Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine - Part 39

Meeting the Donbas Battalion, a pro-Ukrainian militia taking matters into their own hands.

20 May 2014, 8:00pm

With the Ukrainian army struggling to contain the Donetsk People's Republic's (DPR) grab for power in the Donetsk Oblast, armed pro-Ukrainian militias have been quietly taking matters into their own hands.

One of these militias, the Donbas Battalion – who see themselves as standing up for pro-Ukrainians in the region – have been busy attacking DPR checkpoints and liberating occupied buildings. After two weeks of careful negotiations and meetings, they finally allowed VICE News to visit their clandestine base in what used to be a children's summer camp in the neighbouring Dnipropetrovsk region. The sight of armed men, all in black, standing next to a mural of cuddly animals added a slight level of absurdity to the scenario.

The group were understandably cautious about revealing the base's location, as their last camp was discovered and attacked by pro-Russian forces, forcing them to find an alternative. But once we arrived we were able to see them train and interview their leader, Semyan Semenchenko, before being invited on an operation the following day in the town of Velyka Novosilka. There, they tore down the DPR flag hoisted outside the local administration building, re-installed the pro-Ukranian mayor and lectured the local police on loyalty and duty, all at gunpoint.

Without working under an official mandate from the government – while also not being stopped by them – the Donbas Battalion are able to operate without the restrictions placed on the Ukrainian military. The slow and cautious anti-terror operation against the DPR has so far failed to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds in Slaviansk and Donetsk, but with their flexibility, the Donbas Battalion and other groups like it could help turn the tide in Kiev's favour – or, equally, could destabilise an already volatile region.

With the presidential elections coming up in the next few days, it's likely that Semyan and his men will be called upon to further assist the Ukrainian military in making sure everything goes ahead as planned.