Friday, June 06, 2014

A Separatist Militia In Ukraine With Russian Fighters Holds A Key

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Surface-to-air missiles pilfered from army bases. Defectors from Ukraine’s elite special forces. Russian fighters who slipped across a porous border.

When more than 40 of the militia’s fighters were killed in heavy fighting near the Donetsk airport last month, separatist leaders said that 33 were Russian citizens.

These are some of the biggest problems facing Ukraine’s military in the rebellious east, and they were all on prominent display here in the unlikely setting of the Donetsk Botanical Garden, where the Vostok Battalion, the largest separatist militia in this city of one million people, has established a training camp.

“We are an international battalion,” said Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the rebel commander, who led the government’s Alfa special forces unit in the Donetsk region until he resigned after the February revolution in Kiev.

Mr. Khodakovsky said that Russian citizens were among his fighters, but that the “overwhelming majority” of his force of more than 500 came from eastern Ukraine.

He denied any link to Russia.

As the threat of a Russian invasion into eastern Ukraine has declined and appeals for annexation by rebel politicians have gone unanswered, the pace of fighting has picked up in eastern Ukraine with both the Kiev government and the separatists trying to seize momentum.

Whether eastern Ukraine’s counterrevolution succeeds or crumbles depends increasingly on battle commanders like Mr. Khodakovsky and the fighters they command, whose resolve could extend the fighting here for weeks or even months to come.

In an interview, Mr. Khodakovsky said that he was largely autonomous, that he coordinated on some matters with other separatist military commanders and that he would even turn against the separatist government “if the interests of the politicians and the people diverge.”

But the main enemy remains the Kiev government, and until its military leaves the region, Mr. Khodakovsky said, his fighters will not lay down their arms.

“Everyone understands that this is a war between Russia and America, and we must be for one side or for the other,” Mr. Khodakovsky said in a confident, flowing monologue.

Across a well-tramped field, recruits were receiving instructions on how to use surface-to-air missiles, a 30-millimeter automatic grenade launcher, heavy machine guns and antitank weapons that Mr. Khodakovsky said he had taken from military bases in Ukraine.

The offensive by the Ukrainian military, which officials in Kiev have called an “antiterrorist operation,” continued on Tuesday, as armored personnel carriers and helicopters attacked rebel checkpoints near Slavyansk, a rebel stronghold.

Arsen Avakov, the country’s acting police chief, said in a message on his Facebook page that the military had taken control of Semyonovka, a village to the south of Slavyansk.

The Ukrainian prosecutor, Oleh Makhnitsky, said on Tuesday that 181 people, including 59 Ukrainian service members, had died and an additional 293 people had been wounded since fighting began in the country’s east.

Since the Vostok Battalion appeared in early May and began leading the fight in Donetsk against the Ukrainian military, the militia’s composition has raised questions about Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine.

When more than 40 of the militia’s fighters were killed in heavy fighting near the Donetsk airport last month, separatist leaders said that 33 were Russian citizens.

Their bodies were sent in a refrigerated truck to the Russian border for repatriation. 

Mr. Khodakovsky claimed that the men were not all Russians but declined to discuss them further.

He denied the presence of fighters from Chechnya in his group, but said that there were about a dozen Ossetians, from the Russian-backed enclave of South Ossetia and the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Nine of those fighters, most of whom had fought in the brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, were present on a recent afternoon.

Mamay, 35, a security contractor from North Ossetia, said he had traveled to Donetsk to protect his fellow Orthodox Christians. He smiled as he reached beneath his shirt and produced a gold cross.

Another man, Dmitry, 37, a technician from North Ossetia, said that he had signed up online and had crossed the border secretly “by car and by foot.”

He said he had been born in Donetsk, but moved to North Ossetia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“The equipment I brought with me,” he said, “but the guns they gave me here.”

He added: “I always knew that there was west Ukraine and east Ukraine. The west never loved the east. I saw it as my duty to come to my brothers.”

Some of the men receive salaries of $100 a week, they said, though they maintain that they are volunteers.

Many of those interviewed said that the Ukrainian military campaign, which has employed artillery and helicopter strikes against separatists ensconced in civilian populations, had angered them and convinced them that they should join the rebels. 

One of the militia members, a former Ukrainian Army private, said he had deserted from his unit near Slavyansk when the military began shelling the outskirts of the city.

A 20-year-old man, a new recruit from the city of Dzerzhinsk who was still in training, said he had decided to enlist after street clashes in Odessa killed 42 people, many of them in a fire in a building under attack by pro-government demonstrators with gasoline bombs.

“I took unpaid leave,” from a construction company, he said.

“I did not tell anyone where I was going. Not even my mother.”

Mr. Khodakovsky declined to provide more information about the militia’s financing or the sources of its weapons.

He denied rumors that he was being backed financially by Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk-based oligarch who is arguably the region’s most powerful man, but who has recently taken a strong stance against the separatists.

He did say that he had told Mr. Akhmetov once that they have “similar interests” in preserving order.

“We are not holding a socialist revolution here,” he said.

“We are just trying to solve a problem.”

He also cast himself as a supporter of Alexander Borodai, the political consultant from Moscow who declared himself the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic last month.

But Mr. Khodakovsky laughed off questions about whether that would bring closer ties between Russia and the separatists.

“Everyone has relations with Moscow these days,” he said.

“It’s just the logic of politics right now. It’s impossible not to have relations with Moscow.”

Source: The New York Times

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