International
Jakub Kaminski / EPA

Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine collect their dead and ask, Where is Putin?

Coffins full of slain Russian fighters for the People’s Republic of Donetsk travel to border in show of despair

DONETSK, Ukraine — The coffins sat in the loading bay of a local ice cream factory, filled with the battered bodies of fighters. They had gone to Ukraine to support the Donetsk People's Republic, and now they were bound for the border, heading home to Russia.

The men, who were described as volunteers, died earlier this week during a bloody battle for the Donetsk airport. Their corpses had since been stored in an industrial freezer. On Thursday afternoon they were packed in black plastic bags, placed in caskets lined with white fabric and stacked unceremoniously in the back of a truck.

There was no fanfare, no procession, no heroes' send-off. Instead, a shell-shocked work crew looked on while a man hand-painted the side of the truck with red crosses and "Cargo 200" — the Russian label for wartime casualties.

How the men — at least 30 Russian citizens, according to the Donetsk People's Republic — ended up at the front lines of Ukraine's brewing civil war remains a mystery. Neither their names nor their origins were revealed to the journalists who accompanied the cargo through rebel-held territory, a Ukrainian military checkpoint and up to the very edge of Ukraine. Тhe fighters' presence here and Russia's silence on their ominous return point to Russian President Vladimir Putin's precarious position as the conflict on his doorstep descends deeper into violence.

Since protesters seized the Donetsk regional administration building in early April and declared a people's republic in front of two Russian flags, joining the Russian Federation has been central, if not vital, to the movement's ambitions. Despite numerous appeals for assistance from the republic's leadership, Putin has refrained from officially recognizing the self-proclaimed government.

Ahead of the republic's referendum earlier this month on the region's independence from Ukraine, Putin suggested that the rebels reschedule. Last week, before Ukraine's presidential election, he announced the removal of Russian forces from the border — an apparent signal that a Russian invasion was no longer imminent. For the fighters who had been counting on Russian intervention, the month of May was one of disappointment.

"Putin promised help, and what did he do? He pulled back his forces from the border," said Sasha, a pro-Russian fighter from the rebel stronghold Slovyansk. "Putin betrayed what he promised."

A request for Russia

However, representatives from the Donetsk People's Republic still speak optimistically in public about the prospect of Russian aid. On Wednesday, Denis Pushilin, speaker of the Donetsk People's Republic's Supreme Soviet, released an official request for Russian support.

"Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich and Russians, the people of the Donetsk Republic need your help and support," Pushilin said in the address. "We want to become a part of Russia. Help us stop this war."

Donetsk, Russia, Ukraine
Pro-Russian fighters of the Vostok (East) Battalion in the regional government building in Donetsk during a televised address by Russian President Vladimir Putin after they stormed and seized the site from separatists who took it over in April.
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

In an interview on Thursday, Pushilin specified that they hoped for any available assistance, in particular a Russian "peacekeeping" contingent to counteract the Ukrainian forces active throughout eastern Ukraine.

"In order to save lives, so that less blood is spilled," Pushilin explained.

Russian involvement seems to have increased recently, with visiting warriors from the Russian republic of Chechnya appearing amid the Donetsk militia and Ukrainian authorities alleging that weapons are being ferried across the border to rebels. On Thursday a Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced that Russia would provide humanitarian aid to the republic.

Yet as clashes become more frequent and intense, many here have begun to wonder whether help would arrive and, if it did, whether it would be enough.

Earlier this week, as the airport battle raged on, a car drove up to a crowd of locals at the occupied administration building who were waiting to hear Pushilin speak. The car had come under fire; the driver's window was shattered, its passengers shocked. The crowd seemed incredulous at the events unfolding before them.

"But Pushilin appealed to Putin for help!" one yelled.

"No one is helping us," answered another.

"Who is defending us now? Just our militia?" asked a third, with a hint of despair.

A final caravan

Among the militiamen who died that night by the airport were the hastily repatriated Russian citizens.

Late Wednesday night, Sergey, a representative for the Donetsk People's Republic dressed in loosely fitting camouflage, approached journalists on the terrace of their hotel and put forward a surreal proposition: Would they like to travel to the border with a convoy of dead rebel fighters, all citizens of Russia?

Since the crisis started, the Donetsk People's Republic and Russia have strained to rebut the notion that any Russians have participated in Ukraine's separatist uprising. Sergey's offer seemed to signal a turning point, both because of its openness about the involvement of Russian citizens in the Donbas (Sergey said he is from Moscow himself) and because it seemed aimed at provoking further response from the Russian government.

"We believe that we ought to do everything we can to help these people defend their rights and determine their fate on their own," Putin said last month of southeastern Ukraine's Russian-speaking population. "This is what we will fight for. Let me remind you that the Federation Council of Russia gave the president the right to use the armed forces in Ukraine."

Donetsk, Russia, Ukraine
Pro-Russian separatists carry coffins to a van taking them to the Ukraine-Russia border.
Jakub Kaminski / EPA

Yet here were tens of dead Russian citizens left unprotected and unacknowledged. The Russian state media agency ITAR-Tass published 20 stories under the Crisis in Ukraine rubric on its website during the day on Thursday but did not once mention the dead Russian fighters. Kremlin officials, from Foreign Ministry spokesmen up to the president, released no statements about the losses. Though roughly 100 journalists, including several Russian teams, gathered at the Donetsk morgue for the convoy's first stop, none of those working for Russian media agencies accompanied the bodies beyond the city limits.

The final caravan leaving the city had just three vehicles: a car of unarmed local policemen, the truck of bodies and a car of international journalists, who had been told that they were seen in part as escorts intended to deter an attack by the Ukrainian army.

Late afternoon light bled gold through the clouds, and the truck rumbled down a two-lane highway lined with crooked timber.

When the group reached an army checkpoint near the town of Lysyche, soldiers from Ukraine's 25th Airborne Brigade reacted with a mixture of suspicion and surprise. They opened the truck with their arms drawn, perhaps expecting an ambush, but found only red, black and maroon coffins adorned with Donetsk People's Republic flags.

"I've never seen anything like this," one paratrooper said, clutching his rifle.

Just over three miles down the road, the driver, a civilian named Slava, pulled up to the border and handed the guards a stack of papers from the morgue. He said that earlier in the day people he "could not turn down" asked him to travel to the Russian city of Rostov.

"I just sat and drove," Slava said, smoking one of many cigarettes while Ukrainian customs officials verified the documents for his cargo. A stuffed frog hung limp from his rearview mirror.

He had not been told who would receive the bodies on the Russian side or where they would travel next.

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