Monday, April 27, 2015

'Cutthroats And Bandits': Volunteer's Stint With Ukraine Rebels Turns To Nightmare

ALCHEVSK, Ukraine -- When he joined the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Russian businessman Bondo Dorovskikh thought he would be fighting hordes of fascists bent on victimizing the local population.

Russian volunteer fighter Bondo Dorovskikh and friends.

The reality on the ground turned out to be quite different.

Instead of defending eastern Ukraine, Dorovskikh says he found himself stranded in the town of Alchevsk, where pro-Russian rebels controlling the area spent their days looting and drinking.

"In the morning the commander would get up and line up the insurgents for the roll-call, and in the evening there were another roll-call," he told RFE/RL.

"The rest of the time the militants roamed around Alchevsk, pillaging, stealing scrap metal, removing metal gates and selling them to buy alcohol and cigarettes. Some of them would get drunk and fire at each other."

Dorovskikh recently returned from his six-month stint with the insurgents, feeling angry and cheated. 

Like many other volunteers, he decided to take up arms after watching Russian television reports that portrayed Ukrainian forces in the country's east as neo-Nazi thugs persecuting and slaughtering Russian-speaking locals.

"Reports from the Rossia 24 channel on the latest news in Ukraine were constantly on my mind," he says.

"The media influenced me."

Dorovskikh contacted the insurgency through its recruitment office in Moscow, where he was given a mobile phone number to call when he reached the southern city of Rostov, close to Ukraine's border. 

He left his job in Moscow and purchased ammunition, a bulletproof vest, and a one-way ticket to Rostov.

He then called the number he had been given in Moscow and received instructions on how to reach the group that would take him to Ukraine.

He was stunned to find out that recruiters in Rostov did not bother asking about his military experience and failed to conduct even basic identity checks on anybody.

"There were people there who didn't have any documents at all," he says.

Another incident soon confirmed his misgivings about the insurgency.

"The first thing we saw after crossing the border, literally five minutes later, was a brawl between two insurgents," he says.

"I immediately understood where I had landed, that this had nothing to do with an army. I was disappointed right from the start."

Dorovskikh was assigned to the "Ghost" battalion and sent to a unit in Alchevsk, where he was immediately handed weapons.

He says the unit was comprised of local militants, Russian volunteers, several Russian army officers, and a handful of foreign recruits from Spain, Italy, and France.

But Dorovskikh never witnessed any combat in Alchevsk.

He received no training, either.

According to him, the vast majority of militants have no interest whatsoever in politics and only join the insurgency to enjoy the salaries and material advantages granted to its members.

He describes them as "bandits" and says some of the local militants in his unit were convicts who were hunting down former police officers ousted when the separatists took over.

He says rebels also routinely turned against their own comrades-in-arms.

"Robberies and murders took place there," he says.

Dorovskikh's account also corroborates reports that Russia is supplying the insurgents with weapons.

Militants who crossed over from Russia, he says, are particularly well equipped.

"We had everything, we were fully equipped," he says.

"We had grenades, machine guns, grenade launchers and ammunition for them, absolutely everything. We even had two cars at our disposal."

He also confirms that the tanks spotted in eastern Ukraine come from Russia and describes seeing tanks being sent into Ukraine from the Rostov region.

"They gathered volunteers who had served in armored divisions in the army," he says.

"They were trained at a tank training base near Rostov, units were formed, they were also given weapons. These tanks were transported to the border, which they then crossed on their own and headed directly to the hotspots."

After several idle weeks in Alchevsk, Dorovskikh left his unit and headed to the town of Nikishino, on the front line.​

What he witnessed there only fueled his disillusionment.

He says that the fighters had no clear instructions and that the tank radios did not function, resulting in chaotic battles.

He says the insurgents also took part in shocking acts of cruelty against Ukrainian soldiers.

He recalls hearing the screams of Ukrainian soldiers on the radio as rebels torched their tanks with the men still inside.

"I felt sorry for those on the other side who were being slaughtered," he says.

"And they were being killed by cutthroats who don't even care against whom they are fighting." 

Dorovskikh says he is not an exception.

Disenchanted Russian volunteers, he claims, are streaming back home.

He is himself so upset that he is mulling enrolling in Ukraine's National Guard to help stamp out the separatists.

But for now, he has a message for all those still tempted to join the insurgency.

"Don't go there," he urges them.

"We are told on television this is like the Second World War, but in fact it's an act of pure aggression. This is not a war that's worth risking the most precious thing you have."

