Ukrainian rebels grow restless amid cracks in alliance with Russia


Pro-Russian fighters of the so-called Ghost Brigade.

Portraits of Putin and Stalin adorn the room where the rebel commander, Yuri “Rostov” Shevchenko, holds court.
In this former KGB complex in the industrial town of Alchevsk in the
self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, members of Shevchenko’s
militant Ghost Brigade are growing restless as a shaky ceasefire holds
in eastern www.theguardian.com/world/ukraine.


Ghost brigade commander Yuri Shevshenko in his office, with portraits of his heroes on the wall.

With their Russian backers turning their attention to the war in
Syria, cracks are appearing in the rebels’ alliance with Moscow. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-18/putin-tightens-re, at least for the time being.
Some in the east feel abandoned, stuck between Syria and a ceasefire
they are reluctant to respect. Fighters insist that the war is not over –
it’s only the tactics that have changed.


Pro-Russian rebels hang around at their base in the frontline village Pervomaisk.

“Our republic is not yet independent – it depends on help from www.theguardian.com/world/russia,”
said Aleksey Markov, a nuclear physicist from Moscow and Shevchenko’s
second-in-command. “We must first take more land, more industry, more
cities. Only then can we finish the war.”

Peotr Berykov, another of the Ghost Brigade’s upper ranks, accuses
Moscow of threatening to withhold humanitarian aid to prevent rebels
from taking unilateral action. “The Kremlin tells us: ‘An offensive
would be bad politically. Wait. Otherwise we won’t send our white
trucks’,” he said. “Without their help, civilians will starve.”


Religious images on the rifle of one of the Ghost Brigade fighters.

Shevchenko’s rebels are keen to launch a new push to consolidate
their breakaway territory. Despite a fresh truce, Markov said the
conflict continues “just in different ways” – fewer artillery attacks
but more “special ops”.
“We get help from the Russian people but the Kremlin is ignoring us,” he said.


A rebel fighter stands guard in trenches on the frontline near Zholobok.

The unit’s leader, Shevchenko, is a former Soviet soldier who later worked in customs.
He became commander of the Ghost Brigade when his predecessor, a local maverick and Soviet idealist called www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/ukraine-separatist-com in May. In a corner of the conflict, criss-crossed by rebel factions, Shevchenko knows he could be next.
“I’m concerned, how could I not be?” he said. “It happened to him, it can happen to me. But I’m very philosophical about death.”


A communist flag on a wall inside the rebel base.

After Mozgovoy’s death, some blamed forces loyal to Ukraine. But
there were also rumours of an enemy within – rebel chiefs taking out
rivals to bolster their own power.
Shevchenko remains circumspect. “We need a court to find the truth,”
he says. “We have our own investigation. There is nothing more to know
until that is complete.”


A militant cleans his gun on the northern frontline of Luhansk.

The commander’s rebel stronghold is just 40 miles from the Russian
border. Drab, Soviet-era blocks rise from the rolling steppe on the
town’s southern flanks. To the north, a coke furnace and steel works
dominate the landscape.
The ranks of the Ghost Brigade are drawn from disparate regions of Russia, Ukraine and even western www.theguardian.com/world/europe-news.
They occupy a stretch of the front running through the deserted village
of Jolobok, ruined by months of shelling. Daily artillery attacks
marked the summer. Now, calm has been restored - punctuated by the
sporadic rattle of gunfire.


A child plays in a destroyed Ukrainian tank, scrawled with the slogan
Save the Donbass people from Ukrainian army.

The rebels on front-line duty endure poor conditions, set to worsen
in winter. They live in abandoned, rubble-strewn houses and slip through
alleyways to avoid sniper bullets. Food is prepared in a derelict yard
next to an exploded shell.
Some don’t stay very long. “It’s very frustrating,” says Markov as he
inspects the front. “Many are volunteers, often they go home. We lose
them and we have to start from scratch.”


Fried aubergine and boiled buckwheat prepared in a makeshift frontline kitchen.

A short walk away over shattered glass, shell craters and a child’s
sandpit, a middle-aged soldier placidly cleans his machine-gun in a
firewood shed, just a few hundred metres from Ukrainian positions.
One family stubbornly remain: Vladimir, Olga and her frail,
90-year-old mother. Despite their plight, the couple are sanguine. “This
is our land, our home,” says Olga. “There’s nowhere else to go. We have
a saying, ‘If you survive for three days, you become a guest of the
war’.”


Women fighters in the Ghost Brigade on the side of self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic.

Their rusty metal gate, ruptured by shrapnel and scrawled over with
chalk, doubles as a tab system for rebels yet to pay for their milk
rations. Nina, the elderly matriarch, rests against a wall. “I can’t
describe the pain in my head when the bombs come,” she says. “I’m an old
woman and never expected to end my life like this.”


Luhansk residents Vladimir, Olga and 90-year-old Nina, in the background.

Photograph: Pierre Crom

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