The New York Times reports from Slovyansk: The rebel leader spread a topographic map in front of a closed grocery store here as a Ukrainian military helicopter flew past a nearby hill. Ukrainian troops had just seized positions along a river, about a mile and a half away. The commander thought they might advance.
He issued orders with the authority of a man who had seen many battles. “Go down to the bridge and set up the snipers,” the leader, who gave only a first name, Yuri, said to a former Ukrainian paratrooper, who jogged away.
Yuri commands the 12th Company, part of the self-proclaimed People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a previously unknown and often masked rebel force that since early April has seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and, until Saturday, held prisoner a team of European military observers it accused of being NATO spies.
His is one of the faces behind the shadowy paramilitary takeover. But even with his mask off, much about his aims, motivations and connections remains murky, illustrating why this expanding conflict is still so complex.
Yuri, who appears to be in his mid-50s, is in many ways an ordinary eastern Ukrainian of his generation. A military veteran, he survived the Soviet collapse to own a small construction business in Druzhkovka, about 15 miles south of here.
But his rebel stature has a particular root: He is also a former Soviet special forces commander who served in Afghanistan, a background that could make him both authentically local and a capable Kremlin proxy.
In this war, clouded by competing claims on both sides, one persistent mystery has been the identity and affiliations of the militiamen, who have pressed the confrontation between Russia and the West into its latest bitter phase.
Moscow says they are Ukrainians and not part of the Russian armed forces, as the so-called green men in Crimea turned out to be.
Western officials and the Ukrainian government insist that Russians have led, organized and equipped the fighters.
A deeper look at the 12th Company — during more than a week of visiting its checkpoints, interviewing its fighters and observing them in action against a Ukrainian military advance here on Friday — shows that in its case neither portrayal captures the full story. [Continue reading…]