The pudgy young men jogging across a rain-sodden field are slated within three weeks to stand in armed combat alongside the black-uniformed, balaclava-clad soldiers that mutely observe them from its perimeter.
That is the length of the physical and psychological training to which new recruits are subjected at the 13-hectare National Guard training center near the village of Novi Petrivtsi, some 10 kilometers north of Kyiv.
But these men are not ordinary members of the Interior Ministry force reconstituted in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They are part of the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer militia group formed to fight Kremlin-backed separatists in the country’s east. An agreement reached with the ministry on May 29 has cleared the way for the unit’s incorporation into the National Guard, and the training center was made available to prepare its cadets for assignments in Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the entrance to the compound stands a billboard emblazoned with the words “Courage, Honour, Law,” lending the place a sense of spirituality that Alexander Verba, an Orthodox Christian priest of the Kyiv Patriarchate, considers crucial to the success of their campaign to ensure a united Ukraine. He went to bring a new batch of helmets to the battalion.
“This is a basic element of protecting a life. If you pray for a person, if he has spiritual protection, the likelihood that he will stay alive increases substantially. The men who will wear these helmets will be protected through the force of our prayers,” he says.
The official training represents a significant step up in professionalism from the makeshift summer camp outside Dnipropetrovsk that previously served as the battalion’s primary base. Here no secrecy is required: vast billboards advertising the National Guard line the asphalt road leading to the compound, similar to those springing up across the capital as the unit intensifies its recruitment campaign in the wake of an escalation in violence across eastern Ukraine that has claimed hundreds of lives, including those of at least 64 Ukrainian servicemen.
Semyon Semenchenko, the unit’s 38-year-old commander, has been present on Kyiv’s Independence Square in recent weeks enlisting fresh volunteers for the unit, a campaign which he supplements with an active social media presence.
“Today until 4pm the Donbas Battalion will be carrying out its final draft on Maidan,” he wrote in a Facebook post on June 8. “All those not willing to go to the front – protect your health. Vodka cuts down patriots far more suddenly than any bullet, especially in such heat.”
The Donbas Battalion, which is financed through private donations, comprises around 800 men in total. Around three quarters of them are natives of the Donetsk region which gives the squadron its name. A further 150 are on a waiting list, and new recruits arrive at the training facility each day.
According to Semenchenko, half of the men at Novi Petrivtsi have prior military experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones. “The aim is to revive their skills and make them instructors, so they can bring the others up to the same standard,” he says.
Reinforcements are much needed. The battalion has suffered a number of casualties since fighting began in the east: on May 22 five of its men were killed and six wounded after the unit was ambushed by pro-Russian forces near the village of Karlivka some 35 kilomters north of Donetsk. And moves to strengthen the force have not been confined to Ukraine.
Many volunteers come from Belarus, Georgia, Russia and even Spain. The National Guard merger has led to stricter imposition of citizenship requirements, and soldiers wishing to join the force from abroad must be granted residency in Ukraine before taking part in military operations. The process is fast-tracked in line with the urgent need for new recruits.
“This is where the russkiy mir [Russian world] is gathering. Not the one which Putin is propagandizing but the real one, the one now coming together in support of Ukraine,” says Semenchenko, himself Russian by nationality, referring to cultural ties between Russian speakers.
A recent arrival from southern Europe in his early 30s, whom one Ukrainian soldier described as “our local celebrity,” cited strong personal reasons for joining the Donbas Battalion. “I believe this is Ukraine’s one chance to break through as a nation. It’s a cause I felt compelled to support,” he said, declining to give his name for safety reasons.
Notwithstanding the more stringent administrative policy governing admission to the reconstituted battalion, the physical requirements remain minimal - and many of those present at the training ground appear unprepared for the situation they are likely set to face.
Sitting alone in one of the thirty or so large tents that comprise the battalion’s sleeping quarters is Ilya, a chubby, bespectacled 23-year-old from Cherkasy who had arrived the day before. He looks nervous as he prepares to face the komissiya - a series of visual, hearing and mental health checks all cadets must pass before they embark on the three-week physical preparation programme.
At the shooting range across from the camp, recruits at the other end of the training cycle simulate combat engagements under supervision from a senior commander. Some of the men struggle to run under the weight of the heavy weapons.
During a break in training, I ask one if he is afraid of heading east. “When the call-up comes there is no fear,” he responds. “There remains only the thought of defending our families and our country. Fear plays no part.”
Semenchenko expects the military stand-off between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces to continue for some time.
“In the best case scenario the active phase of the conflict will end within seven months. But what you have to understand is those guys [the pro-Russian insurgents] are professional mercenaries. They make $50 a day. Until they decide that the risks outweigh the pay, they’ll keep fighting,” he says.
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, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.