WATCH: Ukraine Struggles to Control Fighting as Ceasefire Continues to Crumble

Kiev struggles to control militia groups fighting Moscow backed separatists as violence between the two sides continues despite an official ceasefire.

Elizabeth Piper and Sergiy Karazy
Pro-Russian separatist rests in Debaltseve, east Ukraine, Febraury 20, 2015.
Pro-Russian separatist rests in Debaltseve, east Ukraine, Febraury 20, 2015.Credit: AP
Elizabeth Piper and Sergiy Karazy

REUTERS - From a basement billiard club in central Kiev, Dmytro Korchynsky commands a volunteer battalion helping Ukraine's government fight rebels in the east. A burly man with a long, Cossack-style moustache, Korchynsky has several hundred armed men at his disposal. The exact number, he said, is "classified."

In the eyes of many Ukrainians, he and other volunteer fighters are heroes for helping the weak regular army resist pro-Russian separatists. In the view of the government, however, some of the volunteers have become a problem, even a law unto themselves.

Dressed in a colorful peasant-style shirt, Korchynsky told Reuters that he follows orders from the Interior Ministry, and that his battalion would stop fighting if commanded to do so. Yet he added: "We would proceed with our own methods of action independently from state structures."

Korchynsky, a former leader of an ultra-nationalist party and a devout Orthodox Christian, wants to create a Christian "Taliban" to reclaim eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. He isn't going to give up his quest lightly.

"I would like Ukraine to lead the crusades," said Korchynsky, whose battalion's name is Saint Mary. "Our mission is not only to kick out the occupiers, but also revenge. Moscow must burn."

Such talk and recent violent incidents involving members of unofficial armed groups have raised government concerns about radicals running out of control. President Petro Poroshenko now says that all "illegal groups" must disarm because they threaten to make the country even more unstable than it already is.

"No political force should have, and will not have, any kind of armed cells. No political organization has the right to establish ... criminal groups," Poroshenko said on July 13.

The president said he might legislate for emergency powers to deal with armed groups, and that anyone armed who was not a member of the law enforcement agencies "will be classed as a terrorist."

But interviews with members of volunteer battalions and Ukraine officials suggest it will not be easy for Poroshenko to impose his will. Some battalion leaders, while ostensibly under the control of the government, are increasingly critical of Ukraine's political leaders. They want to press them to sack judges seen as favoring the rich and powerful, to oust oligarchs who control much of the economy and to prosecute the riot police accused of killing more than 100 people during protests early last year.

Most of Ukraine's almost 40 volunteer battalions grew out of squads of protesters who battled the Berkut riot police during the protests on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which began in November 2013.

After the protests toppled President Viktor Yanukovich, pro-Russian separatists rose up in the east of Ukraine in April, 2014, demanding independence from the new government in Kiev, which they called a "fascist regime." In response, several leaders of the Maidan protests raced east with fellow protesters to try to stop the rebel advance.

Numerous brigades and battalions formed haphazardly, with most leaders accepting anyone willing to fight. Serhiy Melnychuk, who founded the Aidar battalion in eastern Ukraine and is now a member of parliament, said he signed up people between the ages of 18 and 62 and "from the homeless to pensioners."

Irregular though theses forces were, some acquired weapons from the Defense Ministry, officials and battalion leaders said. Others received money and equipment from wealthy oligarchs. They became powerful forces in the struggle against pro-Russian separatists.

In an interview in Kiev, Melnychuk, wearing a cross around his neck and a wristband in the national colors of Ukraine, said that he had five men on the day the Aidar battalion formed, but 250 within two weeks. They had all fought on the Maidan and "didn't need military training," he said.



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