Who is fighting against Ukrainian military in Donbas
The self-proclaimed “republics” in Eastern Ukraine imitate statehood in various ways. They set up “ministries” and declare the opening of embassies abroad. The army is another institution the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” mimic. Over the four years of war, Ukraine has had plenty of tragic encounters with it. Far from being the accomplishments of “tractor drivers and miners”, virtually all of them involved regular Russian military. Who is on the other side of the rifle scopes of Ukrainian military today?
Arise, the great country!
The “DPR/LPR” armies are in permanent preparation mode for an attack by the Ukrainian forces. Eduard Basurin who claims to be “DPR deputy chief of combatant command” talks about Kyiv’s intents to go on a cunning offensive on a monthly basis. He supports his claims with Xeroxed papers marked as “A File From the Ukrainian Armed Forces Headquarters” with a Sharpie. In order to prepare for the offensive better, the “republics” announce mobilization on the occupied territory every year.
A recent order No11 from the “head of the Donetsk People’s Republic” issued in 2018 has scheduled a boot camp for the “DPR” reservists. In this way, the citizens of the “state living under a permanent threat from the aggressive junta” get to practice their basic military skills. Russian TV channels, including Rossiya 24, spend three minutes a news program showing how effectively “DPR” citizens train at tank drills. As the vehicles hit the targets, the background is full of talk about patriotism and the treacherous Kyiv. The show host refers to the drill participants as “volunteers” and says that some of them have served in the “militias” and fought against Ukraine. In fact, these people are not exactly volunteers.
The order from “DPR” leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko mentioned above instructs the “interior ministry” to assist military commissariats in “searching, mobilizing and delivering citizens to the location of the drills in case they do not arrive on their own”. This means that the “volunteers” will be delivered to the drills forcefully if they refuse to arrive on their own. The official reason for the drills is “to compensate for the losses in the squads or military units, and in the conditions of intensifying military aggression.” The upgrade of skills thus turns into a prospect of ending up in the frontline. This news triggered an intense reaction from the residents of Donetsk Oblast, as much as it is possible under occupation. The locals discuss the nearing of the drills on social media and fear for their relatives.
In an effort to ease social tensions, the “DPR authorities” have issued a series of explanations, saying that this is a mere checkup of the notifications system and an overview of reservists. These statements seem to calm few down. The only positive aspect people see in the drills is an opportunity to earn some extra money: additional wages are promised for the time served in the military. Money is the only real motivation for the locals in their unstable economy. This is the main reason why regular Russian military and militants have been replaced mostly by the residents of the occupied territory. Contract service in the “republic’s army” has become virtually the only way to earn a stable income, even if risky.
Members of the Joint Operations Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine confirm this assumption. In a commentary for The Ukrainian Week, the Ukrainian military note that the Russian command is gradually filling up the military of the “republics” with the locals. According to the AFU JOH, the Donbas residents now make up to 80% (up to 25,000 people) of the 1st and 2nd army corps. Foreign fighters from Russia and other countries account for up to 15%, while regular Russian military are at 3% (900-1,000 people). InformNapalm, a community of volunteer reconnaissance activists, gives somewhat different estimates. They claim that the two army corps of nearly 30,000 people have 10% of regular Russian military staff, while foreign fighters make nearly one third of the force.
According to the AFU JOH, the staff of some illegal armed units increased in 2017 while human losses and shortages were filled on a relatively timely basis. According to representatives of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, this was a result of a number of factors.
One was reform of the units that enabled their optimization. Another was the lowering intensity of hostilities. This encouraged foreign fighters to extend their service contracts. The third factor is effective efforts by the military commissariats. This is linked to the fact that the top positions there are taken by the officers of Russia’s Armed Forces. While unemployment in the occupied territory drives up the numbers of those willing to serve.
At the same time, the AFU JOH notes that the inflow of foreign fighters from Russia has weakened somewhat lately. The numbers of those willing to risk their lives for “Novorossiya” shrink because people are unhappy with the conditions of the military service, strong psychological pressure and salary delays. While the salaries are fairly good for the locals in the occupied territory, Russian citizens don’t feel as attracted to the pay rates. A rank and file soldier is offered anywhere from 15,000 roubles or around US $250, and part of this salary consistently goes to the commanders. Officers get anywhere from 25,000 roubles. The pay rate for those serving in the Russian army ranges from 20,000 roubles or US $340 for a rank and file soldier with minimum skills or record to 68,000 roubles or US $1,160 for a qualified senior. As a result, Russian citizens are not motivated to serve in the self-proclaimed “republics”.
Apart from the financial incentive, they also lack the moral one. The “anti-fascist” outrage that peaked in 2014 is slowly fading despite the constant propaganda on TV. Several factors contribute to this.
First, news from Ukraine is not that impressive anymore. Other issues are on the scene, including Syria, Donald Trump as friend or foe, and the upcoming presidential election as the main entertainment of the season.
Second, the militants are returning to Russia and sharing the ugly truth about the “republican” army and life in general. Such confessions are plenty on the Russian internet. The most embittered are idealistic militants who did believe that they would defeat “fascists”.
News of arrests of those involved in the Donbas illegal armed units on the territory of Russia and their extradition to Ukraine hardly add any optimism. The latest cases include detentions of two former militants, both citizens of Ukraine de jure, in Adler, a district in Sochi, on January 14, 2018. The Russians are preparing to hand them over to the Ukrainian authorities.
