| Michel Moutot |
STAKHANOV, Ukraine (AFP) – “Colonel” Pavel Dremov salutes the flag of the Great Army of the Don Cossacks. And he answers to no one.
Cutting a striking figure in his astrakan cap, the stocky 38-year-old shows AFP into his office, a police station commandeered by his men, a stone’s throw from a bronze statue of Alexei Stakhanov – a socialist hero of Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt.
Sandbags protect the windows and slabs of reinforced concrete shore up the main wall, while inside women in camouflage trousers stir pots of borscht.
The town of Stakhanov is on Dremov’s section of the frontline between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian soldiers – his private fiefdom that amounts to a rebellion within a rebellion.
“If I had to obey someone it would be my ataman (chief), Nikolai Ivanovich Kozitsyn,” Dremov said, referring to the head of the Cossacks of the Don River, an eclectic mainly eastern Slavic group with military and cultural traditions dating back to the 16th-century Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible.
“He is my direct superior. We Cossacks are fighting for a cause, a faith, an ideal: the New Russia.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin set off alarm bells when he used the phrase “New Russia” when referring to eastern Ukraine. In Russian, “Novorossiya” is an archaic term for an area that was controlled by Russia under the tsars.
Though Dremov is adamantly his own boss, it is clear where his sympathies lie.
“Of course I am collaborating with the forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘people’s republics’,” proclaimed in April by the pro-Russian separatists.
“I am waiting for the Lugansk defence minister. He’s a close friend,” adds Dremov, whose green uniform without insignia is similar to that worn by Russian soldiers who entered Crimea in March before Moscow annexed the peninsula.
He even says he organised and took part in an assault on the Ukrainian secret service building in Lugansk, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Stakhanov.
Then, lowering his voice, Dremov says: “I’m going to tell you a secret. I have 1,200 fighters under my command, but only one broken-down tank and a troop transport. That’s all.”
AFP has no way of verifying the claims of the “colonel”, who gets around in a Japanese SUV painted in camouflage colours, shuttling between Stakhanov and the nearby town of Pervomaisk.
On September 12, when observers of the European security body OSCE met Dremov, he told them he had 700 Cossacks and three 122mm Howitzers.
Rebel authorities in Lugansk confirmed to the observers that Dremov did not receive orders from them.
Dremov says the shaky ceasefire accord reached in Minsk between Kiev and Lugansk and Donetsk on September 5 is a sham.
“This agreement in Minsk only calls for the withdrawal of weapons of more than 100 mm calibre,” he says.
“Do you think that an 82mm mortar doesn’t kill? The accord says nothing about tanks. Last night, the Ukrainians hid nine of them three kilometres (two miles) from here. And they fired an 82mm mortar on civilian buildings. That’s not a violation?”
“What I think is that the Ukrainians have understood that we were using much better artillery than theirs, and they found this way to (reduce our capability). This accord is a trap. I don’t recognise it.”
In the Ukrainian press and on Internet sites, the “colonel” is accused of being Russian, a secret agent, an officer sent by Moscow like the “mercenaries” or soldiers sent en masse into Ukraine – which Moscow denies.
“In fact, I was born here in Stakhanov,” Dremov says. “My passport’s in the car, my assistant can go get it for you if you want.”
Dremov, a mason by trade, says he served in the Ukrainian army from 1994 to 1996 near Odessa, showing a tattoo on his chest giving his blood type in Ukrainian as proof.
But he also admits fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels during the 1992 conflict in Transdniestr, a strip of land in eastern Moldova with a population of half a million that won independence with Russian help but never gained international recognition.