August 17, 2017

PUTIN AND UKRAINE WAR VETS: It’s complicated. “Gore, But No Glory For Russia’s Ukraine War ‘Veterans’.”

These Russian vets didn’t return to a hero’s welcome. Most bear permanent scars, both physically and mentally, and with no veterans benefits and few jobs available they struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, infighting among different groups of them over ideology, strategy, and legacy has kept them from uniting as a more influential voice.

They include the Union of Volunteers of Donbas, a group headed by Aleksandr Borodai, the former leader of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The group is closely tied to the Kremlin through Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s point man on the conflict, and seen by some volunteers as being elitist. RFE/RL spoke with some members of the group in a village outside Kaluga, where they were participating in war games on July 30.

Another is the Public Movement of Novorossia, an organization headed by Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a Russian who commanded separatist forces in the first months of the war but is viewed by many volunteers as a traitor for retreating and relinquishing territory in Ukraine to Kyiv. Girkin, who was eventually recalled to Moscow by the Kremlin, didn’t respond to RFE/RL’s request for an interview.

Kamayev does what he can to help by running Veterans of Novorossia, a St. Petersburg-based NGO whose name (“New Russia”) draws on an imperial-era term denoting large parts of today’s southern and eastern Ukraine. His deputy, 41-year-old Denis Shchinkorenko, fought in arguably the bloodiest action of the Ukrainian war — the battle for Ilovaysk.

They assist Russian volunteers who fight or fought in eastern Ukraine, many of whom are frustrated and disappointed with the uncertainty of their future, Kamayev says.

They’re paying the price for Russia’s dependence on oil income, and for Putin’s reliance on plausible deniability in Ukraine.

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