Kiev's new gambit in eastern Ukraine: a militia of its own?
With their Army unable to stop pro-Russia militants, Ukrainian reservists are doffing their uniforms and training as informal military units – with the tacit support of Kiev.
Near Krasnoarmiss'k, Ukraine
Surrounded by idle farm machinery, some dozen black-clad men run with Kalashnikov rifles in their hands, and duck behind concrete barriers to dodge an imaginary enemy.
Only the enemy is not exactly imaginary.
In eastern Ukraine, neighbors, relatives, and even former friends are dividing along separatist and loyalist lines, fearing the two-month standoff over Ukraine may soon become more than a war of words – especially since recent attempts by Ukraine's Army to pacify the area have failed disastrously.
Now, more eastern Ukrainians are taking matters more into their own hands and starting their own militias of masked men – with the goal of defending Ukraine from "separatists," with what appears to be the tacit support of the government in Kiev.
About 15 miles from the town of Krasnoarmiss’k, the so-called Donbass Battalion, a band of around 100 pro-Ukraine recruits from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have built a training camp, drawing recruits via networks ranging from word-of-mouth to Facebook.
Their commander, a masked 38-year-old who goes by the name Semen Semenchenko, says he was a captain in the Ukraine’s army reserves. But he complains that a lack of political will in Kiev to mobilize local units became frustrating. So he’s formed his own volunteer fighting unit.
“We’re not against the citizens who have different points of view, or are pro-Russia,” Mr. Semenchenko said. “We’re against the politicians and corrupt police and elements of the army who are supporting the separatist movement.”
In recent weeks, heavily-armed pro-Russia militants have seized administrative buildings in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine as their leaders plan for a referendum May 11 to decide whether to seek "federalization" from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed on the eastern frontier, leading to fears of an invasion on the pretext of keeping order if Ukraine descends into chaos.
Inside Ukrainian borders, soldiers have switched sides. Weapons and vehicles – including armored personnel carriers – have been seized and even a helicopter has been destroyed by pro-Russia armed rebels, who operate in towns and cities in eastern Ukraine with virtual impunity.
The upshot: Official Ukrainian military reservists, frustrated and scared, are now taking up what they interpret as a signal by the Ukrainian government to privatize the conflict, itself a possible sign that Ukraine is sliding toward civil war.
Semenchenko denies his own group has any ties to far-right groups or extremists such as the Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group accused of criminality and political killings against pro-Russia protesters. “We have nothing to do with Right Sector,” he said. “We are against banditry and fascism and are just trying to keep a united Ukraine.”
While his battalion flies the both the Ukrainian national flag and the Donbass regional flag, this base lies just across the boundary line, in the territory of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, where so far separatists have not seized or occupied buildings.
In effect, the farm has become a training redoubt for pro-Ukrainian militia men to operate under the auspices of authorities still largely loyal to the central government.
The fighting experience of these militia men – almost all whose faces remained hidden in front of reporters – is mixed. But their commitment is clear as they spend 24 hours a day in the compound, sleeping in bunks crammed inside a disused farm building.
Vyacheslav Yeriomin, a former border guard who was born in Russia but raised in the region, says the men are ready to make sacrifices and are posted away from their families as long as the crisis requires.
“There are values than more important than just our personal lives,” he said. “We have to make sacrifices for security and stability for our land.”
The men are also veterans of past civil wars.
Zakhar Zakharidze, from Sukhumi in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, demonstrates his experience as a senior sergeant as he drills his men through an obstacle course and later practice hand-to-hand combat.
A veteran of the 1992-93 conflict in which Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists defeated the Georgian army and expelled more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians, the broad-shouldered sergeant said he doesn't want to see a repeat in his adopted land of 22 years where his children and grandchildren live.
“I’m Georgian, I was born in Sukhumi and was there when Russian forces entered the city,” he said from behind dark sunglasses and a bandana covering his mouth. “Of course we don’t want that to happen again. So in order to prevent this, the people are rising up.”
An agreement with Kiev?
The presence of armed men-in-black bivouacked on farm land is likely to alarm residents with pro-Russia sympathies.
Andriy Gobzhyla, a taxi driver who arrived with journalists, became visibly distressed at the sight of the armed men. Heated words were exchanged which escalated when Mr. Gobzhyla allegedly threatened to burn the farm down.
The militia men sprang into action, weapons were drawn, and a visibly frightened Gobzyhla was frog-marched at gunpoint inside the compound.
The militia seized the man’s phone which contained pictures of him, armed and wearing a flak jacket, at a separatist checkpoint. Police were called and the driver was turned over to local authorities as a suspected spy. Police later said they released him without charge.
But the tense scene illustrated the working relationship between the armed group – which wears Ukrainian army insignias even though it has no legal status – and Ukraine’s security services. An agent of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) – Ukraine’s successor to the KGB – on the scene confirmed that the militias are coordinating their actions, registering their weapons, and operate under an ad hoc agreement with top officials.
“The authorities allow patriotically inclined citizens to form paramilitary groups to defend Ukraine,” he said, declining to give his name.
That federal authorities are coordinating with pro-Ukraine militias, while at the same time demanding separatist militias disarm, has led to an increasingly large gap in trust between citizens demanding autonomy for Donbass – and Kiev’s interim government, whose support in eastern Ukraine is abysmal.
Here, even loyalists that don't want to join Russia are highly distrustful of the interim government in Kiev that came to power in the wake of the Maidan movement, who many in the Russian-speaking east distrust as being infiltrated by extremists and puppets of Western governments.
Still, many locals say they don’t want the separatists to take over.
About a mile from the farm compound, three masked men armed with Kalashnikovs stand behind sandbags at a checkpoint that overlooks the rural road that approaches their base. A series of identical checkpoints helps secure the Donbass Battalion’s farm.
Alexander is recruit from the city of Kramatorsk, now occupied by armed militants. He said he dropped out of military academy a month ago to join the volunteer battalion. Nervously fingering his carbine he says there’s been no contact with armed pro-Russia forces. “Not yet, thank God.”
But he feels betrayed by Western powers which encouraged Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal in 1994 in return for security guarantees from Moscow. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, this spring annexed Crimea and now has many worried that it will invade from the east.
“I don’t understand. We gave up more than a thousand nuclear missiles and now the US and Britain won’t meet their obligations,” he said. “So right now I’m standing here virtually unarmed and facing a country with nuclear weapons.”