There are no active Russian servicemen in Ukraine – or so the Kremlin has been insisting for months.
Yet a recent encounter in the only functioning restaurant in war-torn Lugansk belied that claim. As the sounds of Celine Dion wafted from the sound system of the Weeping Willow café on a recent evening, half a dozen Russian soldiers sat down to a vodka-soaked dinner.
The men, dressed in the latest Russian army uniform, fanned out across two tables. As the 1994 ballad “Love Is All Around” came on the stereo, one comrade turned to another and asked if he had, by chance, seen the film Love Actually? You know, he added, the one with Keira Knightley.
Soon they invited two western journalists to join their table. One member of the group said he and the others had been in Lugansk for the past month, meaning that they arrived after the ceasefire the rebels signed with Kiev on September 5.
The men’s goal was “training the local population”, said the soldier, a native of Russia’s Voronezh region named Maxim. Asked if he and the others had come as volunteers, he replied sarcastically: “Sure, we’re volunteers. Nobody sent us here.” He continued on a more serious note. “They gave us an order: who wants to go volunteer? And we put our hands up like this,” he said, mocking someone being forced to put their hand up.
The involvement of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine has been one of the most incendiary elements of a conflict that has so far killed more than 3,700 people.
Western governments believe Russian troops and heavy weaponry were instrumental in reversing a campaign by Ukrainian troops to pacify two eastern provinces over-run by pro-Moscow separatists. The provinces, Lugansk and Donetsk, are now under rebel control as a result of that tenuous ceasefire.
Moscow insists that any Russian citizens fighting on the side of the separatists are “volunteers” and that any soldiers who have mysteriously ended up on Ukrainian territory had gone there on their holidays, while taking a sabbatical from their military service.
But evidence on the ground has suggested otherwise. In early September Nato alleged that 3,000 active Russian soldiers were on the ground in east Ukraine, while Kiev put the figure at as high as 10,000.
In September, a commission on military affairs on Russia’s presidential human rights council alleged that 100 soldiers from the 18th Motorised Rifle Brigade of military unit 27777 had died in action in east Ukraine, according to a report by Reuters.
In August, Kiev posted video interviews of 10 men it had captured in east Ukraine who admitted to being Russian paratroopers, while attention has also focused on the paratroopers from Russia’s Pskov Airborne Division – at least two of whom died on August 20, just a day before the Ukrainian military claimed it had captured two armoured vehicles from the Pskov division.
Fighters from Russia’s restive Chechnya and North Ossetia regions have been playing a visible role on the ground in Donetsk since May, when they first began talking to reporters, including from the Financial Times. While the majority of the men manning the Donetsk and Lugansk rebel-controlled checkpoints are local – as are many of the men taking part in the fighting – there is ample evidence that mercenaries are also present on the ground. Some of them appeared to have been staying at the $100-a-night Donetsk Ramada, one of the few Donetsk hotels that has stayed open throughout the fighting.
At the Weeping Willow, whose interior is a homage to the 1968 Soviet caper film The Diamond Arm, with glass display cases featuring fake props from the movie and stills from the film adorning the walls – four of Maxim’s companions soon joined the discussion: Slava, a man the others referred to as their officer and who was wearing a uniform with official Russian armed forces and Russian flag insignia; Salovat, whom the other men referred to as “the Tatar” because of his ethnicity; Kirill, a lanky twenty-something with dark hair and a scar across his cheek; and a fourth whose ethnicity suggested he was from Russia’s Caucasus.
The last – and most sober – member of the group, a man named Stanislav, headed for the exit after learning that he was in the company of reporters.
The men looked quite different to the local rebel forces. The insurgents who have been fighting Ukraine’s army tend to sport a motley collection of green camouflage outfits, often acquired from hunting and fishing shops or thrift stores. They also tend to carry pistols and Kalashnikovs with them wherever they go, even inside public buildings. The six men at the Weeping Willow were quite different. All were dressed identically in the latest official Russian armed forces green camouflage uniform, a design that was unveiled only in December 2012. None of them was armed.
They said that they had been coming to the café since they arrived a month earlier. Then Lugansk, which has borne the brunt of the summer fighting, was still without electricity, as it had been for most of the summer, and the men were forced to sip their beers in the dark.
They said they had been conducting their training every day, including weekends, though they did not elaborate on what sort of training they were engaged in.
While the fighting has left the city centre, Lugansk remains under a strict 8pm curfew. Shortly before the appointed hour, the men settled their bill and stumbled out the door, Slava the officer carrying a bottle of the Weeping Willow’s own vodka brand under his arm.
“A million men will die for your eyes!” Salovat shouted to a reporter. And with that the party was over.
The volunteers who applied online to fight in UkraineWhile there is growing evidence that Russian soldiers and mercenaries are taking part in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, many of the Russian citizens in the region are exactly what Moscow claims they are: volunteers.
In a coffee shop in Donetsk, Oleg and Sergei, two brothers from Siberia, explained that they had decided to join the fight in Lugansk after witnessing a horrific confrontation between pro-Russia supporters and ultra nationalist football fans in Odessa. The clash led to the deaths of dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators in a fire.
Oleg, a 41 year-old economist for a well-known multinational in one of Siberia’s biggest cities, said he sent his application to join the rebels in June through an internet organisation that helps place Russian volunteers. He requested to fight under the leadership of Alexei Mozgovoi, the much-feared commander of Lugansk’s Ghost battalion.
Days before his departure in early August, his 28-year-old brother Sergei, a builder, announced that he wanted to join him.
“People say we’re in a foreign country but we’re not. This is our land,” Oleg said. “This war isn’t just material, it’s spiritual. It’s a fight against the values of the western world.”
He rattled off a list of American and European wrongdoings, mostly centred around the west’s growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and advocacy for gay rights. “We believe in love – love between a man and a woman,” he said.
“America is a great place. You have great Harleys. You can bear arms,” he said. “But it’s only great for those who want to live inside it. America shouldn’t be trying to build democracy in other places.”
The brothers admitted that the past two months had not been easy. “It’s not an anti-terror operation. It’s a genocide,” Sergei said, referring to Kiev’s military offensive in the east. He claimed that his battalion had come across multiple rebel corpses “with necks cut off, heads cut off”, accusing the pro-Ukrainian battalions of desecrating their victims. It is an allegation Kiev has also levelled at the separatists.
The men said heavy fighting had not abated since a September 5 ceasefire, which they claimed existed only on paper. Neither said they had any plans to return home. Sergei said: “We know that war doesn’t last one or two months.”