Foreign fighters who battle against Russia-separatist forces in Donbas still have problems legalizing their presence in Ukraine. For many of them, it’s a “question of life or death,” they say.
See the photo gallery from the Oct. 17 rally of the foreign fighters
Ukrainian military reported that the number of foreigners fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas is around 1,000. Until very recently, they were not even allowed to serve in the nation’s military, so they have been fighting in the volunteer battalions. On Oct. 6 Ukrainian parliament voted to allow foreigners to be contract soldiers in the military.
But that doesn’t satisfy the foreign volunteer fighters. They want citizenship.
In December 2014, President Poroshenko said that the foreigners fighting along with the Ukrainian soldiers will get Ukrainian passports. But 10 months later, only one fighter succeeded to become a Ukrainian. Ilya Bogdanov, a Russian-born member of the Right Sector nationalist organization, got Ukrainian citizenship earlier this year. His fellow Russians have received neither citizenship nor refugee status.
They face deportation any day.
Back at home, many of them will be met with ostracism and some may face prison terms.
Most of the foreign fighters come from Belarus, Georgia and Russia. Each one has his own story, but many of them say they were motivated by the hatred for what they see as “imperialistic Russia and fascist regime of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin” that threaten the independence of their countries.
For Belarus native Ilya, who doesn’t provide his last name for safety reasons as he’s still fighting in eastern Ukraine, going back home is not an option.
“In Belarus, I’m a mercenary, a killer,” says Ilya, a member of Azov Regiment.
Illya came to fight for Ukraine in 2014. He’s been with Ukraine’s military through some of the most devastating moments of the war, including the battles in Shyrokyne and Illovaisk in August 2014.
“I may end up in prison if I come back to Belarus. You know how it happens there. My future is in Ukraine,” he says.
He wants to settle in Ukraine but he has only a residence permit which is not enough to work and keep fighting, he says.
Another foreign volunteer Artem Ustinov recalls that when war in Ukraine had started after the annexation of Crimea it was impossible for him to stay in Russia.
“I’m a Russian native by passport, but I truly feel Ukrainian. Besides, I have Ukrainian roots,” says Ustinov, 25-year-old soldier of the 4th squadron of the Right Sector Battalion.
He recalls that he was questioned by the Federal Security Service of Russia when EuroMaidan Revolution that overthrown then-president Viktor Yanukovych started in Ukraine.
“I had never been to Ukraine by that time,” Ustinov says. “But they suspected something.”
In summer 2014 Ustinov arrived to Ukraine and decided to join the Right Sector Battalion. He was one of the defenders of Donetsk Airport that was devastated by the fierce fighting.
Ustinov says he tries to settle down in Ukraine now, but it’s not easy. Now he stays in the country illegally.
“I have Ukrainian wife, but we can’t get married officially. Neither can I earn any money,” he says.
Ustinov believes that Ukraine’s authorities could be “afraid of spies” and not granting foreign volunteers citizenship for that reason.
He still hopes to get a Ukrainian passport and says he’s ready to provide any documents for the background check.
“I’d be happy to serve in Ukrainian army after. My life’s here,” Ustinov adds.
Artem Skoropadsky, Right Sector spokesman, said that the Right Sector party has applied to the Presidential Administration to get Ukrainian citizenship for the Russian natives fighting in the battalion’s lines. They had no answer so far.
“Poroshenko promised to give Ukrainian passports to those foreign citizens who fight for Ukraine’s independence,” Skoropadsky says. “He called them ‘brothers,’ and I hope he sticks to his promises because most of those people can’t come back home where they would face criminal charges.”
Volunteer Artyom Koroliov, 26, is a native of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk– a city in the far-eastern part of Russia. He says that he’s the only one among the volunteers who traveled such a long way – 7,000 kilometers – to get to Ukraine. Now all he needs to keep fighting is a Ukrainian passport.
Koroliov believes that Poroshenko doesn’t fulfill his promise of citizenship for the fighters because he doesn’t want to have “a thousand more critics.”
“But that’s not our goal (to criticize),” Koroliov says with a smile. “We came here to defend this land, not to ruin everything. I know what it means to live in Russia. I don’t want the same life for Ukraine.”
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