On the 5th of May, the Donetsk People’s Republic armed forces were rehearsing on the main street for the Victory Day. The parade would happen four days afterwards. At the invitation of the self-proclaimed government, old veterans and current members of the rebel militia wore their uniforms pinned with all the lavish awards and medals.
Among them was an American wearing the characteristic, striated Serbian camouflage pattern with the orange and black St. George’s ribbon pinned on the lapel. His name is Zak Novkovic who looks to be around 50. Since his arrival in Donetsk two weeks ago, he had already become a local celebrity.
Known as the “New York Chetnik”, Zak Navkovic had gone to the Balkans in 1992 to fight for the Serbian Forces. While there, he served under Slavko Aleksivic in the Novosarajevsko-Chetnik division based in Grbavica.
He is the fourth American to join the pro-Russian rebels, and the first to have significant experience fighting in an eastern European conflict.
As a gift, members of the Novorussiya Press Center gave him a book titled White Wolves, written by Oleg Valetsky. The cover revealed a photo of Novkovic’s younger self, from his fighting days in Bosnia. In the twenty year old photo, he had no beard, his hair was jet black, and he was surrounded by his comrades. Now, his hair had grayed, and he maintains a trim goatee.
“This brings back some real memories,” said Novkovic, visibly moved.
He finally returned to the United States in 1995, after three years in the Bosnian conflict. He was detained by government authorities.
“I had some trouble when I went back home,” he said hesitantly, “You know, you have people that you think are your friends, but they actually gave a lot of information to the FBI, CIA. We had a knock on the door, and my mother collapsed and it was pretty bad.”
At that time, it was not illegal for Americans to volunteer to fight in Bosnia against NATO Forces as the United States government had not officially declared war against the Serbians. Novkovic’s was ultimately released without charges.
“They wanted to know if I was connected to terrorism, did I want to do anything to hurt President Clinton at the time,” he said, “They saw that I was just a really honest guy, just helping people.”
Pre-9/11, terrorism had a different face and a completely different legal framework. Prosecuting American citizens for terrorism required a greater burden of proof.
Though Novkovic did not support President Clinton’s stance when it came to the Bosnian conflict, or in many American policies world wide, he had no intention of waging war within the United States. Still, his subversive actions, his presence in rallies and continued participation in politics were scrutinized by government officials.
“I did some demonstrations,” he said, mentioning that he and his friends had participated in Occupy Wall Street, “but the FBI said cool it, chill out, stop with the politics… I went quiet for a very long time.”
The general consensus among the westerners who came to fight for the self-proclaimed rebel governments of Novorussiya is that going back will be a great risk. Eight Spanish volunteers who returned home after fighting in Donbas were detained en masse in late February. The police did a simultaneous raids on their residences across several Spanish provinces and detained them for questioning. Soon after, they were released with trials pending.
“Some people say that we are pro-Russian Jihadis,” said another American volunteer, who only goes by the name of Texas, “They want to link us to ISIS, but it’s really Poroshenko and Obama who are the real terrorists.
Texas joined Sud Vremeni in December, a subunit of the larger Vostock Battalion. He had been fighting long the outskirts of Donetsk and took part in the second Battle for the Airport when the separatists took control of the New Terminal, and pushed the Ukrainian Forces to the other side of the runway strip. He has given up on any notion of returning back home and considers spending the rest of his life in Donbas.
In stark contrast to westerners who join jihadist movements in the Middle East, those who enter Donbass are often self-recruited, and enter the rebel-territory with little outside help. They were not lured by the outreach of Novorussiyans, but were outraged by images and stories of the conflict. Like Novkovic, Texas blames President Barack Obama and the American government for their support to the Kiev-led government who they accuse of committing genocide on the Russian-speaking population in Donbas.
“I’m just tired of watching children cry,” said Novkovic. Prior to making to Donbas, he had little or no contacts within the region, but was introduced to them upon his arrival.
Unlike the global jihadist movement, where clerics use their mosques or social media to reach out to youths, western fighters in Donbas are the first to reach out to those involved in supporting Novorussiya. They use facebook or the Russian social media site, Vkontakte, to reach out to the fighters that have appeared in the news or on other media sites. Even then, they must often make the journey on their own, using their own money, as the fighters in Donbas are unable to meet them until they finally arrive in Donetsk. Fighting on the front lines takes priority, and recruiting from the outside is only a secondary concern.
The first French volunteers to enter Donbas, led by Victor Alfonso Lenta and Nikola Perovic, began as a group of four friends. They were driven by their ideals of anti-western imperialism, specifically against the European Union and NATO. They made their plan to travel to Donbas on their own, and had to search for a unit to join, as opposed to being sought after by pro-Russian rebel representatives. They were responsible for training themselves, and did not go through a pro-Russian rebel training camp.
Unlike the foreign fighters who join ISIS, the western volunteers in Donbas are not unified by a single ideology, religion or political stance. The French volunteers tend to be nationalists, the Spaniards are often communists. There are others from Norway, Sweden and Brazil who are pagan, who consider themselves modern day Vikings and yearn to die in battle so that they can go to Valhalla.
“Look, anyone who comes here and wants to fight for Novorussiya against the Kiev junta is fine by me,” said Texas, who is a communist.
Novkovic chose no political side, “It varies. Sometimes I am anarchist, a revolutionary, or a street hooligan… it’s like my music. It goes from classical to heavy metal.”
Though the Ukrainian government has declared them a terrorist organization, the international community has yet to follow their lead. Without this official designation, it will be difficult to prosecute American citizens who fight for the pro-Russian rebels unless they are directly linked to a war crime under The Hague.
Still, in the minds of American volunteers, there is still a great risk in reentering their native country.
“The American government detains people in Guantanamo without any proof,” added Texas, “So no one really knows what would happen to us when – or if – we ever go home.”
Many foreign volunteers in Donbass continue to wait for the results of the Spanish trials, and will use that as a metric as to whether or not they are willing to risk prosecution.
Even if the war in Donbass were to conclude, these foreign fighters from the west are likely to remain vocal opponents of the United Nations, European Union, and NATO. American volunteers in Donbas are likely to continue criticizing America’s policies overseas and will use their time fighting for the pro-Russian rebels to bolster their credibility.
One thing is certain, many of the foreign fighters among the pro-Russians have an eye for war. Novkovic, like many others, have expressed a wish to go to Syria after the war in eastern Ukraine is finished.