A day with Ukraine’s volunteer fighters

The emergence of interethnic Ukrainian patriots bodes well for the country's political future

June 26, 2014 12:00AM ET
Members of the Donbas Battalion take part in military exercises on a Ukrainian National Guard shooting range.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty Images

Turmoil in eastern Ukraine has continued despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s offer of a cease-fire to pro-Russian rebels, with both sides accusing each other of violating it. At least 11 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the June 23 cease-fire. Perhaps alarmed by the prospect of punitive sanctions by the United States and the European Union, on June 25 the Russian parliament at the request of President Vladimir Putin rescinded the March 1 resolution that authorized him to intervene militarily in defense of Russian speakers in Ukraine and other non-Russian states.

Putin’s actions may also have been motivated by the Ukrainian armed forces’ successful counterattacks. After several early setbacks, Ukraine’s counterterrorism operations in recent weeks have squeezed the insurgents into an area of about one-third of the Donbas region and regained control of much of the border with Russia. Self-defense units comprising volunteers from the region, who have thrown in their lot with Ukraine in the ongoing struggle against pro-Russian rebels, have been instrumental in that offensive. The volunteers come from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds (including Ukrainians, Russians, Jews and many others), possess a sincere commitment to a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine and share a remarkable interethnic Ukrainian patriotism. One such unit is the Donbas Battalion.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the battalion’s training camp outside Kiev as part of a small group of opinion-makers and experts on a three-day study tour sponsored by the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Kiev. The visit brought home several points. First, Ukrainians are determined to fight and retain their sovereignty. Second, residents of the Donbas, generally considered indifferent to Ukraine, can be as patriotic as western Ukrainians. Third, the interethnic patriotic sentiments suggest that Ukraine is witnessing the emergence of an all-inclusive polity. These developments bode well for Ukraine’s future and portend a sad end for Putin’s imperialist adventures in the mineral-rich eastern region.

‘Glory to Ukraine’

The camp was located about 12 miles north of Ukraine’s capital, on the grounds of a National Guard base, about a mile south of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s lavish estate, now a popular museum that serves as a reminder of the vast scale of his regime’s corruption, venality and bad taste.

Guards met us at the gate and provided us with passes. They asked that we refrain from photographing the soldiers: They would not be wearing masks, we were told, and a carelessly taken photo could jeopardize the safety of their families, who remained in the Donbas. Our guide, a Russian-speaking adviser to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, took us past Ukrainian-language billboards and several training grounds. We reached a dusty clearing amid a pine forest where the battalion was assembled. Several hundred men, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s, stood at ease, wearing combat boots and various military fatigues. They watched us gather around their legendary commander, an ethnic Russian businessman turned guerrilla fighter from Donetsk known by his nom de guerre, Semyon Semenchenko. I had seen photographs of him before, but he was always wearing a balaclava mask. This time his face was fully exposed, and, expecting a formidable fighter, I was struck by his regular-guy appearance.

Avakov’s adviser said 800 people had volunteered for the battalion a few weeks ago. But only 462 (including fewer than 20 women) had passed muster and been accepted into the unit. They were now being trained and would shortly return to the Donbas to fight pro-Russian militants. Avakov’s adviser then turned to the soldiers, thanked them for their patriotism and sacrifice — all in Russian — and assured them that, once the “terrorists” were defeated, they would all have jobs in the reconstituted and reformed Ministry of Internal Affairs.

A commander shouted, “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”), and the soldiers responded with a thunderous “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!”). These greetings were employed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the anti-Soviet nationalist underground (largely confined to Ukraine’s western provinces), during and after World War II. They were also widely used by the Euro-Maidan demonstrators during the protests that climaxed in February and have now become part of everyday discourse throughout the country.

I was in the presence of something Ukraine had never had: a Ukrainian nation whose identity and allegiance were based not on ethnicity but on patriotism.

We were encouraged to go and speak to the soldiers. I approached a unit of 20 to 30 men and talked to them for about 15 minutes. When I switched from Ukrainian to Russian, several assured me that they understood both languages. “We speak Ukrainian, too,” said one of the soldiers. “Why doesn’t the West do more to help Ukraine?” some of them asked. “Doesn’t Europe understand that Putin is a threat to the world? Don’t the Europeans care about Putin’s assault on democracy in Ukraine?”

I told them that Europeans cared more about cheap energy from Russia. “But,” I continued, “at least the Americans understand what your struggle represents.” If that’s so, several responded, why doesn’t Washington provide them with real weapons? “We don’t need American soldiers here,” said one of them. “We can fight. We will fight. We need equipment. We need guns.”

Another soldier, this time a Ukrainian speaker, continued, “Tell Obama we need M-4 and M-5 rifles.”

As our group walked over grassy fields, I asked the soldier next to me where he was from. Fox, a pseudonym, was an ethnic Russian from the city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, liberated from rebel control earlier this month.

“Back in 1991,” he told me in Russian, “independence just fell on us, and no one understood what it meant. It was only after Russia started a war against Ukraine that I realized that this is my country — that I love it. The same happened to the other guys.”

Fox’s wife and daughter are still in Mariupol. “You know,” he said, “I raised my daughter as a Ukrainian. This is where you live, I told her, this is your home.” He paused. “When she asked me one day just why it’s dangerous for her to go outside in an embroidered Ukrainian blouse, I decided to join the battalion.” 

“So this is a national liberation struggle for you and the others?” I asked.

“Da,” he replied. “We are all Ukrainian citizens, and this is our homeland. We’re not fascists, as the Russians say. We are fighting for our homeland. We’re Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Jews and many others.”

It occurred to me that I was in the presence of something Ukraine had never had: a Ukrainian nation whose identity and allegiance were based not on ethnicity but on patriotism. A little later I saw a soldier in a skullcap leading Ukrainians and Russians in a training exercise.

“We all agreed on a dry law,” Fox told me about his troops’ exemplary discipline, “and everyone knows that drinking will be punished severely.”

As we entered his tent, I saw more than a dozen soldiers lounging about on their cots, their Kalashnikovs at their sides. Fox introduced me as a professor from New York, but not one with two f’s, jokingly alluding to Yanukovych’s inability to spell “professor” correctly.

Fox then pointed to a soldier on his left: “This one is a Ukrainian Bandera” (a reference to the controversial leader of the interwar nationalist movement, Stepan Bandera). “And I’m a Russian Bandera, and that one is a Jewish Bandera.” He explicitly used the term “zhidobandera” in reference to his Jewish comrade, the preferred self-designation of the Jewish Ukrainian oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk province governor, Igor Kolomoisky.

“We’re not fascists,” the Jewish Bandera said. “We fight fascism.”

As we parted ways, Fox gave me a child’s crayon drawing of their camp, with “Heroyam slava!” emblazoned along the top. Another soldier, who looked like a teenager, gave me a moving Russian-language poem about the vigilance of the Donbas Battalion. A third soldier — a Russian speaker — handed me a black-and-red Ukrainian nationalist flag with a caricature of Putin sporting black hair and a small square mustache, which read “Putler Kaput.”

What does one say to volunteer soldiers who will soon be deployed to eastern Ukraine and could be killed in a few days? I was tongue-tied, moved and confused. But I was certain of one thing: Putin’s mercenaries would stand no chance against people who are defending their families, their homes and their newfound country.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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