The metal gates slowly shut behind the car. “Sorry it smells of blood, I was transporting our wounded,” Aleksandr Verin, a senior commander of the Russian Orthodox Army (ROA), tells VICE News.
Commander Verin — who goes by the nom de guerre “Kerch,” a reference to the three years he spent living in the Crimean city — steers his silver Land Cruiser slowly through the military compound of this newly-formed faction. There’s pile of camouflage flak jackets on the backseat and an AK-47 in the front. On either side of the entrance, soldiers man makeshift gun positions built out of stacked sandbags. Dusk is drawing in, and light spills out from the garages where rebels work on the vehicles they have commandeered: shiny BMWs, Audis and 4x4s. All have their license plates removed. In the background squads practice their drills.
'We are cleansing this territory of criminals and looters, we are bringing order to the DPR, this is our task.'
Kerch proudly points out the Orthodox chapel in the unit’s yard, a commandeered security service building. Its golden towers glint in the last rays of the day’s light, providing beauty amid the encroaching darkness. “The priest comes every Tuesday, everything here is as it should be: ordered,” he tells VICE News.
The unit commanders’ HQ is next door, in a UniCredit bank. Through a warren of corridors and coded security doors the ROA’s leaders have occupied a swish office, decked out with cream leather seats and a large glass table. A muted flat-screen television plays the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) channel in the background.
"We are cleansing this territory of criminals and looters, we are bringing order to the DPR, this is our task" says Kerch with a steely gaze.
The leaders sit while a striking redhead brings a bottle of cognac to the table — the gangsters of the revolution are making the most of their rise to prominence.
The ROA is just one of three pro-Russia units that have risen to the fore in Ukraine’s eastern conflict. There’s also Oplot, a militarized Russian nationalist movement based in Donetsk and Kharkiv that predates the crisis, and Vostok Battalion, a unit that has borrowed its name from a defunct Russian military special force based in Chechnya.
The Ukrainian military’s "anti-terrorist operation" (ATO) forces clashed with separatist militants on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on Tuesday. Video via YouTube/Yaroslav K.
The rise of the DPR army, which was formerly announced on May 13 by self-styled people's leader and Donetsk native Denis Pushilin, has been accompanied by a power change in the rebel republic’s political elite, a shift that has bought Moscow's men to the fore. “Our first government was not suitable to rise up the republic. But with time, two to three weeks ago, strong personalities came to the front amid this sea of chaos,” ROA commander Misha the Fifth, a former businessman from Moscow, tells VICE News as he knocks back another cognac.
Those new strongmen are both Russians: Igor Girkin, a.k.a. Strelkov, meaning “shooter,” and Aleksandr Borodai.
Borodai, a political unknown in the fledgling republic until the May 11 referendum and his appointment as “prime minister” five days later, already has substantial mileage in the Ukraine crisis under his belt, and its attached pistol holster. Before arriving in Donetsk, with an entourage of swarthy security personnel and Moscow political consultants in tow, Borodai acted as an advisor to Sergei Aksyonov. Aksyonov is the figurehead of Crimea’s secessionist movement, which resulted in the southern peninsula’s annexation by Russia in April.
Strelkov, a Russian military officer and accused by Kiev of being a secret agent for the Kremlin, arrived in the DPR to lead the Sloviansk militia groups but was formerly appointed as the rebel republic’s defense minister at the same time Borodai was made prime minister. The two men go way back, having fought together in Transnistria and other hotspots.
Indeed, it was with the support of Strelkov’s army that Borodai’s grip on power in the DNR was completed with a “cleansing operation” of the city’s administration building on May 29, which ousted lower-ranking militia accused of looting and criminal activities.
The operation, was carried out by a heavily armed unit of the Vostok Battalion, but also had the support of the DNR’s other two security forces.
The commanders of all three factions told VICE News they are subordinate to Strelkov and Borodai. “There has been a need to install order. And the republic’s new leaders know how to get this done,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, commander of the Donetsk branch of Oplot told VICE News.
Sitting at his desk on the second floor of the rebel-occupied television tower, Zakharchenko, a burly former miner, cuts an imposing figure. Outside his office beside a television set, a World War II era anti-tank rifle is aimed out of the window. “The position of Oplot is completely that of the DPR,” he tells VICE News. “We work closely with Vostok and the Russian Orthodox army. These are now the only security services of republic. We answer to Strelkov and Borodai,” he added. But the suspicion is that these men in turn answer to Moscow.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem