Looting, torture, and big business A look at volunteer groups fighting the separatists in Ukraine
Several armed volunteer militia groups are taking part in Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation,” the government’s fight against separatists in the east of the country. In mid-June, Ukrainian officials decided to disband one of these volunteer battalions. Members of the so-called “Tornado squadron” are suspected of looting, rape, torture, and murder. Meduza asked Kiev-based journalist Ekaterina Sergatskova to look into the history of the Tornado squadron and other volunteer formations in Ukraine, and to recount each one’s claim to fame.
“Tornado squadron,” special operations patrol police (disbanded)
Formerly led by: Police commander Ruslan Onishchenko
Reports to: The Interior Ministry of Ukraine in Zaporozhye region
Area of responsibility: Lugansk region
History: The squadron was formed in September 2014. The first members were former servicemen from the Shakhtersk battalion, which was disbanded due to its participation in widespread looting. Initially, the squadron was meant to partake in intelligence and sabotage operations.
Claim to fame: In March 2015, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine initiated criminal proceedings against members of the Tornado Squadron on charges of rape, murder, and forming an organized crime group. On June 17, authorities from the Interior Ministry’s internal security department arrested eight squadron members and its commander Ruslan Onishchenko, who has a criminal record and who was being treated at a Dnipropetrovsk hospital at the time of arrest. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in the last two weeks of March alone, Tornado squadron fighters kidnapped a total of ten people and severely tortured them. On June 18, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov ordered for the squadron to be disbanded. In response Avakov’s statement, squadron members barricaded themselves in their headquarters in a school building in Severodonetsk and announced their readiness to open fire and kill anyone who comes near the building. The conflict was ultimately resolved without any casualties. Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that those Tornado fighters who did not commit any crimes would continue to serve in the armed forces after undergoing a professional review. “Tornado members are worthy fighters who carried out their duty with honesty. Those who heroically served at Ilovaisk will continue their service after a professional review and following enlistment in a different unit,” write Avakov.
“Saint Mary” Christian volunteer battalion, special operations for public order maintenance
Led by: Commander Alexei Serdyuk. The founder of the battalion is writer and politician Dmitry Korchinsky, who calls himself “grenade wielder.” Korchinsky also founded the radical far-right anarchist party Bratstvo (“Brotherhood”).
Reports to: The Interior Ministry of Ukraine
Area of responsibility: Mariupol and surrounding areas
Funding: Founder Dmitry Korchinsky claims the battalion is funded through charitable donations from the public. It has been reported that residents of a town called Irpen outside of Kiev donated a Volkswagon minivan, 255 boxes of glucose and 5 boxes of medicine for treating burns to the battalion. The deputy mayor of Odessa also supplied the group with three tons of food, as well as American military boots, blankets, military medical uniforms, Kevlar helmets, and a military truck. The battalion got an Opel Frontera car as a result of efforts from volunteer student groups based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Korchinsky has also been accused of accepting money for the Saint Mary battalion from the radical party of Oleg Lyashko. Such allegations have not been confirmed.
History: The Saint Mary battalion was created in September 2014 and enlisted members from the battalions Shakhtersk and Azov after these units were disbanded for looting. Most of the fighters are from a group known as the “Jesus Christ Hundred,” which includes Korchinsky’s Bratsvo (“Brotherhood”) party. The battalion is tasked with intelligence and sabotage operations. When speaking with Meduza, Korchinsky admitted that the main goal of his battalion is to form kind of “Christian Taliban” movement. Korchinsky believes that “the Russian Federation can be destroyed only through a popular religiously and nationalistically motivated movement.”
Claim to fame: On June 16, 2015, Saint Mary battalion fighters captured what they claimed was a Russian intelligence and sabotage group. One of the captured men was taken alive. He said his name was Anatoly Volovoi and he admitted to be an artillery fighter who partook in shelling the Ukrainian military near the Donetsk airport and in several other locations.
“Azov” regiment, armed volunteer unit
Led by: Ukrainian parliament member Andrei Biletsky, who is also the head of the ultra right organizations “Social-National Assembly” and “Patriot of Ukraine.” He is nicknamed “White chief,” a reference to his racist beliefs. Since 2002, Biletsky heads the local chapter of a nationalist organization called Trizub (“Trident”) in the city of Kharkiv. Members of this organization claim to be followers of the controversial figure Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist activist from the 1940s who fought for Ukrainian independence from the USSR. In 2011, Biletsky was arrested for allegedly partaking in a terrorist plot with plans to blow up a statue of Lenin in the city of Boryspol. After the previous administration was ousted from Kiev following mass protests in 2014, the new authorities released Biletsky and other group members from prison.
