#MinskMonitor: The Rise and Fall of “Prilepin’s Battalion”
The “republican guard” of assassinated Aleksandr Zakharchenko falls out of favor
The “republican guard” of assassinated Aleksandr Zakharchenko falls out of favor
It has been a bad few months for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, better known as “Prilepin’s Battalion.” This group served as the “republican guard” (though never officially named such) of slain former DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko, with its deputy commander being well-known author and political commentator Zakhar Prilepin. Shortly before Zakharchenko’s assassination, Prilepin left Donetsk for Moscow, leaving behind questions regarding the future of “his” battalion.
As the events of this autumn have shown, the future of “Prilepin’s Battalion” is dire, with the members going months without pay and their headquarters reportedly raided by forces loyal to the ascendant faction in Donetsk replacing the Zakharchenko/Timofeyev regime. While projecting Russia’s directives in dictating the course of the self-proclaimed “republics” in eastern Ukraine is difficult, the status of this battalion has served as a useful indicator of Donetsk’s future.
Other Russia’s Militant Wing in Ukraine
Though this battalion is commonly known as that of Zakhar Prilepin, it is actually led by Sergey Fomchenkov, a native of Smolensk (Russia) and follower of Eduard Limonov’s “National Bolshevik” and “Other Russia” parties. Before fighting in Ukraine, he ran for political office in Russia and led Smolensk’s local “Other Russia” party.
Many commanders and high-ranking officers in the battalion are also followers of Limonov, or “Limonovtsy” as they are often called. The first armed formations of “Limonovtsy” in Ukraine made up the so-called Interbrigada, or “international brigade,” that was active in both the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in 2014. Eventually, many of the members of this Interbrigada joined the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion in Donetsk, led by Fomchenkov. Others from the Interbrigada joined Pyatnashka, another Zakharchenko-loyal battalion in Donetsk. Some of the officers and fighters in the 4th Battalion with the most obvious links to Limonov and his political movement include the below.
Zakhar Prilepin: Deputy Commander before his exit in July 2018. He arrived to fight in the so-called DNR from his native Russia after the war, serving as an adviser to Zakharchenko before his assassination.
Oleg Barminov: Served as a commandant and arrived to Ukraine from the Russian city of Yaroslavl.
Beness Aijo: Fighter who came to the Donbas from Latvia to fight with the battalion. He is an active “Other Russia” member, who publicly pushed back against Denis Pushilin.
Andrey Saprykin: Fighter from Ukraine, who joined the battalion. He was an active “Other Russia” member.
Oleg Mironov: A fighter in the battalion, who came from the Russian city of Inta. He was an active “Other Russia” member.
While there are some Ukrainians who have served in this battalion, the organization was formed as an armed extension of the “Other Russia” politcal movement, as opposed to a grassroots Ukrainian “rebel” group.
Raid of Prague Hotel and Fomchenkov’s Disappearance
Being a privileged battalion loyal to Zakharchenko and having a celebrity deputy commander came with benefits for the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion. This included a luxurious base, as previously reported by @DFRLab; the Hotel Prague (or Praha) in central Donetsk city was regarded as a four-star hotel before the war and subsequent requisition by so-called DNR forces.
Even before Zakharchenko’s August 31 assassination, winds of change were blowing with this battalion, signaling Zakharchenko’s weakening position in Donetsk. Prilepin left in July 2018, and rumors circulated that Zakharchenko was under house arrest or even dead.
In September, two weeks after Zakharchenko’s assassination, so-called DNR forces loyal to new leader Denis Pushilin placed the Prague Hotel under a siege of sorts to disarm and disband the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion. This incident was part of a larger movement to subjugate the “personal” battalions in the DNR to the centralized Ministry of Internal Affairs, reaching out to the “Pyatnashka” (which were used by Zakharchenko to ensure a smooth transition of power in the November 2017 coup in Luhansk) and “Patriot” battalions. Tsargrad TV, which has a number of links to Russian curators involved in leading the so-called separatist “republics,” reported that the plan to integrate the “personal battalions” into the larger Donetsk forces was planned in July 2018.
Reports surfaced from separatist “journalist” Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky about clashes between the battalion and the ascendant Pushilin regime.
The disarmament of “Prilepin’s Battalion” is taking place on the territory of the Prague Hotel right now. An explosion and indiscriminate shooting (who shot at whom is unclear) could be heard. The base is surrounded, and none of the fighters are being let through, the battalion commander Sergey Fomchenko (“Fomich”) has been detained.
