Perevalsk, Ukraine—The young Cossack fighter grabbed his automatic rifle as he swore he would defend the town of Perevalsk in war-torn eastern Ukraine that he and his comrades now control.
“We are expecting an attack. We are ready, no one can enter the city,” said the man in his twenties, a traditional Cossack fur hat on his head.
The front line separating these pro-Russian rebel fighters from Ukrainian army troops in this troubled region is only 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.
But the enemy the Cossacks fear most is the enemy within – the separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) whom they refuse to obey.
“We are under the orders of our Russian brothers from the Great Don Cossack Army. We do not recognize the authority of the NRL,” the soldier said.
In this small town some 30 kilometers from the separatist stronghold of Lugansk, a handful of well-armed and slightly nervous Cossacks hold a roadblock adorned with their blue, yellow and red flag on which are inscribed the words “For the faith, the Don and the homeland”. “
– No unnecessary threat –
Elite horsemen of the Tsarist army at the time, frontier Cossack communities established themselves over the centuries in the former Russian Empire, with the Don Cossacks laying claim primarily to lands extending from southwestern Russia to the eastern region of Donbass in Ukraine.
Now they claim to defend Russian interests abroad while fighting for their fierce brand of reactionary nationalism.
Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the Lugansk rebels fighting the Kiev government, has set April 4 as the deadline for the Cossacks to join the NRL’s military wing, hand in their weapons or be banned.
The delay was not an empty threat. Faced with blatant disobedience by the Cossacks, the rebels in Lugansk have fought back harshly against the militiamen in recent weeks.
On March 30, Cossacks were attacked and disarmed in the nearby town of Petrovsk in an operation in which several people died. A month earlier, a local Ataman Cossack leader, or leader, had been arrested nearby in a deadly raid.
In January, the Cossack mayor of Pervomaisk, Yevgeny Ischenko, was shot dead by an unknown gunman while a local warlord allied with another Cossack group, Alexander Bednov, known by his nickname “Batman”, died with six bodyguards when his armored car was hit. by an anti-tank missile in an ambush.
“NRL special services have liquidated the leader of a criminal group,” Lugansk authorities said at the time.
AFP journalists noted that about 20 kilometers north of Perevalsk, the town of Stakhanov, which is under Cossack control, is on high alert with foreigners unable to enter or leave without a pass. and a military escort, a seemingly unique security situation in the region.