June 16, 2014

MARIUPOL – Despite other setbacks, a good piece of news for Ukraine's government last week was its re-assertion of control over the southern city of Mariupol, an industrial port in Donetsk province that had been taken over by Russian-backed militias fighting to separate the southeastern region of Donbas from Ukraine. The recapture of Mariupol dramatized the increasing role of local or provincial-level Ukrainian battalions that have been raised, often by pro-Kyiv business magnates, to fill a gap created by the uneven performance of Ukraine's national military.

The attack on Mariupol was a chance to watch one of these new formations up close.

The Azov Battalion is a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the country's east, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the government in an effort to separate the provinces of Donetsk and Luhanks from Ukraine and ultimately to join them to Russia. The battalion has had political support from hardline Ukrainian nationalists such as Oleh Lyashko, a parliament member from the Radical Party who won 8 percent of votes in last month's presidential election.

Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, national guard, and other volunteer units making a force of about 400 men and coordinated by an army general heading the government's "anti-terrorist operation" in Donetsk.

I was "embedded" with the Azov Battalion ten days before I discovered that they were preparing to lead the Mariupol operation. The city is one of some dozen places in Ukraine where separatists violently seized control. Until Friday, attempts to reverse the occupation had failed because of a combination of Ukrainian government ineptness and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Kyiv government military.

I met up with the Azov Battalion at their Kyiv headquarters for a ceremony in which fifty-three new recruits swore an oath of loyalty to Ukraine before being dispatched southeast by bus on a fifteen-hour drive to their base on the Azov Sea – hence their unit's name - near the town of Berdyansk.

Most of the battalion are well under thirty years old, many in their late teens or in their early twenties. Most have never had any military experience and underwent just three weeks of training at a national guard post or army camp before becoming battle-ready members of the battalion.

Also most – around three-quarters – of the battalion are Russian-speakers themselves from the eastern regions of Ukraine.

Many of the battalion's members took part in the months of mass demonstrations against their former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he reneged on his promise to bring his country closer to the European Union and instead sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some of those now in the battalion were the persons who transformed the passionate protests into revolution and were in the forefront of street battles against Yanukovych's brutal security forces. The revolution culminated with Yanukovych's ouster last February after more than 100 protesters were shot dead by his paramiliatry forces.

Almost immediately after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Putin arrayed tens of thousands of his troops on Ukraine's border and occupied Crimea. Many of the street battle-hardened protesters swiftly joined the Ukrainian army, national guard, or volunteer units which sprang up in response to Russian aggression.

Because so many of the battalion's members are from eastern Ukraine, they wear balaclava masks to hide their faces for fear that if they are recognized, their families – many living in separatist-controlled areas – will come to harm. For the same reason they use noms-de-guerre.

Bajda, a 23-year-old from the eastern city of Kharkiv, said: "My parents were average products of the Soviet system. I was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent, though I didn't have a particularly patriotic upbringing. Our schools still used Soviet textbooks. But I managed to get literature and Internet information that began to show me the truth. I'm an idealist. I became politically conscious and patriotic. There wasn't one great event that sparked it. It just came naturally to me. Now fate has given us a chance to become heroes for Ukraine."

As in most conflicts, some of the fighters look far too young to be risking their lives in battle.

Theodore is from the city of Lutsk in western Ukraine and uses the war name "Aykr". He has put his law studies on hold while he is in the battalion explaining: "When people come to attack your homeland you have to fight. In previous times people from Russia brought communism and the NKVD which essentially wanted to destroy Ukraine's identity and the memory, language, culture, history, to wipe from the face of the earth knowledge about Ukraine and then to build upon the ruins of our country their communism. Now Putin is trying to do something similar so he can build his Russian empire. Any normal person cannot tolerate that."

A strict military routine applies at the base and every day begins with a parade in full kit of black uniform, flak jackets and helmet. Most are armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles while some carry sniper rifles, tripod mounted machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.

Green "Kamaz" military lorries transport some of the battalion each day to a firing range where they practice with their weapons. Older battalion members who have previous military experience, train the younger ones in techniques such as concealment, falling, and rolling methods to avoid being hit by enemy fire, close combat, including knife-fighting, using night-vision goggles, gas masks, and some basic battle tactics.

Even though that sounds an impressive list of activities, I still had doubts that the battalion was ready for its first battle as we set off in a line of green military trucks from our base to Mariupol Airport, still under control of the Ukrainian military, located 60 miles away – our jumping off point for the attack on the city itself the next day.

There was standing room only on the crowded wooden floors of the packed trucks. Many of the faces looked too young to be going into battle but all bore the confidence of the young and none showed fear.

Our transports parked on the runway as night began to fall. We were issued Ukrainian army rations of appalling tinned meat or fish and tasteless biscuits and then settled down for a few hours sleep on the cold, hard floors of the airport concourse.

