An armed pro-Russian militant stands guard at a barricade outside the village of Shchastya near the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on May 14, 2014
SHCHASTYA, Ukraine — The town of Shchastya or ‘Happiness,’ lies just ten miles from Luhansk, the most shelled and lawless city of the conflict in Ukraine. It has served as a frontline for Ukrainian forces since June, when the town was taken by the notorious Aidar volunteer battalion. Since then, Aidar has set up base in a former police academy in the northern part of the town.
When I met the fighters at their base on a recent day, they took obvious pleasure in their daredevil reputation. Sharing cigarettes of dubious origin, they boasted about how they had entered Shchastya at a time when the regular Ukrainian army was in retreat.
With what seemed almost like glee, they described the perilous operation they carried out to carve out a vital corridor to Luhansk airport. The 500-strong battalion has suffered more losses than any other volunteer formation: 23 men were killed in the fighting for the airport alone. And the battle for Luhansk itself, currently underway, looks like it will prove even costlier.
The Aidar forces are a colorful cross-section of Ukrainians, motivated by a mix of patriotism, a revolutionary spirit and a hatred of Putin's Russia. Lumped together in this battalion of fighters are liberal, intellectual Maidan activists, far-right football fanatics and other oddballs from all across the country. The battalion also boasts an international contingent that includes Russians, Armenians and Belarusians. One of the fighters told me that two Canadians volunteered for a while, though “they might have been Swedish.”
A Chechen called Ruslan Arsayev is another member of this motley crew. A veteran of six military campaigns, he comes from a family of Chechen warriors. One brother was an official in the de facto government in Chechnya during the late 90s and another brother took part in the hijacking of a Russian plane en route to Turkey. Two people were killed during the hijacking.
As a kitten climbed up his shoulder, paying little heed to the rumble of artillery fire nearby, Arsayev offered a simple explanation for fighting the pro-Russian separatists: “I don’t bend over for Putin,” he said. “I don’t get f*cked in the ass.”
Since they took over the town, the anarchic Aidar fighters have developed a strained relationship with local residents. There have been reports of looting, summary arrests and worse. Some locals say that Aidar forces were responsible for the killing of a family of three whose naked bodies they say were recently found in the street. In a place swirling with propaganda, it was hard to establish whether this claim was actually true. (A town official said that only one civilian has been killed during the entire time of fighting.)
It was clear, though, that looting was taking place: the cars parked at the Aidar base were a bit of a give-away. Evgeny Dikhy, a soft-spoken former biology lecturer, called it a “wartime necessity,” though he seemed uneasy with that thought.
As morning broke, a group of pensioners appeared in a ghost-like huddle outside of the base. Their presence alarmed some of the more excitable Aidar soldiers, who warned that speaking with them would end badly. They needn't have worried: the pensioners hadn’t come to protest but to ask for handouts at the barracks. Living so near the frontlines, they had not received pensions for more than a month, they said, and had little choice but to come begging for help. At about 10 am, a car emerged from the base with a boot-full of emergency rations.
“Please don’t focus on the negative,” said Vladimir Tyurin, the town’s deputy mayor, who had arrived at the base to help coordinate the food distribution. While Tyurin admitted there were serious problems in town, he insisted nothing was “catastrophic.” The pensioners, he said, “aren’t quite as starving as they say.”
Shortly after, a Chevrolet pockmarked by bullet holes pulled up on screeching tires. Amid great commotion, the rear doors swung open and two fighters jumped out. A shirtless and handcuffed man was dragged into the base.
Tyurin watched motionless. There were reasons why he might have felt uneasy: in June he was himself arrested by masked Aidar fighters, and spent almost three weeks in captivity. After that inauspicious start, Tyurin said relations were “improving.”
After a little negotiation, I was granted access to Aidar’s basement detention cell. An unlit flight of stairs led down to what appeared to be a sports hall. Conditions seemed surprisingly civilized: the room was un-crowded, clean and well-lit. There were soft mats for sleeping and an electric kettle and provisions for tea. I spoke briefly to the prisoners, asking them how they were doing. They seemed anxious but not terrified. Some had injuries, which they said were from shrapnel and other battle wounds.
According to the guard, a man who identified himself as Roman Abramenko, Aidar had taken a total of about 100 prisoners of war into the Schastya base. Of the 22 being held while I was there, two were identified as Russian volunteers; the vast majority were locals from Luhansk.
Abramenko said the impoverished area around Luhansk has been a natural recruitment ground for pro-Russian forces. “They watch Russian propaganda and they think they’re becoming heroes,” he said. “With every town we take, we show them they’re just f*cking idiots.”
In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have made significant advances, with several rebel-held towns falling in quick succession. There was news this weekend that Ukrainian forces had raised the national flag at a police station on the outskirts of Luhansk, a key city that has been held by the pro-Russian separatists since April.
Aidar fighters welcomed the chance to take on the separatists.
“My patriotism is stronger than any fear,” said Bohdan Prihodovsky, a young fighter. “The Russians are motivated by cash — we are motivated by freedom.”
Oliver Carroll is an independent journalist based in Ukraine, formerly editor-in-chief of Open Democracy Russia and founding editor of Russian Esquire
Tags: AIDAR, Ukraine, WORLD