Pro-Russia insurgents have been seizing government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine for more than a month, taking hostages and ambushing the army. Semyon Semenchenko is employing similar tactics to fight against them.
A burly entrepreneur who served 14 years in the military, the 40-year-old is commander of the local pro-Ukrainian “Donbass Battalion”, a 120-person unit which has already succeeded in taking back one local police station near the regional capital, Donetsk. Mr Semenchenko says it is now preparing to lay siege to Lugansk and Slavyansk, two eastern towns that are separatist strongholds.
In the forests of the east, he runs a militant boot camp for dozens of volunteers. Ranging in age from teenagers to experienced military veterans, the men are given AK-47s, grenades and balaclavas and taught to fire from the sniper position.
“We want to create a new country,” Mr Semenchenko declares. “The government basically doesn’t exist.”
Donbass is part of a broader trend. All over the east, armed “self-defence units” are forming to fight the separatists, filling the void left by a demoralised and passive police force. Their role has grown in the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential elections this Sunday, which the rebels have vowed to disrupt.
“These are patriots,” says Donetsk governor Serhiy Taruta. “They are the prototype of a municipal police force of the future.”
But there are inherent dangers. Some of the hastily assembled paramilitary forces now waging war in the east are poorly trained and inexperienced. And with the region awash with weapons, civilians risk being caught in the crossfire.
That risk was highlighted by events in the town of Krasnoarmeisk on May 11, when two civilians were killed and one injured in a clash between unarmed protesters and pro-Kiev forces. The violence involved members of Dnepr Battalion, a special police unit sponsored by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
Mr Kolomoisky is governor of Dnipropetrovsk, the region immediately to the west of Donetsk, which is also home to the Donbass Battalion. He has won plaudits for stemming the separatist tide. As well as making concessions to the more pliant rebels, he has financed new security structures – such as Dnepr – to deal with the holdouts.
Mr Kolomoisky distanced himself from the bloodshed in Krasnoarmeisk. One of his aides said it was caused not by Dnepr but “an armed rabble”.
But in an interview, Mr Taruta insisted Dnepr was to blame, and accused the unit of interfering in Donetsk’s affairs and stoking instability and lawlessness.
“We’re trying to calm things down, and they’re just provoking people,” he says. “They come and try to get rid of a local mayor they don’t like, or a leader, and they have a very powerful argument in their favour – automatic weapons. Not many people will be able to argue with them.”
Mr Semenchenko typifies the freelance nature of the paramilitaries and the region’s confusing local politics. A Donetsk native, he insists the Donbass Battalion operates independently of Kiev. In fact, he is scornful of the current pro-western Ukrainian government there, and wants to see it replaced once the separatist movement is quashed.
“Kiev is not doing anything,” he says. “It doesn’t understand the real state of affairs, and to be perfectly honest, we don’t really support them. They’re alien to us also.”
There are signs that things are turning in the government’s favour. The separatist leaders have begun to quarrel openly among themselves, while a video filmed in Slavyansk earlier this week showed a group of elderly women turning on the local separatist mayor. The region’s biggest tycoon Rinat Akhmetov came out decisively against the secessionist movement on Monday, urging his 300,000 employees to do the same.
At one of Donbass’s camps earlier this week, a motley group of trainees identified themselves as being mostly from eastern Ukraine, saying they had learnt about Mr Semenchenko and the battalion from the internet.
Sergei, one of the few recruits not from the east, said he had little exposure to violence in his previous life as a twenty-something sales manager in a Kiev suburb but had gone to “throw stones and mix Molotov cocktails” during the height of the anti-government protests in the capital in February. “I learnt how to from the internet,” he explained.
Mr Semenchenko is vague on the Donbass Battalion’s financing – claiming it is funded by small public donations – but upfront about its use of force. “We try not to beat people . . . But in the places where terrorism has taken hold we will have to employ harsher methods,” he says. “Sometimes harsh action ends up saving more lives than it destroys.”
While most of the trainees seemed unprepared to fire the AK-47s they were using in training, they were flanked by more experienced fighters who have been playing a bigger role in anti-separatist operations.
Pavel, one of Mr Semenchenko’s lieutenants and an Afghan war veteran, admitted to having links to Right Sector, a nationalist militant group decried by Moscow. Any resolution to the current conflict, he said, would depend on the pro-Ukrainians responding to the separatists in kind.
“When a person comes to you with a gun they don’t want to negotiate, they want to pull the trigger,” he said. “When he and you both have guns, he wants to negotiate.”
Get alerts on Ukrainian politics when a new story is published