The best case against the “young republics” comes from the news of the crimes committed by the one-time fighters for the bright future of the Donbas. A surge in crime rates has been noticed across Russia, but it’s most visible in the regions adjacent to Ukraine. Rostov Oblast is among the leaders. Illegal trade in arms and ammunition, banditry, armed attacks — against law enforcers among others — and murders make part of the list. Interestingly, some of the militants arrested for such crimes present their engagement in illegal armed units in Eastern Ukraine as a positive accomplishment in trials, seeking a softer verdict. The problem has grown to a scale that makes even Russian media talk about it.
“They aren’t there”
A key problem faced by the occupation forces in Donbas is the deficit of qualified military staff. Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts used to have the most mines and industrial enterprises in Ukraine. However, they never had a strong military presence. Russia was not qualified as a threat in any of Ukraine’s past military doctrines. Therefore, there were few military units in the region. As a result, Russian curators have been appointed to all top and specialized positions. The Russians also act as instructors and advisors. Givi and Motorola, the infamous field commanders murdered in the past years, were mostly playing a media role, and not actually commanding the units. This was often something their unit members complained about, especially after difficult operations.
According to the AFU JOH commentators, Russian officers are sent to the “DPR” and “LPR” for short terms — from nine to twelve months. They mostly come from Russia’s Southern Military District and serve at the “defense ministry”, command of army corpses and at the tactical level in the “republics”. The Russians serve at the electronic warfare and communication sections as well. This helps the Kremlin solve a number of important issues.
It maintains permanent control and quality management of the military; the units are kept battle ready in the “republics”. This helps control the use of fuel and ammunition, and keep track of weapons and military equipment. According to the Ukrainian military, the Russian curators do not trust the locals. The militants have claimed this many times on social media and in their video clips. The unification of “DPR/LPR” units with Russia’s regular army plays an important role too. Videos from the drills of the “republic” units show that the soldiers wear uniforms produced in Russia. The mobilized rank and file servicemen wear old flora uniforms while the commanders and instructors wear new Ratnik fatigues. The organizational and staff structure is being unified; so are the procedures for the use of equipment and communication systems. All this is done so that Russian and terrorist forces could interact effectively in a battle.
Open-source intelligence shows that trips to the Donbas are a sort of a condition for the Russian officers to get promotion; they thus have a better chance of being appointed to higher positions or entering a military academy. Those who have fought in Ukraine are appointed commanders of newly-established military unites located along the Russia-Ukraine border. The Donbas has turned into a training field to improve the skills of Russian military students. New equipment of the Russian military complex — primarily electronic warfare tools — is tested in battle. Syria can be the next step in the career after Donbas. One example is Valeriy Asapov, a commander of the “DPR/LPR” army corpses since the fall of 2015 known under the nom de guerre Tuman (Fog). His involvement in illegal armed units was confirmed by various sources, including his brother in an interview for Reuters. After Donbas, he went to Syria where he was killed, like a dozen other Russian officers and generals. According to official statements, he died in a mortar shelling near Deir ez-Zor in September 2017. His route was a fairly standard one, from Rostov through Donbas to Syria and death, faced by the Russian militants and those who join private military companies.
Apart from the locals and the Russians, the “armies” of the self-proclaimed “republics” host foreigners. Donbas is a magnet for various freedom fighters, the supporters of the “Russian world”, monarchists and criminals. While Basurin is looking for NATO squads or BlackWater militants in the Donbas steppes, and separatists discuss scary stories about “female snipers from the Baltic States” (the latter conspiracy theory has been around since the first Chechen War), foreign militants are fighting openly against Ukrainian forces. It is hard to say what all of them do in Donbas.
Some see it as an exotic safari. Some choose this as a way to fight against global capitalism or for the ideals of the Slavs. Some, such as the infamous St. Petersburg-based Nazi fan and sadist Aleksei Milchakov use the impunity for looting and violence. Some, like Brazilian Rafael Marques Lusvarghi, have watched too much TV and arrived to protect the “suffering Russian-speakers”. Lusvarghi ended up being arrested by the SBU and getting 13 years in jail in the early 2017, although his case was sent for a second reading later.
Thanks to their long-standing sympathy for Russia, Serbs make another category. They fought on the side of the terrorists in a unit called Slavic Chetnik Squad under the command of Bratislav Živković. This unit had been noticedduring the takeover of Crimea: the Serbs were helping the Russian occupiers block Ukrainian military units, acting as local militants or Russian kazaks.
The fighters got into Ukraine through the territory of Russia and with the help of Russian funds, such as the Kosovo Front. According to the SBU, the lists of foreign terrorists have been transferred to the official Serbian authorities multiple times. President Poroshenko asked Serbia’s PM Aleksandar Vučić to take more action to stop the militants back in 2015. Officially, the unit stopped fighting in Ukraine in the late 2014. However, not all of its members have left Donbas. One is Dejan Berić, a Serbian sniper and a well-known figure in the media. Serbian Hussars, another small but well-known unit, is still active in Donbas. According to media reports, only one citizen of Serbia got a suspended sentence for participation in an illegal armed unit since the conflict in Eastern Ukraine began.
Few people have been sentenced in other countries. According to InformNapalm, “DPR” militant Aleksei Yershov was sentenced to two years for fighting in Ukraine. But he fled through Russia and rejoined the ranks of terrorists. Eight terrorists were arrested and sentenced in Spain in 2015. Radu Kirilov, a citizen of Moldova, was sentenced to three years in jail for fighting in the Sparta illegal armed group. Another Moldovan who fought in the notorious Somali battalion in 2015 was jailed for 12 years. A militant from Kazakhstan was jailed as well.
Once the war is over, Ukraine will have to spend a long time looking for all those guilty of committing crimes during the hostilities. Volunteer militants, regular military staff or fighters driven by ideology – all of them will have to end up in a process similar to the Nuremberg trials regardless of their official status.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?