TIME Ukraine

Why Chechens Are Fighting Chechens in Ukraine’s Civil War

Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside Pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.
Mstyslav Chernov—AP Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.

The conflict has given exiled Chechens a chance to revive an old battle against their Moscow-backed kinsmen

The Chechens arrived at about the same time on both sides of the war in eastern Ukraine. On the side of the Russians, they came last spring with no insignia on their uniforms, crossing the border into the rebel-held territory of Ukraine and taking up positions around the city of Donetsk. General Isa Munaev, by contrast, arrived on the opposite side of the front lines with a suitcase full of insignia – military berets, pins and flags bearing the symbol of Chechen independence: a wolf in repose above nine stars, each representing one of the major clans, or teips, of Chechnya.

His arrival opened one of the odder dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine. This sovereign country, which has more than enough of its own internal divisions and rivalries, has become host to a foreign conflict of Chechens versus Chechens that has been simmering elsewhere for more than a decade.

Adam Osmayev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, is in the town of Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.
Olya Engalycheva—APAdam Osmaev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, in Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.

Regardless of the peace process now easing the broader war in Ukraine, this narrow struggle is likely to continue as long as the opposing sides from Chechnya have the chance to meet each other in an active conflict zone. “It’s like a blood feud,” says Adam Osmaev, one of the key Chechen commanders participating in the war. “Politics can’t stop it.”

The feud that split Chechnya, a tiny nation of highlanders who mostly adhere to a moderate strand of Sunni Islam, began around the year 2000, when they were fighting their most recent war for independence from Russia. Under the command of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian air force systematically bombed the rebellious province into submission that year, and with no air defenses to fight back, Chechnya’s rebel leadership was broadly divided between those who grudgingly accepted Russian rule and those who kept up a guerrilla-style insurgency.

Gen. Munaev was among the latter. By his own account, he remained in Chechnya for more than five years after the war’s official end, actively participating in the resistance even as his fellow fighters turned to the use of assassinations, sabotage and terrorism in their attacks on Russian and loyalist forces. All too often, civilians were caught in the conflict, especially as Chechen rebels turned to the use of suicide bombings and took innocent hostages. In 2006, during a counter-insurgency strike in Chechnya, Munaev was gravely injured – sustaining, as he later recalled, 36 shrapnel wounds. His comrades then smuggled him through Ukraine to Europe to seek treatment, and he received political asylum in Denmark soon after.

By that point, Chechnya was firmly under the control of a young warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Putin had entrusted in 2004 to stamp out what remained of the local insurgency. The result was a vicious internecine struggle. A brawny boxing fan with a private zoo full of carnivores, Kadyrov oversaw the hunt for rebel leaders in the mountains of Chechnya and allowed no resistance to Russian rule, often referring to Putin as a kind of surrogate father. Even in exile, Kadyrov’s enemies would often wind up dead – some assassinated in Europe, others in Turkey or Dubai – even though Kadyrov denied personally ordering their murders.

The exiled Munaev seemed undeterred. Having recovered from his injuries in Denmark, he set up a political activist group to campaign for Chechen independence, and he stubbornly renounced any Chechen who agreed to talk of reconciliation with Kadyrov or his representatives. “This war never ended for us,” says his close friend and associate in Denmark, the exiled Chechen statesman Ilyas Musayev. “The thought of any contact with those who have betrayed Chechnya, who have killed their own tribesmen, causes a Chechen terrible pain,” Musayev told TIME during an interview at his apartment near Copenhagen in late 2009.

He conceded, however, that little could be done from exile to change the situation in Chechnya, and as time past, their old insurgency died down. Russia felt secure enough in 2010 to abolish martial law in the region, and a sense of normalcy returned to Chechnya as its bombed-out cities were rebuilt with money from Moscow.

The war in eastern Ukraine, which broke out last spring, provided the exiled Chechens with their first chance in years to take up arms against Russia again. Munaev didn’t miss the opportunity. Weeks after Russia set off the conflict by invading and annexing the region of Crimea, Munaev arrived in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with his suitcase of Chechen flags and patches.

