The Donbass Battalion prepares to save Ukraine from separatists

This former homegrown volunteer paramilitary is now a special unit of country’s national guard

A member of the Donbass Battalion swears her service to the reserve battalion of the national guard of Ukraine in a ceremony on June 23, 2014, near Kiev.
Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

KIEV, Ukraine — From behind her black ski mask, Maria’s bright blue eyes light up when she’s asked if she is ready to go to the front lines of Ukraine’s battle against an increasingly violent insurgency in the eastern part of the country.

“I’m ready to leave in the next five minutes,” said the 22-year-old volunteer for the Donbass Battalion, a paramilitary group formed just a few months ago to counter the pro-Russian insurgency.

“Fear is for those who are sitting at home eating potato chips in front of the television news,” said Maria, who would not give her last name for fear of retaliation by the rebels against her family. “But I’m not scared because I’m out here doing something, and it’s time for Ukrainians to stand up and do something to save ourselves.”

The Donbass Battalion is named after the country’s heavily industrialized eastern region, now roiled in a brutal war between pro-Moscow rebels and an underfunded and poorly equipped Ukrainian military.

But the battalion, in the words of its commander, may prove to be one of Ukraine’s strongest weapons in the fight against the separatists.

“We’re better equipped and better trained to deal with the sort of guerrilla warfare that Ukraine is seeing in the east,” said the commander, Semyon Semenchenko. “We are what Ukraine needs.”

A change in tactics

The insurgency in the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk, where rebels are fighting bitterly to defend their self-proclaimed independent republics, has compelled Ukraine’s military forces to re-examine their training tactics and their country’s ability to defend its borders.

“The Ukrainian military is still trained to fight a Soviet-era war,” meaning a war that is nation on nation and tank versus tank, said Yevgen Rozhenyuk, a press spokesman for the Ukrainian national guard.

In the east, the Ukrainian military, along with the national guard, has found itself engaging in the kind of street fighting that only a few special forces units have been trained to handle, Rozhenyuk said.

The pro-Russian rebels are heavily armed with everything from Kalashnikovs to antiaircraft missile launchers to captured Ukrainian army tanks. Since April, when they occupied dozens of government buildings across the region, their tactics have included hostage taking, storming and barricading buildings, and using civilians, such as international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as human shields.

By taking on the Donbass Battalion as a special unit, the national guard has changed tactics.

“We’re different from the other battalions who came before us because we’re trained to be specialized in anti-terrorist operations anti-diversion … and more NATO-like drilling,” Semenchenko said.

Black masks and camoflage

When it started a few months ago, the Donbass Battalion of all-volunteer, pro-Ukraine fighters acted on its own, a private militia supported by private donations. The recruits were young, many from the separatist-controlled eastern regions, who joined to defend a united Ukraine, Semenchenko said. To hide their identity while defending Ukrainian block posts in the rebel-held areas, they wore black ski masks and camouflage, creating a sense of mystery and fear around them.

In late May, the new battalion faced its first serious battle loss when several of its men were killed in a rebel ambush near the eastern town of Karlovka, about 50 miles outside Donetsk.

Shortly after that, Semenchenko withdrew his units back to the national guard training base north of Kiev in Novi Petrivtsi, a forested village better known for its location just a few miles south of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s 340-acre estate. The estate has now been taken over by the state.

From Kiev, Semenchenko began recruiting more volunteers for his battalion, even turning up on Kiev’s Maidan with his ski-masked men to encourage able-bodied volunteers to sign up. It wasn’t difficult to fill the spaces; for every opening he has at least six applicants, Semenchenko said.

He vehemently disputed rumors that the battalion was the pet project of a powerful oligarch who formed the paramilitary group as a way to protect his business assets.

“We aren’t anybody’s army, and we don’t have a single sponsor. We have many sponsors, including just ordinary people who give us as little as food and water supplies,” Semenchenko said.

The battalion is now officially part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ national guard units, but it has more autonomy to use its private donations and fundraising to hire outside trainers specialized in counterinsurgency and to purchase technical equipment.

Standing out

At the national guard’s main training center, the Donbass Battalion units stand out from the other national guard units not just for their gear but also for their drills.

As regular guard units participate in two-week boot camp training, a Donbass Battalion unit surrounds a two-story concrete building in a drill on hostage extraction and building storming. Another group runs exercises in a nearby forested area, while others practice maneuvers with the national guard’s newest armored personnel carrier.

Maria, 22, of the Donbass Battalion, won't give her last name, fearing pro-Russian rebel retaliation against her family.
Sabra Ayres for Al Jazeera America

Maria is one of five females on the battalion’s team of 480 volunteers. Other volunteers refer to her as “Belka,” which means “squirrel” in Russian, because of her energy and quick response during trainings, she said. 

“I’m a very good shot and I’d like to be a sniper, but that requires more training, and I won’t have time to do it before we are assigned,” she said. 

President Petro Poroshenko’s weeklong cease-fire — the first step in his multi-part peace plan — is set to expire at midnight on June 27.

While some of the pro-Moscow rebel groups agreed to the truce, at least one stronghold of rebels in the eastern city of Slovyansk ignored Poroshenko’s call for a cease-fire. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces said rebels had used a shoulder-fired missile to shoot down a Ukrainian military helicopter just outside Slovyansk, killing all nine on board.

For Maria, Poroshenko’s call for a cease-fire was bound to fail from the moment it was announced.

“This has only given the terrorists time to regroup and get stronger,” she said, referring to the pro-Russia rebels, whom the Ukrainian government has labeled terrorists.

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