As the simmering conflict in Ukraine heats up again, there have been indications that volunteer fighters from the Balkans have been heading back to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine again to fight for Russian-backed separatist forces.
Amid the rising tensions, Serbian volunteer Dejan Beric, who served with Russian-backed forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic as a sniper several years ago, said he is returning to eastern Ukraine.
“I own a Donetsk People’s Republic citizen’s passport – it is not just a piece of paper, but an obligation too. This is my republic and I am obliged to protect it”, Beric told the Donbas Today website.
Since the middle of March, there have been numerous reports of a massive Russian military build-up near Ukraine’s eastern border and on the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea, sparking warnings of a potential escalation in the seven-year conflict in Donbas between Ukrainian government forces and fighters aided by Russia.
In response, the Ukrainian defence ministry has called on reservist soldiers to attend training sessions and has conducted defensive military drills near Crimea. Kiev says that 28 of its soldiers have already been killed this year.
Beric claimed that many Balkan volunteers are heading to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – areas of Donbas which have been outside the control of the Ukrainian government since the conflict began in 2014.
“If an offensive starts, I expect a large number of casualties. It will be worse than in 2014”, he predicted.
The Union of Volunteers of Donbas, an organisation operating in separatist-held eastern Ukraine that is involved in recruiting fighters, has also said it is getting ready for a potential escalation.
Dozens of pro-Russian military volunteers who came to Ukraine from Serbia and Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska have already fought under its umbrella in eastern Ukraine.
The Union’s leader, Alexander Borodai, who was also the first prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, predicted that if the situation heats up further, “Russian volunteers will arrive.”
‘Impunity for Balkan fighters in Ukraine’
Bratislav Zivkovic, who describes himself as a “Chetnik commander” and claims he was one of the first Serb volunteers to go to Crimea when it was annexed by Russia in 2014, also said he believed that the warring sides in eastern Ukraine “are indeed on the edge of renewing their conflict” [editor’s note: since the early 1990s there has been a revival of Chetnik movement in Serbia, which claims the legacy of Yugoslav royalist and Serbian nationalist movement].
“People here are absolutely against the war, not only in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, but also on the other side, especially in the frontier zone. People whose relatives stayed on the Ukrainian side are talking about that”, Zivkovic told BIRN from eastern Ukraine.
Legislation in both Bosnia and Serbia prohibits going to fight abroad, and Zivkovic has previously been investigated in Serbia for taking Serb nationalist Chetnik volunteers to Ukraine. However, the investigation was dropped.
He claimed that there have been troop movements on both sides of the “line of contact” between Ukrainian government-controlled territory and rebel-held areas, and that “shelling has also increased”.
Zivkovic cited allegations that a Ukrainian armed drone killed a five-year-old boy in the separatist-held village of Alexandrovskoye earlier this month. The killing has been denied by the Kiev government. Zivkovic claimed that after this, “many people have come forward and expressed interest in the situation on the front.”
“There is an increased interest in this region now, not only in Serbia and Republika Srpska, but also in Montenegro, [North] Macedonia and even Bulgaria”, he added.
The trials that have been held so far may not have acted as a deterrent. Of the scores of Serb volunteers who have fought for Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, few have been severely punished. Serbia has convicted a total of 29 individuals of fighting abroad, but most of them were given suspended sentences after admitting guilt.
According to a report by the Security Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina, over the past seven years, 11 Bosnian citizens have taken part in combat activities in Ukraine.
“At present one Bosnian citizen is away in the war zone in Ukraine”, stated the report, which was based on data from the police, intelligence service and other such institutions.
Of the 11 volunteers said to have gone to fight in Ukraine from Bosnia and Herzegovina, only one, a man called Gavrilo Stevic, has been put on trial. However, he was acquitted on appeal last year.
The dean of the Faculty of Criminal Justice, Criminology and Security Studies at the University of Sarajevo, Jasmin Ahic, said that the acquittal, as well as the failure to prosecute the remaining ten volunteers, showed that there was impunity for those who went to fight in Ukraine, while other Bosnians who went to fight for Islamic State in Syria have been jailed.
“This implies a distinction between those who fought in Syria and in Ukraine. This only goes to show that Bosnian citizens are not equal before the law and that there is no justice”, Ahic said.
Stevic’s trial did however show how some volunteers from the Balkans made their way to the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. They travelled via the Serbian capital Belgrade to Moscow, from where they were transferred to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, near the Ukrainian border, then across to separatist-held territory in Donbas.
The indictment alleged that Stevic received help from a Chetnik association called the Ravna Gora Movement, and that Bratislav Zivkovic travelled from Belgrade with him and a group of other volunteers. In Rostov-on-Don, they were met by Russian military volunteers who recruited people to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as a private company that was looking for guards for a “humanitarian convoy” to eastern Ukraine, the indictment also claimed.
The Bosnian state prosecution told BIRN that it is still working with police and security agencies on several cases of Bosnian citizens going to fight abroad in places including Ukraine, but declined to provide further details for operational reasons.
Ukraine warns Serb fighters
Ukraine takes a stern view of foreign fighters arriving to join the conflict on its territory and has warned that could face prison or death.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Belgrade, Oleksandr Alexandrovych, said that this is “not an internal conflict in Ukraine, it is a war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” The International Criminal Court back in 2016 defined it clearly as an armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
“So, anyone, including Serb mercenaries, who will enter Ukraine illegally and with arms with intent to shoot at Ukrainians, can and shall be killed or captured, in full compliance with the Ukrainian and international law”, Alexandrovych warned.
