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Vice News | 10Feb2016 | Jack Losh, [2] 01Dec2015, [3] 27Nov2015, [4] 17Aug2015, [5] 11Aug2015, [6] 29Jul2015

Paranoia and Purges: The Dark and Dirty Battle for Power in Rebel-Held Ukraine

The rebel commander had been married for less than 24 hours before the car bomb exploded. Pavel Dryomov, one of the most prominent, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, was celebrating his wedding in the rebel-held town of Stakhanov with his new wife and a colorful array of guests, including men drawn from the ranks of his own Cossack militia. A former bricklayer in his late 30s, the outspoken commander appeared to have finally made peace with his notional superiors in the rebel leadership; the nearby stretch of the front was relatively quiet and an upcoming Christmas truce promised to calm hostilities further. There seemed no better time for a celebration.

On the morning of December 12, Dryomov and his driver left the all-night wedding party in Stakhanov to head northwest to the devastated frontline town of Pervomaisk. In a wintry corner of Ukraine's rebel heartland, the potholed highway carved through rolling, snow-covered steppe beneath a horizon stained by the occasional smokestack and a pair of industrial behemoths -- a coke furnace and vast steel works. With frontline trenches invisible at this distance, any traveler would be forgiven for thinking that peace had finally returned to this swathe of Ukraine's eastern rustbelt.

But Dryomov would never reach his destination. A bomb hidden in his vehicle was detonated as he approached the town's outer limits. The explosion killed him on the spot; his driver died on the way to hospital.

The assassination was the latest in a string of bloody murders of maverick rebel commanders in Ukraine's restive east, fuelling fears among senior separatist ranks of further purges. Rival factions are jostling for power as two opposing camps in the rebels' self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) struggle to consolidate their rule. In exclusive interviews with VICE News, against a disturbing backdrop of Soviet-style paranoia, illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings, rebel military chiefs and well-placed sources in the regime have spoken of their profound sense of unease -- and their fears about who could be next.

* * *

In many ways, Dryomov's demise was a death foretold. It was no secret that the outspoken field commander loathed LNR's Moscow-anointed leadership. The Soviet idealist -- some would say warlord -- took regular swipes at his superiors and had envisioned building his own neo-socialist "Cossack" republic centered in the depressed mining town of Stakhanov. His units of Don Cossacks -- a martial tribe whose medieval forebears fled serfdom to live as free men on the frontiers of imperial Russia -- were among the most outspoken militias in their opposition against the LNR's ruling authorities.

In a coarse, rambling video posted on YouTube last winter, Dryomov claimed to possess digital files which allegedly proved corrupt links between organized crime networks and Igor Plotnitsky, the LNR's authoritarian leader. He had gambled on the hope that the contents of this flashcard would serve him as collateral. If he were targeted, he warned, the information would be sent "to every computer server in the world." In the words of a high-level source in the SBU (Ukraine's security service): "Dryomov was neither a comfortable figure for Plotnitsky nor Russian security forces."

However in recent months Dryomov's barbed criticisms had softened after he made peace with Plotnitsky, at least publicly. This truce had no doubt been prompted, in part, by a suspicious pattern of events. He was well aware of the fate of other independent rebel warlords who had refused to submit to LNR's central leadership. They now lay six feet under, permanently silenced.

There was Prapor, a pro-Russia, Cossack leader who was killed during an operation by the LNR authorities to disarm his independent militia. Alexander Bednov, a well-known field commander who went by the nom de guerre "Batman," died under suspicious circumstances on New Year's Day, 2015. That same month, Yevgeny Ishchenko -- one of Dryomov's allies and the former "people's mayor" of Pervomaisk, the frontline town held by Cossack rebels -- threatened to "turn his weapons in the opposite direction," a blatant declaration of his hostility to Plotnitsky's regime. A few weeks later, he was dead.

Perhaps the most high-profile figure to be eliminated in this bloody process of streamlining was Aleksey Mozgovoy, the founder of the pro-Russia "Ghost Brigade." This ruthless commander, known for his love of poetry and distrust of Plotnitsky, showed a diehard devotion to the dream of building a pan-Slavic "Novorossiya" (a historical term, now denoting the loose confederation of rebel-held territory). He was building his own legend, his own fiefdom. And then, in May, he was dead. A roadside ambush of mines and machine-guns killed him, along with six others.

Officially, the LNR authorities blamed subversive Ukrainian groups for the string of mysterious deaths. Privately, many here feel the enemy is closer to home. In the wake of Dryomov's murder, Plotnitsky reportedly outlawed all public meetings of the slain commander's Cossack militants.

In an uncharacteristically provocative piece in December, Russia's official armed forces daily wrote: "Independent observers note this is not the first murder in the LNR of commanders who have distinguished themselves by the independence of their views." 

That same month, Alexander Zhuchkovsky, an influential, pro-separatist activist and blogger, alleged that responsibility lay even higher than the LNR. Senior separatists, he wrote, "cannot take that level of decision" -- a thinly-veiled allegation of Moscow's involvement in Dryomov's death. Amid indications that the Kremlin is serious about de-escalation, rebel field commanders who resist any rapprochement with Ukraine are put out of commission.

Now, senior paramilitary figures operating around Luhansk fear they will be next to slip into the crosshairs. Alexey Markov rose to the position of second-in-command in the Ghost Brigade after Mozgovoy's murder. He told VICE News that he was "confident" the LNR leadership had no hand in Dryomov's murder, instead blaming "criminal elements or Ukrainian saboteurs."

"We are really sad to lose our friend and comrade but we try not make hasty assumptions," Markov said, adding: "Anyway, we are the last independent division, and we know who can be next."

The leader of another paramilitary group, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, accused the LNR leadership of succumbing to increasing paranoia and said that his unit had come under pressure to disarm. "We are valued by the people but the situation can change at any moment," he said. "Plotnitsky is becoming paranoid and could label us an unofficial terrorist organization. I could be next after Dryomov."

In the wake of December's hit on the Cossack rebel commander, the LNR said it would launch an investigation, understood to be a joint inquiry between the Luhansk prosecutor's office and the local police force in Stakhanov. The mysterious assassination of Mozgovoy had resulted in a similar probe, though many doubt that the investigation will ever be concluded, let alone have its sensitive findings made public. Similar reservations linger in the aftermath of Dryomov's death.

A source inside the LNR's internal affairs ministry dismissed the rebels' investigation as "bogus." "No one honestly expects to get an answer," said the source, who asked not to be named. "Officially, the suspects range from Ukrainian special ops personnel to criminal groups in Stakhanov. They could even be connected with an inner Cossack struggle. But make your own mind up: who is the most paranoid about losing his throne in LNR? Our leader will trot out all the right words but the investigation will be a whitewash."

A second, mid-level source inside the LNR's security service gave an even more scathing appraisal. "Plotnitsky has no need for charismatic military leaders," the source told VICE News. "He will only pay tribute to their shadows."

The LNR increasingly bears the hallmarks of an authoritarian surveillance-state. A purportedly official document circulating on Russian social media named suspected dissidents within the LNR. (Although it remains unsubstantiated, separate rebel sources later told VICE News that the internal report was genuine and said that two officials had been fired for leaking it.) Alongside each individual's name and job, were two notes: firstly, how they could undermine the regime, and secondly, how to "minimize" the threat they posed.

Some were accused of harboring "personal hostility" to Plotnitsky, others were said to have distributed "flyers of negative content" and to have organized rallies against the rebel leadership. Methods of tackling the various threats included "tracking activity on social networks," "monitoring contacts and relationships," engaging them with "advocacy," and subjecting them to investigation by the rebel security services.

The same report also named Dryomov. It warned that his units of armed Cossack fighters had the capability to launch an insurrection against the LNR leadership. It also accused him of speaking "negatively" about his separatist superiors.

On how to reduce this threat, the text simply read: "Exceptional force."

* * *

When war first erupted in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region, few could have envisaged the Russian-backed engineering of rebel pseudo-states that would follow. Although the landmass of the country's breakaway territories is a fraction of the total size of sovereign Ukraine, Moscow has transformed the rebels' ramshackle administrations into regimes that have the semblance of functioning governments.

As part of this process, the Kremlin has reportedly dispatched dozens of trained bureaucrats to support the regimes' staff of amateurs, ideologues and former blue-collar workers -- who, according to a recent, authoritative report by the International Crisis Group, are united by their near-total lack of political or administrative experience. Rebel commanders bent on building their own fiefdom have been purged; less diehard candidates have replaced political leaders who defy their Moscow masters with an outmoded narrative of building a pan-Slavic "Novorossiya".

Last September, for example, Andrei Purgin, the imperialist, hardline Speaker of Donetsk's rebel parliament, was kidnapped by Russian security forces. He was held for five days and then replaced by his more conciliatory deputy, Denis Pushilin, a politician known for his unquestioning loyalty to Moscow.

Take a drive through the industrial, Soviet-era city of Luhansk -- Plotnisky's urban power base -- and the paranoia is palpable. Billboards erected last summer feature the red-star-and-sword emblem of the LNR's security service, the Ministry of State Security (which has the Russian acronym 'MGB,' the same name as Stalin's secret police force). "Citizens, be vigilant," the huge signs urge. "Please report corruption."

The second winter of eastern Ukraine's grinding war looks significantly different from its first. Moscow has shifted its attention to a bombing campaign in Syria to prop up the Assad regime; gone are the large-scale offensives from Russian-backed rebels. Instead, the warring sides have dug into their trenches, firing on each other across no-man's land and engaging in the occasional skirmish. A Christmas truce calmed the renewed wave of rocket and mortar attacks which had erupted at the start of November. However, fighting has since picked up again, Ukrainians face economic collapse, and the war's official death toll has long passed 9,000 lives.