Forty-eight years old at the time, he must have seemed a strange volunteer to the Ukrainian military officers who received him. But in their desperate search for experienced fighters – Ukraine’s armed forces were hopelessly unprepared for a war with Russia – Munaev was a valuable paramilitary asset. So Ukraine’s military provided him with a cache of small arms, and he was quickly allowed to form a unit called the Dudaev Battalion, which began serving alongside the Ukrainian army last spring. (The unit was named after the late Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev, a former Soviet air force general who ruled Chechnya during its years of de facto independence from 1991 until 1996, when he was killed in a Russian airstrike.)

At a press conference in October, Munaev made clear his motives for coming to fight in Ukraine: “If Ukraine loses, Chechnya will lose,” he said, his voice seeming to falter with emotion. “Fighting here in the defense of Ukrainian freedom, we are defending our own freedom, our own statehood.” By that logic, he urged all Chechen exiles to take up the call to arms as a revival of their bygone war against Russia, and dozens of them have.

According to the battalion’s officers, about a quarter of their roughly 200 fighters are Chechens who have mostly come from their exiles in Turkey and various parts of Europe. Half of them are Ukrainian, while the rest are a mixed bag of former Soviet military veterans, mostly from Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Over the past year, they have participated in some of Ukraine’s fiercest battles against pro-Russian separatist forces, often doing the dangerous work of reconnaissance behind enemy lines. But Munaev’s role as their commander did not last long. In February, during a vicious battle for control of the strategic railroad juncture of Debaltseve, he was killed in action while on a reconnaissance mission with a handful of his men. His deputy commander Osmaev, a far younger and less experienced fighter from Chechnya, then took over command of the unit.

Back in their homeland, Kadyrov was elated at the news, taking it as his chance to tell all Chechens not to follow in Munaev’s footsteps. “Stop immediately!” he wrote on his Instagram account. “This is not your war. Go home now. This is your chance to stay alive.”

It seemed an ironic piece of advice for Kadyrov to offer. At least since May, dozens of his loyal fighters from Chechnya have gone to aid the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, and he has repeatedly warned the government in Kiev that he would send more of them to arrest Ukrainian politicians or help the separatists carry the fight. He has even offered to join the war himself if Putin gives him leave.

During a visit to Chechnya in April, TIME interviewed one officer of the region’s Interior Ministry forces who says he served a brief tour in eastern Ukraine last year. Before the deployment, he says he and the other men in his unit went on leave from active duty, allowing their commanders in Russia and Chechnya to deny having sent them. “It was a formality,” he says on condition of anonymity. “That’s the way of this war.”

Though he never met a fellow Chechen on the other side of the front lines, he didn’t seem troubled by the fact that it was possible. So deep is the split within this nation that one Chechen fighter might go covertly to Ukraine from Russia, another might travel from his exile in Europe, and neither would seem bothered by the fact that, meeting on the field of battle, they would share the bonds of faith, language and kinship that have defined their identities for hundreds of years.

Driving around in his armored car in the front-line town of Lysychansk, the current commander of the Dudaev Battalion says he can’t even bring himself to call the other side Chechens anymore. “These are people who serve the historical enemy of their nation, who kill their own kin,” Osmaev tells TIME. “These aren’t Chechens. At best they’re Chechen-speaking Russians.” He doesn’t seem to care that the scorn is mutual.

TIME Ukraine

On Patrol With One of Russia’s Most Wanted in the Battle for Ukraine

TIME embedded with the Dudaev Battalion led by commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges

Last year, the people of Ukraine realized that they had, in effect, no army to defend them. Their military had been too depleted by corruption and mismanagement to mount a defense when Russia sent troops to seize the region of Crimea in February 2014. Through the following spring, armed forces mostly stood by as Russia went on to fuel a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, seizing effective control of more territory and large portions of the border with Ukraine. The so-called “volunteer battalions”—poorly trained but highly motivated militias—arose to fill the holes in Ukraine’s defenses.

Over the past year, dozens of these paramilitary groups have appeared on Ukraine’s battlefields, often bearing the brunt of the fighting against Russian-backed separatist forces. They consist of anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand troops, and their more successful commanders often enjoy the status of national celebrities. But their place in the military hierarchy of Ukraine tends to be murky. Though they get much of their heavy weaponry from government stockpiles, they mostly operate in a legal grey zone, closer to guerrillas than national guards.