Reports to: The National Guard of the Interior Ministry (a reserve force which had been disbanded in 2000 to save money, and reestablished last year under Ukraine’s new leadership)
Area of responsibility: Mariupol, Shirokino, the Sea of Azov coast in Donetsk region
Funding: Until August 2014, the Azov regiment was sponsored by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who was serving as governor of Dnipropetrovsk region at the time. On August 2, 2014, deputy governor Boris Filatov announce in a Facebook post that the funding has been terminated due to radical statements made by deputy commander Igor Mosaichuk. Mosaichuk ended up leaving the regiment, and funding was restored. The Azov regiment is also supplied with weapons and resources by the Interior Ministry, charitable foundations, volunteers and businessmen.
History: The Azov battalion, which later became a regiment, was initially founded in May 2014 in Mariupol. Many of its members have been labeled as neo-Nazis. Azov fighters are also called “little black men.” Among them are citizens of Sweden, Italy, France, Canada, Belarus, and Russia. Earlier, before the unit became part of the Ukrainian government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation, Biletsky said that the mission of the Ukrainian nation is to “lead the crusade of the white race against subhumans headed by Semites.” He also claimed that National socialism would awaken “all ancient Ukrainian Aryan values.” On June 12, 2015, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment barring the US from training or arming the Azov regiment.
Claim to fame: The Azov regiment became famous after its violent confrontation with organizers of a referendum on the secession of Donetsk region from Ukraine, held in Mariupol on May 9, 2014 when the city was under separatist control. A group of Azov fighters stormed a local police station and occupied the building. Local military servicemen then detained several Azov fighters; during the incident, one of the Azov fighters was fatally shot, and one was wounded. Former Azov deputy commander Yaroslav Gonchar denounced the local Mariupol police traitors. On June 13, 2014, Azov fighters took their revenge by capturing the city of Mariupol from the separatists and securing government control there.
24th special assault battalion “Aidar” (disbanded)
Led by: Ukrainian parliament member Sergei Melnichuk is the founder and the first commander the special assault battalion Aidar. During the 2014 anti-government protests in Kiev, he headed the Maidan self-defense group, members of which were armed with makeshift weapons and were tasked with guarding the barricades. On May 12, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General proposed to strip Melnichuk of parliamentary immunity because he was suspected of forming an organized crime group. It was implied that this “organized crime group” was actually the Aidar battalion. According to lawyers, Melnichuk was bailed out with funds gathered by Melnichuk’s supporters, amounting to 365,000 hryvnia ($17,380). Lieutenant-colonel Evgeny Ptashnik headed the battalion since November 2014.
Reports to: The Armed Forces of Ukraine
Area of responsibility: The battalion is based out of the towns Schastye, Novoaidar, and other small towns near the city of Lugansk in the east of Ukraine.
Funding: Volunteer donations and various foundations help out with funding. It has also been reported that Igor Kolomoisky contributed to their funds indirectly, by passing money through another foundation, called Fond oborony Krainy.
History: The Aidar battalion was initially comprised of activists from the organized Maidan self-defense group. As it was based out of towns near Lugansk, the battalion had attempted to storm separatist-controlled Luganks on June 17-18, 2014, but was eventually ambushed and lost several dozen men. Then-Defense Minister Mikhail Koval announced that the actions of the battalion had not been approved by the leadership of the Anti-Terrorist Operation. In July 2014, the Aidar battalion successfully launched an offensive at Lugansk airport. That August, Aidar fighters captured Sergei Kravchenko, mayor of Lugansk, who has been accused of helping the separatists. In late August, when news broke of Russian troops allegedly entering Ukraine, the Aidar battalion left the territories they had taken, losing many fighters along the way.
Claim to fame: The Aidar battalion is known for constant feuds within its ranks. Members and leaders of the unit constantly accused each other of looting, of torturing POWs, of laundering money, of carrying out uncoordinated actions resulting in fatalities. On January 29, 2015, ex-commander Sergei Melnichuk announced that the battalion was essentially disbanded, and the following day he announced that the Ukrainian army began shelling the battalion. That day, Melnichuk’s supporters attacked the Ministry of Defense building in Kiev and demanded that the government stop targeting Aidar. The government dismissed the attack and the request as provocations from the side of former criminal Aidar fighters. Following this incident, the battalion ceased to exist as a fighting unit.
Special operations patrol police regiment “Dnieper-1”
Led by: Parliament member Yuri Bereza founded this regiment and currently serves as commander. Before the conflict, Bereza was a businessman.
Reports to: The Interior Ministry of Ukraine
Funding: The Interior Ministry of Ukraine, volunteers, Igor Kolomoisky
History: The battalion was formed in April 2014 in Dnipropetrovsk, where it still trains today. This battalion was one of the very first volunteer units to fight in Ukraine, and it has enlisted around 5,000 people. On September 23, 2014, Dnieper-1 became a regiment, and it currently carries out the tasks of both assault unit and a policing unit.
