Foreigners Fighting for Ukraine in 6 Profiles

Alexey Eremenko
The Moscow Times | Jul. 23 2014

The conflict has tended to attract European ultra-rightwingers on one side, and Russian imperialists on the other. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

From Lord Byron to Che Guevara, warfare has always had a way of attracting foreign activists passionate enough to fight and die for their respective causes.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is no exception. But the foreigners involved are no Comandante Che. Rather, the conflict has tended to attract the likes of European ultra-rightwingers on one side, and Russian imperialists on the other.

The Moscow Times has selected the three most colorful foreign warriors on each side to provide our readers with a crash course in the types of people that would opt for machine guns, sniper rifles and the front lines of Donetsk and Luhansk as the most appropriate means by which to defend their ideals.

The Ukrainian Army:

1. Mikael Skilt, Sweden

A retired army sniper, 37-year-old Skilt is a member of Svenskarnas Parti, a Swedish neo-Nazi party. According to the BBC, he opposes "racial mixing" and campaigns in Ukraine to support his "white brothers." Up next on his world tour is Syria, where he reportedly plans to join up with  strongman Bashar Assad to help him combat "international Zionism."

2. Francesco "Don" Fontana, Italy

The 53-year-old Fontana has reportedly been fighting the Communist menace since the Years of Lead, a street war between the ultra-right and the radical left in Italy between the 1960s and 1980s. These days, he is better known as a Kalashnikov-toting trooper who has joined leagues with Ukraine’s nationalist Right Sector group. Daily newspaper Il Giornale reported that Fontana’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, idolized Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and that Fontana himself has always wanted to avenge the death of his grandfather, who was slain in southern Russia by the Red Army during World War II.

3. Gaston Besson, France

Besson, 47, recruits foreign volunteers for the Ukrainian army. According to Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the ex-paratrooper and self-proclaimed "anarchist individualist" also heads an association of foreign veterans that fought the Croatian war of 1991-1995, the bulk of whom were neo-Nazi sympathizers, including from the French Foreign Legion.

The Rebels:

1. Igor Girkin aka Strelkov, Russia

Girkin, a retired FSB officer also linked to the GRU intelligence agency, fought in Transdnestr, Bosnia and Chechnya. For some Russians, he is the closest thing to a national hero the country has had since Yury Gagarin. A historian by education, 43-year-old Girkin whiles away peaceful times shooting imaginary weapons: He is an avid historical re-enactor, with a particular penchant for the imperial army troops of World War I and the anti-Bolshevik forces of the Russian Civil War.

2. Alexander "Babai" Mozhayev, Russia

Atop his square frame, he sports an epic beard, police sunglasses and a Kalashnikov. He leads a unit of Cossacks, a quasi-warrior caste seen as the spetsnaz of the tsarist era. He owes his nom de guerre, Babai, to a Russian fairytale bogeyman and is rumored to have killed U.S. mercenaries and shot down gunships. Mozhayev, 36, has the general appearance of a comic-book character. Even the attempted murder charges currently pending against him at home in Russia have done little to dim his popularity: He is the star of a thousand online memes.

3. Chechen volunteers, Russia

Nobody knows who they are, or how many of them are out there, but even Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has admitted that volunteers from the North Caucasus republic, where an anti-Russian insurgency has simmered for 15 years, are now flocking to join a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine. Talk about fortunes of war.



Face to face with the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine July 25, 2014

‘I wish it wasn’t like this but it is, it has to be’ … Vice Commandant Oxana Grinyova. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

WITH a Makarov pistol in a holster on her left and a jagged edged knife on her right, Oxana Grinyova is more Che Guevara than suburban soccer mum.

But standing dressed in battle fatigues beside her two sons the 43-year-old says it wasn’t always this way.

“I wish it wasn’t like this but it is, it has to be,” shrugs Vice Commandant Grinyova from the separatist militia group’s SVOT Squad in their city stronghold of Donetsk.

“My life changed in one day for sure. Am I afraid now of dying? Probably just the stupid is not afraid but someone has to do this.”

As government forces close in on the city stronghold, the local ragtag militia with Russian-issue weapons is ready to fight.

Camouflaged … the battalion consists of around 80 people. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Surprisingly they are not the embittered revolutionaries one could imagine say in Chechnya or Syria, rather they are idealists led by extremists who can see no way forward. And now too they are potentially mass murderers with the blood of 298 innocents on their hands.

