Diplomatic Channels: Each side in Ukraine crisis accuses the other of using foreign fighters. But what is the truth?

It is a key element in the ceasefire agreement signed between Kiev and the separatists last week that all foreign fighters must leave the country

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.

 

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”.

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