Chastened by low oil prices and a sluggish economy, the Kremlin now ostensibly wants to freeze the conflict and has signaled its readiness to implement the Minsk peace accords. However, Moscow can still exploit Ukraine's rebel regions to apply leverage on its smaller, crisis-hit neighbor. Ukraine's security service the SBU envisions three scenarios towards which Russia is working: the so-called "Somalia Scenario," "Little Trojan Horse," and "Big Trojan Horse."

The first, and most extreme, refers to the theoretical Russian aim of reducing a pro-Western Ukraine to a failed state. Oleksandr Tkachuk, the SBU's chief of staff, told VICE News: "This would involve creating political instability, causing the gradual disintegration of government structures, emphasizing different grievances among the population, and disrupting all aspects of political, economic and social life."

Under the "Little Trojan Horse" scenario, rebel-held territories would be re-absorbed into Ukraine's political sphere, allowing them to influence policy in Kiev and block Ukraine from further integration with European and Atlantic structures. Such a veto "could make Ukraine a grey zone between Europe and Russia," said Tkachuk.

"Big Trojan Horse" refers to a restoration of the political regime of former President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted during the Maidan Revolution in 2014. "There is a risk that the pendulum could swing the other way," said Tkachuk. "Some politicians that were close to Yanukovych are still quite active. A proportion of the population sympathizes with these people and there is growing dissatisfaction with current leaders who are unable to deliver what they promised before the revolution. Russia wants to restore these politicians to power and install a regime favorable to the Kremlin."

The International Crisis Group uncovered similar evidence. It carried claims from a number of separatists that their Russian counterparts had cited "a ten-year plan to regain control over Ukraine," combining "continued destabilization of the east" as well as economic and political pressures.

Hundreds of miles from Kiev in Ukraine's far eastern fringes, the creation and consolidation of separatist republics behind the de facto border of an active frontline has spawned powerful factions within the rebel regimes. According to sources in both the SBU and Luhansk's separatist administration, the LNR is broadly split into two rival camps.

On the one side is the bloc of Plotnitsky, who has run the LNR with Russia's backing since mid-2014. On the other, there is the rebel's security service, the MGB, understood to enjoy the backing of several groups: the police force of the LNR; key figures in the rebels' internal affairs ministry; various organizations such as the local chapter of the "Night Wolves" biker gang. Vitaly "The Prosecutor" Kishkinov, the local commander of this pro-Russian motorcycle club, whose members have fought alongside Russian-backed forces, railed against corruption in the LNR regime late last year in a controversial video address that some felt laid the blame with Plotnitsky.

In addition to these two factions are the Cossacks. Despite the recent assassination of their leader, Dryomov, and their gradual incorporation into the LNR's centralized armed forces -- the so-called "Luhansk People's Militia" -- they remain armed, relatively powerful, and a force to be reckoned with.

Before Ukraine descended into conflict, Plotnitsky was a relatively unknown figure who had served in the Soviet Army then, later, as a lowly official. Despite his pro-Russian fervor, he is reported to have been raised in the small town of Kelmentsi in Ukraine's nationalist heartlands to the west.

But, in April 2014, as separatists in the east began seizing key government buildings, backed by Russian forces and military hardware, Plotnitsky began his rapid ascent. He raised a militant battalion and, a month later, was named the LNR's defense minister. Dour and domineering, with the face of a mafia boss, he became the breakaway republic's ruler three months later. Local opinion on him is split. Some hold Plotnitsky in high-esteem as a hero of the separatist cause; others dismiss him as a despot-in-waiting who profits from a murky network of corruption, criminality and patronage.

In October, the MGB struck at Plotnitsky's inner circle by dispatching security personnel to arrest one of his key allies, the LNR's fuel and energy minister, Dmitry Lyamin. Online footage later showed him at home, handcuffed, bloodied and beaten, surrounded by weapons and large sums of money. He faced a string of charges: corruption, handing control of strategic energy reserves to criminal networks, and selling more than 3.3 million tons of smuggled coal to Ukraine (reputedly around 90 percent of the total amount of coal mined in the rebel enclave).

Illegal smuggling of coal is believed to be one of the most lucrative sources of wealth in the region. Lyamin's dramatic arrest did not just highlight the scale of trafficking around the front line, with the alleged connivance of high-level officials. It also brought into focus the deep factional rifts dividing senior separatists in the LNR. The arrest was widely regarded as a flagrant challenge to Plotnitsky's authority: a statement later released by his office suggested that the MGB had arrested Lyamin without the leadership's approval.

A well-placed source with close ties to senior figures both in the LNR regime and the MGB told VICE News: "The MGB is in direct rivalry with the LNR leadership. Every branch of power is trying to build its own monopoly in terms of economics and influence. Plotnitsky has had his decisions blocked by key figures in the MGB but its head, Leonid Pasechnik, is currently too powerful a figure for Plotnitsky to take down." A senior official in the SBU independently corroborated the claims.

Since October, Lyamin is understood to have languished in a secret jail run by the MGB, beyond the reach of Plotnitsky. "Once he realized that Plotnitsky would not get him out, he started to co-operate with his interrogators," the source added.

A leaked version of a draft report, prepared by the MGB and the LNR's internal affairs ministry, outlines claims allegedly made by Lyamin during his interrogation. The report, which VICE News has seen, suggests that a network of top rebel chiefs and high-ranking Ukrainian officials had joined forces to run a fuel-smuggling cartel operating across the frontline. Lyamin also names a number of Ukrainian fuel companies which, he says, have been granted access to these black market energy supplies.

Some view the report as a means of undermining Plotnitsky's authority without resorting to an actual coup. "The MGB and LNR police don't want to launch a rebellion," the source continued. "The LNR itself is not recognized internationally -- such a rebellion would just make them a grey zone within a grey zone. Even Moscow would refuse to deal with them. So, instead, they've started investigating allies of the leadership to turn the screw on Plotnitsky. Opposition groups in powerful LNR circles want him out. The trouble, however, is that Plotnitsky has so far had the backing of the Kremlin."

Lyamin is not the only senior separatist to lose power amid the shifting sands of the rebel-held east. At the end of December last year, the LNR's Prime Minister, Gennady Tsypkalov, unexpectedly resigned from his post, despite enjoying support from the Kremlin. Insiders say Plotnitsky played a leading hand in this controversial reshuffle. In recent weeks, another separatist minister, who cannot be named due to security reasons, is understood to have come under increasing pressure from senior officials in Moscow and the LNR leadership to toe the line.

A mid-level LNR ministry employee told VICE News: "Many top officials are now under pressure. It is a strange time of transition with many high-level power struggles. Tension and paranoia is rising -- it is worse than six months ago. It all seems to be emanating from Plotnitsky and his inner circle."

There are not only internal tensions within the LNR but also external strains. According to the International Crisis Group, officials and leaders in the neighboring Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) "are privately critical of their LNR counterparts," accusing them of "corruption and … often failing to provide promised forces." The report describes the separatist leaders as "accidental rulers," guided "by mixed motives," who only achieved power via "the political and security vacuum created by the Yanukovych presidency's collapse."

Such divisions among Ukraine's separatist militants have not gone unnoticed by their masters in Moscow. According to recent reports, Vladimir Putin plans to send his envoy and close aide, Vladislav Surkov, to the LNR for high-level talks to resolve the rebels' leadership crisis and rein in their puppet leaders. There is even talk that Moscow is ready to give up Plotnitsky and his counterpart in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, in return for Kiev recognizing local elections.

Surkov, a shadowy figure and Kremlin ideologue, often characterized as the Rasputin of modern-day Russia, oversees Ukraine's rebel regions on Putin's behalf and is said to refer to Moscow's separatist proxies there as his "wards." According to an LNR insider, Surkov's secret visits to Luhansk in the past have been accompanied by city-wide cellphone blackouts, serving both as an extreme security precaution and a means of preventing leaks of confidential information.

* * *

Public figures of the rebel insurgency are not the only ones to have fallen foul of an authoritarian regime which seized power amid the chaos of war. Ordinary civilians and military detainees, too, have suffered "gross and systemic violations of human rights" by armed members of the rebels' "repressive political regimes," according to a new report compiled by a coalition of local and international NGOs.

This report -- entitled "Surviving Hell: Testimonies of Victims on Places of Illegal Detention in Donbas" -- follows other dossiers that have detailed a catalogue of institutional torture: sleep deprivation, beatings, sexual violence, mock executions, amongst other horrors. Armed groups have subjected individuals to "inhumane conditions" and "cruel treatment" while holding them incommunicado in a legal vacuum that "creates impunity" for the culprits, investigators say.

The accounts make for grim reading. One former prisoner described losing teeth and developing hemorrhages during savage beatings. Another claimed not to have been given anything to drink for four days and resorted to scooping up dirty water from the floor of his cell. And one victim was subjected to a torture technique dubbed "the elephant," in which his abusers attached a gas mask to his face and blocked the oxygen flow.

The account of one source -- who is named in the report as "C-46" and was detained in Donetsk's former security headquarters -- is particularly harrowing.