Source: Radio Free Europe

Ukraine’s Military Mobilization Undermined By Draft Dodgers

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the country’s eastern conflict drags into a second year, Ukraine’s military leaders are trying to learn from past mistakes.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards the area near the Shyrokino village of Donetsk, Ukraine, on April 19.

They are trying to be better trained and prepared, because no one knows when the warm weather might push this frozen conflict with pro-Russian separatists into all-out war again.

And they are calling up the able-bodied men of Ukraine in droves to turn the military that had only 6,000 battle-ready troops before the start of this conflict into a standing force a quarter-million strong. 

But not everyone is heeding the call to arms.

“I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t respond to the order,” said Igor, a 25-year-old worker with a nongovernmental organization within Kiev, who received a draft summons in February.

“I am not at all interested in participating in such a conflict. They should have been acting much more effectively to have fewer victims — I don’t want to end up on the victim list myself.”

The prospective soldiers in this article spoke on the condition that their last names be withheld because of the risk of penalties if they were to be identified as draft dodgers. 

Igor is, by most measures, a shoo-in for the service.

He’s a reserve officer, a radio specialist, and he participated in the 2013-2014 protests on Kiev’s Independence Square.

But between one-third and one-half of the more than 6,100 deaths in the Ukrainian conflict were in the military, and Igor cites systemic problems — such as draft commanders who ask for bribes, and commanders, including the president, who maintain Russian business ties while asking soldiers to die for Ukraine — as reasons why he and many others cannot bring themselves to serve.

“We do have some problems in the mobilization,” acknowledged military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev, when asked about cases like Igor’s.

“That’s why we are trying to strike a balance: From one side, the government provides benefits to those defending the country; from the other, there are very harsh criminal penalties for draft dodgers.” 

Rank-and-file soldiers can make upwards of $200 a month, with commanders eligible for far more.

But those who shirk the call to duty — or go AWOL, as about 13,000 have — risk fines and years of jail time.

In one recent case, a journalist speaking out publicly against the draft was charged with treason.

But that isn’t enough to scare many potential draftees from dodging.

“I would rather sit in prison for three years — and be fed and secure — than serve,” said Andrey, 26, a metal plant worker who was drafted in March.

“After a whole year of this government, we still have to work for two days to buy a loaf of bread. I don’t want to go fight for that kind of government.”

Andrey is from Slovyansk, an eastern Ukrainian city that came under heavy assault last summer, with troops eventually wresting the city from pro-Russian rebels.

But the local population’s sympathies are still divided, and of the approximately 40 people Andrey knows who recently received draft orders, he says only one is actually responding.

“We were fighting for autonomy, for the right to live and work in our own region. When the army came, they just bombarded us for two months in a row,” Andrey said.

“And now I’m supposed to go and fight for them? I don’t think so.”

Though penalties for draft dodging are steep, the process is fairly straightforward.

Summons are sent to the city where one is registered — normally a birthplace or place of work.

But if one has moved or has a job that is not officially registered, it is easy to hide in plain sight, as Andrey and Igor are doing.

The military says it has completed about three-quarters of the planned mobilization, now in its fifth wave, with a sixth already proposed.

Response rates vary widely across the country, however: Igor’s home region of Kharkiv, for example, has the most abysmal turnout, with only about 17 percent of those receiving draft orders responding.

Meanwhile Lviv, in the far west, reportedly boasts the highest response rate, with near full turnout.

But even with the majority of draftees turning up for medical checks, the military is worried.

Rotating soldiers off the battlefield, they expect only 15-20 percent to return voluntarily.

New soldiers get only 26 days of general training, plus a week or two to practice their specialization.

So without a steady stream of recruits, they worry that the quality of soldiers could drop.

Only 1 in 8 troops is a volunteer, not nearly enough to make up the recruitment gap.

“The more people that will respond to the mobilization, the better chance we have of sending the most prepared, motivated and best soldiers to the ATO zone,” Seleznev said, referring to the combat zone.

“It’s not right that some go to defend the motherland and others hide in bushes, living their lives and not defending the country.”

But military experts say the recruitment system suffers most from bad management; the legacy of years of post-Soviet decimation.

“We don’t understand what we are fighting for, and the government does not inform people about the goals of this war,” said Aleksey Arestovich, a military expert based in Kiev, who added that after a year of hostilities, the conflict is still not officially a “war.”

Despite the databases the administration is building of soldiers, their skills and their defections, Arestovich pointed out that specialists are often ignored in favor of funneling more people to the front line, and families of slain soldiers often must fight to get their promised benefits.

As the Interior Ministry starts to prosecute no-shows, human rights advocates are also speaking in defense of the dodgers.