As it’s turned out, the reason for the conflict [between the battalion and Pushilin] is the unwillingness of the battalion and its commander to be put under the Ministry of Internal Affairs (they want to join the army corps). Therefore, commanders “Fomich” [Sergey Fomchenkov] and “Arab” [Aleksandr Kreshtop] were detained. They are still, as Prilepin put it (though he denied this issue even yesterday) “being interviewed”. Yesterday’s shooting at the Prague Hotel, as it was explained to me, was conducted by one of the fighters in the cordon at the [hotel’s] windows, from which a grenade was allegedly thrown. (…) Representatives of the army corps were forced to leave the base yesterday. They tried to take away the weapons loaded into vehicles, but representatives of the [DNR] Ministry of Internal Affairs did not allow this to happen. (…) The fighters are not allowed to leave the territory [of the DNR] or resign.I think that the commanders will soon all be released anyways, and that the fighters will be offered the chance to either remain [with the Ministry of Internal Affairs] or resign. I doubt that most of them will want to continue serving in the ranks of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (…) Therefore, today in the DNR, there are no longer any military units that are personally subordinated to the Head of the DNR [Pushilin] or any of its ministers. All of the paramilitary formations have been distributed amongst the Directorate of the People’s Militia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of State Security.
A photograph of the “siege” was shared by the Telegram channel WarGonzo, which frequently receives “insider” information to leak. However, in their message accompanying the photograph, they claim that no one was disarmed and that “Fomich” and “Arab” were to be released soon.
A week after the “siege” at the Prague Hotel, the Twitter account of Eduard Limonov shared news that Fomchenkov was arrested in Donetsk.
Sergey Fomchenkov has been silent on his social media accounts since August 14, 2018, after being a fairly active user before then. There has been no reliable reports about his whereabouts since the September 20 reports of his arrest.
Prilepin’s Appeal from Moscow
Prilepin narrowly avoided the crackdown on “his” former battalion, leaving for Moscow unexpectedly in July 2018. While Prilepin was personally involved with the battalion to some degree in Donetsk, he always had a foot out the door, running multiple projects at once back in Moscow, such as a television show on Russian network NTV (“Russian Lessons”) and making frequent literary appearances, as he is (or, was once) widely recognized as among the most talented living Russian-language novelists. Additionally, among many Moscow curators and the commanders in the Donbas, “Prilepin’s Battalion” was not seen as an actual fighting group. Oleg Barminov, a Russian “Other Russia” activist who once served in the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, wrote in a Facebook post that the group operated as a “PR-battalion” rn by a “businessman,” where the commanders tried “get closer to the leadership of the Republic and further from the [frontline].”
From Moscow, Prilepin has made a few appeals on behalf of his comrades, namely in calling for the battalion members to be paid out of the so-called DNR’s budget. On October 25, 2018, Prilepin published an open letter to so-called DNR leader Denis Pushilin asking for him to provide financial support to the “250 fighters of the battalion giving their life and health for the good of the republic, not having any means of living other than their salary.”
“The fighters of the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion of the Special Purpose Regiment of the Donetsk People’s Republic appeal to you [Pushilin].
Previously, our battalion was part of the Special Purpose Regiment. In connection with the reorganization of the DNR Armed Forces, and the liquidation of the Special Purpose Regiment, the soldiers of our battalion have, for the most part, decided to join the 1st Army Corps, since it is this group in particular that carries out the main tasks of protecting the republic. We will continue to participate in the defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic, not sparing our own strength or health.
But in connection with this reorganization, we have a backlog in payment of our personnel wages from three months of this year (July, August, September). The command of the PSN [Special Purpose Regiment] have verbally told us that these backlogged wages will not be paid out, without providing any reason.
These wages are for us the main, and for many the only, source of income. Almost all of us have dependents — a family, children, elderly parents. In the republic, in which there is a war going on, the life of ordinary people is not so easy. And in this case, it is quite literally about the survival of soldiers’ families.
We ask you to understand and take measures in connection with the non-payment of wages to these soldiers who previously served in the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion (military unit 02707).”
On October 29, Prilepin wrote that he received assurances that the situation would be handled by Pushilin after speaking with him on television.
As of publishing this article, the fighters of Zakharchenko’s former personal battalion have not been paid these backlogged wages. On the same day that Prilepin wrote that Pushiln promised to resolve the issue, a Russian fighter in the battalion, Ruslan Pseush, wrote that he had not received any pay since July.
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