Ukraine

In Donetsk, The Chechens Have Arrived

From a once-contested region in the Russian Federation, anti-Kiev forces are spotted in the battleground eastern region of Ukraine. They are "more Russian than the Russians," says one.

A member of the Vostock Battalion in Donetsk
A member of the Vostock Battalion in Donetsk
Lucia Sgueglia

DONETSK — The pro-Russian residents of Donetsk woke up this morning to the sound of rumbling engines rolling into the center of the city. And they began to get nervous.

As the death count rises, rage has spread toward the newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the "Willie Wonka who launches rockets from Mi-8 helicopters."

He had made clear his determination to crack down on the pro-Russian insurgency in and around Donetsk — and dozens have been killed this past week in fighting around the airport.

"We’re outraged by his behavior," says Irina, 50, a bookkeeper from nearby Donbas, which was besieged Monday by pro-Ukrainian troops. "He has only just been elected and he already has his hands stained with blood — he’s a murderer. I don’t understand how half of Ukraine could have voted for him; it’s a strange country."

"Maybe we could have accepted him as president if there hadn’t been a coup in Maidan," adds Dmitri, who volunteered for the rebels in Donetsk’s Lenin Square, where a protest of more than 2,000 pro-Russian separatists and their supporters rallied in Donetsk’s Lenin Square Sunday.

By evening, a humming from overhead patrol planes fills the sky, and on the deserted streets, black cars are whizzing at high speeds. The insurgents are getting ready for the final battle, lest Kiev — which regained control of the airport Monday — attacks again.

"True patriots"

Meanwhile, the presence of Russian fighters seems to be increasingly confirmed — Chechens in particular. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denies this, saying the republic "has no armed forces as it is an entity of the Russian Federation." Still, he concedes that some of his fellow citizens "may be in conflicted areas of eastern Ukraine of their own accord."

Outside Studencheskaya, the hospital where those injured from this week's airport attack are recuperating, the militiamen refuse us entry: "It is forbidden to talk to the wounded, this is an order coming from above." One of them is wearing a white T-shirt with "Dagestan — region 94" written on it. Another who looks like a body builder has an armband that reads "Battalion Vostok" ("East Battalion"), just like the famous Chechen commander Sulim Yamadaev.

Alexander Borodai, the "chief separatist," concedes that there are foreign fighters among the ranks of the rebels. "They are Russian volunteers, from Russia," he says, explaining his blind trust in the Chechens. "Since Kadyrov came to power — a leader who is unquestionably loyal to Putin — the Chechens are more Russian than the Russians themselves. They’re true patriots."

Borodai continues, "They have already defeated their own internal enemies — the Islamist rebels. And now they are ready to fight to protect Russian land."

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