Even in the surreal surroundings of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, Beness Aijo stood out – a slight figure in combat fatigues too big, his part-Nigerian heritage making him an incongruous figure among the “army of Slav warriors” proclaiming the re-establishment of Novorossiya.
According to British newspapers Aijo was a member of an elite squad of separatist gunmen: one report spoke of his “links to high-ranking Russian political figures”. The fact that he had once worked at Heathrow airport was used to hint at the security risk such a dangerous character may have posed.
In reality Aijo, a former microbiology student at London University’s Birkbeck College, turned out to be a polite and earnest young man. He knew little of Novorossiya – the dream of a “New Russia” carved out of Ukraine – but was keen to talk about Marxist-Leninism and the ultimate triumph of the proletariat. His decision to attach himself to various campaigns had led to prison spells in Latvia, Holland and Ukraine; he was not a soldier of fortune.
Messy and disorganised conflicts attract adventurers from abroad. Some are harmless idealists like Aijo; some are fantasists; but there are also real fighters and there were certainly plenty of them drifting into Ukraine.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
One key element in the ceasefire agreement signed between Kiev and the separatists in the Belarus capital, Minsk, last week is that all foreign fighters must leave the country. The Ukrainian government and its Western backers have charged that thousands in the rebel ranks are members of Russia’s armed forces. The separatists accuse the “Kiev junta” of recruiting “international fascists”.
The claims of a “foreign hand” were present when the strife began. Five months ago, at Andrievka, near Slovyansk, I was shown Nato-issue 5.56 mm cartridges, American military MREs (meals ready to eat) and a combat jacket with a Union Flag armpatch by local people as evidence of secret Western backing for Kiev. There were plausible explanations why this was not the case. Similarly, prisoners presented by the Ukrainian forces as infiltrators from across the Russian border turned out to be Ukrainians.
But since then we have had separatist commanders like Igor Strelkov who, under the name of Igor Girkin from Moscow served in the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, by his own admission until last year. Earlier this month we came across fighters among the rebels who were vague about exactly when they stopped being regulars in the Russian forces.
Private armies, funded by oligarchs, fighting for the Kiev government, have attracted hard-right recruits. The Azov Battalion is particularly popular for foreign volunteers because of its English-language social pages. Mikael Skillt, a 37-year-old former Swedish soldier, joined after his “warrior soul was awakened” by the Maidan protests against Yanukovych’s government.
Skillt, who says he is proud to be a National Socialist, was “fighting for the freedom of the Ukrainian people against Putin’s imperialist front”. His next campaign is going to be in Syria, fighting for the regime. But isn’t Putin the regime’s ally? “Yes, but Assad is standing up to international Zionism and that is of the utmost importance,” was the response.
It remains unclear if and when Skillt will make it to Syria. He was based at a disused summer school in the village Shyrokyne, outside Mariupol, when it came under heavy fire two weeks ago, forcing his unit to retreat, abandoning weapons.
The attack was carried out by an artillery unit manned by Russians to the north-east who were in Ukraine, they said, “on holiday”.