Kremlin-backed soldiers take position on the roof of the international airport in Donetsk on May 26. Ukrainian armed forces fought back, killing as many as 50 insurgents, including 33 whose bodies are being repatriated to Russia.
DONETSK, Ukraine – It’s no longer about amateurs. There is a full-scale war going on, and it’s fought by professionals. The Russians are here – and they’re making a grab for power in eastern Ukraine.
If there was ever any doubt, it was quashed this week when separatist leaders and fighters here opened up to journalists about their Russian roots. In interviews with the Kyiv Post, Vice News, and the Financial Times, fighters in the so-called Vostok Battalion identified themselves as Russian citizens, with several saying they were from the Autonomous Republic of Chechnya.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, top Russian officials have repeatedly denied the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Most recently, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic denied claims in a post on his Instagram account that he was responsible for sending Chechen mercenaries to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying that such accusations were wholly “untrue.”
Still, Kadyrov did not deny that Chechens are fighting in Ukraine, adding, “If somewhere in the conflict zone somebody saw a Chechen, that’s their personal business.”
It seems improbable, however, that Chechens are fighting in eastern Ukraine without Kadyrov’s consent or knowledge. The Financial Times reported that one Chechen fighter told them “our President [Kadyrov] gave the order. They called us and we came.”
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia security services and a New York University global-affairs professor, posited in a recent essay that the presence of the Vostok Battalion is “something that could not have happened without Russian acquiescence – and which probably was arranged by them.”
Mercenaries from the north Caucuses were only spotted this week, with reports that coincided with numerous illegal border crossings from the Russian side, according to Ukraine’s Border Guard Service.
The porous Russia-Ukraine border means that stopping the stream of Russian militants to Ukraine will be difficult. On May 27, the Ukrainian state border service clashed with Russian militants attempting to cross the border into Luhansk. It reported that both sides suffered casualties, and one Russia gunman was killed and another severely wounded. The service seized three vehicles and various armaments, including Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Despite the guards’ seizure, some vehicles were able to enter Ukrainian territory. The border guard service believes that they are part of a larger group of mercenaries sent to fight the Ukrainian army in Luhansk and Donetsk.
The battalion’s seizure of the Donetsk regional administration building on May 29, which had previously been controlled by local separatists swearing allegiance to the self-proclaimed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, underscores the growing control of Russian militants in Ukraine’s east.
The battalion, a well-organized unit of mercenaries comprised mostly of Russian citizens, according to "Varan," meaning "monitor lizard," one of the unit’s commanders who declined to give his real name, stormed the building and forced the separatists of the DPR out onto the streets.
As a front loader razed barricades of tires and barbed wire that surrounded the building’s perimeter for weeks and dump trucks drove the debris away, it was clear that amateur hour was over.
A Vostok militiaman who goes by the nickname Tikhii told the Kyiv Post that the reason for the takeover was “marauding” near the airport by some members of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Overnight on May 29, a Metro hypermarket whose parent company is based in Germany was looted by alleged DNR members.
Others voiced similar concerns about the lawlessness that had washed over the city in recent weeks.
Tikhii emphasized that the Vostok Battalion has a greater claim to power because of its military service to the fledgling republic. The purged separatists “haven’t been anywhere, not in (the village of) Karlivka [which saw heavy fighting on May 23], not at the airport.”
By mid-afternoon, Vostok had purged the entire building of its occupants, saying that it would thereafter be a “people’s building.” In some ways, the takeover resembled a coup, though Vostok soldiers didn’t say whether it would entail a change of leadership.
When asked whether Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and Pavel Gubarev, who calls himself People’s Governor, as well as other separatist leaders would remain in power, Tikhii responded cryptically.
“They will, for now. Probably,” he said.
The Vostok Battalion, a Kremlin-backed faction in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, has ousted local Ukrainian separatists from the regional administration building that had become the symbol of the uprising against Kyiv in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian media say the battalion is part of a larger group of Russia-based mercenaries, which includes Chechens and Don Cossacks, who have been trained, equipped and dispatched via Rostov to fight the Ukrainian army in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. The Vostok Battalion was reportedly involved in the invasion and subsequent of annexation of Crimea in March and in deadly clashes in Donetsk province's second largest city, Mariupol, in early May.
Whatever the case, it was clear by nightfall on May 29 that the Russians – led by Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian citizen from Moscow – were in charge.
As if further evidence of Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine was needed, on May 29, the bodies of 33 rebels killed during the fierce gun battle with Ukrainian forces at Donetsk airport that left as many as 50 dead on May 26 were set to be transported from an ice cream factory in Donetsk and repatriated to their motherland.
“We are taking them home to Russia,” Borodai of Moscow told the Kyiv Post outside the Kalinina hospital morgue on May 29. In past days, he has traveled throughout the city using members of the Vostok Battalion as his personal bodyguards.
Flanked by them on May 28, during an impromptu press conference inside Donetsk’s Ramada hotel, he justified the Russian fighters’ presence in the east by saying that “the Donbas,” as the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are collectively known, “is Russian land.”
“This is Novorossiya,” he said, echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s czarist-era description of the region.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM. Kyiv Post staff writer Isaac Webb can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @IsaacDWebb.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post