Earlier this year, TIME embedded with one of the more controversial of these groups—the Dudaev Battalion—which has been carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines since the war began. About half of its troops are from foreign countries, meaning that, legally, they do not have the right to serve in Ukraine’s armed forces. But their commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges, now wants to merge his force with Ukraine’s defense ministry or national police—a move that would give him access to more weapons, he says, as well as a chance to get some Western military aid.

TIME russia

How the Boston Marathon Bombing Hurt Tsarnaev’s Homeland

Dr. Khassan Baiev talks  to a patient and his father at the children's hospital in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on April 17, 2015.
Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME Dr. Khassan Baiev talks to a patient and his father at a children's hospital in Grozny, Chechnya, on April 17, 2015

A renowned Chechen surgeon who once gave shelter to the Tsarnaev family near Boston tells TIME about the pain of losing Americans' trust

Late last year, as the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber was nearing its conclusion, an old friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s family realized it was time for him to leave his home in Massachusetts and go back to his native Chechnya.

Khassan Baiev, a renowned physician, had spent more than a decade by that point doing charity work around Boston, mostly aimed at bringing American medical care to children in Chechnya and other parts of southern Russia. But after the marathon bombings in 2013, and the subsequent trial of the younger Tsarnaev brother, it was nearly impossible to continue this type of philanthropy.

“People began telling me that they can’t help Chechnya after what happened, or they won’t,” says Baiev. “So I didn’t see a choice. I had to accept that the bonds I had built were broken.”

The strain on Baiev’s ties with American donors began to show soon after the blasts, when police identified the suspects as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose father hails from Chechnya. Although the brothers had never actually lived there, the region’s reputation among the American public was so badly stained after the bombings that even raising small donations for its children became a struggle, Baiev says. “It was like the entire nation became associated with terrorism.”

That shift in the American consciousness, he says, has hurt many ethnic Chechens who had nothing to do with the bombings. According to the prosecution, the Tsarnaev brothers, both adherents of a radical strain of Islam, had intended to punish the U.S. for its wars in the Muslim world. The two bombs they detonated near the race’s finish line wounded hundreds of innocent people and killed three others on April 15, 2013, including an 8-year-old boy. Days later, Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with U.S. law enforcement, while his younger brother was arrested, put on trial and finally convicted this month. On April 21, the jury in Boston will consider whether to sentence Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to life in prison or the death penalty.

The 21-year-old has so far expressed no public remorse over the bombings. But whatever suffering he intended to cause Americans, Tsarnaev could hardly have planned to do so much harm to the people of Chechnya, whom he had claimed to love and identified with while growing up in the Boston area. “Most doors are closed to us after what happened,” says Heda Saratova, a leading rights campaigner in Chechnya who has helped many families in the region seek asylum in the West. Since the marathon bombings, she says, it has become far more difficult, and usually impossible, for even the most persecuted and vulnerable people in Chechnya to be granted U.S. asylum.

Few are more vulnerable than the thousands of children born with birth defects in Chechnya, often as a result of the region’s wars with Russia in the 1990s, and many of them have found themselves cut off from the medical care that Baiev’s charity was previously able to provide.

For more than a decade, Baiev had served as a vital link between his homeland and the U.S. medical establishment, which has long held him up as a model of courage and selflessness. While most Chechen doctors fled the region during its wars against Russia, Baiev stayed behind to work as a battlefield trauma surgeon, treating wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict even as his operating room quaked with the thuds of Russian artillery. He often lacked basic supplies, even rubber gloves, but after one particularly ferocious battle, he conducted at least 67 amputations and eight skull surgeries in the course of two days, pausing only once to drink a cup of coffee.

Throughout the wars, his willingness to treat the wounds of Chechen rebel leaders made him a target for the Russian forces, who repeatedly detained him and, he says, subjected him to frequent beatings. He earned no less scorn from many of his fellow Chechens for performing surgeries on wounded Russian soldiers. But his dedication to the Hippocratic oath, which obliges a physician to treat the injured regardless of their politics, made him a hero of the medical profession, and he was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 2000.

Two years later, in the spring of 2002, the 8-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev arrived with his parents at Baiev’s doorstep in Needham, Mass. They were part of the wave of Chechen refugees then seeking asylum in the U.S., and a relative in Canada had given them Baiev’s phone number, suggesting he may be able to help. “I’d never seen or heard of them before they called me that day,” he says. For about a month, he let the Tsarnaevs live with him while they were looking for a place of their own. (Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his two sisters joined the family later that year.)

