Who was the ‘Donbass Cowboy’, the pro-Russian Texan who died in Donetsk? | EUROtoday

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Russell Bentley, a Texas native higher identified by his nickname “Donbass Cowboy”, died in mysterious circumstances close to Donetsk. His demise provoked a powerful response in Russian ultra-nationalist circles, the place Bentley had made a reputation for himself over the previous ten years by travelling by means of the territories occupied by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

Just a month in the past, Russell Bentley was thanking his “guardian angels” in an interview with Newsweek for serving to him escape demise “hundreds of times” since 2014. But his luck lastly ran out, and the person who known as himself “Texas” or “Donbass Cowboy” was killed in Donetsk, within the Russian-occupied a part of Ukraine’s Donbas area. His demise was introduced by the Russian media on April 19.

Since then, milbloggers – ultraconservative Russian web customers who touch upon the battle in Ukraine – have been up in arms about what they name the failure of the Russian normal employees to guard this Texan, whom they thought of to be one in every of their very own, the Wall Street Journal reported. “‘Texas’ was killed! In the same way that they let so many of our brothers die” in the Donbas, was the reaction of Thirteenth, the nickname on Telegram of former Russian soldier Yegor Guzenko.

Faced with this criticism, Moscow has been very discreet about the circumstances surrounding Bentley’s death. His wife, a Russian citizen, had not heard from him since early April, and Bentley, who was usually very active on social media, had stopped posting. Members of his former combat unit in the Donbas finally announced his death. No official confirmation was provided by Moscow.

“We will probably never know what really happened, but the information circulating online suggests that the most likely scenario is that he was killed by Russian soldiers who mistook him for an American spy,” said Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath.

Putin’s perfect little soldier

Bentley, 60, would probably never have believed that he could be mistaken for an agent in Washington’s pay. Since leaving his native Texas in 2014, Bentley did everything he could to adopt both the Russian way of life and the most “Putinist” rhetoric possible. He married a Russian woman, converted to the Orthodox faith, obtained Russian citizenship and bought “a little house with a big garden” in the Donetsk region.

His final decade as a faithful servant of the Russian cause marks the final chapter in a life that had been anything but quiet.

Bentley began his career as a self-proclaimed “socialist” student in the very conservative state of Texas. Then, at the age of 20, he joined the military, and in the 1980s was posted to a base in Germany.

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Returning to the US a few years later, he first worked as a bartender at the resort town of South Padre Island, Texas. In 1990, he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to become a lumberjack and then an activist for the legalisation of cannabis. His commitment to the cause even led him to run as a US Senate candidate for the Grassroots Party, which opposes drug prohibition.

Having failed to get elected, he decided to convert from socialism to communism and from cannabis activist to cannabis dealer. The latter activity got him into trouble with the law and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Six months of fighting, ten years of correspondence

After serving his sentence, Bentley moved to Austin, Texas, to become a landscaper in the early 2010s. This new path gave him ample time to lose himself in pro-Russian news websites. These portals – the same ones that were later used in 2016 to try to influence the US election – present a propaganda-soaked version of Ukraine’s 2013 pro-European Euromaidan motion.

This various actuality satisfied Bentley that the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, adopted by the preventing within the Donbas represented a “war against the pro-Nazi elements stationed in Kyiv”, the Texas Monthly wrote in a 2019 investigation report. He thus grew to become one of many first American “victims” of the nice Russian propaganda operation aimed toward destabilising the US.

In 2014, he moved to Donetsk, the place he joined the Vostok battalion, one of many predominant pro-Russian models within the Donbas. But he would solely battle for six months earlier than turning into “Texas” and the “Donbass Cowboy”, nicknames he used on social media and on his common appearances on the Russian information outlet Sputnik. He then spent ten years crisscrossing the Donbas as a “war correspondent” for varied pro-Putin and ultra-nationalist web sites and media.

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At the start of the major Russian offensive in 2022, the “Donbass Cowboy” stated on the VKontakte social media service that the Russians “might stop in Kiev, or we might go as far as the English Channel. Maybe we’ll even liberate the United States!”

Since then, he has repeated the Russian narrative on the Ukraine invasion, maintaining that NATO, particularly the US, was to blame for “forcing” Moscow to defend itself in Ukraine.

As a disciple of triumphant Putinism with a strong Texan accent, Bentley “was very useful for the Kremlin’s propaganda, especially aimed at the Russian public”, said Jeff Hawn, a Russia specialist at the London School of Economics.

According to Hall, Bentley embodied an important facet of Moscow’s discourse.

“Russell Bentley was living proof that Russian ideology had also been emulated in the West and even in the United States,” he said.

A valuable voice

The “Donbass Cowboy” was not the only Westerner to side with Russia. But “there is no reliable data”, on their numbers, said Hawn.

“As far as the Americans are concerned, there are probably no more than a handful of them, often with a criminal record”, he added.

One instance is Wilmer Puello-Mota, a former American soldier who determined to battle alongside the Russians in Ukraine final January – a couple of days earlier than his trial for possession of kid pornography was because of start.

In Moscow’s eyes, Russell Bentley had one benefit over the opposite Western fighters: he was very comfy in entrance of the cameras. This, Hall mentioned, is without doubt one of the the explanation why milbloggers have been up in arms since his demise.

“They remorse that the military failed to guard one of many few American voices that would assist them take their message of the battle of civilisations past Russia’s borders,” he mentioned.

Another purpose is that “these ultra-nationalists can use his death to continue criticising Sergei Shoigu’s ministry of defence, which they blame for not conducting the war in Ukraine properly,” Hawn mentioned.

Bentley’s demise could be proof that Russia’s normal employees has completely no management over the Russian-occupied territories within the Donbas.

“What is happening there is even more opaque to outside observers than what is happening in Russia,” Hall mentioned.

(This article is a translation of the unique in French.)

© France Médias Monde graphic studio