The Interior Ministry announced that four volunteer battalions along with the regular army were clearing Ilovaisk, a city of 17,000 residents southeast of  Donetsk, of Russian-backed forces, and promised that more back-up from the National Guard was on its way.

That
version has turned out to be mostly spin that is likely to rebound on its state
and media creators.

A week later, 10 men from the Donbas Battalion have been lost
and more than 20 injured through what could be incompetence of the army command or even deliberate abandonment. Stranded as they
struggle to keep control of city, the Donbas volunteers are reinforced by
just one company from the army’s 93rd brigade and some fighters from the
volunteer Dnipro Battalion. 

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Both Donbas
fighters and three Ukrainian photographers embedded with them are enraged with
what they call the lies and prevarications of both government and Ukrainian
media, and want to put across their side of the story. 

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“It’s an
absolutely shameful situation,” said Alexander Glyadelov, who was evacuated
from Ilovaisk on Aug. 21 with a shrapnel injury.

An experienced and
respected photographer, Glyadelov has covered many wars, including the Moldovan Transdnistria and Russian Chechen conflicts. Exasperated with the heavily restricted
access to the front granted by the Ukrainian government’s press service, he joined the Donbas Battalion to see what was really going on. 

He found
that while volunteers motivated by principle and with a high fighting spirit
are stranded in desperate circumstances, government and media claim the
situation is under control and reinforcements are on their way. “They are
frightened of the truth,” he said. “First, they need to actually provide the
help they keep promising. And second, they need to stop lying.” 

With the
regular army in a disastrously impoverished state, Ukraine is reliant on the
goodwill of volunteers to win its war with the Russian-backed ‘people’s
republics’ in the east, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

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Volunteers are providing the army with
everything from food to body armour to medical kits. And volunteers are
increasingly doing the actual fighting. Volunteer battalions have been in
combat alongside regular troops since May. 

These
volunteer warriors come from all over Ukraine, and from a few other countries
too. They are driven by a variety of motives, and funded from unclear sources.
Donbas was one of the first battalions to make itself public, and its commander
Semyon Semenchenko has become something of a national hero, appearing on TV
wearing his trademark balaclava. Donbas also included the only known American
to be fighting on the Ukrainian side: Mark Paslawsky, who took Ukrainian
citizenship in order to enlist. 

Altogether,
four volunteer battalions are officially taking part in the Ilovaisk operation
which was planned to reinforce the 93rd mechanised brigade. But
Semenchenko says  other than a detachment
from the Dniepr battalion, the others have retreated and now refuse to come to
their aid.  

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“I don’t
think there is any other army in the world where they would do that,” he said.
“It’s a violation of all army codes, statutes and traditions.” 

In
principle, the volunteer battalions are subordinate to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, while the regular army is under the Defense Ministry.

But one problem
with the volunteer nature of the battalions is that it is not clear whether
people who signed up for a variety of ideals will obey orders if they consider
them counter to those ideals. 

Semenchenko, speaking from a hospital where he is
recovering from serious injuries sustained on Aug. 19 in Ilovaisk, said
commanders are reluctant to force battalions to obey orders for that reason.

“I
don’t want to criticize the other battalions,” he said. “I just want my guys to
stop dying because somewhere there is a detachment that could come and overcome
the situation, but for some reason does not come.” 

Not just
volunteer battalions, but also troops under the command of the Defense Ministry
are in the area and could come to relieve the Donbas fighters. But Semenchenko
believes the Defense Ministry is deliberately ignoring the situation. “I think
it is profitable for the defence ministry not to send help, but to achieve a
situation where volunteer battalions start blaming each other about who helped
who,” he said. 

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Semenchenko
and Glyadelov are not the only ones accusing the army leadership and government
of incompetence or worse. Mark Paslawsky, who had enrolled as an infantryman in
the Donbas, consistently criticised the way the anti-terrorist operation was run in a Twitter
account under the pseudonym Bruce Springnote. He called senior leaders “fat and
worthless,” and described the Interior Ministry as “ruled by terror” and
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov as a “pathological liar.” 

Paslawsky
was killed on Aug. 19 in Ilovaisk. 

On Aug. 21, the Interior Ministry reported
that 25 percent of all those from special battalions killed since the anti-terrorist operation began
had been killed in Ilovaisk. The same day the national guard press office again
announced the arrival of reinforcements which in fact did not arrive. There are
no recent figures for how many regular army servicemen have died in Ilovaisk. 

Some of the
Donbas men died when pro-Russian and Russian forces flying a Ukrainian flag
deliberately fired on a vehicle carrying wounded, says Semenchenko. “This is medieval savagery, it bears no
relation to honour whatsoever,” he said. “I can’t stand fighting against these
people. But I have to, because I have to protect my country.” 

With
disillusionment and anger at the Ukrainian government and army leadership rising,
it is a question how long volunteers like Semenchenko and his men will continue
fighting – or rather, just where they think that fight should be taking place. 

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Glyadelov
and his fellow photographers decided to disregard principles of wartime secrets
or keeping up national morale in order to speak out about what they are
witnessing: that more and more volunteer soldiers, tired of the government’s
inability to support them, are talking about finishing the war in the east and
then turning their guns on Kyiv. 

“This is a
people’s war,” said Glyadelov. “People are fighting, people are equipping those
fighters with everything out of their own pockets. The government is only
providing weapons and even those not to everyone, and not of the best quality.
So when some bosses say you can know this but not that, you can’t tell this to
anyone… Go to hell, unless you can do something differently so that [this war] depended on you and not on us.” 

The many wounded
fighters in hospital in Dnipropetrovsk are particularly incensed at Kyiv’s
decision to hold a Soviet-style military parade on Aug. 24 to celebrate
Ukrainian Independence Day. Though President Petro Poroshenko said in his
parade speech that the military vehicles and armaments on display would be sent
straight to the anti-terrorist operation, that may be too late to win back the hearts of those who
have lost comrades as they still wait for promised tanks. 

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“It’s
military games, when there is a real war going on,” said one volunteer injured
in Ilovaisk before his battalion, the Azov, withdrew. “We still have the same
generals and the same secret service, nothing has changed. Yes, there are those
who are real patriots and support Ukraine, but there are many more who are
corrupt and would sell anything to anyone.”  

Some of
these volunteer soldiers believe their battalions are deliberately being sent
without backup to hotspots like Ilovaisk in order to remove a potential threat
to the authorities. Semenchenko describes his men, now armed and seasoned
fighters though many had never picked up a gun until a few months ago, as “a
restraining factor” on a government many perceive to be betraying the ideals of
EuroMaidan. He suggested that after the separatists are defeated, it may be
time to take the battle from the fields and towns of east Ukraine to Kyiv’s
government buildings.      

“If
volunteers can manage equipping the army better than the army bosses, that
means volunteers can run the country,” he said. 
But he added, “I’m not ready to burn my house down just yet. We have to
be responsible about these things.”   

Lily Hyde is an author and former Kyiv Post staff writer. 

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.

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