Russian Roulette (Dispatch 39)
With the Ukrainian army struggling to contain the grab for power by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in the Donetsk Oblast, armed pro-Ukrainian militias have been quietly taking matters into their own hands.
One of these groups, the Donbas Battalion, has been attacking DPR checkpoints and occupied buildings. After two weeks of careful negotiations they finally agreed for VICE News to visit their clandestine base in what used to be a children's summer camp in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region. They were cautious about revealing their location as their last HQ was discovered and attacked by pro-Russia forces, forcing them to find an alternative.
We watched them train and interviewed their leader, Semyan, before being invited on an operation the following day. In the town of Velyka Novosilka, the Donbas Battalion tore down the DPR flag and replaced it with Ukraine’s colors, reinstalled the pro-Ukrainian administrator, and lectured the local police on loyalty and duty — all at gunpoint. We then left Velyka Novosilka quickly, as there were reports of armed pro-Russia groups heading our way.
The Ukrainian army’s “anti-terror” operation has so far failed to dislodge separatists from their strongholds in Sloviansk and Donetsk. But the flexibility of the Donbas Battalion, and other groups like it, could help turn the tide in Kiev's favor. Equally, they could help further destabilize an already volatile region. Yet with the Ukrainian presidential elections taking place on May 25, it's likely that Semyan and his men will be busy in the days ahead — and we’ll soon find out.