A shot away:

Who is fight­ing against Ukrainian mil­i­tary in Don­bas

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Yuriy La­payev

Who is fight­ing against Ukrainian mil­i­tary in Don­bas

The self-pro­claimed “re­publics” in Eastern Ukraine im­i­tate state­hood in var­i­ous ways. They set up “min­istries” and de­clare the open­ing of em­bassies abroad. The army is an­other in­sti­tu­tion the “Donetsk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” and “Luhansk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” mimic. Over the four years of war, Ukraine has had plenty of tragic en­coun­ters with it. Far from be­ing the ac­com­plish­ments of “trac­tor driv­ers and min­ers”, vir­tu­ally all of them in­volved reg­u­lar Rus­sian mil­i­tary. Who is on the other side of the ri­fle scopes of Ukrainian mil­i­tary to­day?


The “DPR/LPR” ar­mies are in per­ma­nent prepa­ra­tion mode for an at­tack by the Ukrainian forces. Ed­uard Ba­surin who claims to be “DPR deputy chief of com­bat­ant com­mand” talks about Kyiv’s in­tents to go on a cun­ning of­fen­sive on a monthly ba­sis. He sup­ports his claims with Xeroxed pa­pers marked as “A File From the Ukrainian Armed Forces Head­quar­ters” with a Sharpie. In or­der to pre­pare for the of­fen­sive better, the “re­publics” an­nounce mo­bi­liza­tion on the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory ev­ery year.

A re­cent or­der No11 from the “head of the Donetsk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” is­sued in 2018 has sched­uled a boot camp for the “DPR” re­servists. In this way, the cit­i­zens of the “state liv­ing un­der a per­ma­nent threat from the ag­gres­sive junta” get to prac­tice their ba­sic mil­i­tary skills. Rus­sian TV chan­nels, in­clud­ing Ros­siya 24, spend three min­utes a news pro­gram show­ing how ef­fec­tively “DPR” cit­i­zens train at tank drills. As the ve­hi­cles hit the tar­gets, the back­ground is full of talk about pa­tri­o­tism and the treach­er­ous Kyiv. The show host refers to the drill par­tic­i­pants as “vol­un­teers” and says that some of them have served in the “mili­tias” and fought against Ukraine. In fact, these peo­ple are not ex­actly vol­un­teers.

The or­der from “DPR” leader Olek­sandr Zakharchenko men­tioned above in­structs the “in­te­rior min­istry” to as­sist mil­i­tary com­mis­sari­ats in “search­ing, mo­bi­liz­ing and de­liv­er­ing cit­i­zens to the lo­ca­tion of the drills in case they do not ar­rive on their own”. This means that the “vol­un­teers” will be de­liv­ered to the drills force­fully if they refuse to ar­rive on their own. The of­fi­cial rea­son for the drills is “to com­pen­sate for the losses in the squads or mil­i­tary units, and in the con­di­tions of in­ten­si­fy­ing mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion.” The up­grade of skills thus turns into a prospect of end­ing up in the front­line. This news trig­gered an in­tense re­ac­tion from the res­i­dents of Donetsk

Oblast, as much as it is pos­si­ble un­der oc­cu­pa­tion. The lo­cals dis­cuss the near­ing of the drills on so­cial me­dia and fear for their rel­a­tives.

In an effort to ease so­cial ten­sions, the “DPR au­thor­i­ties” have is­sued a se­ries of ex­pla­na­tions, say­ing that this is a mere checkup of the no­ti­fi­ca­tions sys­tem and an over­view of re­servists. These state­ments seem to calm few down. The only pos­i­tive as­pect peo­ple see in the drills is an op­por­tu­nity to earn some ex­tra money: ad­di­tional wages are promised for the time served in the mil­i­tary. Money is the only real mo­ti­va­tion for the lo­cals in their un­sta­ble econ­omy. This is the main rea­son why reg­u­lar Rus­sian mil­i­tary and mil­i­tants have been re­placed mostly by the res­i­dents of the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory. Con­tract ser­vice in the “repub­lic’s army” has be­come vir­tu­ally the only way to earn a sta­ble in­come, even if risky.