"They broke my ribs, and my body was all black. They beat me during and in between interrogations with hands, feet, and weapons. They tortured me with electricity. They handcuffed me to a metal bed, put wires on my hands and regulated the current. They touched my head and genitalia with a metal rod charged with electricity. They hit me with a ramrod. They hung me up to the ceiling, poured cold water in freezing temperatures…"

These, then, are the accounts of the nameless victims and survivors of the war in eastern Ukraine. For every prominent separatist commander taken out in a spectacular hit, dozens more civilians, volunteers and conscripted soldiers are subjected to a nightmarish regime of abuse and torture. For every Dryomov, there is a "C-46," whose physical wounds will heal far more readily than the psychological scars.

The conflict grinds on with little sign of resolution. Civilians caught in the crossfire are exhausted and violations continue to be committed with relative impunity. But the authors of the report are clear: all perpetrators must be held responsible.

"Detention in these illegal custodial facilities," they say, "is accompanied with assaults, mutilations, and torture of detainees on the scale that calls for the use of not only the domestic but also international justice mechanisms." Could Ukraine's rebels one day be tried as war criminals? In reality, as the country's blood feud grinds on, the prospect of anyone paying for their crimes seems remote. For now, minds are concentrated on which head might be next to roll.

Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh

Vice News | 01Dec2015 | Jack Losh

Did the Islamic State Go Shopping For Weapons in Ukraine?

It began with a feverish report in November from a little-known media outlet in the Persian Gulf. "Security forces have busted and dismantled a multi-national cell for the so-called Islamic State," trumpeted the Kuwait News Agency. "The vigilance of security agencies," it said, had dealt "a major blow to terrorist elements" amid a "crackdown on extremists in the state."

Buried in the story was a claim that has tantalized journalists, and mystified weapons experts: The Islamic State has allegedly acquired missile launchers, the kind that can bring down a commercial airliner as it takes off and lands, on European soil. From Ukraine, no less -- a country now awash with weapons and destabilized by political crises and 19 months of war against Russian-backed forces.

Kuwait's Interior Ministry claimed to have arrested six people in an extremist cell that was aiding the Islamic State (IS) by brokering arms deals, recruiting fighters, and raising money that was then sent to IS-related bank accounts in Turkey. The detained suspects included a Lebanese citizen, a Kuwaiti, an Egyptian and three Syrians. Two Syrians and two Australian-Lebanese dual nationals, officials said, remained at large.

According to the report, the arrested ringleader -- a Lebanese man named as Osama Khayat -- had admitted to closing weapons deals at an undisclosed location in Ukraine. These arms allegedly included Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles, also known as "man-portable air-defence systems" or MANPADS -- specifically, FN-6 models -- as well as other unidentified weaponry and telecommunications equipment. These, the report claimed, were shipped to Turkey and smuggled to IS fighters in the jihadist group's power base in Syria. An accomplice, a Syrian national named as Abdulkarim Mohammed Selem, was even said to have owned a Ukraine-based arms company.

At first glance, the allegations seem as plausible as they are enticing. After all, the war in eastern Ukraine has ncreased the risk of a huge, illicit arms market burgeoning around the volatile conflict zone. The post-Soviet nation, rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world, is home to entrenched multi-national crime networks and has a rich heritage of arms trafficking. Possible gateways to Turkey and the alleged smuggling route lie upon stretches of shoreline along the Azov Sea that are outside of government control, or in the famous port of Odessa, where bribery has been as constant as the tide.

Nor is Ukraine itself immune from the presence of IS. The country's security service, the SBU, is said to have arrested a total of six suspected members of the jihadist movement. "These men are usually in transit from other countries, typically former Soviet states such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or areas of the North Caucasus," a senior official in the SBU, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VICE News. "They're on Interpol lists and we find them occasionally hiding out here." Just last week, a suspected jihadist was detained near the capital Kiev, as was a suspected member of the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.

However, if you look a little deeper, the claims of IS procuring weapons in Ukraine become increasingly implausible. Extensive interviews with experts have highlighted serious holes in Kuwait's version of events.

They question why shoulder-fired missiles made in China would be trafficked out of a country renowned for such a substantial, Soviet-era stockpile of its own. And they insist that any Ukrainian connection would be marginal at most, merely a cog in a far bigger war machine. Others even speculate that the claims emerged as part of a possible campaign of misinformation, driven by an intriguing array of potential motives.

So where does IS typically get its gear? There are two sources, said Damian Spleeters, a field investigator with Conflict Armament Research and a specialist on the jihadists' weaponry. "One, their weapons are captured from regime security forces, either in Syria or Iraq," he said. "And two, they're captured from other rebel groups, mainly in Syria."

Iraq and Syria are flooded with MANPADS, including FN-6 models. Gulf states are alleged to have supplied many of these missile launchers to opposition groups via Sudan as part of a proxy war against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces. IS has commandeered a slice of this anti-aircraft firepower and used it to bring down regime helicopters.

"There are several other countries within the Middle East and North Africa region -- significantly closer than Ukraine, and where IS has stronger ideological ties and logistic freedoms -- where further systems could be acquired if necessary," said Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, a weapons expert and director of Armament Research Services, a technical intelligence consultancy. His firm has documented a variety of MANPADS  during Ukraine's ongoing conflict; those weapons originated in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine itself.

This is not the only link made between Islamic State and Ukraine. "While it's the first time such a claim has had widespread attention, the connection has come up before during confidential conversations with other analysts and certain security sources," Jenzen-Jones added.

But there is a huge question mark over the claim that FN-6s were bought in Ukraine, a country that has no documented history of manufacturing or purchasing such equipment. Ukraine's defense ministry was swift to refute Kuwait's allegations and said the country had never "provided the transport for [FN-6s'] shipment."

According to Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University who regularly writes on Eastern European crime, there was very little evidence of Chinese weaponry flowing through Ukraine. Missiles such as the FN-6 models would typically be sourced directly from China, Pakistan, or most likely, Sudan, he said, and it would be very odd for the route to their destination to wind through Ukraine.

It's not impossible: gangsters are often just "opportunists trading on what they've got," he said. But it is perplexing. "If you're a Ukrainian gangster, it's frankly not that difficult to get your hands on Soviet-era MANPADS. Why go to that extra hassle and risk of bringing in these weapons from elsewhere?"

All the experts interviewed said Ukraine's most obvious and easily-accessible shoulder-fired weapons were Soviet models, such as the Igla or SA-7, which has been used in conflicts around the world since the 1970s, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and civil wars across Latin America.

"I've seen stranger things happen in the international black market of weapons but the claim of the FN-6 is problematic," said Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey and an expert on shoulder-fired missiles. "We have no evidence of the Ukrainian government importing FN-6s so [they] probably wouldn't have been seized from them. And there's no reason why Russian-backed troops would have them, because the Russians produce their own MANPADS."

Schroeder also points to the lack of photographic evidence of FN-6s in Ukraine. "We've seen plenty of pictures of MANPADS in Ukraine -- the rebels are hardly shy. But these are all Russian or Soviet-designed systems. So the claim is just very, very odd. It would be such a significant and unlikely development that really needs more proof."

Despite the explanations to the contrary, imagine for a minute that an extremist cell had indeed set a new precedent and brokered such a deal. Who would be the seller? A crooked official in the defense ministry? A rebel commander gone rogue? Perhaps one of Ukraine's ultranationalist paramilitary units?

Certainly not the latter, argues Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European Studies at King's College London. "Ukrainian militias have a strong ideology and they hate jihadists," he said. "It's just not their thing. And if these weapons had gone to Syria through the Ukrainian militia network and their Chechen connections, they would have gone to Jabhat al Nusra, which still has a political and social network of Chechens, or Jaish al-Fatah. [They] would not have gone to IS, which insists new recruits break links with their pre-existing ethnic and political milieu."

Given Russia's escalating military campaign against all elements of opposition to Assad, including IS, Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel units seem a highly unlikely merchant to Moscow's own terrorist enemy. "The rebels' ideology just doesn't give them an incentive to do this," Clarkson added.

Organized crime groups, motivated predominantly by profit over principle, may seem a possible candidate for the role of arms dealer. Gangs will cut deals with most people if the price is right. But, often, even they draw the line at terrorists, because that would be just bad for business.

"Terrorists by definition are untrustworthy," said Galeotti. "More to the point, such dealings get you into trouble of a totally new order of magnitude. You've wandered into the realms of national security and you're more likely to be caught -- there are more serious agencies tracking these kind of activities. You're less likely to bribe your way out and punishment is more severe."

In recent decades, Ukraine's illicit arms market has flourished, aided and abetted by the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent rise of a gangster capitalism. The country became an important waypoint for international weapons shipments, centered historically on the Black Sea port of Odessa, a key transit point for armaments moving between Russia and the Moldovan breakaway statelet of Transnistria.

The Ukrainian conflict in the east, which erupted last year and has since claimed the lives of more than 8,000 people, has helped broadly carve the country's arms dealers into two camps: the patriots and the lone wolves.

"In 2014, a whole bunch of people in Ukraine had to make choices," said Clarkson. "Many people opted in to the rather complicated and fuzzy project of building the Ukrainian state. The more 'patriotic' among the arms dealers were partly co-opted and are now involved in bankrolling certain battalions and developing the Ukrainian arms industry."

In the other camp are those who rejected the opportunity to go legitimate and merge their activities and business connections with the Ukrainian state. "These arms dealers have now become even more divorced from day-to-day Ukrainian affairs than they were before," Clarkson added. "They're cut out of all business being done in the country when it comes to weapons and military-industrial complexes."

While there were fears that Ukraine's war would immediately spawn an uncontrolled black market for all manner of powerful weapons, the opposite seems to have occurred, at least in the short term. It's dubbed the sponge effect. During times of conflict, when demand is high, weapons become concentrated in a country. When conflict ends, weapons begin to flow out. As fighting in Ukraine's east is again erupting after a two-month lull, there is little evidence that this second phase has begun.

