In flak jackets and mismatched camouflage fatigues, men from eastern Ukraine, Russia and Ossetia cleaned their weapons side by side in a former Ukrainian army base, now the headquarters of a separatist militia in the city of Donetsk.
Battalion Vostok - or the East Battalion - is a heavily armed, well-organized fighting group that has burst onto the scene in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and appears to be seeking to lead the fight to prize the region from Kyiv and merge it with Russia.
The group encountered at the former Ukrainian base included a total of at least five fighters from the Russian Caucasus region of North Ossetia and from a Russian-backed enclave of Georgia.
Demonstrators, holding Russian flags, rally for Russian protection and against war in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, May 31, 2014.
They acknowledged they had been fighting alongside Chechens from Russia's former rebellious region of Chechnya, but these, they said, had now gone home.
The presence of fighters from Russia and other parts of former Soviet space is likely to feature prominently in talks later this week when Ukraine's President-elect, Petro Poroshenko, meets U.S. President Barack Obama and, possibly, Russia's Vladimir Putin.
“The split of the country is final. There is nothing uniting us with them [the Kyiv leadership] now,” Alexander Khodakovsky, a defector from the Ukrainian state security service who now commands Battalion Vostok, told Reuters.
“Kyiv has already understood that they have lost south-eastern Ukraine, that it is a sphere of Russian influence, and one way or another it will remain so,” said the 41-year-old.
The men of Battalion Vostok see Russia as the heart of their own civilization and values, irreconcilable with the pro-Western course taken by the Ukrainian authorities.
Kyiv denounces them as terrorists and accuses Russia of supporting the rebellion in the east, where separatists have proclaimed independent “people's republics” and where scores of rebel fighters died in clashes with Ukraine's army in May.
Foreign fighters at the Battalion Vostok base in the north-eastern part of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people, gave various reasons, from religious persecution to ethnic divisions, for joining the separatists defending the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People's Republic."
The separatist leader Denis Pushilin said after the battle for the Donetsk airport, which is now controlled by the Ukrainian army, that the bodies of "volunteers" from Russia would be returned home, openly acknowledging involvement from across the border.
Moscow denies involvement in the conflict that threatens to tear Ukraine apart and has dragged ties between Russia and the West to their lowest since the Cold War.
Elsewhere, a special mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is in talks with a number of groups in eastern Ukraine to release two of its teams that have been detained there for days, a spokesman said on Sunday.
A team of four monitors has been held in the Donetsk region since last Monday evening, while another four plus a Ukrainian translator were detained around the Luhansk region on Thursday. There has been sporadic fighting in both regions between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.
“We're engaged in dialogue on a wide number of levels. We've been on the ground in that region for about two months now and we're well known to many people who hold sway in those areas so we're in a good position, we feel, to get our colleagues back to base,” said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman of the special mission.
“We're quite confident that they're in good shape, they haven't been harmed,” he told journalists outside the OSCE's office in Kyiv. He would not elaborate on the talks as they were sensitive.
Also this week, Obama’s four-day trip to Poland, Belgium and France comes against the backdrop of successful national elections in Ukraine and signs that Russia is moving most of its troops off its shared border with the former Soviet republic. Yet violence continues to rage in eastern Ukrainian cities and there remains deep uncertainty about whether Ukraine's new president-elect can stabilize his country, the AP reported.
U.S. officials contend that, even with some signs of progress, Russia has not taken the necessary steps to ease tensions and could still face additional economic sanctions.
Confrontations continued Saturday between government troops and the Pro-Russian rebels. Ukrainian army paratroopers prepare to move to a position in Slovyansk, Ukraine, May 31, 2014.
Obama will look for Western allies to show a united front during a meeting of the Group of Seven major industrial nations that was quickly arranged after leaders decided to boycott a meeting Russia had been scheduled to host this week, the AP reported.
Putin is scheduled to join U.S. and European leaders in France on Friday for a day of events marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Putin will also hold one-on-one talks with French President Francois Hollande, his first meeting with a Western leader since the Ukraine crisis began.
“Putin may not get to host the G-8 but if he gets to go to Normandy with everybody, it begins to diminish the appearance of isolation,'' said Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an AP report.
The White House says Obama will not hold a formal bilateral meeting with Putin, though the two leaders are expected to have some contact.
Officials also disputed the notion that Putin's presence constituted a return to normal relations, noting that Obama and other leaders have talked with the Russian president throughout the crisis with Ukraine.
Some information for this report provided by AP.