"Armed Forces of Novorossiya". Who is fighting against Ukraine?
Ukrainian media tend to portray the enemy as semi-barbaric gangs of terrorists, good for nothing without Russian volunteers, the Chechen spetsnaz and the regular army of the Russian Federation. This distorted view of the enemy leads to underestimation and arrogance, which represent a factor of defeat.
The territories of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" ("DNR"), and especially the "Luhansk People's Republic" ("LNR") are no longer controlled by the semi-anarchist militant rabbles. The separatist "republics" have had enough time and powerful supervision in order to properly organize, equip and arm their troops. Of course, there are plenty of Russian volunteers among their ranks, and in the rear there is Chechen spetsnaz stationed in Zugres, a town not far from the state border with Russia. The "kidnapping" of Pavlo Hubarev, one of the "DNR" leaders, by the Chechens on January 19* and his subsequent "fortunate" return neatly demonstrated that the forces of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, are there to act as barrier troops: nobody will be allowed to retreat into Russia, especially the figures like Hubarev.
For many residents of the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed "DNR" and "LNR" the independence referendum held in May 2014 was a point of "saying goodbye to Ukraine". Ukrainian politicians and later armed forces failed to turn the tide in time. This allowed anti-Ukrainian forces to organize over the summer. When ceasefire was announced in September, the units of the "people's militia of the Donbas" ("DNR") and the "army of the Southeast" ("LNR") began reorganizing into the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya"
One of the major features distinguishing any army is uniform with own insignia. Uniform experts in Moscow began working on uniforms for the "republics" as early as June 2014. Their sketches bear a lot of resemblance with the Russian armed forces uniform. Manufacture was to be arranged in Crimea with plans to order in the region of 15-40,000 kits.
Apparently, funding for the project never arrived or, rather, Russia opted to supply the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" with the Russian Federation's old 1998-spec army uniform, which had been phased out a few years ago with plenty of stock remaining. As a result the militants of the self-proclaimed "LNR" and "DNR" feature in most videos are dressed in Russian army camouflage known as Flora (VSR-98) and Gorka, both of which have been replaced in the Russian Federation army with the new camouflage pattern known as the Rossiyskaya Tsifra (Russian Digit).
As far as orders and medals were concerned, the situation is similar. Moscow's Phaleristic experts produced plenty of orders and medals featuring the double-headed eagle and the St. George's Cross. The flags that the "LNR" leaders awarded to their "battle units" in late 2014 bear a striking resemblance to the artistic products of the “Mars” Academy of Russian Insignia in Moscow. Yet the insignia on the uniforms of both the "DNR" and "LNR" remained Soviet: stars on the shoulder straps, belt buckles, buttons, Guards badges, Russian Bolshevik cockades on the headgear. So visually the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" represent a carbon copy of the Russian troops circa the campaigns in Chechnya and Georgia. Only the stars on the shoulder straps and the system of ranks they represent match the one of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Of course armed forces cannot exist without the command. And separatists do have plenty of that (not only officers, but generals). Firstly, there are officers, Donetsk and Luahansk locals, who served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Rumour has it, many of them are former colonels and lieutenant colonels, who worked within the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, the General Staff, and held important positions in brigades. On the other hand, there is no shortage of Russian military officers and even generals of the reserve.
The existence of organized command in the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" became especially apparent in late 2014. The inner war between cadre officers and guerilla leaders reached its climax when Igor Plontytskyi, the self-proclaimed leader of the "LNR", ordered the elimination of Oleksandr Biednov aka Batman, the notorious leader of the sabotage group of the "LNR" titled after its commander. This was done on January 1, 2015. His public assassination along with six of his associates served as a warning message to other guerilla commanders of the self-proclaimed "Luhansk People's Republic": submit to military subordination or leave the "LNR".
Interestingly, the assassination of Batman pointed to certain differences between the armed groups of the "LNR" and those of the "DNR". The militants, who opposed Plotnytskyi's policies, fled to the "Donetsk People's Republic" joining the ranks of militias led by commanders nicknamed Givi and Motorola.