"We've seen limited numbers coming out into the Balkans and Eastern Europe," said Jenzen-Jones. "But we haven't seen any significant efforts to exploit the stockpiles of arms and munitions that fall outside state control at present, nor the wholesale looting that occurred in many of the North African conflicts. Presumably that's a result of the requirement for arms and munitions to fight the ongoing conflict or to hold them in strategic reserve."

Returning to the question of IS, any possible Ukrainian involvement is likely to be fringe: perhaps a middleman between the real players, but a highly unlikely source. Someone could have imported the FN-6s into Ukraine from China, perhaps by pretending to be a government agent or by using a fake end-user certificate. But there is no evidence for this.

The case does have a vague precedent. "The only diversion of Ukrainian weaponry that I've seen was a couple of years ago," said Spleeters, explaining that Ukraine sold 7.62mm ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles to Saudi Arabia in 2010, and the Saudis then had it delivered to Syrian rebel groups in Aleppo. "But you couldn't call it a case of Ukraine arming the Syrian opposition by any stretch," he said. 

So let's assume the report of IS buying missile systems in Ukraine is bogus. What is the motive for releasing such misinformation? And what would this motive tell us about the people behind the lie? Bear in mind that Kuwait was under no obligation to release this information.

For a start, no country wants to be accused of indirectly arming Islamic State -- it's embarrassing, to say the least. "There's an understanding that certain Gulf States have supplied these weapons to Syrian opposition groups and these have since fallen into the hands of Islamic State," said one weapons expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the allegations. "There is a slim possibility that these claims emanating from Kuwait are part of an intentional attempt to cast some misinformation as a means of disrupting the link between FN-6 MANPADS in Syria and Gulf States. It defuses responsibility and raises the prospect of other supply lines."

This possible misinformation would also discredit Ukraine, which currently has a powerful enemy -- Russia, which has a long history of using the tactic to discredit foes.   

"There could be an element of Russian misinformation or it could be that Kuwait doesn't want its arms connections to China and Pakistan discussed," said Clarkson. "Russia Today and various pro-Kremlin outlets have since been claiming that somehow there's a link between IS and Ukraine. And if it's expedient, they'll mention the SBU, Mossad, the CIA, all sorts of crazy stuff like that. The possibility of disinformation is strongly worth bearing in mind."

It's an allegation given credence by Galeotti too. "We know that a lot of our 'glorious allies' in the Gulf have been involved in a variety of unsavory activities in Syria. The weapons have certainly gone to al Qaeda linked groups. If one of these states were supplying the weapons, you'd want to obscure as far as possible where they've come from. So you might think, 'Well, Ukraine will do' -- it's involved in the arms trade in general so it sounds plausible."

Besides conspiracy theories, consider another option: human error. The report claims this "evidence" was released by Kuwait's interior ministry. But there is no mention of the arrests on the news section of the ministry's website and its officials ignored repeated requests from VICE News for comment. It's just possible that someone under pressure in Kuwait came up with the whole thing.

"I mean, who have they captured? We don't know," said Clarkson. "How far are these guys tied in with other intelligence or security services? We have no idea if they have an intelligence relationship with Russia. And we don't even know if the story is true. They may have well just picked Ukraine out of a hat. We always assume there's some deep system or deep planning… It could just be some stupid bureaucrat in an office saying, 'Ukraine's in the headlines, let's go for that'."

So what's the answer? Did IS get tooled up in Ukraine? Probably not. It's a good story that fits well with the current cycle of news, terror and war, but there are just too many holes for the claim to be taken seriously. And it is far better to accept the murk of ambiguity over the neatness of a bogus truth.

"This story just boils down to one guy saying something," said Spleeters, who has produced journalism uncovering major military scandals and illuminating the flow of international arms to some of the world's darkest corners. "There are no documents, there is no evidence. It's based purely on what this Kuwaiti news agency or the Kuwaiti authorities are saying. We can talk about it for years, but there are so many possibilities. It could be anything."

Vice News | 27Nov2015 | Jack Losh

The Priest, the Pianist, a Cat, and a DIY Sauna -- One Week in Ukraine’s Forgotten War

The day passes to dusk, and then to darkness, bringing with it the nocturnal chorus of a ceasefire that stops nothing. The first mortar round falls close to the platoon's canteen -- a cramped metal box, riddled with mice and dug deep into the cold earth. The explosion prompts the pair of soldiers to glance up from their bowls of stew, their faces lit by a naked electric lightbulb. A subsequent rattle of a heavy machine-gun encourages the younger one, just 19 years old, to close the door and stop the smallest chink of light from betraying their position. A second explosion signals the end of dinner. "I think we should go," says the older one. They traipse back to the trench, heads ducked down amid an intensifying fusillade of fire.

Do you know the Ukrainian night? So asked the Russian writer, Gogol, as he waxed lyrical about this once-pleasant swathe of Slavic steppe. The men of 2nd Platoon know the Ukrainian night, and there is little enchantment left here.

For hours, they were pinned down by a deadly hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. For months, they have held this small stretch of the front in their country's industrial east. And for more than a year and a half, their allied units of Ukraine's army have been locked in this devastating war, the intensity of which dips and rises with the passing of each truce.

The first day of September 2015 saw the signing of the latest peace deal. For weeks, it was remarkably successful, raising hopes that it could herald the beginning of the end of the worst conflict on European soil since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Those hopes are fading fast. This month has seen a flare-up in fighting and fiery rhetoric following a two-month lull, shredding the credibility of the fragile ceasefire. Raids and rocket attacks, pitched battles, and trench warfare -- all are now returning with greater frequency and ferocity to this war-torn corner of Europe, where more than 8,000 have died and 2.2 million have been displaced since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

For seven days, VICE News embedded with the men of 2nd Platoon, a close-knit and eclectic mix of conscripts, career soldiers, nationalistic volunteers, Soviet Army veterans, ex-cons, and a chaplain. They hold the line on the outskirts of Pisky, a once-affluent neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Donetsk, now dealt near-total destruction by the relentless pounding of artillery.

Undersupplied and living in squalor, the soldiers are fighting a forgotten war. They feel neglected by their own country and the West, and hold the purported ceasefire in contempt. Now they're hungry for a new push. As fighting flared along the 280-mile eastern front, the platoon's warren of muddy trenches offered a ringside view of Europe's latest conflagration and provided powerful evidence that Ukraine's tentative peace is, yet again, on the brink of collapse.

* * *

The battered Vauxhall sped south-eastwards towards the front. It belonged to an unusual pair of Russian journalists, clad in full military fatigues, who had offered to give us a lift. The name of their on-board wifi network revealed their unexpected allegiance -- "Putin Khuylo," politely translated as "Putin is a dickhead." Slava, a gentle giant who regularly broke into high-pitched chuckles, was behind the wheel; Anna, with cropped hair and an elfin face, sat beside him.

"We run a pro-Ukraine channel on YouTube," Slava explained. "My parents are very supportive of me but, for Anna, it's more complicated." His girlfriend chimed in: "They don't really understand. My brother's blocked me on VK [Russia's equivalent of Facebook] and we don't speak anymore."

The couple live in exile and cannot risk returning to Russia, long accused by the West of actively supporting the rebel military campaign in Ukraine's eastern rustbelt. "We can't go home -- it's forbidden," Slava continued. "We constantly move around the front and stay in nearby towns. These are our homes now. We're here to tell the truth."

The day had dawned cold and grey but by midday, the sun had burned through the mist. We checked in at a forward operating base, jumped into a yellow Citroen Berlingo and hurtled towards frontline positions, swerving potholes and shell craters at 80mph.The road passed bombed-out cottages, half-abandoned villages, Red Cross jeeps and the occasional figure toiling in a field. Our driver, Yarik -- a young soldier with a Cossack mohawk and easy grin -- put on Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and cranked up the volume.

As we approached the final checkpoint, a pair of soldiers waved us through, and we headed down an off-road trail leading to the trench held by Kuprum (Copper) -- the short name for the 2nd Platoon of the 7th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 93rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Their position fringes no-man's land, an overgrown expanse of field littered with mines and unexploded munitions. Rebel lines are within a couple of miles. Kuprum's network of trenches, bunkers, and firing positions is home to a martial tribe who have shed their former civilian skins to adopt a colorful range of wartime identities. Among them are Casper and Conan; Boar and Dragon; Pianist, Papa and Primus; Sabre and Skeptic.

This last man, real name Yevgeny Pakhomov, 50, is their commander -- a softly-spoken First Lieutenant and former animal rights activist who used to campaign for the protection of dolphins. His hopes for peace are swayed by a gritty realism. "There will be more fighting, then another ceasefire, then more killing, and so on. This war will never end," he told VICE News. "Give it 10, 20 years and then Putin will be dead. Things may get a little better then."

Two armored personnel-carriers sit like sentinels above the trench, their cannons pointed into no-man's land. Construction material is dumped haphazardly while cigarette butts are strewn over the parapet. Weaving through mud and freshly-turned earth, the labyrinth of trenches provides scant shelter between each fortified position. Boredom and danger dominate.

But even here, amid grime and a ramshackle existence, there are odd flashes of luxury. Enter a bunker and a very different scene presents itself.

Our home for the week was a subterranean, rectangular room, panelled in wood and furbished with three bunkbeds, lined head-to-toe along one wall. A log-burning stove pumped out heat into the night, a wifi router sent a reliable internet signal, and a large television, mounted in the corner, broadcast a daily diet of news, action films, and gameshows until midnight, when the generator was turned off.

