DONETSK, UKRAINE —
The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters.
Although the Kyiv government, the United States and the NATO alliance have shown the heavy presence of Russian fighters and weapons among the rebel forces, many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old.
During recent weapons training, recruits joining an area unit called the Cossacks Union of the Don Region Force used the faces of Western-leaning Ukrainian politicians, including Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, as targets.
It's been months since the Kyiv government began what it calls an anti-terrorism operation to retake the east. But to these men, the offensive feels like an invasion by a new government they are suspicious of for having turned away from tradtional ties to Moscow.
Sasha, their commander, was an economist and businessman in eastern Ukraine before the war. He traveled to Kyiv and had friends there. But no one there understands why he’s fighting, he said.
“They think that we are terrorists, and pro-Russian citizens. But I do not think like this," Sasha said. "We were born as Russians in our blood, and we are living on our land. As a rule, we have no contact with 90 percent of our old friends in western Ukraine, and there is a massive lack of comprehension between us and them.”
The use of artillery and rockets in built-up areas by both sides has led to many civilian deaths and huge damage to property. Instead of discouraging the rebellion, these men say it has obligated them to join up.
Rebel recruit "Spiker," who worked as a miner until his village was largely destroyed by shelling, said that "a lot of my neighbors were killed, a lot of my friends whom I worked with before were killed. All the houses and the church on my street were ruined. The children's playground and school were ruined."
The men say they are most concerned about the volunteers coming east to fight for the government — some of whom, they say, are part of far-right political movements.
Despite a cease-fire signed in February, these men said they expected the fighting to start again soon. And the longer the fighting continues, they said, the further apart the two sides will get.