Mem­bers of the Joint Op­er­a­tions Head­quar­ters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine con­firm this as­sump­tion. In a com­men­tary for The Ukrainian Week, the Ukrainian mil­i­tary note that the Rus­sian com­mand is grad­u­ally fill­ing up the mil­i­tary of the “re­publics” with the lo­cals. Ac­cord­ing to the AFU JOH, the Don­bas res­i­dents now make up to 80% (up to 25,000 peo­ple) of the 1st and 2nd army corps. For­eign fight­ers from Rus­sia and other coun­tries ac­count for up to 15%, while reg­u­lar Rus­sian mil­i­tary are at 3% (900-1,000 peo­ple). In­for­mNa­palm, a com­mu­nity of vol­un­teer re­con­nais­sance ac­tivists, gives some­what dif­fer­ent es­ti­mates. They claim that the two army corps of nearly 30,000 peo­ple have 10% of reg­u­lar Rus­sian mil­i­tary staff, while for­eign fight­ers make nearly one third of the force.

Ac­cord­ing to the AFU JOH, the staff of some il­le­gal armed units in­creased in 2017 while hu­man losses and short­ages were filled on a rel­a­tively timely ba­sis. Ac­cord­ing to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, this was a re­sult of a num­ber of fac­tors.

One was re­form of the units that en­abled their op­ti­miza­tion. An­other was the low­er­ing in­ten­sity of hos­til­i­ties. This en­cour­aged for­eign fight­ers to ex­tend their ser­vice con­tracts. The third fac­tor is ef­fec­tive ef­forts by the mil­i­tary com­mis­sari­ats. This is linked to the fact that the top po­si­tions there are taken by the of­fi­cers of Rus­sia’s Armed Forces. While un­em­ploy­ment in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory drives up the num­bers of those will­ing to serve.


At the same time, the AFU JOH notes that the in­flow of for­eign fight­ers from Rus­sia has weak­ened some­what lately. The num­bers of those will­ing to risk their lives for “Novorossiya” shrink be­cause peo­ple are un­happy with the con­di­tions of the mil­i­tary ser­vice, strong psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure and salary de­lays. While the salaries are fairly good for the lo­cals in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory, Rus­sian cit­i­zens don’t feel as at­tracted to the pay rates. A rank and file sol­dier is of­fered any­where from 15,000 rou­bles or around US $250, and part of this salary con­sis­tently goes to the com­man­ders. Of­fi­cers get any­where from 25,000 rou­bles. The pay rate for those serv­ing in the Rus­sian army ranges from 20,000 rou­bles or US $340 for a rank and file sol­dier with min­i­mum skills or record to 68,000 rou­bles or US $1,160 for a qual­i­fied se­nior. As a re­sult, Rus­sian cit­i­zens are not mo­ti­vated to serve in the self-pro­claimed “re­publics”.

Apart from the fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive, they also lack the moral one. The “anti-fas­cist” out­rage that peaked in 2014 is slowly fad­ing de­spite the con­stant pro­pa­ganda on TV. Sev­eral fac­tors con­trib­ute to this.

First, news from Ukraine is not that im­pres­sive any­more. Other is­sues are on the scene, in­clud­ing Syria, Don­ald Trump as friend or foe, and the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion as the main en­ter­tain­ment of the sea­son.

Sec­ond, the mil­i­tants are re­turn­ing to Rus­sia and shar­ing the ugly truth about the “repub­li­can” army and life in gen­eral. Such con­fes­sions are plenty on the Rus­sian in­ter­net. The most em­bit­tered are ide­al­is­tic mil­i­tants who did be­lieve that they would de­feat “fas­cists”.

News of ar­rests of those in­volved in the Don­bas il­le­gal armed units on the ter­ri­tory of Rus­sia and their ex­tra­di­tion to Ukraine hardly add any op­ti­mism. The lat­est cases in­clude de­ten­tions of two for­mer mil­i­tants, both cit­i­zens of Ukraine de jure, in Adler, a dis­trict in Sochi, on Jan­uary 14, 2018. The Russians are pre­par­ing to hand them over to the Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties.