A mini-galley boasts a microwave, fridge, kettle, and cupboards stuffed with cookies, chocolate, coffee, and herbal teas. Alongside piles of body armor sits a saucer of milk for Shlyoma, the resident ginger tom-cat. Boots, camouflage, combat medical kits, helmets, and military-grade radio sets fill every corner and dangle from every bed. There is even a DIY sauna attached to a neighboring bunker, though scant supplies of water can put it out of action.

Clearly, these men know how to look after themselves. The platoon's nickname, Copper, allegedly stems from a former proclivity for purloining metal from the local ghost town and selling it for scrap.

Among the most welcoming and charismatic of the fighters was Pianist, the resident chaplain. With a flaming red beard and large metal crucifix hanging from his neck, he conjured up the presence and philosophy of a medieval Slavic warrior.

"Faith in God is nothing without deeds," he said. "If I need to take up arms and kill separatists, then I will. I am a soldier first and a chaplain second."

Despite the deployment of this man of God, formal services are kept to a minimum. "We don't do anything special on a Sunday -- every day I'm on duty for these men. In our ranks we have Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims… I will help any man of any faith who needs it."

After sunset, a soldier approached us. "It's time for dinner," said Boar, real name Ruslan. "Follow me." He led us through the darkness, down a muddy slope and into the galley dugout. Officially, this burly man in his late 30s is a machine-gunner, but the men here hold Boar in high esteem as their resident cook.

After a brief flurry of chopping, dicing, cracking, and frying, we sat hunched over a pan of potatoes and a 10-egg omelette. As cigarette smoke filled the gloom, mice scurried among sacks behind us, and the occasional crackle of gunfire echoing around us, Boar began his story.

"All my friends now are fighting for the separatists. When they took Kramatorsk last year [a town now held by the government in the east], they went round looking for anyone who supported Ukraine.

"I got a phone call from an old friend of mine who had become a separatist commander -- he told me I was on their list. I grabbed my daughter, a few possessions and drove out of town as fast as I could. I later learned that a few minutes after I'd left, they smashed into my house. But I had already gone.

"I began a new life in Poltava further west and spent all my money trying to get things going. Eventually I decided to return to the war. I planned to join the fight with Right Sector [an ultra-nationalistic Ukrainian militia] but the 93rd Brigade offered me a contract and I ended up with them. I've been here ever since."

It must have been hard cutting ties with old friends, I suggested. Does he ever get to speak with them? "Of course -- sometimes, we exchange messages," Boar replied. "They tell me they will hunt me down and slit my throat." In the half-light, he gave a faint smile. "But I'll get them first."

A particularly ferocious volley of gunfire resounded over the field. "You hear that?" he asked, his eyes catching mine obliquely in the half-light. "That would be the ceasefire."

* * *

Take a trip to the front and you would be forgiven for thinking that war had never stopped. In recent weeks, its intensity has shifted up a gear from post-ceasefire calm to sporadic outbreaks of violence, which are now escalating into something altogether more concerning.

The peace deal signed in February 2015, followed by September's truce, helped dampen the return to the firestorm of blitz and offensive that had raged through the summer of 2014 and the subsequent winter. After this summer's intensifying wave of violence, there were indications that the Kremlin was looking to stabilize the crisis as Moscow turned its attention to the ongoing military campaign to bolster President Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Ukraine's war, however, now appears to be again spiralling out of control. The international watchdog monitoring the conflict, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported an increase in the use of Grad rockets and mortars -- both banned under the February deal. In recent weeks, OSCE monitors have reported a spate of attacks involving anti-aircraft guns, automatic grenade-launchers, and large mortars around the battle-scarred regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Dozens of howitzers and other artillery pieces have been confirmed to be absent from Ukrainian holding areas, despite agreements for the heavy weapons to be mothballed, while the OSCE reports that a "considerable" amount of military hardware continues to move beyond respective withdrawal lines.

The latest attacks do not appear to be freak ruptures on the front nor the action of a local rebel commander gone rogue. Rather, they fit into a wider pattern of escalating violence which threatens to derail the peace plan.

On just one day during VICE News's embed on the front, the Ukrainian Army reported rebel attacks across nine towns as well as explosions and sniper fire in the demilitarized zone of Shyrokyne, a former seaside town long feared to be a possible springboard for an assault on the strategic, eastern port city of Mariupol. Daniel Baer, the US Ambassador to the OSCE, has warned against "a slide back into full-scale violence" and said that the "worrying increase in violence could cause the ceasefire to deteriorate altogether."

In recent months, the Ukrainian military has had some successes, in so far as it has stemmed further territory loss to the country's breakaway statelets, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. It has also managed to mobilize more than 200,000 troops in a year -- a sizeable figure in a relatively short space of time.

But issues remain, not least with its clunking command structure -- an unwieldy relic of the Soviet era. Top brass have been keen to publicize the army's compliance with the crumbling ceasefire deal and insist its forces resort to using heavy weapons only in defense. Many of Ukraine's fighters, however, are frustrated by the limitations placed on their firepower and complain about red tape curbing counterstrikes. In short, they loathe the current truce.

"We're not just frustrated -- we're angry. We should be allowed to fire back whenever we want. They can tell me otherwise but this is still a war," said Doc, real name Alexander, a former psychiatrist and 45-year-old deputy commander of Pisky's 18th Platoon. "There is no diplomatic solution. The war will only end when the feet of Ukrainian soldiers touch our border with Russia."

Scanning no-man's land with a pair of binoculars, he stood above a trench in a quarter of the town that lies now in utter ruin, tiny cottages reduced to rubble and a couple of walls. "The ceasefire is one-sided," Doc continued. "They're building up with heavy vehicles and heavy weapons directly opposite us." As if to substantiate his claim, the distinctive noise of a tank rumbled over from rebel-held positions.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has condemned "a net escalation in the conflict" and blamed it on "a rise in the number of attacks" from pro-Russian forces. He has also issued a presidential order allowing soldiers to shoot back "as soon as our troops' lives come under threat." While this promises to streamline a notoriously inefficient chain of command, it puts the ceasefire on even thinner ice.

After weeks of relative peace, Poroshenko said this month that Ukraine's armed forces were on a renewed war footing: "We've substantially increased the level of combat readiness and steps the Ukrainian army will make for the defense". His comments came just hours after Kiev reported the deaths of five soldiers from direct rebel attacks in the previous 24-hour period -- the highest daily death toll since the ceasefire was agreed in September.

Despite the heightened rhetoric among Ukraine's political elite, the troops feel forgotten -- both by their countrymen and foreign allies. "Before, we were heroes. Now, we are nobody," said Viktor, 45, a.k.a. "The Priest." "The rest of the country doesn't want to know us."

This swarthy, middle-aged father-of-two earned his nickname after making a bombed-out, frontline church his home. Despite claims that his country has abandoned him, The Priest remains sanguine. "We have a job to do and that's all it is."

The US has pumped more than $250 million of "non-lethal" aid into the Ukrainian military since March 2014, from body armor to night-vision gear, advanced radar systems and an array of battlefield vehicles. And in coming weeks, the next cycle of the American train-and-equip program is due to commence. But what soldiers here want are weapons. And, as far as they are concerned, talk of negotiations are pure anathema.

"There's only a military solution," said Artur, who was among a group of soldiers, smoking cigarettes and sipping cups of sweet, black tea outside Viktor's church one bright, chilly morning. "Anyone who chooses diplomacy is a pussy."

But, I asked him, wouldn't an offensive just provoke a fierce response from the other side and provide an easy pretext for Russian aggression? He shrugged off the idea with boisterous defiance. "We're ready to push all the way to border. We'll take on Russia."

A few nights later, an unexpected battle suggested that such a move would not be taken lying down.

* * *

Dinner was abandoned by the second blast. The mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades began exploding in the pitch-black chill. Arcs of red tracer-fire scored the night sky above a crescendo of assault rifles and heavy machine-guns. Both sides, each stoked with hundreds of fighters, unleashed a barrage of fire for hours.

The men seemed well-accustomed to the pitch and timbre of this deadly reprise. The swift staccato pops of a PKM light machine gun. The heavy hammering of a DShK .50-caliber. The thump of pressure to the chest and persistent ringing in the ears as Soviet-era SPG-9s released their explosive loads.

In 2nd Platoon's trench, a couple of hundred metres from the battle's epicentre, the radio buzzed with frenzied exchanges -- "Heavy incoming fire"; "18th platoon getting hit"; "Enemy unit advancing towards Lynx". Meanwhile, almost grudgingly, the soldiers ducked down in ditches beneath the mosquito whine of ricocheting bullets.

They chain-smoked through the worst of it, alternating between laughs and curses whenever a shell landed too close for comfort, rocking the earth. One man poked his head up from a bunker during a particularly ferocious exchange. Amid the shadows and repeated flashes, he joked: "Welcome to Disco Partisan."

A pair of dogs -- abandoned at the outbreak of war and now adopted by the platoon -- faithfully followed the commander, Skeptic, as he moved between firing positions in the trench. They flinched at every explosion but barely let out a whimper as the bombs rained down within 100 meters of the dugout.

One infantryman, Viktor Bogan, 46 years old and a carpenter before taking up arms last year, continued to tinker away in his makeshift workshop on the edge of no-man's land. He had lost half his hearing in previous fights and seemed nonplussed by the latest outbreak. "I'm only here so my children and grandchildren don't have to face war for themselves," said Viktor.

