NEAR KYIV — More volunteers with Ukraine's Donbas Battalion, a pro-government militia that recently merged with the National Guard, were preparing to deploy to the restive east Monday - in the middle of a temporary cease-fire declared just days earlier by the country’s new president. The deployment comes at a time when they are technically not allowed to launch operations against pro-Russian separatist fighters.
The Donbas Battalion is no ordinary army. That much is clear from their mismatched uniforms and shoes and uneven marching formation.
But what they might lack in discipline, fitness, unit cohesion and basic training, they more than make up for in enthusiasm - and love for their country, Ukraine.
An assembly of about 360 of the unit’s members shouted “Glory to Ukraine” and “Death to enemies,” as they prepared to deploy Monday to an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine, where regular Ukrainian troops have been fighting separatists. The unit is named after the eastern industrial heartland of Ukraine, commonly called Donbas, and many of its members hail from the area.
There, surrounded by battle-hardened guerrillas allegedly backed by Russia’s formidable army, they will be operating under an order that tests the mettle of even the most elite troops: to cease fire.
The Donbas Battalion has trained at a camp north of Kyiv for just three weeks. And their deployment comes just three days after Ukraine’s new president declared a one-week unilateral cease-fire to allow militants to disarm and leave the country. The terms of President Petro Poroshenko’s cease-fire allow Ukrainian troops to return fire only if they are attacked.
Neither side has observed the cease-fire - rebels rejected it outright and fighting continued uninterrupted over the weekend. It’s unclear how that will affect Poroshenko’s plan to bring peace to the east.
The battalion's commander, Semyon Semenchenko, said he thinks his fighters need to deploy even amid a supposed cease-fire.
Concerning the president’s moratorium, Semenchenko said that he thinks his men will abide by it. “But they will attack us; and we will respond,” he added. “Moreover,” he said, “this is our home. We live in Donbas, that’s why we’re going there.”
Recruits are eager
Semenchenko formed his unit in late May, after pro-Russian fighters began violently advancing in Ukraine’s east. The Donbas Battalion, which is integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard, is largely funded with private donations and relies on volunteers. Some fighters are even forgoing the $340 monthly salary they are being offered.
A spokeswoman for the group said about half the corps’ men have prior military experience. She said the ranks now number about 600, with some 3,000 volunteers waiting to sign up.
The recruits are eager, and many seem to be spoiling for a fight.
One militia member, who gave his name only as Viktor and said he did not have a rank, was quick to answer when asked what he’d do if separatists shot at him.
“This issue was addressed in the peace plan,” he said. “Of course, I’ll fire back.”