Claim to fame: On May 11, 2014, when the referendum on the status of Donetsk was held in the separatist-controlled eastern territories, Dnieper-1 fighters drove up to the central government building in a town called Krasnoarmeisk in military vehicles funded by Igor Kolomoisky. Their aim was to stop the voting. Peaceful local residents gathered around the vehicles; one drunk man tried to wrestle a gun from one of the fighters, the fighters shot him in response. Two civilians were killed and one was wounded in the resulting chaos. Soon after this incident, the Interior Ministry of Ukraine announced that Dnieper-1 had never come to Krasnoarmeisk, and that the events near the government building were some kind of local provocation.
Territorial defense volunteer battalion “Donbas”
Led by: Konstantin Grishin (who goes by the pseudonym Semyon Semenchenko) was the founder of the Donbas battalion and served as its first commander. He was active in the Maidan self-defense during the 2014 Kiev protests, and he currently serves as a Ukrainian parliament member. It was reported in February that he no longer serves in Donbas. The battalion is now headed by lieutenant colonel Vyacheslav Vlasenko.
Reports to: The National Guard of the Interior Ministry. In January 2015, a section of this battalion became part of the Ministry of Defense as the 46th special operations battalion Donbas-Ukraine.
Funding: Oligarch Igor Kolomoisky helped fund the Donbas battalion. Other funds came from volunteers and donations. It has been reported that one of the sponsors of the battalion was a man named Mark Paslavsky, the nephew of Ukrainian nationalist leader Nikolai Lebed. Paslavsky, callsign Franko, worked as an investment banker in the US and had served in the US army for about 10 years. He returned to Ukraine from the US to fight alongside pro-government forces and was killed in combat near Ilovaisk on August 19, 2014.
History: The Donbas battalion was founded in April 2014. At first, it acted as a squadron, but by the end of May 2014, it became a special operations battalion under the National Guard of the Interior Ministry. The unit came into direct military confrontation with separatist battalion Vostok (“East”) headed by the infamous separatist Igor Bezler, callsign “Demon.” The Donbas battalion also fought in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014.
Claim to fame: The Donbas battalion suffered great losses in the bloody Battle of Ilovaisk, when Ukrainian pro-government forces tried to take the city from the separatists. Ultimately, the government forces retreated and suffered many casualties in the process. The majority of fatalities were among volunteer fighters. The Donbas battalion lost dozens of members, and several hundred were captured by separatists. Some blame this failure on commander Semyon Semenchenko, who had sent under-armed men into the war zone. Semenchenko, in turn, claims the Ukrainian military command failed to procure weapons in time for the battle.
Dzhokhar Dudayev international volunteer peacekeeping battalion
Led by: Isa Munayev, a fighter in the first and second Chechen War, founded the battalion. He was killed in the Battle for Debaltseve on February 1, 2015. Adam Osmayev became the new commander, a man from Chechnya who was suspected of preparing a terrorist attack in Odessa in February 2012 and of conspiring to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin that same year. He was released from prison by the new government in Kiev in 2014.
Reports to: Does not report to any formal institutions; this is a non-governmental volunteer armed militia
History: The battalion was named after Dzhokar Dudayev, the first leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, an unrecognized breakaway state in Russia’s Chechen Republic. Members of the battalion are emigrants from Chechnya who left following unrest in Chechnya. The battalion was formed on the basis of the public political movement “Free Caucasus,” established in 2014 in Denmark. One of the major chiefs in the battalion is Colonel Isa Sadygov, former Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Defense (1993-1995). He is on a wanted list in Azerbaijan.
Claim to fame: The battalion took part in the Battle for Ilovaisk and suffered great losses there. According to Meduza’s sources, after Isa Munayev was killed at Debaltseve, separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic refused to give up his body for several days. Eventually, after a series of negotiations, Munayev’s body was transferred to Dnipropetrovsk, where, according to Ukrainian parliament member Boris Filatov, Munayev wished to be laid to rest.
“Praviy Sektor” Ukrainian volunteer corps (recognized as an extremist organization in Russia)
Led by: Dmitry Yarosh, former leader of far-right nationalist organization Trizub (“Trident”), now a parliament member.
Reports to: Does not report to any formal institutions
Funding: According to Yarosh, funding comes from donations. There have also been reports of funding from oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
History: The battalion initially enlisted activists from the far-right movement called Praviy Sektor (“Right Sector”) which was founded at the beginning of December, 2013, in the midst of anti-government protests in Kiev. In July of last year, Yarosh announced he was launching a “Ukrainian volunteer corps” on the basis of the militarized wing of Praviy Sektor. At first, he refused to legalize the structure and make it accountable before Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. Now, Yarosh has drafted a bill which defines Praviy Sektor as a volunteer military unit which combines “responsibility before the state and before public initiatives from the side of Ukrainian citizens who wish to improve their military-patriotic capabilities and to aid the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations fighting for Ukraine, to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, to provide state security and to defend the state borders of Ukraine.”