Now the "LNR" has its own so-called "Corps of People's Militia of the Armed Forces of Novorossiya". It has four numbered brigades (including one landing-assault brigade), a detached artillery brigade, a special purpose brigade "Odessa", a commandant's regiment and a "Cossack" regiment. Each of the brigades has a number of motorized, tank and reconnaissance battalions. The "Corps of People's Militia of the LNR" incorporated battalions Zaria (Russian for “dawn”), which was created and led by Plotnytskyi himself, Lieshyi (Russian fairy tale wood goblin), Batman, USSR, St. George Battalion, Vitiaz (Russian for “knight”), Rus, Modzhakhed (Mujahidin), KGB Odessa, August, 2nd detached battalion Don, 3rd Stanitsia-Luhanska paratrooper battalion and other units with equally exotic names.
In late 2014 and early 2015 the "Corps of People's Militia of the LNR" held extensive tank and live fire exercises. The sheer number of staged news reports featuring heavily on the Russian television, which showed the tanks of the self-proclaimed "LNR", can be taken a clear indication of separatists' intention to launch an offensive in the near future.
Such rapid success in organizing the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" on the territory of "LNR" can be explained by the fact that the leadership of this separatist "republic" had their sights on complete integration into the Russian Federation from the get-go. And this is why Russian military aid was much more prominent there compared to the "DNR" ever since May 2014. In fact, the appearance of first Russian bases near Luhansk was recorded as early as June 2014. And when a conflict sparked between the "LNR" and the leaders of Don "Cossacks", it was the Russian leadership that settled things by curbing the separatist appetites of people like Cossack ataman Nikolay Kozitsyn.
The bottom ranks of the "Corps of People's Militia of the LNR" are mostly made up of the locals, predominantly "volunteers". First of all they feel real support on Russia's part, so they are not afraid of Ukrainian authorities regaining control and prosecuting them. Secondly, the privates in these "armed forces" receive a monthly salary of USD 350, while officers are paid USD 500, which is a very high wage for a region with extreme unemployment rates.
Wages in the "people's militia of the Donbas", the Donetsk wing of the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" are similar. Yet, unlike the Luhansk units, the "DNR" forces maintained their guerilla-like organization. In them discipline is supported not so much by the military subordination, but rather by individual authority of the commanders. The author of this article has regular phone conversations with Donetsk residents, who live near the City Military Commissariat. According to their observations, up to 40 volunteers come each day. These are men of all ages, from 18 year-olds to pensioners.
The "DNR" military leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko opposed the idea of having his units merge into the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya". This was one of the biggest stumbling blocks that led to his fallout with Igor Bezler aka Bes, the commandant of Horlivka. As a result of the conflict, the latter was removed from command.
The best known units of the "DNR" are the brigades Oplot (Russian for “stronghold”) formerly led by Olekdsandr Zakharchenko, Vostok (“the East), Kalmius (named after the local river), Prizrak (Russain for “phantom”) led by separatist Aleksei Mozgovyi from Luhansk Oblast, battalions Sparta led by commander Motorola and Somalia led by commander Givi. Aside from the Russian "volunteers", at their core these groups are made up of radical opponents of the current Ukrainian authorities, the natives of the Donbas, as well as of Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa and other oblasts. Defectors from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as well as from the law-enforcement bodies, former policemen etc. make another considerable category within the militias.
Given the large number of militants originating from the territories currently under the control of the Ukrainian authorities, the leadership of the "DNR" often declares intentions to carry out a "punitive" offensive on Kyiv against the "fascist junta". Acts of terrorism carried out in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Odesa oblasts during the recent months indicate massive infiltration by sabotage units.
Exact total numbers of the "Armed Forces of Novorossiya" are unknown. But, evidently, they are in excess of 10,000. Their minimum goal is to straighten the front line by seizing the Donetsk Airport area, the towns of Debaltseve, Stanytsia Luhanska and Triokhizbenka. The maximum goal is to capture the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts where the referendum on the independence of the self-proclaimed "DNR" and "LNR" took place. Apart from political gains, these plans also have certain economic rationale. There are Ukrainian-controlled agrarian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that could potentially satisfy the agricultural needs of the large separatist-held cities. Capturing Mariupol and Severodonetsk would bolster the industrial potential of the separatist "republics", while Artemivsk with its large army depots would reinforce their arsenal. And then there's the global objective to move further west towards Transnistria, reanimating the project "Novorossiya".
* According to Pavlo Hubarev, Chechen mercenaries who are fighting in the Donbas took him to their base in Zugres on January 19 to have him explain what they considered to be his statements of possessing records of some negotiations that allegedly confirmed the involvement of Ramzan Kadyrov in the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo employees in France. This information was spread online in mid-January. Hubarev said that he never accused Kadyrov of anything and the statement spread online was a fake.