Ride along as a Swiss reporter rides with Ukrainian volunteers…


Konstantin, at 140 km/hr

Boris Mabillard, in Le Temps

June 25, 2015

June 29, 2015

Translated from French by Tom Winter

Note: Le Temps’ reporters have access to, and report from, the Ukrainian side. Even so, the plain acknowledgment of the vigilante, even neo-nazi, nature of those fighting for Ukraine, and other things acknowledged, make this a worthwhile read. There are further disclaimers/comments, in the footnotes…

An abandoned factory converted into a barracks serves as headquarters for battalion Dnipro-1 at Krasnoarmiisk. Continuously, the fighters return from fighting, stop at the HQ and then go back out. Konstantin is one of them, he is unloading his gear. His boss, “Mountaineer”, a nom de guerre, gives him a hug and a few orders. Mountaineer’s men are fighting at Pisky, a remote village 30 km away that, since the fall of Donetsk airport, is now the hottest point of a front line that has not experienced a lull despite the Minsk II Agreements. They are not part of the regular army. They are National Guard, a kind of police under the Ministry of Interior.

The exchange of fire has been on the uptick since the beginning of June. Pisky is practically a barometer of the war; it is at its lowest, raising fears of a massive resumption of hostilities elsewhere on the line.##

In the local HQ there is the smell of sweat mingled with tobacco and alcohol. Mountaineer gets mad behind a monitor, his holster, casually adjusted on a t-shirt printed in gray-green camouflage, swings with each shift of his torso. He scolds Konstantin, who should be taking gear to outposts. Lack of sleep, excessive alcohol, ill-humor, and hours killed at a computer screen can be read on his face.

Before taking charge of the Dnipro-1 battalion, Mountaineer taught climbing in Donetsk and devoted part of his free time to it, a passion first conducted in the Caucasus and later in the Alps on the slopes Mont Blanc. But the crisis of Donbas has made him a fighter. Siding with the revolutionaries of Maidan, he joined the new National Guard when the pro-Russians took up arms and seceded.*

Many guys in Dnipro-1 share similar motivations: love of Ukraine and resentment against those who would dismember the country, Vladimir Putin in particular and the pro-Russian Ukrainians whom they see as traitors. After the fall of Viktor Yanukovych, the self-defense groups refused to disarm. The Ministry of Interior then chose to integrate the militias of all stripes, whose only common denominator was nationalism. A gamble, because these men have little to do with police or military professionals. In addition, some groups reject the authority of Kiev; others such as Pravy Sektor or Azov show an ideology combining ultra-nationalism and neo-Nazism.

“The government can criticize us but they need Dnipro-1, and Pravy Sektor to do the job. Without us, the Russian flag would fly over Ukraine, because the army can’t defend the country by itself,” says Konstantin, as he loads a pickup with bags. For Colonel Valentyn Fedichev, army chief of staff, the integration was difficult at first, but is now making great strides: “Former vigilante groups joined the National Guard. As for the Pravy Sektor units, they are very disciplined and lend a hand to the national army. Even the Azov battalion in Mariupol can be counted on for Defense. All are obedient to a unified chain of command with staff based in Kramatorsk.”

The day before, the men of Mountaineer responded to shots. “Same way every day as if on the other side they practice a well-tuned procedure, like out of an artillery manual. They shoot left and right to bracket a target. And always from the same positions.” 

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“Why don’t you wipe them out?” 

“There are three batteries in Donetsk. We could destroy them. Kiev holds us back because of Minsk or civil agreements, but if we wanted … “**

No more time to lose, Konstantin takes the wheel, driving towards Pisky. What used to be a main thoroughfare into Donetsk is now a dead end that only military vehicles traverse, and at full speed. The entrance to the red zone is indicated by a checkpoint where half a dozen gatekeepers are on guard. 

“From here, on, bombs can fall anywhere,” said Konstantin, one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the trigger of his machine gun. He leaves the barrel of his gun through the open window. The speedometer goes up to 140 km / h. “We are uncovered, but from 120 an hour on up, the enemy snipers have a hard time sighting on us,” says Konstantin. He gets off some shots twice on this stretch of road in the middle of the field.

The last village before Pisky is almost abandoned, but some people stay on, the owner of a small shop on the roadside for instance. “Go away, I have nothing to say to you. This is my home and I will not leave,” she yells before bursting into tears. “I am alone with my children, I have nowhere to go.” An unshaven man backs her up. “We buy her water and biscuits to keep the shop going.” From there, the last houses in the village are half rubble.

Pisky is in sight. Under an unfinished bridge riddled with bullet holes and shells, Ukrainian fighters have built a shelter, an advanced position before the trenches of the front. We see an improvised canteen and toilets as well as ammunition and light armored vehicles. Two Malabars help Konstantin unload the pickup. They are Pravy Sektor. The first, embarrassed, says “This is not official, but we mix up at the front.” His co-religionist adds: “We are all united against Putin.” 

A third member of the battalion Dnepropetrovsk 20 of the regular army, said: “If Europe helped us, we could crush the separatists. But you know that famous non-lethal equipment — we’ve never seen any of it. Kiev is rolled in flour.” He thundered threateningly: “We are tired of this government, just a bunch of weaklings who don’t want to wage war.”

Konstantin has to break camp for a new transport. We go back to the rear base Krasnoarmiisk. “I was a mechanic before signing up. My weapons, I bought them myself, like most fighters.” He draws a long breath: “The hardest thing is that my brother-in-law is fighting on the other side.”

*Of course, the secession, a referendum, preceded the need to take up arms. As noted above, we are seeing a report from the Ukrainian side…

##Yes this paragraph contradicts itself. 

**Kiev is restraining them! As if Kiev is maintaining a cease-fire. Doctrine from the junta…

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