“We can’t win only by the numbers, we have to win by the quality of our soldiers,” said Oleksandra Matviychuk of the Center for Civil Rights in Kiev, arguing that the military should offer more draftees noncombat roles.

“I don’t believe people forced to be in the army can effectively defend the population.”

Maxim, 23, who was drafted in the fall, is a Seventh-day Adventist, and thus, a pacifist.

But he is also a competitive athletic fighter, which he fears will make a military review board skeptical of his religious convictions.

More pressingly though, Maxim doesn’t want to go to war because his wife is five months pregnant with their first child.

If he has to, he said, he would try to get a Romanian passport, for which he is eligible as a resident of a border town.

“You know, I would go serve as something like a medical worker,” Maxim said.

“But I don’t have that education. And after the physical exam, I know where they would send me — straight to the infantry.”

Source: The Washington Post

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Turkey, Ukraine Eye Joint Defense Projects

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey and its littoral Black Sea neighbor, Ukraine, are striving to build a strategic industrial alliance that could include cooperation across a variety of military programs.

Turkey and Ukraine are discussing possible joint military projects, including armor technologies and tank production.

A Ukrainian delegation under the umbrella of Ukroboronprom, a state-owned defense conglomerate bringing together 130 companies and engineering institutions, came to Ankara in early April to discuss future cooperation.

After several meetings, the two countries agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding, the first legal text to pave the way for future joint projects.

"There is a lot we can do together … work jointly. Ukraine has an established, proven industry with impressive capabilities … which can assist some of our indigenous programs," a senior Turkish procurement official said.

He said that potential Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation would include programs such as missile defense, armor technologies, tank production, space, engines, satellites and fighter jets.

A Turkish agent for the Ukrainian industry said the new initiative would boost comprehensive cooperation.

"This can be the beginning of a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership. There is a long way ahead. If the two sides manage to handle a successful takeover a promising cruise will be ahead. The first year of talks will be crucial," he said.

Ankara has its own ambitions to design, develop and manufacture indigenous fighter and tank engines as well as a program to build its own fighter jet.

It also runs a number of missile programs, both tactical and cruise.

"Ukraine can be a suitable partner in many Turkish programs that are just shaping up," said one defense adviser to the Turkish government.

A London-based Turkey specialist said conditions are ripe for a possible Turkish-Ukrainian alliance to run joint programs.

"There are no major bilateral political rifts that could otherwise hinder defense cooperation," he said.

"In addition, there is no reason why Ukraine should not wish to share its defense technologies and capabilities with an emerging Turkish industry. That's a most alluring aspect for Ankara as it strives to make progress in several ambitious programs."

The procurement official said joint programs could include the development of aircraft and tank engines, tank armor and aerospace.

"We may also look at a Ukrainian aircraft body to make it a base model for our choice of the future Turkish fighter jet," he said.

But some political analysts said Ankara will face a difficult balancing act in relations between Kiev and Moscow.

"This [the Turkish-Ukrainian partnership] will certainly echo in Moscow, and not in a pleasant way," said one Vienna-based Russia analyst.

Ukraine opposes a planned Russian-Turkish natural gas pipeline, the Turkish Stream, which replaces a long-planned South Stream project that would have carried Russian gas to Europe across the Black Sea.

Russia is Turkey's largest energy supplier.

"It looks increasingly difficult for Turkey to maintain its policy to balance relations with hostile neighbors Ukraine and Russia," the Russia analyst said.

Turkey has been reluctant to join international sanctions against Russia after the latter's annexation of parts of the Crimean peninsula last year.

Turkey has been careful not to strain its ties with Russia since then.

But Turkey also has been courting business with Ukraine.

Earlier this year, Turkey and Ukraine held high-level strategic council meetings and agreed to boost bilateral trade and investment.

Turkey has agreed to grant Ukraine US $10 million in humanitarian aid and a $450 million loan to help the war-torn country cover its budget deficit.

Source: Defense News

Ukraine Marks 29 Years Since Chernobyl Disaster

SLAVUTYCH, Ukraine -- Ukrainians Sunday marked 29 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, laying wreaths and candles near the plant where work to lay a new seal over the reactor site has been delayed.

A relative of a Chernobyl victim places a photo near the monument erected in memory of the victims of the Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 26, 2015.

The explosion of reactor number four on April 26, 1986, spewed poisonous radiation over large parts of Europe, particularly Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

At 1:23 am, the exact time of the explosion, hundreds of people placed flowers and candles in the dark at the foot of a monument in Slavutych, a town 50 kilometrers (30 miles) from the plant.