From the weeks they spent living together, Baiev remembers the young Dzhokhar as a “quiet but willful” boy who found easy friends in the neighborhood. “He was a totally normal kid, loved to play, loved life.” After they found their own apartment in a Boston suburb, the Tsarnaevs never stayed in touch with Baiev, and the doctor was in any case too busy lecturing and campaigning to keep up with all his Chechen friends in the area.

The book he published in 2003 describing his experience during the wars — The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire — went on to become standard reading for American medical students, and later that year, he became the director of a charity called the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya (ICCC), which soon began organizing trips for American surgeons to visit the region to treat children affected by the wars.

There was never any shortage of patients, he says, because “Chechnya was like a testing ground for Russian weapons. God only knows what they dropped on us.” Although the Russian government has never conducted a public study on the rate of birth defects in Chechnya since 2000, Baiev contends that it is many times higher than the global average, leading in particular to cleft palates and other physical abnormalities.

In the decade before the Boston Marathon bombings, he and his U.S. colleagues provided free treatment to thousands of children born in Chechnya with such conditions, usually during the visits to the region that Baiev would organize once a year. For his service, the health-advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights honored him at a gala in Boston in 2006, and he showed up to receive the award with his typical flair, wearing the traditional garb of a Chechen warrior. (To pass security at the event, his friends convinced him to leave the outfit’s ceremonial dagger in the car.)

But the visit to Chechnya he organized for U.S. doctors in the fall of 2014 turned out to be his last with the ICCC. “We just couldn’t find enough support in America after what the Tsarnaevs did,” he says. As a result, he decided at the end of last year to close the charity down. Now, even though most of his family still lives in the U.S., Baiev has moved back to Grozny to work full-time at the local children’s hospital. “I felt there was more I could do here on my own,” he tells TIME during a recent visit to his ward, which he now runs with two local doctors.

Each morning, he puts on the scrubs he got from Harvard Children’s Hospital and makes the rounds of the cramped but spotless facility in Grozny. The desk in his office is decorated with a little American flag and a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty, both symbols of the years he spent building bonds between the U.S. and Chechnya. “But it feels like a lot of that effort was wasted,” he says.

After the marathon bombings, he feels it could take years for his region to regain the sympathy of the Americans who once aided his work so generously. And though he doesn’t seem to blame anyone for withdrawing that support, he says he can’t help but see it as another link in a chain of injustice.

TIME russia

Exclusive: Relatives of Boston Marathon Bomber Break Their Silence

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
FBI/AP Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Members of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's family tell TIME they tried in vain to dismiss his defense lawyers

Throughout the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old who was convicted last week of bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013, his family resisted the urge to speak out publicly in his defense. Tsarnaev’s defense team had advised them not to grant interviews, they say, as it could risk his chances at trial. But when the jury issued its guilty verdict on April 8, convicting him on 17 counts that could each carry the death penalty, some of his relatives decided to go public with their outrage.

On the evening of April 14, three members of the Tsarnaev family met at a café in the city of Grozny, close to their ancestral home in southern Russia, and told a TIME reporter how the trial had torn their family apart, how helpless they felt against what they see as an American conspiracy against them and, above all, how they still hope to convince Tsarnaev to fire his legal team and seek to overturn the verdict on appeal.

“It would be so much easier if he had actually committed these crimes,” says his aunt Maret Tsarnaeva. “Then we could swallow this pain and accept it.”

But two years after the bombing that killed three people and wounded hundreds near the race’s finish line on April 15, 2013, they still refuse to admit Tsarnaev’s guilt. From their homes in Chechnya and Dagestan, two predominantly Muslim regions of Russia, some of his family members have tried to convince Tsarnaev to fire his court-appointed lawyer, Judy Clarke, who has taken a surprising approach to his defense.

In one of her first arguments before the jury after entering a not-guilty plea, Clarke said that her client is indeed responsible for the “senseless, horrific, misguided acts.” But in committing these crimes, she argued that he was acting under the direction of his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with authorities soon after the bombing.

