KYIV — With the conflict in eastern Ukraine intensifying, the country's military needs new recruits more than ever. A drive to integrate guerrilla fighters into national security forces to add muscle to the escalating campaign against pro-Russian separatists.
At this training center outside Kyiv, a new battalion of the National Guard is honing its skills.
Soldiers at a firing range shoot round after round at their targets, under the watch of burly military trainers.
But these are no ordinary rookies. This is a group of battle-hardened fighters formed from a community militia that organized itself to confront separatist forces in the east.
Their commander, Semyon Semenchenko, said they are looking for additional recruits to round out the new battalion. “We are looking for men who are first of all ready to die for their motherland,” he said. “This readiness to fulfill their duty until the end is what distinguishes a soldier from the quitter who just drops his weapon and runs away,” Semenchenko stated.
The Donbas battalion formed under the leadership of Semenchenko in the last two months to confront pro-Russian rebels who have taken control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government has been working on a campaign to recruit and integrate these semi-official squads into the National Guard.
Most of the soldiers in the battalion are residents of the east and have been on the front lines of the conflict.
One soldier, going by the code name Almaz, or “diamond,” was part of the group ambushed by separatist fighters in a now famous battle last month in Karlovka, as the battalion was trying to secure polling stations ahead of the presidential elections.
Outnumbered by more than 100 separatist fighters, he said his group of 20 was overwhelmed, with no one to call for backup.
“They started to surround us,” he said, “we were fighting, the forces were uneven, some groups had to pull back, unfortunately we didn't have any help, so we managed on our own,” Almaz said.
At least one member of the Donbas battalion was killed, with several others wounded in the fight.
For Almaz and the rest of the group, joining the National Guard offers not only training and equipment, but also the promise of stronger military backing. A lack of coordination has been a major weakness of Ukrainian forces in the east.
Meantime, Russian fighters have been seen among the separatists, though Moscow denies any direct involvement.
In the most recent of their increasingly brazen attacks, hundreds of rebels on Monday launched a major, sustained assault on a border guard post near the city of Luhansk. The daylong battle left as many as five rebels dead and 10 servicemen injured, at least four critically.
To fight the growing threat, Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said the National Guard needs as many volunteers as it can get, and that incorporating the Donbas battalion is part of a greater effort to unite these loosely organized community militias.
“This is the third battalion of the National Guard that was a guerrilla squad before,” he said, “Now that the terrorists are more organized, and better formed, receiving weapons from Russia, they (the Ukrainian authorities) understand that we needed to be united,” said Gerachchenko.
The Ukrainian authorities have been calling on community self-defense groups that supported protests against the country's former Russian-backed president to join the fight in the east, but it is unclear how many are stepping forward.
The smoldering conflict is among the most pressing challenges facing President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who has vowed to put a quick end to the insurgency.