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No Cease-Fire In Sight For Eastern Ukraine


We are about to meet someone who is deeply involved in the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine. He is a separatist military commander helping to lead pro-Russian forces in their fight against Ukraine's military. He is part of a conflict that Western nations believe was stoked by the Kremlin. It's a conflict with no end in sight. The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine have held meetings, but there's been no breakthrough and fighting has remained intense. Ukraine's military moved deep into one rebel-held city, Luhansk, while separatist fighters there shot down a Ukrainian fighter jet. And heavy fighting near a second city the separatists controlled, Donetsk, cut off that city's water supply. No doubt Ukraine's government has gained ground, but the separatist commander we're about to meet says the war is far from over. He spoke to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: He will only give his nom-de-guerre - Vargan. It's the Russian name for the instrument he likes to play for guests.


NELSON: But this 41-year-old who has a long beard and wears a blue-striped tank top under a camouflage vest is no musician.


NELSON: Vargan commands a militia in the Western Donetsk neighborhood that shells nearby Ukrainian military locations daily. One place his men fire from is near an apartment complex playground. I asked Vargan, who heads the Fourth Battalion of the Donetsk People's Republic, if he worries about drawing fire to the residential area with his Grad rocket launcher and Howitzer there.

VARGAN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says of course I am concerned and that when Ukrainians shell here, his men quickly move to wipe them out. Vargan says it's no big deal that Ukrainian forces are getting closer. Heavy fighting yesterday in the northern outskirts cut off not only the water supply, but the last remaining rail line for residents of this surrounded city.

VARGAN: (Through translator). It's like a Russian accordion. The Ukrainian forces move forward and then fall back - move forward and then fall back - kind of the way lungs expand and contract when we breathe or like playing a game of tug-of-war.

NELSON: Not that Vargan thinks the sides are evenly matched.

VARGAN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says separatist fighters are outnumbered and only get by with Ukrainian ammunition and weapons they steal from troops and armories.


NELSON: His headquarters on the second floor of a home in the Petrovsky district is peppered with Donetsk People's Republic posters. His Kalashnikov-toting commanders, who busily plan the night's attacks, don't look like any professional army with their disheveled beards and mix of civilian clothes and camouflage. Vargan shows of medallions he wears with a pagan sun symbol and Sanskrit swastikas saying they offer better protection than a bulletproof vest. But the separatist fighters are better trained and organized than they appear, Vargan says.

VARGAN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He adds they are homegrown militia that uses Ukrainian equipment with ammunition and that only two Russians and one Crimean serve in his battalion of 350 men. He says even though Luhansk and Donetsk are cut off from each other by Ukrainian forces, separatist military leaders stay in constant contact and trade information and hostages. Vargan says he was a conscript in the Soviet Air Force back in 1991. He has a Ukrainian ID but calls himself a simple Russian soldier. Nevertheless, killing Ukrainian soldiers makes him unhappy.

VARGAN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says I don't want to fight against my brothers and it is politicians who are making us to this. Vargan adds if you take away politicians, we can always reach a consensus. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.