Their leaders back in Kiev may be offering peace. But here on the front lines, the battle-scarred patriots staring down pro-Russian rebels talk of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin just the opposite — a Ukrainian version of Chechnya’s guerrilla war.
“Every man in this battalion is ready to change tactics to liberate our homes,” said Apis, the nom de guerre of a 40-year-old division commander in Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, one of several paramilitary units fighting the separatists.
Staring out at the no man’s land dividing his ragtag group from the rebels, he added, “This peace will not last. Putin thinks he is a monarch, that we must all kneel before him. We will never kneel, but we can become guerrillas and send him body bags with Russian soldiers.”
Pro-Russian separatists first occupied government buildings, then solidified control of large swaths of territory in the east, sparking a bloody battle with Ukrainian forces that by mid-August had rebels on their back heels. Then, NATO and Kiev say, came an infusion of Russian support that almost immediately reversed the course of battle.
Now hopelessly outgunned, President Petro Poroshenko is seeking peace with the rebels — and, indirectly, Moscow — in a deal that could ultimately leave a swath of the east under Russia’s thumb. Yet in a country where partisans once fought bloody underground operations against occupying Nazis and, later, the Soviets, more and more voices here are insisting that Ukraine should instead endorse a protracted guerrilla war.