The engaging softly spoken commander with the warm smile and (bottled) flame red hair looks out of place talking guns, bombs and war, surrounded by edgy-looking young men whose index fingers shift nervously over the trigger guards of their Kalashnikovs in a permanent state of readiness.

But that is probably because a few months ago she was a manager of a large international hotel and restaurant commanding an army of cooks, clerks and cleaners and not directing 70 to 100 men and women of the self-styled Pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic looking to secede from Ukraine through bloody revolt and become an independent state tied to Russia.

Tough guy … Ihor, separatist with the pro Russia militia. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Those nearby are equally out of place — until a few months ago they worked in shops and factories, or were accountants, farmers, shopkeepers, housewives or students.

Until a week ago, there would be few outside of Ukraine who would have ever heard of or cared about such a ragtag army or their industrial city 40km from the border of Russia, founded by a Welshman 140 years ago as a steel and coal producing regional capital.

Then Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 dropped out of the sky in the disputed Donetsk territory killing all 298 passengers and crew on board, including 40 Australian residents.

Suddenly, the world is taking an interest.

Just who shot the aircraft down is being investigated but it is likely to have been fired by the Pro-Russian separatists mistaking it for a military aircraft from the Ukrainian air force.

Comrades in arms … the militants come from the Sloviansk area. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Talk of the downed aircraft sits uncomfortably among the militia spoken to by News Corp Australia inside their base. They either don’t know who shot it down or declare with absolute authority it was a Ukraine fighter jet tailing the aircraft and slaughtering it to bring the West into the war. But Cmdr Grinyova and her force agree it was a terrible tragedy. No-one wants to see civilians killed — not least of all because before April 1 the militia were largely ordinary civilians themselves.

Either way, that is of little consequence to the families and loved ones of the 298 killed during the little known armed struggle in Ukraine’s east and who are now just searching for answers among the fields of sunflowers where the wreckage of the doomed jet fell.

The multinational force of air crash investigators are struggling to gain access to the site despite both sides declaring a 20km exclusion zone around it.

No soccer mum … Oxana Grinyova with her son Stanislav. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

No one is prepared to guarantee their safety, not the rebels nor the Ukrainian military who during the week were firing rockets at the rebels but inadvertently killing civilians with wayward missiles dropping into the suburbs of the city.

Cmd Grinyova’s sons Stanislav and Vladislav are also both in the army now, the 25 and 19 year olds joking that the family now always know where each other are at any given point in time in the day.

Stanislav was studying to be a tour operator and Vladislav had only just finished school.

“Before all these events I loved my country a lot and was even proud of the Ukraine flag,” Stanislav said.

“But when they made heroes out of those fascists in Kiev I became ashamed to be Ukrainian. They want to cut us off from our (Russian) culture and I don’t agree with this.”

Smoking cigarettes and waiting … the separatists are waiting for the Ukrainian troops. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

The “fascists” were ironically men just like him in Kiev in February who overthrew the Kremlin-backed presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. There were extremists directing the ordinary Kiev residents into armed conflict — just as there are now in Donestk ordinary people being directed to revolution by extremists.

Vlad was a teacher before he decided to fight for independence. He says it’s about controlling the land and their own destiny.

“The EU is guilty over all of this, they created this situation,” he says, referring to decisions made during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He said he went to bed a Russian and woke to be told he was now Ukrainian. He said he speaks Russian, dreams in Russian and for centuries his people considered themselves Russian but Ukraine wanted to erase the past.

Platoon leader Denis Shapovsky, 31, (formerly a mechanical engineer) likes to show photos of his “baby girl” the 11-year-old Daria. Three months ago he sent her away with her mother to be safe after he decided to join the fight.

‘This is my home’ … psychologist Irina joined the battalion last week. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

“You need to ask the Ukrainians — who are you fighting? The women and children they bomb in their houses, the people whose electricity and water they turn off and try to starve. These Ukrainians fight with their NATO weapons and they accuse us of being Russian — well I’ve only been there once in my life. This is not Russia’s fault. I do hope this cause ends and we can get back to a normal life.”

At the moment they wait, smoke cigarettes, play cards and wait. They know the Ukrainian troops are coming, the shelling is getting closer, but they say they are prepared.

Irina, 27, had just completed a degree in psychology. There is no work so last week she decided to wear military green garb.

When asked is she is ready to fight and die, the pretty new recruit smiles coyly.

“Of course, this is my home,” she said.


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