‘Point of no return’: Resolve builds among Ukraine rebels with each death

The Novorossiya Army, an informal operation of warlords and militias, mourns its dead as fighting continues in east

Relatives grieve over the body of Aleksandr Politov, a construction worker who became a pro-Russian fighter. He was killed when his group attacked a Ukrainian military checkpoint in Horlivka on Saturday.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

HORLIVKA, Ukraine — The funeral procession last weekend for Aleksandr Politov snaked through the wooded lanes of an overgrown cemetery to the plot where the men of the Novorossiya Army buried their comrade. Soldiers fired three salutes from rifles, but few in the civilian crowd of hundreds flinched. They have become used to the sound of gunshots.

“You had a friend, and then — poof — he’s gone,” said Artem Chernushkin, a barman and a neighbor of Politov’s in Horlivka. “He was a regular guy, a construction worker who carried tiles and laid bricks, the most regular guy. He was a builder, not a fighter.” 

Yet Politov, whose corpse was dressed in camouflage and draped with a Russian tricolor flag, had recently joined a separatist militia and died last week during an attack on a Ukrainian army position outside the town of Volnovakha. Infected with a malignant mix of Russian propaganda and genuine resentment, people like Politov have fueled the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic, an inchoate statelet at the forefront of eastern Ukraine’s continuing unrest.

The movement’s military wing, often called the Novorossiya Army by its members, has demonstrated an ability to impose control over territory but largely operates as an informal conglomerate of warlords and militias. Its political leaders speak of resisting the Kiev government, which they regularly call a junta, and preach a program based on vague promises to clean up corruption and eventually join the Russian Federation.

Ukraine’s new president-elect, the confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, has pledged to end the slide toward civil war, comparing the separatists to Somali pirates and announcing that his first steps in office will include a trip to Donetsk, the regional capital.

"The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months,” Poroshenko told reporters in Kiev on Monday. “It should last for a matter of hours.”

As he spoke, the Ukrainian army had launched an assault on the Donetsk airport, deploying air and ground forces against rebels who had seized a terminal overnight. Fighter jets and explosions echoed over the city for hours, and the violence left dozens dead in the most intense clash since the separatist movement emerged in March.

‘The point of no return’

The Kremlin has indicated a willingness to work with Poroshenko’s new government but denounced the Ukrainian military actions and has yet to officially recognize the election as legitimate.

While the airport battle gave the Ukrainian military operation new momentum, neither it nor Poroshenko’s election has resolved the eastern standoff. The rebel troops remain resolute. And each death, from Politov’s to Monday’s casualties, leaves more tears in the region’s quickly fraying social fabric.

A Ukrainian helicopter gunship fires on rebels at the main terminal of the Donetsk airport on Monday.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Many here see no way for Ukraine to remain united. Only seven of 22 voting districts in the Donetsk region were active for Sunday’s polling, according to Ukraine’s central election commission.

“The point of no return has been crossed. We can’t live with them any longer,” said Pavel Petruk, a 56-year-old pensioner with a graying horseshoe mustache who stood by a statue of Lenin outside a polling site in Dobropolye but did not vote. “The only peaceful solution is for Ukraine to get out of the Donbas.”

The Donbas, which includes Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region, is a landscape by turns bucolic and distressed. Along the same roads, cows graze by riverbanks and chimneys spit black smoke from decaying factories. Since the revolution in Kiev drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February, the Donbas has also become a patchwork of conflicted loyalties.

“Many people are against the Kiev government, and they provoked that reaction against themselves with their actions, their laws and their military operations,” said Vladimir, a senior officer from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry who watched over a polling site in Krasnoarmeysk, one of the few eastern cities where voting occurred. He explained that a sense of duty kept him at his post, not allegiance to the country’s current leaders.

“If we don’t find a common language now, there will be a long partisan war,” he added.