This line of defense has outraged many of Tsarnaev’s relatives, who have tried to convince him to dismiss Clarke and ask for a lawyer who will argue his innocence. “Why do we even need defense attorneys if they just tell the jury he is guilty?” his aunt asks. “What’s the point?”

Like many observers of the case in Russia, the Tsarnaev family has claimed — without providing any meaningful evidence — that the bombing was part of a U.S. government conspiracy intended to test the American public’s reaction to a terrorist threat and the imposition of martial law in a U.S. city. “This was all fabricated by the American special services,” Said-Hussein Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber’s uncle, tells TIME. A panel of 12 jurors in Boston reached the verdict after weeks of testimony from some 90 witnesses and 11 hours of deliberations spread over two days.

Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, made similar claims of a conspiracy soon after his arrest, but she seems to have come around since then to the strategy that her son’s lawyers have taken at trial. As a result, the family appears to have suffered a rancorous split. While the brothers’ paternal relatives, who spoke to TIME on Wednesday, have demanded a new legal team, their mother has refused to call for Clarke’s dismissal. “The mother won’t let us do it,” says Hava Tsarnaeva, the brothers’ great-aunt in Chechnya. “She won’t listen to reason.”

MORE Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Found Guilty on All Counts in Boston Bombing Trial

Their only real means of pressuring her is through Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, a native of Chechnya who now lives in neighboring Dagestan. But he seems to have taken his wife’s side on the quality of their son’s defense. “As frightening as it is to admit, Anzor has been his wife’s zombie all his life, from the first day they met,” says his sister Maret.

In their desperation to reach Tsarnaev during the trial, his paternal relatives have tried sending letters, arranging phone calls and even encouraging a friend to go to the Boston courtroom and cry out to Tsarnaev during a hearing. But all of these efforts failed to reach him, they say, let alone convince him to fire his lawyers.

Their focus now has turned to outside help, primarily from rights activists and international institutions, though these efforts also have little chance of success. On Wednesday, they met with a leading rights activist in Chechnya, Heda Saratova, in the hope of filing an appeal in the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Saratova informed them that the U.S. is not a party to the court’s founding treaty, and therefore does not accept its jurisdiction.

On hearing the news, Maret Tsarnaeva, the aunt, let out a laugh through her tears. “So I guess the U.S. has really proven its exceptionalism in this case,” she says, bitterly. “It’s a closed circle.” And it leaves his family no choice but to wait for April 21, when the sentencing phase of the trial will consider whether Tsarnaev should face the death penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Read next: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Probably Won’t End Up in Massachusetts

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TIME

Why Ukraine Still Can’t Break Ties With Russian ‘Aggressor State’

Having survived an assassin's bullet, a revolution and a war, Gennady Kernes now faces a fight over Ukraine's constitution

One afternoon in late February, Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, pushed his wheelchair away from the podium at city hall and, with a wince of discomfort, allowed his bodyguards to help him off the stage. The day’s session of the city council had lasted several hours, and the mayor’s pain medication had begun to wear off. It was clear from the grimace on his face how much he still hurt from the sniper’s bullet that nearly killed him last spring. But he collected himself, adjusted his tie and rolled down the aisle to the back of the hall, where the press was waiting to grill him.

“Gennady Adolfovich,” one of the local journalists began, politely addressing the mayor by his name and patronymic. “Do you consider Russia to be an aggressor?” He had seen this loaded question coming. The previous month, Ukraine’s parliament had unanimously voted to declare Russia an “aggressor state,” moving the two nations closer to a formal state of war after nearly a year of armed conflict. Kernes, long known as a shrewd political survivor, was among the only prominent officials in Ukraine to oppose this decision, even though he knew he could be branded a traitor for it. “Personally, I do not consider Russia to be an aggressor,” he said, looking down at his lap.

It was a sign of his allegiance in the new phase of Ukraine’s war. Since February, when a fragile ceasefire began to take hold, the question of the country’s survival has turned to a debate over its reconstitution. Under the conditions of the truce, Russia has demanded that Ukraine embrace “federalization,” a sweeping set of constitutional reforms that would take power away from the capital and redistribute it to the regions. Ukraine now has to decide how to meet this demand without letting its eastern provinces fall deeper into Russia’s grasp.