We were roused from uncomfortable, chilly sleep at 2:30 am on Friday and assembled near the transport vehicles. There was no breakfast or even a hot drink.

Overnight we had been joined by other units, everyone in their different uniforms. We wound lengths of sticky orange packaging tape around our arms to identify ourselves as being on the Ukrainian side. Oleh Lyashko, the nationalist politician who has aligned himself publicly with the battalion, addressed the assembled fighters and said he would join the fighting.

Then we climbed aboard the transports and in the grey pre-dawn light, we rumbled off on the five-mile journey to the outskirts of Mariupol. The way was led by what battalion members referred to as their "secret weapon" - former garbage collection truck welded up with hundreds of steel rods to form a sturdy armored protection. The windshields were covered in the armor with only thin slits in the driver's and passenger's positions. The roof of the truck had been removed and a double-barelled 22 mm anti-aircraft gun was fixed to the floor. It looked like one of the vehicles from the Mad Max films.

We sped along a mostly deserted highway with two lanes in each direction. Nobody showed signs of fear but the tension mounted. Nobody was cracking jokes, as they usually did around the battalion. Few spoke. Faces were full of introspection and I guessed the fighters were absorbed in thoughts about family and their own mortality. I know I was – even though I had done this sort of thing before unlike my companions.

A few of the older members had served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Some Ukrainian patriots had volunteered to fight alongside Georgians fighting the Russians in the 1990s and 2008. Some had joined Chechen forces fighting the Russians in the 1990s and made bitter remarks about the Chechen mercenaries who had been sent across the border by Moscow along with other "volunteers" to bolster the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

We found that the separatist forces, alerted by the activity of the night before, had abandoned their barricades of concrete, tires, and barbed wire at the outskirts of the city.

Gazing nervously at the rooftops of buildings lining the road we proceeded into the center of the city at crossroads with the city's "Spartak Hotel" on one side. As soon as we dismounted from our lorries, a rocket propelled grenade blew up a few feet from one of our vehicles nearly taking off one of the battalion's members hands and ripping open an important vein.

Another explosion and then widespread shooting erupted and we scattered for cover. The group I was with sheltered by a wall opposite the hotel. About 100 yards round the corner from us was what turned out to be the separatists' main defense point, another concrete and barbed wire barricade.

An intense fire fight followed for more than three hours. Everyone in the heat of battle probably feels that they are at the hottest spot with every bullet seemingly aimed at them personally. I stayed with one group the entire battle but I know that our drama was probably repeated in other parts of the town where the Ukrainian fighters engaged the separatists.

The battalion commander, a tall bearded man called Andriy Biletsky, was with our group of around 30 men. He directed those men with shouted orders about where to take up firing positions or where to move up, which weapons – Kalashnikov automatic rifles, belt-fed machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers – to fire where and when. Through radio he was updated about the wider picture and coordinated the moves of the various battalions groups.

The Mad Max vehicle slid out three times from one of the intersection streets perpendicular to where the separatist barricade poured fire on us. As it pummeled the barricades members of the battalion darted up the street firing at the separatists. Other members of the group I was with worked their way to the separatist positions through back gardens of buildings. One of them, Serhiy, a former policeman from Crimea who refused to accept Russian authority after Moscow annexed the peninsula, was winged by a bullet which made blood gush from his left temple. After the wound was bandaged, Serhiy, rested for 20 minutes and then climbed over the wall again to rejoin the fight.

Slowly our group worked its way up the street towards the barricade. Two from our group sent four rocket propelled grenades into a bank that was also defended by the separatists. Other groups of Ukrainian fighters closed in on the barricade from other sides.

Slowly the sound of gunfire became intermittent and then died down. Everyone carefully worked their way up towards the main barricade. There were some bodies on the streets and the Ukrainian forces reported that at least seven separatist fighters had been killed and a dozen captured whilst the rest had fled.

Civilians stayed inside during the fighting, but as the gunfire died down and the Ukrainian forces fanned out, people came out to greet them and offering bottles of water.

"Ukraine needed this victory. It will have a profound effect on morale. It shows that we can beat the separatists even if Russia is supplying them. Ukrainians are a peaceful people and we don't want to take anybody else's land. But we will never let anyone take our land," Lyashko said.

But, the joy of victory was tempered in the early hours of the following day when battalion members learned that separatists had downed a Ukrainian military transport landing at the east Ukrainian Luhansk Airport, killing all 49 servicemen aboard.

Their deaths were a grisly contrast to the light casualties – four wounded - suffered by the forces which recaptured Mariupol.

Indeed, the incident hardened attitudes against Russia throughout the country – though the retaking of Mariupol represents a moment of hope for many.

Bohdan, a 23-year-old battalion member from the city of Luhansk said, "I hope that this is the start of the liberation of all the towns taken by the separatists. I want my battalion to be the one to take back my Luhansk from the terrorists."

Author Askold Krushelnycky is a British journalist embedded with the Azov Battalion.

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