By Stanislav Aseyev for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
It is no secret that a large number of people of different nationalities, citizenship and political views serve in the ranks of the so-called "People's Army of Novorossiya." It is often difficult to figure out who makes up the “people’s battalions” and what goals they are pursuing, even to those who serve in them. Sometimes the internal conflicts among these battalions are a surprise to the militants themselves, and lead to bigger losses than local clashes with Ukrainian military.
Here, I will try to concisely describe the overall outline of the “people’s army” -- based on observations made in Makeyevka as of January 2015.
With this term we can describe one of the biggest militant groups in the “DPR,” which many of my acquaintances from some very well-off families have joined.
I intentionally exclude these Cossacks from any comparison to the “Great Hosts of the Don,” as the latter are mostly present in the “LPR.” In our region there are a few structures whose association with the Cossacks can be easily detected by the hats with yellow crosses worn by their fighters. All these "Cossack unions" have been reformed and reorganized into different regiments and their fighters have moved from one battalion to another. In general, the "Cossacks" serve as a first step on the path of an inexperienced “militant,” who is provided with housing, rations, small arms, and a training ground to practice marksmanship. The militants about whom I know who came out of these structures have been fighting since the end of the summer and are experienced with all kinds of weapons, including the Grad multiple launch rocket system, where they typically serve as gunlayers.
A typical rank-and-file soldier serving on Grad missile systems will earn approximately $360 per month and has an official contract with the so-called Defense Ministry of the “DPR.” Officer salaries start at $500 per month.
This is a structure considered to be one of the most privileged, while at the same time the most despised, by the militants inside the “DPR.”
Initially it was comprised of local criminals and athletic guys who would walk around Donetsk and Makeyevka in black t-shirts bearing the symbol of “Oplot,” who earlier in Yanukovych’s time oversaw bus stations and engaged in routine racketeering. Later, “Oplot” was reinforced by people with combat experience (and served in essence as personal security for [“DPR” head Alexandr] Zakharchenko at various rallies and public events).
“Oplot” fighters participated on numerous occasions in combat operations, which generally caused indignation among other “DPR” battalions--according to one of the “militants,” “they valued their skin too much and were not really eager to fight.”
In addition, “Oplot” members participated in the recent disarmament of local roadside checkpoints, which did not earn them much respect. Salary in the battalion during the summer months varied between approximately $120 to $150. The “Oplot.TV” channel currently operates in the “DPR” and serves as an informational mouthpiece for “Novorossiya.”
This is strictly a Makeyevka invention, created by [separatist commander Igor] Bezler. The battalion was formed from local residents who initially manned roadside checkpoints, and later became known for its special relationship to the health sector.
Specifically, by forcefully seizing ambulance cars and local pharmacies. Those fighters of the unit known to me differ from the rest [of the militants] with quite a romantic view of the war, considering themselves some sort of anarchist-revolutionaries. There is no information as to how much the fighters of the battalion are paid.
At least two battalions are known about, one of which is formed of Serbs, Frenchmen, Czechs and a few Latin Americans, while the other consists of Chechens, Ossetians, Armenians and Roma. The latter group is particularly cruel and uncompromising in the issues of war, seeing in it the main meaning of their life.
“BATTALION VOSTOK [EAST]”
One of the most famous structures under the “Ministry of Defense of the DPR,” [Vostok] is made up of two units: one connected to [former Alpha special unit commander of the Security Service of Ukraine Alexandr] Khodakovsky and former “Berkut” officers, and another made up of mercenaries from Chechnya and the Caucasus, along with some local people. In November 2014, the militants of the battalion who fought in Donetsk Airport (including one of my acquaintances) were paid approximately $110 per week. Which was not that much, considering that this was the hottest spot on the entire map of the anti-terrorist operation and not many could stay there for an entire month and continue to engage in heavy fighting.
Other “DPR” battalions have made major accusations against “Vostok,” and some militants openly show their contempt of the methods of military operations of the battalion.
“SPARTA” AND “SOMALI”
These two battalions are led by Motorola and Givi [names de guerre of separatist commanders Arseny Pavlov and Mikhail Tolstykh, respectively], who are probably the two most famous figures in the “army of the DPR.”
The battalions are mainly located in the Airport area and take part in prisoner exchanges, as well as deal with questions related to the rotation of Ukrainian forces located at the airport. “Sparta” is mostly formed of many “volunteer fighters” from Russia.
A structure that describes itself as “special forces.” Initially included the largest number of local residents, who fought completely without pay (even in the summer months), which even to this day causes ridicule among other battalions, who often refer to “Kalmius” fighters as “morons.”
At the same time, having been recruited from the local population (often from the miners’ community), they reacted quite harshly against Donetsk marginals, closing a number of drug brothels in the city.
As for regular Russian troops, I am personally aware of three columns of armored vehicles, KAMAZ trucks and artillery which I saw on the highway to Makeyevka; being limited to the area of Makeyevka-Donetsk, I did not observe any regular Russian infantry units at all during my time in the zone of the anti-terrorist operation.