He was clad in a leather waistcoat, a bandana and worn gauntlets, the Mad Max aesthetic round off by a huge, homemade blade tucked into a deerskin sheath. During lighter moments, his grizzled face would often crease into a generous smile and he would talk of his dream to rebuild his hometown's church, destroyed during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

"Only the older men should be here," he sighed. "It would have been better if the young boys were never sent to this front line."

Once morning dawned grey and cold, the fighting had subsided -- some of the fiercest in weeks. Positions remained the same but Ukraine's fragile truce appeared to lie in tatters.

* * *

"I had a dream two nights ago that the war will begin again in 121 days. I don't know why that number came into my head. It's silly, really. But these visions of war come to me most nights. Now is not the end of the fighting -- it is just a break and it won't last."

We talk of dreams and death and the coming winter through a darkening afternoon. Anatoliy and Svetlana, both on the cusp of 70 and married for 46 years, are decent people cursed by war, yet not corrupted by it. They defy the conflict's occupation of their home in Pisky and refuse to leave. Svetlana tells us of her strange premonition while we enjoy homemade blackberry wine, endless cups of tea and biscuits spread with honey from their beehives.

Somehow, despite the devastation around them, despite the storms of artillery, despite the hatred, their house remains unscathed. It's hard to fathom.

"God," says Svetlana. "That is the only reason. There's no other way. We have survived."

Laughter still fills their modest home, as do fleeting hints of darkness. I first met the pair in August, when their garden was still blooming with flowers and fruit at the end of a hot, bloody summer. Their spirited bond clearly remains but recent months have etched fatigue upon their faces.

"The rest of Ukraine has forgotten us," says Svetlana. "They could not imagine what we experience. We've lost more than any politician in power, on either side, ever could."

Our conversation continues for an hour, maybe two. Memories of Pisky before the war and of distant family members intermingle with talk of fear, politics and loss. Putin is mentioned, as is Poroshenko; the couple describe their hopes of holding their 70th birthday parties in the new year.

Finally, Anatoliy rises from his wooden chair and tops up our tumblers with wine -- the last round of the day. Dusk is falling and the threat of battle hangs as ever over this little European town.

He raises his glass. "Za mir", he says. "To peace."

Vice News | 17Aug2015 | Jack Losh

Ukraine's Mystery Battle: Hunting for Truths Across an Elastic Border

The dynamic of claim and counter-claim between the opposing forces in eastern Ukraine is nothing new. From social media posts to ministerial press releases, the conflict is as much a war of words as it is of bombs and bullets. But an incident last week was the subject of such bold and wildly conflicting claims from both the rebels in Donetsk and the government in Kiev that they cast more doubt than certainty over the events they described.

According to Kiev, in the early hours of August 10, 2015, the front line around the small town of Starohnativka was subjected to a sustained pre-dawn attack from hundreds of pro-Russia fighters, supported by tanks, heavy artillery, and APC-borne troops. Ukraine accused the rebels of carrying out the heaviest shelling in six months and branded it "a dangerous indication" of imminent conflict. International monitors from OSCE observed a significant increase in ceasefire violations around the town and President Petro Poroshenko was even reported to have summoned an emergency defense meeting.

Amid mixed reports of multiple fatalities, Ukraine claimed that pro-Kiev forces launched a counterattack and seized strategic rebel positions -- a ringing assertion of the first territorial gains made by the government since the February ceasefire deal was signed in Minsk.

But top brass in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) gave a starkly different story. According to them, it was all quiet on the eastern front. Edward Basurin, DNR deputy defense minister, denied that a rebel attack had happened, and insisted the DNR had not broken the ceasefire. He accused Ukraine of making up the story.

As stalemate, trench warfare, and consolidation of the de facto border increasingly typify a crumbling ceasefire, the alleged offensive last week could represent a hint of violence to come. 

VICE News traveled to the front line round Starohnativka in the aftermath to find out exactly what had happened. There, soldiers, medics, and civilians on either side of the divide accused their respective governments of lying and challenged both official versions.

The road to Starohnativka, situated just 20 miles from the Russian border, passes through sleepy hamlets and fields of sunflowers and corn -- a pleasant hinterland halfway between Donetsk and the industrialized port city of Mariupol. Save for the odd bunker and trench system, and thud of shellfire, the scene presents a rural idyll, almost a clich� of pastoral Ukraine.

Beyond the main checkpoint lay the town, the stronghold of the 72nd mechanized brigade. It was a jumble of concrete and weeds, seemingly devoid of civilian life. A group of volunteer medics were resting at a former Soviet children's camp, now commandeered for their living quarters. Three trained doctors and around 20 paramedics spend their days here waiting to treat casualties, and their nights on mats laid out on the bare, cement floor.

While a few lounged in the shade to escape the intense, afternoon sun, others sat on ammunition crates, sipping black coffee as they gazed over the scrubland which separated them from the front line.

"Too many children remain in these villages. We don't understand why their parents don't take them away," Odesseet, a father in his 40s with a quick smile, but weary eyes, told VICE News. "We desperately need more medical transports," added Larissa Khorbachanka, 23. "Two were destroyed by mines on Monday, leaving us just a few vehicles."

The medics were the first of many on the front line to deride the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's statement that government troops had seized "key heights" and pushed the rebels back "two or three kilometers."

Olena Maksymenko, 27, a volunteer paramedic from Kiev who also serves as the medical unit's press officer, told VICE News: "They said we took new territory from the separatists but it's not true. Our troops did move forward but they pulled back soon afterwards.

"The Defense Ministry just wants to show a nice situation for the people back home. But it wasn't pretty. Three men died from Right Sector [a paramilitary group which fights for Ukraine] and four from the army. One guy died as we treated him -- he didn't stand a chance."

Back on the main road towards the front, Anatoli, a 40-year-old sergeant, cradled an assault rifle as he described the attack. "The battle began in the early hours of Monday and finished at around 11am before intensifying again after lunch," he said. "It was heavy -- Grad missiles, multi-caliber shells, and surveillance drones."

Again pouring cold water on Kiev's claims that new ground had been captured, he added: "We moved forward to Novolaspa [a village trapped between both front lines]. But we saw a group of tanks there so we pulled back to our original positions."

Anatoli went on to accuse Kiev and Europe of abandoning Ukrainian troops and demanded more weapons. "Our guns aren't good enough to fight back with," he said. "Our weapons are old Soviet models. Our anti-tank guns are from the 1970s. We want new and better weapons from Europe but they are too scared -- everyone there wants to avoid war with Russia.

"Kiev is not interested in winning this war. Where is their patriotism? The rich people who rule us there can leave anytime to go to Europe. Only the true fighters are here. This conflict only harms the poor and benefits the rich."

A pensioner who gave her name as Pelakhina rested in the shade. She had refused to flee the town; for her the details of the battle were of little consequence. "They were fighting but I don't care what day it was," she said. "I'm 84 years old. I'm not interested in any of this. I just live one day at a time."

Away from the town center, a cadre of civilian contractors were building a fresh network of trenches at Ukraine's frontline positions. Their boss, Vladimir Bardesh, also insisted that no new ground had been permanently taken. "Sure, some of our soldiers moved forward but they didn't stay there for long," he said. "Nothing has changed."

His words chimed with multiple witnesses: this is an elastic front line which, apparently, had stretched forward on Monday, only to snap back several hours later.

Further north, beneath a setting sun, as incoming and outgoing shellfire echoed along either side of the darkening valley, a group of pro-Kiev soldiers waited in an abandoned farm for nightfall. One played with a pack of dogs near a gutted barn, its roof destroyed by a rocket. A few pigs snuffled in an adjoining shed and the silhouettes of a shepherd and his flock rose above the skyline in a neighboring field.

Their commander, Major Alexander Chirya, described Monday's battle. "It was unusually loud -- shelling and shooting all night. We spent it underground in a shelter." Why didn't they return fire? He let out a hollow laugh: "With AK47s against Grads?"

When asked about Kiev's claims that Ukraine had seized rebel positions, he replied with a wry smile: "Our troops didn't take any new land. Perhaps the officials at the ministry see better than we do. That news certainly about new territory sounds good to me -- I'd be glad if it were true."

Two days later, VICE News was in rebel-held territory, close to the devastated villages of Novolaspa and Bila Kam'yanka, northwest of Starohnativka. The war's kaleidoscope of colors had twisted to replace Ukraine's blue-and-yellow standard with a multitude of DNR and Novorossiya flags, as soldiers proudly displayed Russian insignia on their uniforms. From the breakaway enclave, government�-held Ukraine stretched into the distance.

At the foot of a gently sloping valley, a group of rebels stood around smoking in a small outpost by a meandering waterway. Shells and mortar rounds exploded nearby but the men barely registered the blasts. Spetz, their commander, rejected the DNR's official claims that "everything was calm" on Monday.

"Here we are defending our land from Ukraine -- everyday it's a big fight," said the commander, who oversees a unit of around 40 men who often engage in special reconnaissance missions.

"We didn't leave our positions. The only time that happens is when we use the landscape to our advantage and sneak behind the enemy. We like partisan war," he said.

"Nothing has changed -- the same villages as before are controlled by Ukraine and DNR."

Later, at a nearby forward base, a grizzled lieutenant with a bushy beard told VICE News about the battle which his superiors claimed had never happened. He gave his name as Thor. "I believe in in the old gods," he explained.

All the pro-Russia soldiers we spoke to denied that they had suffered any fatalities, despite reports in Ukraine of more than 130 killed. Thor, however, undermined the official line and was the first rebel to acknowledge a death toll among the separatists. "Ukraine used anti-tank weapons, howitzers, and mortars," he said. "A Grad destroyed the house of a commander, a man called Khandros. It killed him, his wife, and another woman.