The Novorossiya Army

The separatists are united in their opposition to Kiev but remain tied to local power centers. Their ranks appear to be growing, fed by angered locals and, reportedly, visiting warriors from Crimea, Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The Ukrainian border service announced that cars filled with weapons from Russia attempted to cross the border early on Tuesday. Vasily, a senior fighter in Horlivka, said on Monday that three truckfuls of weapons from Russia had arrived for the rebels. His claim could not be independently verified.

The various groups operate under the umbrella of the Novorossiya Army and appear to answer to Igor Strelkov, a mercurial commander based in Slovyansk who has been described by Kiev and its Western allies as a Russian agent. But the militias have their own spheres of control and often act independently.

The various separatist militias all seem to answer to Igor Strelkov, right, talking to reporters in Slovyansk, where he is the head of the self-defense forces. Kiev regards him as a Russian agent.
Mikhail Pochuyev / ITAR-TASS / Landov

“As long as we don’t have a front, we don’t need to maintain a formal military structure of communications,” said Aleksey Petrov, press officer for the militia in Horlivka, which is led by Igor Besler, who goes by the nom de guerre Bes, meaning “demon.”

“It’s local pockets of resistance,” Petrov added. “But there is no conflict among different groups.”

Horlivka emerged as a new power center last week after its militia, under the Demon’s command, led anoperation at Volnovakha that killed at least 16 Ukrainian soldiers. Immediately after the clash, representatives for the People’s Republic in Donetsk distanced themselves, blaming the attack on the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector.

Besler first appeared publicly in mid-April after the initial seizure of Horlivka’s police station. A video posted online showed him instructing policemen and claiming to be an officer of the Russian army.

In interviews, his fighters claim that he is a Horlivka local who rose in the militia’s ranks over the past month. He has been implicated by Ukrainian authorities in the murder of a local politician, Volodymyr Rybak, and in the kidnapping of three Ukrainian special forces officers who were later released in a prisoner exchange. Besler could not be reached for comment.

In Horlivka, as in many other cities across the Donbas, separatists now control the city’s administration building and its central police station, which are surrounded by barricades of sandbags, tires and barbed wire. One sign by the police station reads, in both Russian and English, “My rights were stolen by Kiev’s junta!” Across the road stands a billboard reading “Fascism will not pass!” alongside images of Josef Stalin and a soldier skewering a swastika with a bayonet.

The cover of revolution

As the conflict nears its third month, commanders like Bes appear to be jostling for power and resorting to brutal methods to maintain control among their troops.

“Many people are trying to resolve personal problems under the cover of revolution,” Petrov said. “We don’t want to resort to extreme measures, but we will if we have to. I want you to understand what extreme measures mean. If a person is caught in violence, murder or kidnapping, he will be shot.”

In Slovyansk, Strelkov ordered the execution of two militiamen on Monday, accusing them of looting and referring to a Stalin-era law to justify the punishment. A spokesman for the Slovyansk militia confirmed that the men had been shot.

Ukrainian media allege that Besler followed suit by killing two local police officers who had taken and subsequently broken an oath of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Petrov denied the charge and said they had merely been detained. 

A relative of Politov’s places his picture on a barricade outside the occupied city administration center in Horlivka.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

The pro-Kiev forces also seem jumbled, with army units working alongside a newly formed national guard service and several semi-independent paramilitary groups emerging to fight the separatists. In Karlovka, a group of Ukrainian patriots who call themselves the Donbas Battalion took heavy causalities on Friday during an ambush by the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion, which has risen to the top of the Donetsk-based militias.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian army troops stood sentry on the roads around the city. 

“First they said we’d be here 45 days, then 60, and now they’re saying maybe until September,” said Ruslan, a Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint outside town.

The dozen or so men stationed there appeared bored, lounging under the early summer sun shirtless and in sandals. Many carried weapons produced in the 1970s or 80s and said they had been drafted into service under threat of prison time.

“Of course it would be better at home with our wives,” Ruslan added. “But while I’m here, I’m not letting any damn separatists through.”

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