RD Explainer: Called by many a new type of war, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has a number of volunteer groups fighting on both sides. Here’s an overview of just the most important volunteer battalions in the conflict.
The rebels of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on the territory of the market in the town of Trudovski in Petrovsky district, Donetsk Region destroyed by shelling. Photo: RIA Novosti
The war in Eastern Ukraine is a complicated and multi-faceted issue, receiving immense media attention but little analysis of the groups actually fighting the war. As the conflict has expanded and intensified, the chain of command on both sides has fragmented.
Forces of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk primarily consist of local volunteers, while pro-Kiev volunteer battalions fight alongside the Ukrainian army. In this explainer, Russia Direct analyzes the current command structures of the combatants of Donbas.
What should we call it: a conflict, a war, or an anti-terrorist operation?
The war in Eastern Ukraine has several names. Depending on one’s point of view and political orientation, it can be called the war in Donbas, the war in Ukraine, or the war in Novorossiya. In Ukraine, it is called an anti-terrorist operation (ATO).
Where is the fighting?
The main conflict zone is concentrated in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, which encompasses the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, two areas with a dominant majority of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
What started the war?
During the 2014 unrest in Ukraine following the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian and anti-government protesters in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts demanded a status referendum akin to the one that took place in Crimea preceding its incorporation by Russia. The protests escalated into armed conflict in April of 2014.
Who are the “pro-Russian separatists?”
Combatants in the so-called Armed Forces of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (also called the “Novorossiyan Armed Forces”) are typically labeled as pro-Russian separatists. This force is divided into the Donbas People’s Militia and the Luhansk People’s Militia, which together are comprised of several dozen groups of combatants.
What are the most significant separatist groups?
A pro-Russian separatist aims his rifle as he guards a position near Marinka in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Monday, June 8, 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the Group of Seven democracies have agreed that sanctions against Russia must remain in place until a cease-fire deal for eastern Ukraine is fully respected. Photo: AP
The Oplot Battalion was formed by Alexander Zakharchenko, who now serves as the prime minister of the self-declared Donbas People’s Republic. It was one of the first rebel groups, and is currently commanded by Mikhail Tikhonov.
The Vostok Brigade was formed by Alexander Khodakovsky, who defected from the Ukrainian Security Forces. Khodakovsky admitted the rebels’ possession of Buk surface-to-air missile launchers at the time of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy. The Vostok brigade is regarded as a special operations group with foreign troops in its ranks.
The Russian Orthodox Army has up to 4,000 soldiers and is motivated by a sense of “lost honor and glory” caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The group’s on-site commander is Mikhail Veri, however Ukrainian officials have said that former Russian intelligence officer Igor Strelkov (whose real name is Igor Girkin) is the unit’s “undisputed commander.” Strelkov is currently the defense minister of the self-declared Donbas People’s Republic.
Voshod Battalion was formed in June 2014 from around 300 volunteers. It provides assistance and security to those leaving the war zone. Its indirect commander is Valery Kaurov.
The Sparta and Somalia Battalions fought for and currently hold the strategically important Donetsk International Airport. Sparta’s commander is Arceny Pavlov and Somalia Battalion’s commander is Mikhail Tolstukh. They are known by the nicknames Motorola and Givi, respectively. Their troops are often seen wearing advanced body armor and utilizing sophisticated Russian weapons and vehicles.
The Army of the South East comprises the bulk of the forces fighting in the Luhansk oblast. Consisting of several thousand members, the army is made up of over one dozen small battalions. After the death of its first commander Alexey Mozgovoi, Sergei Ignatov has taken command of the group.
How many pro-Russian separatists are there?
The Russian government-owned TASS News Agency reported in July 2014 that around 20,000 volunteer soldiers are fighting for the separatist cause in the Donbas region.
Who are the pro-Kiev groups?
There are at least 50 Ukrainian pro-Kiev rebel groups, though their chain of command is more unified than their opponents, as the Ukrainian National Guard and Ministry of Internal Affairs have incorporated several militias into their own command structure.
What are the most important pro-Ukrainian groups?
Ukrainian soldier looks down from a military truck at pro-Russian rebels during the Ukrainian military rotation of Airport of Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 6 , 2015. Photo: AP
Dnieper-1 was one of the first volunteer units in Ukraine, being founded in April of 2014. The battalion claims to have enlisted 5,000 men, and reports to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. Its commander, Yuri Bereza, is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament.
Praviy Sektor is a Ukrainian volunteer corps that is recognized as an extremist organization in Russia.The corps is led by Dmitry Yarosh, former leader of the far-right nationalist organization Trizub (“Trident”), who is now a parliament member. Praviy Sector does not report to any formal Ukrainian institution.
The Saint Mary Battalion is a volunteer militia with a radical Christian ideology. Its political officer, Vitaly Chornly, has described the group as a “Christian Taliban.” The battalion reports to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry and is commanded by Alexei Serdyuk. In June, the battalion gained media attention by capturing a Russian intelligence group. The total size of the battalion is approximately 100 people.
The Sich Battalion was formed in June 2014 by the Svoboda political party, a far-right nationalist group. The battalion numbers some 50 men, some of whom are Iraq war veterans. Battalion is not subject to the orders of Kiev officials
The Donbas Battalion was initially led by Semen Semenchenko, who now serves in the Ukrainian parliament. It is now headed by lieutenant colonel Vyacheslav Vlasenko. The battalion made headlines when it turned back humanitarian aid destined for the Donetsk oblast. The Battalion reports to the National Guard of the Interior Ministry. In January 2015, a section of this battalion became part of the Ministry of Defense.
The Azov Battalion originated from a paramilitary national socialist group called “Patriot of Ukraine,” which propagated slogans of white supremacy, racial purity, the need for authoritarian power and a centralized national economy. Its soldiers have modern body armor and military vehicles, and were active in the battles of Mariupol, a coastal city 70 miles south of Donetsk. The far-right militia’s commander is Ukrainian Parliament member Andrei Biletsky, who is also the head of the ultra-right neo-Nazi organizations “Social-National Assembly” and “Patriot of Ukraine.” The Azov Battalion reports to the National Guard of the Interior Ministry of Ukraine.
What is happening in Donbas now?
Fighting in the region has continued despite the Minsk II summit involving the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, which attempted to facilitate a ceasefire. However, the intensity of the fighting decreased after Minsk II.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) continue to monitor the conflict zone and have reported artillery fire in the Donetsk Airport area. Momentum in the conflict has stagnated as both sides dig into positions and resort to trench warfare.
Since the beginning of June 2015, the situation has become more strained. Both sides condemn each other for ceasefire violations.