Claim to fame: Praviy Sektor is periodically accused of various provocations and sabotage. For example, Praviy Sektor activists were very much against holding a gay parade in Kiev. During the parade, which was held on June 6, some of the activists tried to attack parade participants, and as a result, several policemen responsible for security of the event were wounded. Following the incident, Praviy Sektor press secretary Artem Skoropadsky said that the activists “did not attack anyone with knives, did not blow anything up, but merely demonstrated their dissatisfaction by blocking the road from sodomites.” This event is typical for the movement at large rather than the battalion specifically, as the movement often participates in public events and issues political statements.
Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) volunteer battalion
Led by: Nikolai Kokhanovsky, one of the first members of the OUN who joined the movement during the Maidan protests in Kiev in the winter of 2013-2014
Reports to: Part of this battalion now answers to the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a squadron in the tactical intelligence battalion of the 81st storm trooper brigade.
Funding: Mostly volunteers
History: In the spring of 2014, the OUN was part of the Azov battalion. There were plans to make it a separate battalion called Azov-2. But after failing to register as an official unit with the Ukrainian state, the leadership of the OUN decided to join the Praviy Sektor’s Ukrainian volunteer corps. In August 2014, the OUN became independent of the Praviy Sektor and formed its own unit.
Claim to fame: The OUN battalion is famous for its radical statements. For example, on June 18, the OUN praised the unknown killers of the journalist Oles Buzina, who had been critical of the Ukrainian government and had been fatally shot near his home on April 16, 2015.
“Ravliki” guerilla regiment
Led by: Group leadership
Reports to: Does not report to any formal institutions; independent unit
Funding: Mostly volunteers
History: The guerilla regiment Ravliki (which translates to “snails” from Ukrainian) was formed in the winter of 2015 in order to “inspect and detain separatist groups, Russian sabotage groups, and those who committed crimes against the integrity of our country.” The regiment is made up of Donetsk region locals, Maidan activists, organizers of pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Donetsk. One fighter, Bogdan Chaban, used to own a café in Donetsk called “The cabin reading room.” In the summer of 2014, the café was occupied by militants, and Chaban was forced to leave the city.
Claim to fame: On May 8, 2015, local police detained a group of volunteer fighters from the Ravliki regiment in a village called Evgenovka in Donetsk region. They were accused of attempting to attack a farm. Their weapons were confiscated, as well as their money, which had allegedly been stored in a company safe. When their friends and acquaintances heard about the incident, they came out to protest in front of the Interior Ministry building in Kiev and demanded that the fighters be released, using the motto “Free Ravlik.” In mid-June, a court ruled to release three of the volunteer fighters, Alxander Kryukov, Boris Ovcharov, and Bogdan Chaban.
“Teni” guerilla regiment
Led by: A man who goes by the pseudonym Alexander Gladky founded the regiment and remains its leader. He is formally enlisted in the Dnieper-1 battalion. Not much is known about his identity or his past; he says that before the war, he worked in the security services of private companies and corporations.
Reports to: Does not report to any formal institutions; independent unit
Area of responsibility: Donetsk and Lugansk regions
History: The regiment Teni (which translates from Russian to “Shadows”) has been active since November 2014 in Donetsk and Lugansk regions, but it does not answer to the Ukrainian government. The regiment claims that its task is “to liquidate the heads of militias, Russian military officers, hired soldiers; to destroy the equipment of the occupants by attacking terrorist groups, by blowing up the equipment, by mining certain areas, and by directing the Ukrainian Armed Forces shelling; by setting fire to arsenals.” According to Gladky, his regiment has killed 600 Russian officers. These numbers have not been confirmed. The regiment takes credit for attacks on the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, field commanders, as well as blowing up separatists’ ammunition storage. More specifically, the Teni regiment has taken credit for an attempt to assassinate Donetsk People’s Republic head Alexander Zakharchenko this past January. Zakharchenko was not harmed, but his bodyguard was wounded in the incident. On January 29, the guerilla fighters killed the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic police chief A. Morgun with a grenade. Gladky himself says that his regiment cooperates with the Ukrainian security officials, but this information has not been confirmed by authorities. The guerilla fighters have been accused of violating the terms of the Minsk Peace agreement; it has been argued that due to their independent and uncoordinated actions, fighting has continued in the separatist-held territories.
Claim to fame: On March 7, Gladky announced in a Facebook post that the Teni regiment has attacked Alexei Mozgovoi, the field commander of the separatist battalion Prizrak (“Phantom”). He sustained a head injury, three of his bodyguards had been killed, and five more security guards had been wounded. Two months later, he was attacked again and was killed. The Teni regiment claimed credit for the assassination.