Published in The Baltic Times
We approach the last Ukrainian checkpoint at the buffer zone in Volnovacha, Eastern Ukraine. A nervous National Guard soldier asks for permissions. “Where we going? It’s not for you to ask. Do you not see out number plates? Dnepr-1.” The guard hesitates and mumbles: “You can pass.” It’s met by Convoy’s – the driver’s call name – chuckle: “Of course we can pass.” In the car is the diversionary group ‘Tesla’ from Dnepr-1 Battalion, a special police detachment which has already earned a fierce reputation in combat.
The commander, call name Desant, shows the only thing received from the government- a 1967 make AK-47: “We bought everything ourselves, including this van; we even pay ourselves for petrol.“ Unit ‘Tesla’ operates behind enemy lines, with a number of successful missions under its belt. “We go out to silence the artillery,” smiles Mario, one of ‘Tesla’ men. The unit is made up of many nationalities and regions, including soldiers from Donetsk and a whole Crimean platoon.
As we enter the buffer zone, Goritz at the back adjusts his rifle, Desant stops talking and scans the hedges in front, as Convoy accelerates the creaking Volkswagen Transporter van. The village of Novotroits’ke inside the buffer zone changes hands during the day. On 15th of March, the Ukrainian army only regained control of it after 3pm. The number of destroyed buildings attracted the grudge of the locals, who are hostile to the Ukrainian army. “They say if you weren’t here, we would still have our homes, to which Ukrainian army answers- if you didn’t have your referendum, we’d all be at home with our wives and kids”, says Desant in reference to the referendum held for Donbass independence in 2014.
Ukrainian forces in Volnovaha indicate, that they have pulled back all its heavy weapons according to Minsk Agreement. However, incoming artillery fire can be heard as close as few kilometres from the ‘Tesla’ base. According to Ukrainian army reports, the rebels were firing 120mm shells – outlawed by the Minsk Agreement. “We took everything back. If they’ll come with tanks, they’ll go straight through,” says Desant.
Away from the frontline, a whole other war exists – the information war. Currently, all Ukrainian channels are cut off in the Separatist controlled areas; Russian channels are also off the air in Ukraine. One of ‘Tesla’ men spent two days watching only Russian channels – including Novorossiya TV, the rebel propaganda channel. “In the end, he says to us- guys, maybe we are fighting a wrong war,” remembers Desant, “after second’s pause, we all burst out laughing.”