Investigating the DNR volunteer battalion led by Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin
Relatively few non-Russian speakers know of Zakhar Prilepin, yet he is among the most popular — and talented — living Russian writers. Prilepin fought in both Chechen wars and has made frequent trips to the Donbas over the past three years to support the Russia-backed forces in the area.
In February 2017, Zakhar Prilepin gave a lengthy interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Aleksandr Kots, in which he revealed that he was leading a battalion in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Though he himself is a Russian citizen, Prilepin said that “the majority [of the member] are locals.”
Prilepin, seen by some as “Russia’s Hemingway,” is by far the most famous combatant in the war in eastern Ukraine, and there is no shortage of materials about the man’s activities in the war zone. But what can digital forensics tell us about his battalion, where it is based, and exactly who makes up the leadership structure of this battalion — Russians, like Prilepin, or “locals,” which supposedly make up the majority of the force?
Prilepin is a commander of the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion of the Special Forces of the DNR Armed Forces (4 разведывательно-штурмовой батальон специального назначения вооруженных сил ДНР, or 4 РШБ СпН ВС ДНР for short), which he claims was created in July 2016. The February 2017 interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda was not the first news about his battalion and status as an officer in the DNR, as he had previously written about it.
The battalion is based in the four-star Hotel Praha in Donetsk, which has been seized by Russian/separatist forces. There are multiple methods of confirming the location, not least of which is from a document signed by a “S.A. Fomchenkov” of the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion — referring to the battalion’s leader, Sergey Fomchenkov — giving an address of Dubravnaya 101, Donetsk. This address is the same as Hotel Praha.
In a news feature on April 13, 2017, Maryana Naumova, an internationally recognized power lifter, held an event for members of Prilepin’s battalion in Donetsk. In an earlier interview in the same news broadcast, Prilepin is interviewed outside of the hotel, and later enters into it along with Naumova.
Inside, we can see how the Russian/separatist fighters have modified sections of the hotel, such as an area that often has visiting musicians perform concerts for the battalion.
Members other than Prilepin
When we look at other members of the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion (much of the information has been gathered by independent Ukrainian open source investigator @666_mancer here), a pattern quickly emerges: many of the highest commanders, including Prilepin, are not local Ukrainians, but Russians. And not only are they Russian, but they are members of the militant ultra-nationalist Other Russia (Другая Россия) party, led by poet, National Bolshevik, and political activist Eduard Limonov.
Battalion Commander: Sergey Fomchenkov
While Prilepin does command a large group of men, the overall commander of the battalion is a Russian named Sergey “Fomich” Fomchenkov, who according to his own page on social network VK is originally from Smolensk (Russia). Like Prilepin, Fomchenkov has been active in the Russian militant ultra-nationalist party “Other Russia,” including acting as a coordinator of Other Russia in “southeast Ukraine” and leading the “Interbrigady,” an Other Russia-led group of volunteers in eastern Ukraine.
Commandant: Oleg “Oboroten” Barminov
This commandant Oleg “Oboroten” (Werewolf) Barminov is an Other Russia activist originally from the Russian city of Yaroslavl, before he went to fight in Luhansk and then Donetsk after war broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Just two weeks ago, Barminov gave an interview in which he described his time fighting in eastern Ukraine, including in the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion.
Company Commander: Anton “Rys”
While many of the individuals can be tracked down from their previous political activities in Russia, others are more anonymous. For example, a Russian man named Anton who goes by the call sign “Rys” (Lynx) is a commander within the battalion, though his last name has not been publicly disclosed. He has given multiple interviews, including ones describing how he has killed Ukrainian soldiers throughout the war.
During his interview with Kotenok, the Russian “Rys” criticizes anti-Kremlin political activist Alexey Navalny and his anti-corruption protests in Russia. He notes that if needed, he will “go back to fight in Russia to keep it united and whole,” referring to fighting against what he perceives as pro-Western politicians and movements in Russia.
Platoon Commander: Aleksandr “Doctor”
In a similar interview to the one with “Rys,” all taken by the war blogger Yury Kotenok, a man with the name Aleksandr and the call sign Doctor tells about how he is a reconnaissance officer who has fought in Sloviansk, Horlivka, and Donetsk. He claims to be a local of Donetsk, showing that while the leadership structure of the battalion is heavily Russian, the lower ranks have a higher percentage of native Ukrainians.
We can cross-reference the interviews with many of these members by finding them in other materials and public appearances with the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, such as the publicized visit by sportswoman Naumova.
In this television feature, we can find other members of the battalion along with Prilepin, including Doctor in the back of the room.
A much lengthier review of this battalion and its members is possible, following up on this research and an extensive review from an independent Ukrainian open source researcher. The 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, led by Other Russia activists Sergey Fomchenkov and Zakhar Prilepin, has become one of the most visible fighting groups in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Many in the leadership structure of the group were political activists in Russia, though it seems like a large number — perhaps a majority — of the lower-ranking members are from Ukraine, especially Makiivka.
However, no matter how fervently these Russians feel about the war in the Donbas, the second Minsk agreement specifically calls for the “pullout of all foreign armed formations (…) and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.” There is little doubt that this brigade falls under these provisions, with no ambiguity that the leadership of the battalion is not only foreign, but also an extension of a foreign political party. The Other Russia party, due to its militant and ultra-nationalist platform and members, is no stranger to the Ukrainian conflict.
Going forward, it is likely that this battalion will be a hotspot for foreign (Russian) volunteers and recruits, as it is not only led by the most famous fighter in the war, Zakhar Prilepin, but it is also based out of a luxury hotel seized by Russian/separatist authorities.
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