The state council charged with making this decision convened for the first time on April 6, and President Petro Poroshenko gave it strict instructions. Some autonomy would have to be granted to the regions, he said, but Russia’s idea of federalization was a red line he wouldn’t cross. “It is like an infection, a biological weapon, which is being imposed on Ukraine from abroad,” the President said. “Its bacteria are trying to infect Ukraine and destroy our unity.”

Kernes sees it differently. His city of 1.4 million people is a sprawling industrial powerhouse, a traditional center of trade and culture whose suburbs touch the Russian border. Its economy cannot survive, he says, unless trade and cooperation with the “aggressor state” continue, regardless how much Russia has done in the past year to sow conflict in Ukraine.

“That’s how the Soviet Union built things,” Kernes explains in his office at the mayoralty, which is decorated with an odd collection of gifts and trinkets, such as a stuffed lion, a robotic-looking sculpture of a scorpion, and a statuette of Kernes in the guise of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. “That’s how our factories were set up back in the day,” he continues. “It’s a fact of life. And what will we do if Russia, our main customer, stops buying?” To answer his own question, he uses an old provincialism: “It’ll be cat soup for all of us then,” he said.

Already Ukraine is approaching that point. With most of its scarce resources focused on fighting Russia’s proxies in the east, Ukraine’s leaders have watched their economy fall off a cliff, surviving only by the grace of massive loans from Western institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which approved another $17.5 billion last month to be disbursed over the next four years. But that assistance has not stopped the national currency of Ukraine from losing two-thirds of its value since last winter. In the last three months of 2014, the size of the economy contracted almost 15%, inflation shot up to 40%, and unemployment approached double digits.

But that pain will be just the beginning, says Kernes, unless Ukraine allows its eastern regions to develop economic ties with Russia. As proof he points to the fate of Turboatom, his city’s biggest factory, which produces turbines for both Russian and Ukrainian power stations. Its campus takes up more than five square kilometers near the center of Kharkov, like a city within a city, complete with dormitories and bathhouses for its 6,000 employees. On a recent evening, its deputy director, Alexei Cherkassky, was looking over the factory’s sales list as though it were a dire medical prognosis. About 40% of its orders normally come from Russia, which relies on Turboatom for most of the turbines that run its nuclear power stations.

“Unfortunately, all of our major industries are intertwined with Russia in this way,” Cherkassky says. “So we shouldn’t fool ourselves in thinking we can be independent from Russia. We are totally interdependent.” Over the past year, Russia has started cutting back on orders from Turboatom as part of its broader effort to starve Ukraine’s economy, and the factory has been forced as a result to cut shifts, scrap overtime and push hundreds of workers into retirement.

At least in the foreseeable future, it does not have the option of shifting sales to Europe. “Turbines aren’t iPhones,” says Cherkassky. “You don’t switch them out every few months.” And the ones produced at Turboatom, like nearly all of Ukraine’s heavy industry, still use Soviet means of production that don’t meet the needs of most Western countries. So for all the aid coming from the state-backed institutions in the U.S. and Europe, Cherkassky says, “those markets haven’t exactly met us with open arms.”

Russia knows this. For decades it has used the Soviet legacy of interdependence as leverage in eastern Ukraine. The idea of its “federalization” derives in part from this reality. For two decades, one of the leading proponents of this vision has been the Russian politician Konstantin Zatulin, who heads the Kremlin-connected institute in charge of integrating the former Soviet space. Since at least 2004, he has been trying to turn southeastern Ukraine into a zone of Russian influence – an effort that got him banned from entering the country between 2006 and 2010.

His political plan for controlling Ukraine was put on hold last year, as Russia began using military means to achieve the same ends. But the current ceasefire has brought his vision back to the fore. “If Ukraine accepts federalization, we would have no need to tear Ukraine apart,” Zatulin says in his office in Moscow, which is cluttered with antique weapons and other military bric-a-brac. Russia could simply build ties with the regions of eastern Ukraine that “share the Russian point of view on all the big issues,” he says. “Russia would have its own soloists in the great Ukrainian choir, and they would sing for us. This would be our compromise.”