Slavutych was built to rehouse Chernobyl workers who had lived near the plant and were forced to move further away after the disaster.

At the site of the plant itself, around 100 kilometres from Kiev, Ukraine's President Poroshenko laid a wreath on Sunday at a monument to the victims.

The human toll of the disaster is still disputed.

United Nations experts officially recognised 31 deaths among plant workers and firefighters directly linked to the blast.

But environmental group Greenpeace predicted that there would be around 100,000 additional cancer deaths caused by the disaster.

The Soviet authorities of the time dispatched hundreds of thousands of people to put out the fire and clean the site, without proper protection.

They hastily laid over the reactor site a concrete cover dubbed "the sarcophagus", which is now cracking and must be replaced. 

Poroshenko on Sunday inspected ongoing work to lay a new 20,000-tonne steel cover - a project estimated to cost more than two billion euros ($2.2 billion).

It is financed by international donations managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

The structure will contain technology that will act beneath the cover to decontaminate the area once the steel layer is in place.

Officials say the new cover will last for 100 years

The work is being done by Novarka, a joint venture by French companies Vinci and Bouygues. 

Poroshenko said the new cover would "protect forever" against radiation from the site.

The work had been scheduled for completion by the end of this year but the EBRD said last year technical problems would delay it until late 2017.

Source: Agence France Presse

Ukraine Conflict Attracts Foreign Fighters – On Both Sides

KIEV, Ukraine -- Just like the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the violence in eastern Ukraine is attracting foreign fighters – some with the pro-Russian separatists, and some with the Ukrainian government forces.

Many of these fighters are from European countries.

This makes it curious that we don’t hear much about this phenomenon from European governments – which are, of course, clamping down on citizens who go to fight in the Middle East.

True, the numbers of foreigners fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region appear to be relatively low – perhaps 300 on each side.

That compares with at least 20,000 foreigners fighting in Iraq and Syria.

However, as in those conflicts, many armed foreigners in Ukraine are motivated by radical ideologies as much as, or more than, mere money.

“They, as a group or as lone individuals, might constitute a threat to European security and must be closely monitored,” says Kacper Rekawek, a Polish expert on the Ukrainian conflict.

Rekawek has written a lucid, well-researched paper on foreign fighters in Ukraine.

Published by the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs, the paper makes the important point that there is no truth to the Russian allegations that a “NATO foreign legion” is fighting for the Kiev government, and no truth to the fantasy that the separatists have been joined by some sort of “Donbass international brigades”.

Nonetheless, there are enough foreign fighters in Ukraine for the issue to deserve the attention of European governments. 

Rekawek’s study estimates that the bulk of the foreigners fighting for the pro-Russian separatists come from Germany (up to 100), Serbia (up to 100), Hungary (up to 30) and the US (up to 25).

On the Ukrainian side, the largest contingents come from Belarus (up to 100), Georgia (up to 100) and Croatia (32 or more), Rekawek says.

What motivates foreigners to fight with the Donbass rebels?

For Serbs and people of Serbian origin in other countries, the pro-Russian separatists seem like Orthodox Christian brothers with whom they share a common hatred of the EU and US.

Meanwhile, some western European fighters, having fallen for Russia’s propaganda that the Kiev government is stuffed full of far-right fanatics, think they are engaged in an anti-fascist crusade.

Why do foreigners fight for the Ukrainian government?

The large presence of fighters from Belarus and Georgia tells its own story – they are motivated by hatred of what they see as a bullying, imperialistic Russia that might one day crush the independence of their countries.

As for the Croat contingent, they see similarities between the way the Donbass separatists are trying to split Ukraine and the way the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina tried in the 1990s to break up those two states.

Rekawek names one of the main recruiters for the Donbass rebels as Victor Alfonso Lenta, a former member of the French armed forces who encourages would-be fighters to join the rebels as a way of destroying “Anglo-Saxon globalism, atlanticism and the decadent west”.

For the Ukrainian government forces, a leading recruiter is Gaston Besson, another Frenchman, who lives in Croatia, Rekawek says.

Moreover, the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, Portugal and elsewhere provides aid and materiel for the Ukrainian side, and some of them have gone to fight in eastern Ukraine.

Rekawek concludes by saying of the foreign fighters:

“They are representatives of wider extreme and anti-systemic political milieus that are vehemently anti-Atlanticist, anti-European, anti-liberal, nationalist and quite often pro-Russian. Through violent acts they might attempt to emulate the creation of their preferred Ukraine or a ‘Donbass’ in their host countries – entities dictatorial and repressive in nature…”

It is a timely warning.

Source: ft