The best case against the “young re­publics” comes from the news of the crimes com­mit­ted by the one-time fight­ers for the bright future of the Don­bas. A surge in crime rates has been no­ticed across Rus­sia, but it’s most vis­i­ble in the re­gions ad­ja­cent to Ukraine. Ros­tov Oblast is among the lead­ers. Il­le­gal trade in arms and am­mu­ni­tion, ban­ditry, armed at­tacks — against law en­forcers among others — and mur­ders make part of the list. In­ter­est­ingly, some of the mil­i­tants ar­rested for such crimes present their en­gage­ment in il­le­gal armed units in Eastern Ukraine as a pos­i­tive ac­com­plish­ment in tri­als, seek­ing a softer ver­dict. The prob­lem has grown to a scale that makes even Rus­sian me­dia talk about it.


A key prob­lem faced by the oc­cu­pa­tion forces in Don­bas is the deficit of qual­i­fied mil­i­tary staff. Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts used to have the most mines and in­dus­trial en­ter­prises in Ukraine. How­ever, they never had a strong mil­i­tary pres­ence. Rus­sia was not qual­i­fied as a threat in any of Ukraine’s past mil­i­tary doc­trines. There­fore, there were few mil­i­tary units in the re­gion. As a re­sult, Rus­sian cu­ra­tors have been ap­pointed to all top and spe­cial­ized po­si­tions. The Russians also act as in­struc­tors and ad­vi­sors. Givi and Mo­torola, the in­fa­mous field com­man­ders mur­dered in the past years, were mostly play­ing a me­dia role, and not ac­tu­ally com­mand­ing the units. This was of­ten some­thing their unit mem­bers com­plained about, es­pe­cially after dif­fi­cult op­er­a­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to the AFU JOH com­men­ta­tors, Rus­sian of­fi­cers are sent to the “DPR” and “LPR” for short terms — from nine to twelve months. They mostly come from Rus­sia’s South­ern Mil­i­tary Dis­trict and serve at the “de­fense min­istry”, com­mand of army corpses and at the tac­ti­cal level in the “re­publics”. The Russians serve at the elec­tronic war­fare and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tions as well. This helps the Krem­lin solve a num­ber of im­por­tant is­sues.

It main­tains per­ma­nent con­trol and qual­ity man­age­ment of the mil­i­tary; the units are kept bat­tle ready in the “re­publics”. This helps con­trol the use of fuel and am­muni-


tion, and keep track of weapons and mil­i­tary equip­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the Ukrainian mil­i­tary, the Rus­sian cu­ra­tors do not trust the lo­cals. The mil­i­tants have claimed this many times on so­cial me­dia and in their video clips. The uni­fi­ca­tion of “DPR/LPR” units with Rus­sia’s reg­u­lar army plays an im­por­tant role too. Videos from the drills of the “repub­lic” units show that the sol­diers wear uni­forms pro­duced in Rus­sia. The mo­bi­lized rank and file ser­vice­men wear old flora uni­forms while the com­man­ders and in­struc­tors wear new Rat­nik fa­tigues. The or­ga­ni­za­tional and staff struc­ture is be­ing uni­fied; so are the pro­ce­dures for the use of equip­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems. All this is done so that Rus­sian and ter­ror­ist forces could in­ter­act ef­fec­tively in a bat­tle.

Open-source in­tel­li­gence shows that trips to the Don­bas are a sort of a con­di­tion for the Rus­sian of­fi­cers to get pro­mo­tion; they thus have a better chance of be­ing ap­pointed to higher po­si­tions or en­ter­ing a mil­i­tary academy. Those who have fought in Ukraine are ap­pointed com­man­ders of newly-es­tab­lished mil­i­tary unites lo­cated along the Rus­sia-Ukraine bor­der. The Don­bas has turned into a train­ing field to im­prove the skills of Rus­sian mil­i­tary stu­dents. New equip­ment of the Rus­sian mil­i­tary com­plex — pri­mar­ily elec­tronic war­fare tools — is tested in bat­tle. Syria can be the next step in the ca­reer after Don­bas. One ex­am­ple is Va­leriy As­apov, a com­man­der of the “DPR/LPR” army corps since the fall of 2015 known un­der the nom de guerre Tu­man (Fog). His in­volve­ment in il­le­gal armed units was con­firmed by var­i­ous sources, in­clud­ing his brother in an interview for Reuters. After Don­bas, he went to Syria where he was killed, like a dozen other Rus­sian of­fi­cers and gen­er­als. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial state­ments, he died in a mor­tar shelling near Deir ez-Zor



in Septem­ber 2017. His route was a fairly stan­dard one, from Ros­tov through Don­bas to Syria and death, faced by the Rus­sian mil­i­tants and those who join pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies.


