On May 25, 2014 Ukraine held snap elections for president. Billionaire Petr Poroshenko was elected in the first round, with over 50% of the vote. However, the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine remained dire throughout the electoral weekend, and only shows signs of escalating. The violence is playing out on social networks, as has been the case for the last few weeks. However, last Friday, it became even more viscerally evident on the Facebook account of one of the cyber-punk, post-state, viral-citizen-armies operating in the region.
Semyon Semyonchenko, the leader of the “Donbass Battalion,” a volunteer paramilitary organization, ostensibly crowd-funded by regular Ukrainians, has been publishing situation reports on his Facebook account (much like the leader of the Slavyansk separatists, Igor Strelkov, publishes dispatches through a LiveJournal blog). On Friday, Semyonchenko made several updates over the phone, starting with this one:
Только что в районе с.Карловки Донецкой области батальон “Донбасс” попал в засаду. Принял бой. Против батальон работают автоматчики, снайпера и РПГ. Есть раненые. Отойти не можем, потому, что часть людей находится в окружении. Просим подмоги находящихся поблизости воинских частей.
Just now, around the village of Karlovka, Donetsk Region, the Donbass battalion was ambushed. Battle was joined. The enemy is using assault rifles, snipers and rocket propelled grenades. There are wounded. We can't retreat because some of our people are surrounded. We request support from nearby military forces.
One commenter responded:
Это жесть просить подмоги на фб, а что нет штаба, где координируются все передвижения? Удачи вам!
This is hardcore, to ask for support on FB, is there no HQ where all the movements are coordinated? Good luck!
Lack of a unified command has been the Achilles heel of the Ukrainian irregular troops volunteering to help with the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in Eastern Ukraine. The separatists have been able to leverage this into stalemates and victories, even while lacking air-support. Shortly after the first post came an update, asking for an Armored Personnel Carrier and claiming that all attempts to contact local Ukrainian military for help were ignored by the powers that be. Another update requesting an APC came two hours later, after the main part of the “battalion” escaped the ambush, in order to retrieve troops that were surrounded and besieged in an abandoned building. Russian bloggers later reported that Semyonchenko himself was taken prisoner, along with a number of other “Donbass” troops, something that he later refuted.
After the election, on May 26, Semyonchenko gave a full situation report of the battle on his Facebook. In the end of a 5 hour fire-fight, “Donbass” lost 5 people dead, and 6 wounded out of a squad of 25. As has become all to common with such reports, claims of enemy casualties were higher — 11 dead, and 6 wounded, out of 100 enemy troops. (Separatist commander Igor Strelkov also regularly claims higher enemy casualties.) It is unclear where Semyonchenko got these numbers, or the information that the “Vostok Battalion” “Donbass” was supposedly fighting is staffed with “Chechen commandos.” However, war-time propaganda is war-time propaganda, especially on Facebook. Semyonchenko ended his post claiming victory:
Легко вооруженное гражданское ополчение жителей Донецкой области – батальон “Донбасс”, без всякой поддержки со стороны госструктур, нанес значительный урон вооруженным до зубов, прошедшему спецподготовку подразделению террористов.
A lightly armed civilian militia of the Donetsk region people – the Donbass battalion, operating without any government support, did considerable damage to a heavily armed detachment of terrorists who have received special training.
It appears that whoever is in charge of the separatist “Vostok” battalion — a confusion-inspiring name that begets comparisons with a long-disbanded battalion of Chechen special forces — they do not answer to Igor Strelkov in Slavyansk. At least, he did not comment on the fire-fight in his situation reports for that day. (He did, however, make the news this weekend in a different fashion — ordering the execution of two separatist militia members for “marauding.” A copy of his order, where he appeals to a World War II-era Soviet regulation for authority, surfaced online. Strelkov confirmed its authenticity.) According to some Russian analysts, Vostok could be a militia controlled (funded) by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who has vocally spoken out against Eastern Ukraine independence. In most recent news “Vostok” was fighting with regular Ukrainian forces for an airfield in the city of Donetsk, but in this fog of war, with multiple militias patrolling the countryside, this could mean anything. One thing is clear, the elections have magically made the Easter Ukraine problem go away.