"We answered with anti-tank fire, heavy machine guns, and RPGs. But we still don't have enough weapons. We really want to take the whole of Donbass -- it's our homeland." He quickly added: "We don't intend to go any further."

A variety of accounts haunt the aftermath of last Monday's attack around the remote town of Starohnativka, but they all point to the certainty that this was the scene of a significant battle, hidden beyond the opaque barricades of numerous military checkpoints. The fight was far greater than what has become normal along the ossified front of the war in eastern Ukraine. While the stalemate was briefly ruptured, the lines of hostility were not redrawn.

Men and women on the ground confirmed Ukraine's official death toll of seven -- four from the military and national guard, and three from the Right Sector militia. The true extent of the loss of life among the Russian-backed separatist army, however, will almost certainly remain buried. The victims' families, in whatever corner of the former Soviet Union they live, will be among the only individuals to learn which men died that day.

The difficulty of pinpointing fact amid the smoke and mirrors of misinformation was highlighted again in nearby Komsomolskoe. An atmosphere of paranoia, suspense, and uncertainty pervaded the small town. The local mayor is said to have ordered the remaining populace to prepare their basements, ahead of what many people there view as a likely offensive.

Rebels along this stretch of the front said they expected Ukraine to strike on the symbolic day of August 24 -- the country's Independence Day commemorating secession from the USSR in 1991. But civilians in Komsomolskoe believe an attack could come earlier.

A female shopkeeper in her 40s said the town was awash with rumors but no one knew the source. "Someone says that somebody heard from some DNR soldier on some checkpoint that we should be ready because something or other is going to happen," she said in good humor, with a hint of exasperation.

"Nobody knows what's real but people believe the rumors and it makes them afraid. People are asking me to give them boxes from the shop so they can stock up their basements. One person says the attack will be on the 17th, another says the 18th or 19th, others say the 24th, 2015.

"Everybody here knows something but no one knows the truth."

Vice News | 11Aug2015 | Jack Losh

Meet 'Muslim': The Chechen Commander Battling Russia With Some Unlikely Allies

The knowledge that the toffee-and-poppy-seed cake had been made by a group of local volunteers was enough to reassure the Chechen militia commander that he would not be poisoned over afternoon tea. "For anything else," he said, handing over a small cardboard box containing a Geiger counter, "I always scan for radiation."

Clad in combat fatigues and sporting an impressive black and white beard, the exile goes by the nom de guerre of "Muslim." Many of his associates were poisoned by the Russian security services, he said, and he was not prepared to meet the same fate. He has survived to reach his mid-40s despite two devastating Chechen wars with Russia in the 1990s, a decade living as a guerrilla in the remote mountains of the North Caucasus, and now 12 months fighting the Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The commander's "Sheikh Mansur" battalion -- named after an 18th century Chechen resistance fighter -- is among three volunteer Islamic battalions fighting alongside Kiev government forces in eastern Ukraine. An unconventional splinter group, it highlights one of the conflict's messier dimensions: Chechen versus Chechen.

On one side are those who fight for Ukraine, said to number around 100. Moscow denies Western accusations that it has sent regular troops into eastern Ukraine but, as far as these Chechens are concerned, this is the same conflict on a different front.

On the other side, several hundred Chechens loyal to strongman Ramzan Kadyrov support the pro-Russia separatists. In 2004, President Vladimir Putin entrusted the young warlord Kadyrov to extinguish the local insurgency in Chechnya and allowed him to rule the previously war-torn state with impunity.

Amid this bitter feud, Muslim's unit offers a further twist. While Western Europeans may typically associate right-wing groups with Islamophobia, the Sheikh Mansur battalion has forged an unlikely alliance with Right Sector, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary movement. Elsewhere they may have been natural enemies but here, their coalition is born of a shared nemesis and fuelled by a common hatred of Russia.

Right Sector, estimated to have between 1,000 and 5,000 men, grew during 2014's Euromaidan protests in Kiev from half-a-dozen nationalist fringe groups. Its agenda has long stoked Russian propaganda about Kiev's so-called "invading fascists." The organization refuses to be absorbed into the command structure of Ukraine's armed forces and increasingly poses an internal threat to the country, shown by last month's deadly shootout with police in the western city of Mukachevo or their vociferous calls for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko.

The Sheikh Mansur group also fight alongside the Azov Battalion, a pro-Kiev force whose alleged neo-Nazi views led the US to ban American soldiers from training and arming its members. The group denies having an extremist agenda, despite adopting a symbol almost identical to the Wolfsangel emblem associated with Nazi Germany. And Muslim insists Ukraine's disparate militias are fully united.

"We have a very good relationship with the volunteer battalions, including Azov," he told VICE News. "We fight together on the front, share many friendships, and never argue about ethnicity or religion.

"There is nothing surprising about our alliance -- we have a common enemy who doesn't care about us or our lands. The men in my unit are just simple Muslims and have no interest in making anyone else follow our religion."

Out of all Ukraine's volunteer battalions, Muslim spoke most fondly of Right Sector. "They exist outside the system and only fight for their land, not for money," he added. "We share this cause. Those within the system are a little different from us. As far as we are concerned, Right Sector fighters can do whatever they like -- we are here only to fight Russia."

In Sheikh Mansur and Right Sector's shared compound, around an hour's drive from the front line, a shirtless Right Sector fighter lolled in the afternoon heat behind camouflage netting. He expressed a similar level of faith in the alliance, but didn't put too fine a point on it. "Chechens, Right Sector," said Vyjak, punching his right hand into the palm of his left: "Putin kaput."

Sergiy Vasilovich, head of Right Sector's political wing in Donbass, adopted a similar stance when asked about the group's relationship with Sheikh Mansur. "The volunteer battalions are like a tight fist, fully united in patriotism," he told VICE News.

"Our objectives are to liberate Ukrainian territory up to the Russian border. We can do it now that Russia's economy is suffering but we cannot win by defending the front line alone."

Back at base, Muslim described how, as a young man, his national service in Chechnya morphed into a life of full-blown insurrection. After his republic declared independence and the Russian tanks rolled in, he went on to witness the horrors of the war first-hand in Grozny, a city annihilated by Moscow's forces.

"I have buried two brothers, several cousins and many friends," he said. "War is not a good thing. Russia wanted to take us back to the Stone Age."

Following a second war in 1999-2000, Moscow crushed the bulk of Chechen resistance and established a puppet state in the form of the Kadyrov dynasty as the underground resistance resorted to increasingly violent and extreme measures, such as assassinations, hostage-taking, sabotage, and suicide bombings.

Muslim said he was forced into hiding in the mountains and eventually left the country in 2007. "I was not scared but our forces were too weak," he said, his sleeve bearing a colorful insignia of the sun rising over a Chechen mountain. "I miss everything there. It is the most beautiful place in the world. For a Muslim, Mecca is the holiest place in the world. But as a man, Chechnya is my home."

Following seven years as an exile, apparently living in France and Ukraine, Muslim in 2014 went to meet another Chechen rebel, General Isa Munayev -- a key figure among all Chechens fighting in Ukraine. Munayev had been injured in 2006 during a counter-insurgency strike in Chechnya and was smuggled to Europe to seek treatment. He was granted political asylum in Denmark where he ran a group campaigning for Chechen independence, until events in Ukraine provided the perfect opportunity to resume his struggle against Russia.

He headed to Ukraine last spring where he was received by Kiev's military officers desperate for experienced fighters. Furnished with arms, Munayev formed the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, named after the late Chechen president and independence leader. It bristled with his compatriots -- including Muslim, who went on to form the Sheikh Mansur battalion several months later -- as well as Azeris, Georgians, Ingush, and Tatars.

In February, Munayev was killed fighting alongside the Ukrainian army during the vicious battle for Debaltseve. Adam Osmayev, a British-educated Chechen, replaced him, and Muslim has continued to operate with his own cohort.

Chechens are a martial tribe, renowned and feared on the battlefield where many of them fight without protective gear. "I have never worn a helmet or body armor," Muslim said. "And neither have my fellow fighters. We're not used to it, it's not in our tradition. For a start, it's very heavy -- far better to carry an extra 15 kilos (33lbs) of ammunition or weapons.

"There is a prescribed time for us to die, we believe in that final point. I've been fighting for more than 20 years -- I know this to be absolutely true."

The Chechens on either side are prime candidates for executing dangerous raids and reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, tactics honed during combat with Russia. "My men are good at that," Muslim said. "We have learned a lot about mountain and urban guerrilla warfare fighting Russia. Ukraine now wants to use our knowledge."

He claimed that his men had stolen military vehicles from separatist lines and even dragged a Russian soldier back last month. "We handed him to the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine)," he added, without going into further detail.

Among its ranks, Sheikh Mansur reputedly counts men who have fought in anti-government forces in Syria. "They left and came here because it got so complicated." Muslim explained. "Initially it was just rebels versus Assad, but then there were too many groups.

"My first and eternal enemy is Russia so I will never fight in Syria. I cannot leave my personal enemy for them. If my house is on fire, I will not leave to extinguish another fire I see on the horizon. Here I see my enemy and no one can make me believe that Russia is otherwise. It is so simple for me."

When asked about the opposing Chechens fighting along with the separatists, the commander showed a surprising lack of rancor; he saves that for Putin. "We wouldn't call all of them traitors, some are just deceived," said Muslim. "Rather, I pity them, they are just trapped. I don't want us to fight -- after our wars of independence, there aren't many of us left.

