They may be a small group, but they are tough mountain men, seasoned in war and guerrilla-living. They are part of the Vostok (The East) battalion and, according to testimonies by local insurgents, they are making all the difference in the rebellion against the central authorities in Kyiv. They are, of course, the South Ossetians.
Their tiny South-Caucasus region has yet to convince the world — bar Russia and a handful of other countries — to accept its independence from Georgia, but South Ossetia itself is not shy about recognizing the legitimacy of fellow separatists in need. It was the first and only place to recognize Ukraine’s twin breakaway, self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, and is expecting credentialed ambassadors to show up in South Ossetia’s main city, Tskhnivali, any day now.
But the separatist camaraderie has gone beyond just recognition. South Ossetia is now busy sending money, clothing and fighters to eastern Ukraine, Russian media report. And this last despite the widespread international belief that the amateur rebel warfare there caused the July 17 Malaysian Airlines tragedy.
Allegdly led by a South Ossetian man (known as "Oleg" or "Mamai,") the group is made up of South Ossetian veterans from the 2008 Russian-Georgian war over breakaway South Ossetia. One detachment-leader, Mair Pliev, known to comrades simply as Dziba, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site that he expects a back-up of 20 more men from the territory this week.
Some observers believe that the Vostok-battalion may be connected to a similarly named unit of Chechen fighters from the 2008 war that some speculated was financed by Russian military intelligence, The Guardian reported last month.
Whatever their connections, the South Ossetians are eager to make their mark on Ukraine. Russian reporters have posted many blogs, Instagram photos and videos of South Ossetian fighters in a rebel training camp outside the city of Donetsk.
These men do sometimes have their desire for privacy. Russian photojournalist Maxim Avdeyev tweeted that one South Ossetian combatant asked not to be filmed with a cigarette. “Mother does not know that I smoke,” Avdeyev quoted the fighter as saying.
But, overall, the South Ossetian fighters have not made a secret of their presence. They eagerly have posted photos and videos online. And, yes, they have a song, too.
One YouTube video shows South Ossetian fighters equipped with bullet-proof vests, guns and smiles, riding around Donetsk in armored personnel carriers bearing the South-Ossetian flag. First, a pro-Russian rebel extends warm praise to the visiting South Ossetians for saving lives, and then a melancholic Russian melody kicks in.
Done in the best traditions of a Soviet sing-along dedicated to World War II or the war in Afghanistan, the ode to the South Ossetian fighters is purportedly performed by a local singing talent.
“Cast away your sorrows, my friend,” croons a man’s voice. “Sing me a song, and I will sing along, about Ossetia, my home.”