by Lily Hyde
Battalion Donbas, Ilovaisk. August 2014.
DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- When the Donbas Battalion stormed Russian separatist-held Ilovaisk on Aug. 18 and raised the Ukrainian flag without a single casualty, the Ukrainian media quickly reported a victory for the country’s anti-terrorism operation against Kremlin-backed insurgents.
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.
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.
“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.
Battalion Donbas, Ilovaisk. Aug. 22nd 2014
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.
Commander of battalion "Donbass" Semen Semenchenko was wounded on Aug 19 near Ilovaisk.
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.
“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, the Commander of Defense Force “Donbas” (DFD) [colloquially known as the Donbas Battalion]. 2014/08/06
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.
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.
Battalion Donbas, Ilovaisk. Aug. 22nd 2014.
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.”
A Ukrainian volunteers of Donbas Battalion.
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.
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.”
Battalion Donbas, Ilovaisk. Aug. 22nd 2014.
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.
“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.”
Battalion Donbas, Ilovaisk. Aug. 22nd 2014.
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.