On August 18, the Ekho Kavkaza news service published an interview with two Ossetian militants who are fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine. The militants preferred to be identified by their nicknames—Mamai and Volk (Wolf). They were interviewed at a café on the mountain highway that connects North Ossetia and South Ossetia (ekhokavkaza.com, August 18).
The militants detailed the circumstances surrounding the Ossetian volunteers fighting on the side of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Mamai had reportedly spent about three months in Ukraine by the time he was interviewed and Volk had been in Ukraine even longer. Although both denied receiving money for fighting in eastern Ukraine, it was revealed in the interview that the volunteers were financed by Eduard Kokoity, the former “president” of the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia, who covered ammunition and medical costs. At the same time, the militants grumbled about receiving little support from South Ossetian politicians who had claimed to be supporting the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. “All lads from South Ossetia arrived by themselves.” Mamai said. “They come on their own in groups of one-two people. The largest group we received consisted of three people. This is the largest group of volunteers that we have received in Donetsk” (ekhokavkaza.com, August 18).
The nicknamed militants may have been Oleg Mamiyev (Facebook), a South Ossetian resident, and Alan Mamiyev (Facebook), a resident of North Ossetia. Both men regularly update their Facebook pages with their photographs from Ukraine. Oleg Mamiyev was also mentioned among Ossetian fighters in eastern Ukraine in an article published earlier (August 4) in the Wall Street Journal.
For some time, both North Ossetian and South Ossetian officials preferred to be reticent about their attitude toward the conflict in Ukraine. In June, South Ossetia “recognized” the Ukrainian breakaway regions as independent states (RIA Novosti, June 27). However, the tiny republic did little else to support the separatists in Ukraine. In August, the head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, stated that there was no conscription campaign in North Ossetia for the war in eastern Ukraine, but that “he could understand those who went there as volunteers.” Mamsurov insisted he would go to Ukraine to fight himself, if he did not have other obligations (RIA Novosti, August 25).
Back in May, the popular North Ossetian website region15.ru republished an advertisement seeking volunteers who would like to go to fight in Ukraine. The ad was later removed from the website, but the campaign is certainly continuing, even though it has probably been relatively unsuccessful. An Internet poll revealed that 58 percent of residents of North Ossetia supported Ossetian participation in the Ukrainian conflict while 42 percent were against it (region15.ru, September 1). Russia could not, in the end, rely on the so-called “volunteers,” but had to send in the regular Russian army to rescue the failing separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.
In the Ekho Kavkaza interview, the Ossetian militants Mamai and Volk talked about two other Ossetians who had been captured by Ukrainian forces but were subsequently exchanged for Ukrainian captives. The number of Ossetian militants in Ukraine is hard to estimate. Ossetians often are referred to as “Chechens” in Ukraine, according to the account provided by Mamai and Volk. The militants said that 27 Chechens had left Donetsk and only Ossetians remained in the city (ekhokavkaza.com, August 18).
A video posted on YouTube titled “Interview with Chechens in Donetsk” features at least two cars with militants who speak Ossetian with a South Ossetian accent and an armored personnel carrier (APC) with the Ossetian flag, which is common to both South Ossetia and North Ossetia (YouTube, July 11). Ukrainian activist Irina Dovgan went through a horrifying ordeal in Donetsk, where she reportedly was confronted and tortured by some Cossacks, Ossetians and locals. She said the group of Ossetians consisted of about 20 people (uainfo.org, August 31).
It appears that the majority of Ossetian fighters in Ukraine come from South Ossetia. The reason for their “volunteerism” on behalf of the separatists in eastern Ukraine is unclear. The same Ossetian militant commander, Mamai, spoke of his brotherly feelings for the Russian people who are “killed and bombed” by the Ukrainian government. The South Ossetian fighters also implied that Russia helped South Ossetia against Georgia in the war of 2008 and they were now returning the favor (gradus.pro, June 5).
The political motivations behind the involvement of Ossetians in the Ukrainian conflict, beyond the declarations of support for the “brotherly people in Ukraine,” appear to have rational and local roots. For South Ossetian politicians, it is a matter of political competition for the status of the most favored politician in Moscow. Former South Ossetian “president” Eduard Kokoity is apparently intent on continuing his political career in the republic and is attempting to win favor with Moscow through participation in the Ukrainian conflict. Other South Ossetian politicians are naturally following suit in order not to be left behind in the race for Moscow’s favors. For the head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, putting on a display of the type of behavior Moscow expects from him is also a matter of political survival. Mamsurov’s second term as governor of North Ossetia ends in 2015 and he certainly is trying to prepare for that crucial moment. The limited Ossetian involvement in the conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to change anything, but it does solve local political problems for Ossetian politicians who are keen to display loyalty to their bosses in Moscow in order to reap the benefits from their actions.