“It is futile to appeal to the conscience of those mercenaries, but I appeal to their relatives and loved ones here in Serbia – please hold them back or you may lose them”, he added.
Ukraine has repeatedly complained that Serbs who travelled to Donbas to fight and were arrested on their return home have not been adequately punished.
“As ambassador of Ukraine, I am not satisfied with the efforts of Belgrade to prosecute those criminals. There are quite a lot of them – a few hundred since the beginning of the war. They often serve as snipers posing grave danger to the Ukrainian military and civilian population”, Alexandrovych said.
He insisted that the Ukrainian authorities provide “regular information about their identities” to Serbia, but said he did not know how this information has been used.
“So far, I am not aware of a single person being judged and sentenced to real prison terms. Suspended sentences are obviously not an adequate punishment, because many of them come back to Ukraine to repeat their crimes. Sometimes, they brag about it openly on social media. This is outrageous”, he said.
‘Money isn’t the main motive’
Russian journalist Julia Petrovskaya, who reports on Russia’s influence in the Balkans, said that more potential volunteers can be expected to show interest in going to fight in eastern Ukraine because of the increased tensions between Moscow and Kiev.
Petrovskaya recalled that after the beginning of the armed conflict, following the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Security Service of Ukraine said that it had information that there were several hundred fighters from the Balkans, “mostly Serbs (from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro), who were fighting in Donbas.”
“Some of them behaved exactly as they liked there and even sought media glory, like [former Serbian anti-terrorist police spokesman] Radomir Pocuca, who was later convicted for his mercenary activities, or Dejan Beric, who published a book, worked for a small TV station and even appeared at a press conference in Moscow which was held by [Russian] foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova”, Petrovskaya said.
She said that Serb volunteers are “usually recruited through organisations typically posing as humanitarian, religious or veterans’ organisations.”
“There are many such shady organisations, although there are also some well-known ones, like the Kosovo Front or the Balkan Cossack Army, which have strong anti-western and pro-Kremlin propaganda and anti-Ukrainian and nationalistic conservative rhetoric. Their financing mechanisms are unclear, but judging by many indicators, the finances originate in Russia”, Petrovskaya said.
Maria Kucherenko, an analyst with the Kiev-based Centre for Civil Society Studies, said that money is not the main motive for Serb fighters going to Donbas.
“An ordinary Serbian or any other foreign mercenary is not paid much”, Kucherenko said.
“An opportunity to create a completely new biography, but also the aura of a ‘hero and martyr for the Russian world’, is a much more important motive”, she argued.
The foreign fighters also play an important role in Russian media myth-making, Kucherenko added.
“Russia needs people like them as heroes for propaganda stories on its TV, because allegedly ‘the entire world’, represented by those foreign fighters, ‘supports Russians’ and comes to ‘fight against fascism’”, she explained.
However, she said that interest in fighting in eastern Ukraine could be affected by the case of Slavisa Mitrovic, a Serb who was not granted Russian citizenship despite the fact that he went to fight in Donbas and subsequently obtained “citizenship” of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, “which would theoretically grant him the right to get a Russian passport.”
Mitrovic told Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda last month that when he was fighting in the Bosnian war in the 1990s, he met a Russian who had volunteered on the Serb side. The volunteer asked Mitrovic what would happen if there was a similar conflict in the area that the Russian came from. Mitrovic told the newspaper: “I promised that I would also come [to fight].”
The newspaper contrasted the case of Mitrovic, who it described as one of the “real defenders of the Russian world”, with that of Milos Bikovic, a Serbian actor who has appeared in comedy films and has been given Russian citizenship. Its headline asked the question: “What kind of Serb does Russia need more – a comedian or a volunteer from Donbas?”
Kucherenko said that the story feeds into the “Russian propaganda line” about Serbs coming to the aid of their Slavic brothers on the frontline in Donbas.
Passports are a crucial issue in the developing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has given Russian passports to hundreds of thousands of residents of the separatist-controlled areas, and Dmitry Kozak, deputy chief of staff of President Vladimir Putin’s administration, said on 8 April that Russia could step in to “defend” its citizens there.
Kozak compared the situation in the separatist areas to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, more than 7,000 of whose male Bosniak residents were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 in massacres that have been classified as genocide by international courts.
“If, as our president says, there is a Srebrenica [in Donbas], we will probably have to come to their defence”, he said.
Putin originally made the Srebrenica reference in December 2019, although there has been no evidence of ethnic cleansing or planned massacres by Ukrainian government forces.
Meanwhile Moscow has denied that it is using its recent large-scale troop movements to threaten Ukraine, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that Russia “is free to move its own forces across its own territory.”
Ukraine-Russia: the conflict in brief
In November 2013, Ukrainians began the Euromaidan mass protests in Kiev, demanding closer integration with the European Union, after President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned an Association Agreement with the EU and decided to strengthen ties with Russia instead.
After attacks by security forces left scores of Euromaidan protesters dead, Yanukovych fled the country for exile in Moscow in February 2014. The same month, Russia deployed troops in Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea and then formally annexed it in March 2014 after a disputed referendum.
Conflict also erupted in February 2014 in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists battled Ukrainian government forces and established the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, with Russian military support. Scores of volunteers from the Balkans are reported to have to joined the separatist militias.
Two ceasefire agreements were signed in September 2014 and February 2015, but sporadic violence have continued since then, and soldiers are regularly killed on the frontline. More than 13,000 people have died in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia and the separatist militias so far.
Sasa Dragojlo, Balkan Insight’s Serbia correspondent, also contributed to this article.