"Russia must be saved from Putin's gang. There is a lot of evil in the wider world because of that man. He is like a robot with only one setting. It's impossible to reason with a zombie."

Towards the end of the interview, a further possible motivation for his decision to fight in this foreign land became apparent. From 1932-33, Ukraine was ravaged by the Holodomor. A cataclysmic famine, the Holomodor was unleashed by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and collectivize farming across the USSR. Millions died amid forced grain seizures in a country famed for its fertile black earth, supposedly the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.

While some of those affected tried to reach neighboring Romania or Poland, others headed east to find food and refuge in Chechnya and Muslim's mountain village became one such a sanctuary.

"There were many elderly women in my village who had fled from Ukraine as young girls," he recalled, sipping his black tea. "I grew up with their stories of starvation. We know what happened to them. Chechens have shared Ukraine's tragedy."

Vice News | 20Jul2015 | Jack Losh

The Holdouts: We Witnessed a Battalion's Final Days on Shyrokyne's Frontline

"The way of creativity, joy and happiness." The sign outside the Soviet-era children's camp -- pockmarked by gunfire and gutted by shelling -- stuck out like a bad joke. Beneath it, three volunteers of the Ukrainian Donbass battalion were smoking on a worn sofa amid a jumble of plastic flowers, concrete rubble, ammunition, and dirty dishes, dappled in shade cast by camouflage netting.

The village of Shyrokyne lay in the valley below. The seaside resort has been ruined by months of fierce combat, offering the most blatant evidence that the peace accord signed in Minsk in February is dead in all but name. Both sides had endured repeated bombardments as pro-Kiev forces defended the upper, western flanks of the village, fearing that pro-Russia rebels would use it as a springboard to attack the strategically important port of Mariupol nearby.

In recent weeks, however, the daily mortar blasts and heavy thud of artillery were replaced by an uneasy silence, broken occasionally by the shot of a lone sniper. On July 1, separatist leaders in Donetsk declared the deadly hotspot a demilitarized zone, demanding that troops on both sides withdraw, that gunfire stop, and that observation points for international OSCE monitors be provided. 

Rebel forces, by and large, obeyed the order and pulled back to fortified positions away from the center, despite grave misgivings among government troops.

While the rebels presented their proposed ceasefire as an act of peace and goodwill, pro-Ukrainian fighters -- from volunteers in the trenches to commanders back at base -- believe it is simply a pretext for a rebel offensive. The pro-Kiev Donbass Battalion -- the holdouts of Ukraine's national guard in Shyrokyne -- maintained their positions on the edge of town, refusing to give any potential ground.

But on Monday night, the truce finally took full hold as the battalion made an unexpectedly rushed withdrawal and the Ukrainian military locked down the village, taking control beyond its outer perimeter. VICE News journalists were among the last on the frontline there; the atmosphere was charged with distrust, doubt, and defiance.

"If we pull back from Shyrokyne, Mariupol will be next. It's pure blackmail," said "Viking," real name Anatoli Ovdeechook, 52. He was one of the many soldiers to pour scorn on the plan for demilitarization. Sheltering from the oppressive mid-afternoon heat in a cramped bunker, the infantryman told VICE News he would ignore any order to withdraw from his front-line position. "It would only give the rebels more ground," he added. "We've lost too many men for that."

Further into the ravaged village, more Donbass volunteers waited on a hillside, the Azov Sea stretching out below them. Clad in camouflage, they sat cleaning their weapons inside the former children's camp, now abandoned and barricaded with sandbags. Vladlen, 44, a father of two from Donetsk, reasserted his fellow fighters' shared suspicions. 

"We are all totally against the demilitarization -- this is Ukrainian territory," said the former restaurant manager. "If we leave, the next day this will be DPR [the pro-Russia, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic]. This isn't the first time they've tried to trick us."

The peacetime use of his outpost did not faze him. "Sure, this used to be a place for children but everything in this war is crazy. Such things are normal now."

Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian group, is among the fiercest opponents of President Petro Poroshenko. Unlike the Azov and Donbass battalions, the group's military wing has not been absorbed into Ukraine's national guard. Further west, they have been involved in a recent spate of serious incidents, including a gun battle with police in Mukachevo in western Ukraine and anti-government rallies in the capital.

While, ostensibly, Ukraine had removed Right Sector fighters from Shyrokyne, one of their senior officials told VICE News that the militia continues to dispatch snipers, scouts, and guerilla units without insignia into the demilitarized zone, directly contravening orders from top brass in Kiev.

"Our units are not acting officially. They have no badges and operate like guerrillas. They go there without Kiev's backing," said Sergiy Vasilovich, head of Right Sector's political wing in the Donbass region. 

"Russia has still not fulfilled its promises so we will not move. The rebels' so-called demilitarization is simply a trick. They just want Ukraine to lose more territory and more people."

He vowed that Right Sector troops would remain in Shryrokyne and would reject any command to withdraw. "We will stay against the orders of the commanders," he said. "If we give the town back, Mariupol is exposed to invasion. We must keep it in Ukraine."

One of the stranger relationships of the Ukrainian conflict is the alliance between Right Sector and a predominantly Islamic cohort of exiled Chechens. "Muslim," who, after spending two decades fighting the Russians in Chechnya, now commands the Sheikh Mansour battalion, supported the claims that Right Sector's paramilitary units operate illicitly in no-man's land. 

"We don't like to interfere with Right Sector and their guerilla fighters," he told VICE News. "We are here to fight only Russia. As far as we are concerned, they can do whatever they like."

Muslim added: "The demilitarization is simply a Russian trick. Nothing good will come from it. They play war like chess.

"Churchill said a deal with Russia is not worth the paper it's written on. We will watch what happens and do what we think is right. We've learned a lot about mountain and urban guerilla warfare over the last 20 years fighting Russia."

Facts are a rare commodity in this war; the objectives and strategy of both sides tend to be shrouded in hearsay, propaganda, lie, and counter-lie. A local journalist with high-level contacts in the Ukrainian military offered one compelling theory about the demilitarization of Shyrokyne.

He told VICE News that the Azov and Donbass battalions would withdraw only after receiving a written order from the Ministry of Interior. "But these commanders are concerned about such an order because they know a withdrawal could open up the front to attack," he added. "And if they gave a written command, that document would prove they were responsible."

It is unclear if a written command or something less formal led to Monday night's withdrawal. However, Semen Semenchenko, the founder of Donbass battalion, claimed on Monday that his fighters had seen part of a classified order to withdraw their units stationed at Shyrokyne. 

Just a few miles from the front, local activists gathered on Monday night to support the returning soldiers and protest against the withdrawal. Life in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of 500,000, seems to continue as usual and a rebel takeover looks unlikely for now. 

Nevertheless, civilians refuse to let their guard down. Lera Garmash, 28, who manages a volunteer center supplying aid to soldiers, spoke to VICE News two days before Donbass battalion pulled out. "Some authorities are suggesting an even wider buffer zone, which could bring the rebels still closer to Mariupol," she said. "I strongly oppose it -- the risk of invasion is too high."

In a back room there, women volunteers were hard at work creating a camouflage net from strips of material and painstakingly stitching together a sniper's outfit with strands torn from a hessian sack. 

One, Olga, said: "I do not want Mariupol to become like Donetsk. That used to be a civilized city but is now ruled by savages. I am 100 percent Ukrainian but I think and speak the same as a Russian. So why do we fight?

"Shyrokyne must not be demilitarized. The rebels cannot be trusted."

On the road east to Shyrokyne lies a sprawling, abandoned sports college, now requisitioned as the base for the Azov battalion. The group's 1,600 men -- long accused of links to far-right and neo-Nazi groups -- have been leading the defense of the coastal village as part of an informal rotation with Donbass.

Andrei Dzyachenko, the battalion's spokesman, insisted they would reluctantly obey the upcoming withdrawal, which was first planned in April 2015 but failed to materialize due to distrust on both sides. "The separatists pulled out first because they had suffered many losses and held the low ground. Sooner or later they were going to have to retreat.

"So Moscow made this beautiful move and dubbed it a demilitarization. It is in their interest and Azov strongly opposes it. We do not believe the words of our enemy. However, we will follow the orders from above.

"We have to," he added. "We're not some Colombian paramilitary group."

Monday night's lightning withdrawal was kept under wraps until the last minute. Two days before, Jaroslav Cheriznoy, a press officer for the Ukrainian military, told VICE News that there was no plan to pull back before August 3, 2015 at the earliest, when OSCE monitors could confirm the demilitarization.

Speaking outside their base at Mariupol airport, he said: "Separatists expect our soldiers to withdraw. It must move step by step. We will only move when OSCE determines that it is safe."

The Ukrainian military is all too aware of its limited control over some volunteer militias. Cheriznoy said: "The Donbass Battalion is a state unit and obliged to follow orders." When asked about the refusal of other units, such as Right Sector, to follow orders, he replied: "We hope they will."

Back at the front, Viking, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, kept watch over Shyrokyne. Trees were shredded by shrapnel and soldiers moved without speaking through the network of trenches.

"My son teaches at a university. Let him do that -- I'll fight. This conflict can break a man's mind," he said.

"Believe it or not, I find this place tougher than Afghanistan. There we could move forward, take land, make progress. Here it is wait, wait, wait. We've been shelled every day -- at least the mujahideen had fewer weapons."

Three days later, his comrades were grudgingly pulled back -- deflated, disappointed and weary. The village of Shyrokyne remains devastated, the fate of Mariupol unknown.