where the Russians are advancing. We had an infantry squad. Some people are there in trenches and the Russians are shelling with artillery. We were nearby in a basement.

“There is a specialist who works with a drone. We launch a drone and it sees with two cameras where they are shelling from, and any movement of vehicles. I then navigate this fire. I direct this fire. Our job is to make sure that the guys in the trenches are not killed.”

In view of his past as a famous political prisoner, what would happen if he were taken prisoner?

“I am not worried about this, because I think they would not just capture me. They would kill me. I don’t think they would go through the same process with me again in prison, so I don’t worry about it.”

Some Ukrainian artists and intellectuals have fled to the west of the country, which is less dangerous, or opted for exile abroad.

“You have to be psychologically ready to fight, so I don’t judge these people,” Sentsov says, adding that at least 10 of his friends from the cultural world are fighting. He seems impatient, almost annoyed, when I ask him why he is not afraid when others are.

“I don’t know. I am not a special person, to be honest. There are many people like me. I can tell you about thousands of regular guys who are fighting and dying and doing incredible things. It’s not unique.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as heroism in war,” Sentsov continues. “Heroism in war can be negative on the battlefield. It is usually stupid people who risk too much and put others at risk because they want to achieve something daring and don’t see the full picture.”

Sentsov’s special forces unit has sufficient defensive weapons, including US-made Javelins and British NLAWs (Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapons), he says.

“We lack heavy artillery. We lack multiple rocket launchers which can hit the Russians from a distance. We cannot advance or counterattack without those. This is crucial because we will not be able to free our territories without them.”

Forecasts that Russia’s war in Ukraine could end soon are wrong, Sentsov says.

“It will definitely take a few years. The only way the war will end soon is if Ukraine gives up, and Ukraine will not give up. If Putin loses, he loses militarily, politically, economically. It will mean the defeat of his regime, so he is not going to back down.

“It will be a long and difficult war. I wish the war would end sooner, but we must be realistic. If you think the war will end soon, it will be much worse for you, because it will break you.”

The war started in Crimea, and it will end there, Sentsov predicts. He hopes that “by the time we liberate all the other territories, there will be political change within Russia” which will make it unnecessary to take Crimea by force.

“Maybe this will be the end of Russia grabbing other nations’ territory. Maybe the next generation of Russians will strive for a future within Europe. Maybe Russia will want to live in peace. Maybe they will stop using their neighbours as colonies. Maybe they will change their political structure. This would be for the benefit of all of us.”

The fate of Vladimir Putin is immaterial, he says.

“We have to make sure the system changes. Whether he is in prison or dead doesn’t matter.”

Sentsov has put his career as a film director on hold while his business partners continue to develop projects and seek finance.

“I hope the war won’t last very long, and that I will be able to go back to the movie industry,” he says. He has not yet prepared a scenario, but has “a feel for what war movies should look like”.

Sentsov was in touch with friends in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol during the three-month-long siege there.

“One friend who was wounded in the basement of Azovstal is in prison right now, under threat of capital punishment. For me it is a very personal story.”

On July 29th, an explosion at the prison in Olenivka, Donetsk where several hundred prisoners from Azovstal are held killed 53 Ukrainians and wounded 75 others. The name of Sentsov’s friend does not appear on the list of dead and wounded released by the Russians.

He accuses Russia of attacking the prison, “to intimidate Ukrainians and to try to accuse us of this war crime”.