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Russian Social Media Fortify Rebellion in Eastern Ukraine


Screenshot of a Dobrovolec advertisement posted June 21 on the organization’s VKontakte page exhorting potential Russian recruits to “get your rear end off the couch” and volunteer for the defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Screenshot of a Dobrovolec advertisement posted June 21 on the organization’s VKontakte page exhorting potential Russian recruits to “get your rear end off the couch” and volunteer for the defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

If you’re a Russian citizen these days, it is easier than ever to support the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, now nearly three months old.

With the click of a mouse, you can transfer money through Sberbank – Russia’s largest bank, which is government controlled – to grassroots organizations supplying separatist rebels with weapons and personnel.

And if you want to get personally involved, organizations like Dobrovolec.org (Russian Volunteers for Donbass) can arrange that too.

“People are coming through with colossal experience,” a coordinator for the website, who identified himself as Kirill, told VOA by telephone. He said seasoned veterans from Chechnya, Afghanistan and other wars are among those currently placed in Ukraine.

Russian tanks, missiles and militiamen have all appeared on the battlefields of Ukraine’s self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Through their own command structures, so have self-styled Cossack brigades and active Chechen units.

Despite Russia’s repeated denials, none of this could happen without the thinly-veiled complicity of the Kremlin, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials and analysts in Moscow and elsewhere.

“It’s impossible to have spontaneous action in contemporary Russia, to have people crossing borders [on their own]. Everything is controlled,” said Emil Souleimanov, a Caucasus security analyst at Charles University in Prague.

“The [movement] of equipment and fighters into Ukraine is functioning under the supervision of Russian authorities and is instigated by them,” he said.

Internet recruitment

Last month, the Ukrainian foreign ministry pointed to “an increase in actions aimed at carrying out subversive activities and operations against Ukraine” on Russian social networking sites such as VKontakte and LiveJournal, according to Ukrainian state media.

A hugely popular, local version of Facebook with less stringent rules, VKontakte gives organizations such as the ultranationalist Eurasia Youth Union a platform for calls “to contribute to the fight for Ukraine,” as the group advertised recently on its website.

Dobrovolec publishes information almost daily, including a request earlier this month for the recruitment of “physicians, military officers and experienced tank operators.”

Screenshot showing an advertisement for a June 11 rally in Moscow to support Novorossiya, an imperial-era term used by Russian nationalists to describe historic territory stretching from Moldova across southern Ukraine, Crimea and into southern Russia

Screenshot showing an advertisement for a June 11 rally in Moscow to support Novorossiya, an imperial-era term used by Russian nationalists to describe historic territory stretching from Moldova across southern Ukraine, Crimea and into southern Russia

One of the group’s multiple coordinators operating under the online pseudonym Odin Dvatri (“One-two-three”), Kirill put the number of his volunteers currently in Ukraine “in the hundreds.”

“There are reliable reports that Russian commissioned officers have submitted lists of recently retired specialists who know how to use military equipment,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading independent newspaper.

“These people were later approached and offered the chance to fight in Ukraine. That way, when they’re caught, the Russians can deny responsibility,” he said.

Another association established a VKontakte page headlined “National Liberation Anti-Maidan,” referring to the square in central Kyiv and the pro-Western revolution that began there.

These organizations do more than just talk.

After the battle for the Donetsk airport, which broke out on May 26, a refrigerated truck carried the bodies of 33 Russian citizens to Rostov-on-Don, where they were transported to various locations across Russia for burial. Rebel spokesmen said the men were all volunteer fighters.

Dobrovolec’s website is currently shut down but posts by Odin Dvatri still appear on the organization's VKontakte page.

A June 25 appeal for financial assistance included a Sberbank account number and stated the funds would be used “to help the wounded, for transportation services, equipment, supplies and a number of operational costs.”

Dobrovolec also lists account details with multiple money transfer companies, including WebMoney and the Hong Kong-based PerfectMoney, which it says is “convenient for transfers from Europe and the United States.”

Nationalists, Cossacks and Chechens

The militias operating in eastern Ukraine are a motley mix, with significant numbers coming from Russia, effectively serving as a proxy army for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There are hardcore, ideologically-motivated Russian volunteers, most [with] military backgrounds, plus self-styled Cossacks from all over Russia, many of whom can operate sophisticated systems and know how to fight,” Felgenhauer said.

“There are also locals recruited on the spot, [often] connected to street gangs and organized crime. Donetsk and Luhansk are highly criminalized parts of Ukraine,” he said.

The Vostok Battalion, the largest and most effective separatist militia operating in the Donetsk area, is composed of a mix of Russian citizens and local fighters, according to its commander, who denies ties to Moscow.

But anecdotal evidence of Russians joining the rebellion abounds.

"When I spoke with members of the Ukrainian National Guard, they told me – without question – that Russian mercenaries [were among those] fighting against them,” said blogger and former Russian infantryman Arkady Babchenko, who recently returned to Moscow from eastern Ukraine.

“For example, they buried a guy from the separatists after finding his body. He had a tattoo on his hand from the 45th Airborne Regiment. That’s a Russian regiment here, near Moscow," Babchenko said.

On April 9, a message on the website of the “Great Don Army” from Cossack Ataman (Chief) Nikolai Kozitsyn ordered the formation of a Cossack National Guard in Ukraine.

Various Cossack brigades – some Ukrainian, others Russian – have joined the rebellion.

By late May, elite Chechen fighters – another group similarly renowned for their bravery and ferocity – also appeared on the battlefield. Known as kadyrovtsy for their pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, these units serve a dual purpose, Souleimanov explained.

“Whenever dirty work is needed – masked operations, forced disappearances, beatings, torture – you can deploy the kadyrovtsy while [also] distancing yourself from them,” he said.

There’s a huge need to send fighters from Russia because the local population is not providing enough manpower, according to Felgenhauer.

Low-level civil war

In lieu of direct military intervention in Ukraine, Moscow’s goal is to foment a low-level civil war in order to bog down the country politically and economically and prevent its integration into the European Union and NATO, analysts say.

“So, instead they use paramilitary units led by small groups of FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] and other specialists. They want these guys to come into Ukraine and do their job without [overt] intervention from Russia,” Souleimanov said.

The Ukrainian government has intercepted and published “command-and-control conversations from known Russian agents with their separatist clients in Ukraine,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in April.

Kerry has repeatedly rebuked Moscow’s involvement, citing U.S. intelligence assessments he says reveal how Russian “personnel, weapons, money and planning” are playing an “active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine.”

Alexander Borodai, who claims the title prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the rebel commander in Slovyansk, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, are both Russian citizens.

While they have denied Kremlin ties, EU officials pegged Strelkov as a Russian military intelligence officer when they targeted him in April as part of a new round of sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea. The U.S. slapped its own sanctions against him earlier this month.

The bottom line, said Felgenhauer, is that for Russia it is unacceptable to allow Ukrainian forces to rout their rebellion, so Moscow will do what it takes to ensure a military balance.

“What Russia wanted [in Georgia’s disputed] Abkhazia region, and apparently wants now, is a frozen conflict,” he said. “There’s a belief in Moscow that if a country has an unsettled separatist rebellion and territorial dispute, NATO will not take it in. It worked with Moldova and Georgia.”

The Kremlin’s message, clearly, is being heard.

“We have an effective organization, and can adapt to conditions [on the ground]. If an Odessa People’s Republic appears, or some kind of Kharkiv [PR], we’ll be there,” Dobrovolec coordinator Kirill said.

VOA's Snowiss reported from Washington, Danila Galperovich from Moscow

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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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