Apart from the lo­cals and the Russians, the “ar­mies” of the self-pro­claimed “re­publics” host for­eign­ers. Don­bas is a mag­net for var­i­ous free­dom fight­ers, the sup­port­ers of the “Rus­sian world”, monar­chists and crim­i­nals. While Ba­surin is look­ing for NATO squads or Black­Wa­ter mil­i­tants in the Don­bas steppes, and sep­a­ratists dis­cuss scary sto­ries about “fe­male snipers from the Baltic States” (the lat­ter con­spir­acy the­ory has been around since the first Chechen War), for­eign mil­i­tants are fight­ing openly against Ukrainian forces. It is hard to say what all of them do in Don­bas.

Some see it as an ex­otic sa­fari. Some choose this as a way to fight against global cap­i­tal­ism or for the ideals of the Slavs. Some, such as the in­fa­mous St. Peters­burg­based Nazi fan and sadist Alek­sei Milchakov use the im­punity for loot­ing and violence. Some, like Brazil­ian Rafael Mar­ques Lus­varghi, have watched too much TV and ar­rived to pro­tect the “suf­fer­ing Rus­sian-speak­ers”. Lus­varghi ended up be­ing ar­rested by the SBU and get­ting 13 years in jail in the early 2017, although his case was sent for a sec­ond read­ing later.

Thanks to their long-stand­ing sym­pa­thy for Rus­sia, Serbs make an­other cat­e­gory. They fought on the side of the ter­ror­ists in a unit called Slavic Chet­nik Squad un­der the com­mand of Bratislav Živković. This unit had been no­ticed­dur­ing the takeover of Crimea: the Serbs were help­ing the Rus­sian oc­cu­piers block Ukrainian mil­i­tary units, act­ing as lo­cal mil­i­tants or Rus­sian kazaks.

The fight­ers got into Ukraine through the ter­ri­tory of Rus­sia and with the help of Rus­sian funds, such as the Kosovo Front. Ac­cord­ing to the SBU, the lists of for­eign ter­ror­ists have been trans­ferred to the of­fi­cial Ser­bian au­thor­i­ties mul­ti­ple times. Pres­i­dent Poroshenko asked Ser­bia’s PM Alek­san­dar Vučić to take more ac­tion to stop the mil­i­tants back in 2015. Of­fi­cially, the unit stopped fight­ing in Ukraine in the late 2014. How­ever, not all of its mem­bers have left Don­bas. One is De­jan Berić, a Ser­bian sniper and a well-known fig­ure in the me­dia. Ser­bian Hus­sars, an­other small but well-known unit, is still ac­tive in Don­bas. Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, only one cit­i­zen of Ser­bia got a sus­pended sen­tence for par­tic­i­pa­tion in an il­le­gal armed unit since the con­flict in Eastern Ukraine be­gan.

Few peo­ple have been sen­tenced in other coun­tries. Ac­cord­ing to In­for­mNa­palm, “DPR” mil­i­tant Alek­sei Yer­shov was sen­tenced to two years for fight­ing in Ukraine. But he fled through Rus­sia and re­joined the ranks of ter­ror­ists. Eight ter­ror­ists were ar­rested and sen­tenced in Spain in 2015. Radu Kir­ilov, a cit­i­zen of Moldova, was sen­tenced to three years in jail for fight­ing in the Sparta il­le­gal armed group. An­other Moldovan who fought in the no­to­ri­ous So­mali bat­tal­ion in 2015 was jailed for 12 years. A mil­i­tant from Kaza­khstan was jailed as well.

Once the war is over, Ukraine will have to spend a long time look­ing for all those guilty of com­mit­ting crimes dur­ing the hos­til­i­ties. Vol­un­teer mil­i­tants, reg­u­lar mil­i­tary staff or fight­ers driven by ide­ol­ogy – all of them will have to end up in a process sim­i­lar to the Nuremberg tri­als re­gard­less of their of­fi­cial sta­tus.

Money, ideals or lack of other op­tions. Driven ini­tially by dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions to join the "ar­mies of the re­publics", now the mil­i­tants mostly do so for fi­nan­cial rea­sons

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