It is a compromise that Kernes seems prepared to accept, despite everything he has suffered in the past year of political turmoil. Early on in the conflict with Russia, he admits that he flirted with ideas of separatism himself, and he fiercely resisted the revolution that brought Poroshenko’s government to power last winter. In one of its first decisions, that government even brought charges against Kernes for allegedly abducting, threatening and torturing supporters of the revolution in Kharkov. After that, recalls Zatulin, the mayor “simply chickened out.” Facing a long term in prison, Kernes accepted Ukraine’s new leaders and turned his back on the separatist cause, refusing to allow his city to hold a referendum on secession from Ukraine.

“And you know what I got for that,” Kernes says. “I got a bullet.” On April 28, while he was exercising near a city park, an unidentified sniper shot Kernes in the back with a high-caliber rifle. The bullet pierced his lung and shredded part of his liver, but it also seemed to shore up his bona fides as a supporter of Ukrainian unity. The state dropped its charges against him soon after, and he was able to return to his post.

It wasn’t the first time he made such an incredible comeback. In 2007, while he was serving as adviser to his friend and predecessor, Mikhail Dobkin, a video of them trying to film a campaign ad was leaked to the press. It contained such a hilarious mix of bumbling incompetence and backalley obscenity that both of their careers seemed sure to be over. Kernes not only survived that scandal but was elected mayor a few years later.

Now the fight over Ukraine’s federalization is shaping up to be his last. In late March, as he continued demanding more autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions, the state re-opened its case against him for alleged kidnapping and torture, which he has always denied. The charges, he says, are part of a campaign against all politicians in Ukraine who support the restoration of civil ties with Russia. “They don’t want to listen to reason,” he says.

But one way or another, the country will still have to let its eastern regions to do business with the enemy next door, “because that’s where the money is,” Kernes says. No matter how much aid Ukraine gets from the IMF and other Western backers, it will not be enough to keep the factories of Kharkov alive. “They’ll just be left to rot without our steady clients in Russia.” Never mind that those clients may have other plans for Ukraine in mind.

TIME Ukraine

Meet the Pro-Russian ‘Partisans’ Waging a Bombing Campaign in Ukraine

Ukrainian police and forensic experts examine the wreckage of a mini-bus after explosion, in Kharkov, March 6, 2015.
Sergei Kozlov—EPA Ukrainian police and forensic experts examine the wreckage of a mini-bus after explosion, in Kharkov, March 6, 2015.

Their tactics mark a turn toward terrorism in Ukraine's year-old war

Soon after midnight on April 1, a separatist group calling itself the Kharkov Partisans issued another one of its video warnings to the Ukrainian government. It claimed that within the next 48 hours a bomb would explode far behind the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine. “As of now, the earth will begin to burn beneath your feet,” said the group’s spokesman, Filipp Ekozyants, in the message to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his top security officials.

Sure enough, the bomb arrived. Though reports have been conflicting as to the damage it caused, a large explosion rang out in the southwestern part of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, within 24 hours of the Partisans’ threat. Police denied that any bombing had occurred that night, though that seems to be part of a cover up. “The explosion did take place,” says Andriy Sanin, the head of the local branch of Right Sector, a nationalist paramilitary group that works in league with Ukraine’s armed forces. “It appears to have been an act of intimidation,” he says, declining to give further details. In a follow-up video on April 3, the Partisans claimed that the attack had targeted a military convoy, killing a dozen Ukrainian servicemen.

But whatever the details of that bombing, it would hardly have been the first attack attributed to this guerrilla group. In interviews with TIME over the past two months, the group’s spokesman, a former wedding singer now based in western Russia, has claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings, mostly targeting military and industrial installations in the region of Kharkov, which lies right on the border with Russia. “Our goal is to liberate the people of Kharkov,” Ekozyants says in the first of several interviews. “And we will fight until the current authorities are weak enough to allow this.”

Numbering more than a dozen in the past few months alone, the bombings in Kharkov and other cities have marked a grim turn in Ukraine’s year-old conflict. The Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions have managed to seize control of two major cities and large chunks of the border with Russia. But they are clearly not satisfied with the extent of their possessions. Even amid the ceasefire that Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated and signed with President Poroshenko in February, the bombing of Ukraine’s cities has only intensified. The war now seems to be shifting from the use of tanks and artillery to the methods of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

The goal of these attacks, says Ekozyants, is to paralyze the Ukrainian authorities and inspire locals to join a separatist revolt against them. But there seems to be some debate within his organization about the admissible means of achieving this. About two hours before Ekozyants issued his warning on April 1, he told TIME that the November bombing of a crowded bar in Kharkov was the work of a radical cell of the Partisans. Eight people were wounded in that bombing, two of them critically.

