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The masked men of Ukraine

They fight the Ukrainian troops, but claim no allegiance to Russia. Whose side are the armed insurgents of Slovyansk on?

By: New York Times | Slovyansk (ukraine) |
May 6, 2014 1:47:26 am


The rebel leader spread a topographic map in front of a grocery store as a Ukrainian military helicopter flew past a nearby hill. Ukrainian troops had just seized positions along a river, about a mile and a half away. The commander thought they might advance. He issued orders with the authority of a man who had seen many battles. “Go down to the bridge and set up the snipers,” the leader, who gave only a first name, Yuri, said to a former Ukrainian paratrooper, who jogged away.

Yuri commands the 12th Company, part of the self-proclaimed People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a previously unknown and often masked rebel force that since early April has seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and, until Saturday, held prisoner a team of European military observers. His is one of the faces behind the shadowy paramilitary takeover. But even with his mask off, much about him remains murky.

Yuri, who appears to be in his mid-50s, is in many ways an ordinary eastern Ukrainian of his generation. A military veteran, he survived the Soviet collapse to own a small construction business. But his rebel stature has a particular root: He is also a former Soviet special forces commander who served in Afghanistan, a background that could make him both authentically local and a capable Kremlin proxy.

In this war, clouded by competing claims on both sides, one persistent mystery has been the identity and affiliations of the militiamen, who have pressed the confrontation between Russia and the West into its latest bitter phase. Moscow says they are Ukrainians and not part of the Russian armed forces. Western officials and the Ukrainian government insist that Russians have led, organised and equipped the fighters.

The rebels of the 12th Company appear to be Ukrainians, but like many in the region, they have deep ties to and affinity for Russia. They are veterans of the Soviet, Ukrainian or Russian armies, and some have families on the other side of the border. Theirs is a tangled mix of identities and loyalties.

While the fighters share a passionate distrust of Ukraine’s government, they disagree among themselves about their ultimate goals. They argue about whether Ukraine should redistribute power via greater federalisation or whether the region should be annexed by Russia, and they harbour different views about which side might claim Kiev, and even about where the border of a divided Ukraine might lie.

Yuri speaks with ambivalence about the possibility of Russian annexation, even as Russia’s flag fluttered beside the porch where he directed his troops. He says he participated in the seizure of Ukraine’s intelligence service building in Donetsk on April 7 and led the capture of the city’s police building five days later, twin operations that helped establish the militia’s foothold.

There is no Russian master, he said. “We have no Muscovites here,” he said. “I have experience enough.” That experience includes four years as a Soviet small-unit commander in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the 1980s. The 119 fighters he leads, who appear to range in age from their 20s to 50s, all speak of prior service in Soviet or Ukrainian forces. The members wear masks on patrols, and show signs of discipline — organising rotating watches at checkpoints, cleaning their weapons, abstaining from alcohol, and having a network of informers .

Several fighters shook their heads at the idea that they had been paid by Russia, by oligarchs or by anybody else. “This is not a job,” said one fighter, Dmitry. “It is a service.” If Russia’s intelligence services had been helping them, they said, they would have new weapons, not the dated arms visible at their checkpoints and stored in the base where they sleep. During the fighting Friday, two fighters carried hunting shotguns, and the heaviest weapon was a sole rocket-propelled grenade.

Much of their stock was identical to the weapons seen in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers and Interior Ministry special forces troops at government positions outside the city. These included 9mm Makarov pistols, Kalashnikov assault rifles and a few Dragunov sniper rifles, RPK light machine guns and portable anti-tank rockets, including some with production stamps from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Many of the weapons show signs of long service. One, an RPG-7 launcher, looked clean and fresh. The fighters said it had been purchased from Ukrainian soldiers for $2,000, along with 12 high-explosive projectiles. They said their weapons had either been taken from seized police buildings and a column of captured Ukrainian armoured vehicles, or bought from corrupt Ukrainian soldiers. There was no clear Russian link in their arsenal, but it was not possible to confirm their descriptions of the sources of the arms.

There were, however, indicators of local support. One afternoon, a crowd laboured to build a barricade and a bunker beside a bridge over a canal to the city’s west.

At the 12th Company’s main base, the home of Tanya and her husband, Lev, residents visited to donate food. “To the guys in Kiev, we are separatists and terrorists,” Yuri said. “But to the people here, we are defenders and protectors.” Tanya, 60, who offered to feed the rebels after her son joined them last month, has assumed the role of company cook. The couple’s garage has become a barracks; a shed is now an armoury. Camouflage hangs on lines strung from cherry trees.

The militia claims to have mostly good relations with the local police, who have done little to stop them. Many police officers still patrol in rebel territory, accepting the militia’s authority while directing traffic or investigating accidents.

Where these militiamen are trying to steer Ukraine remains a matter of dispute even among the men wearing masks. In the 12th Company, some hope the eastern provinces can establish autonomy within a federalised Ukraine. Others speak of dividing the nation in two.

Asked whether Ukraine should remain one nation, Sergey, a veteran of the Soviet air-defence service, said, “Sure, why not?” “No,” interjected Dmitry, a younger fighter. Another fighter, Aleksey, agreed. “In western Ukraine, they showed their faces: Nazis, fascist. They destroyed monuments to Lenin, attacked our history. Living on one land with them is senseless for us.”

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