From their bases in Russia and the rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, the more moderate leaders of the Partisans then issued a ban on attacking civilians, in part to avoid a popular backlash against their methods, says Ekozyants. “After what happened at [the bar], our coordinating council issued a directive to all our cells, saying any more actions in places where there are peaceful people will be punished by lethal means.”

But the lethality of the bombings in Kharkov have still continued to increase. The deadliest confirmed attack struck on a religious holiday, Forgiveness Sunday, Feb. 22, the day in Eastern Orthodox tradition when believers are meant to repent for their sins. It was also the day when many in Ukraine marked the one-year anniversary of their country’s revolution, which brought a pro-Western government to power last winter. Sanin, the local paramilitary leader, was leading a march of commemoration that afternoon through Kharkov, and as his column set out through the city, an anti-personnel mine exploded at the side of the road, sending a shockwave full of shrapnel into the crowd. Four people were fatally wounded, including two teenage boys, and nine others were hospitalized.

“In the first seconds there was panic,” Sanin recalls. “Everyone was screaming, running, and there was a real risk that the victims would get trampled where they lay.” Sanin appears to have been one of targets of the attack, but he escaped with minor injuries.

A few days later, Ukraine’s state security service, the SBU, released what it claimed to be a video of the bomber’s confession. Because his face in the footage is blurred and his name has not been released, it has been impossible to verify the authenticity of the SBU’s claims, which have not always been reliable. In a monotonous patter, the alleged confessor claims that an agent of the Russian security services paid him $10,000 to carry out the bombing on Forgiveness Sunday.

For his part, Ekozyants denies that the Kharkov Partisans had anything to do with that attack. But some of his allies in the rebel movement still believe the bombing was justified. “There were no accidental victims there at that march,” says Konstantin Dolgov, a leading pro-Russian separatist in Ukraine. “They were all the same people who were fueling a big civil war in Ukraine. They were calling for the death of Russians, of Russian-speakers,” says Dolgov, who denies any involvement in that bombing. After a pause, he adds: “There’s a good Russian saying: You sow the wind, you reap the storm. And the storm caught up with them during that march.”

Having started his career a decade ago as an adviser to a pro-Russian governor of Kharkov, Dolgov has emerged as a one of the main links between Moscow and the separatists in eastern Ukraine. He now splits his time between the Russian capital and the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and he is living proof that the separatists’ ambitions in Ukraine go far beyond the territories they currently control. Russia seems to support his message. On Kremlin-owned television channels, he is a fixture on political talk shows, frequently cast as the benevolent face of Ukrainian separatism.

One afternoon in March, he agreed to meet me at a restaurant in Moscow across the street from the offices of the Russian Presidential Administration, where he sat in a pressed suit with a little separatist flag pinned to his lapel. Despite the resistance of Ukrainian authorities, he claims it is only a matter of time before Kharkov falls to the separatists. “But the liberation is only possible from the outside at this point,” he says. All the local separatists in Kharkov have been jailed or forced to flee the city. So there are now “at least 1,500 men” from Kharkov fighting in various rebel factions in other parts of eastern Ukraine, he says. “They all hope to return home and take revenge for their murdered comrades.”

Ekozyants, who calls Dolgov a close associate, takes a somewhat different view. Through the bombing campaigns of the Partisans, he believes the Ukrainian authorities can be weakened from within, allowing the local separatists to organize an uprising in the city. “All we want is to create a government of Kharkov that will listen to the people,” he says. The ultimate aim is for the city to hold a referendum on secession from Ukraine, much as the region of Crimea did last spring before it was annexed into Russia. “If a majority of people in Kharkov vote to join up with Burkina Faso, then we will join Burkina Faso,” Ekozyants says. “But let the people decide.”

His success as a mouthpiece for separatism in Kharkov derives in part from his earlier fame. Long before the war in Ukraine broke out last spring, Ekozyants was well known in the city as a composer and singer of maudlin ballads, which he would often perform at local weddings and banquets. (“Eternal love, we live to blindly love,” went one of the refrains in his music video from 2009.) The showmanship has since become a hallmark of his propaganda, which is laced with moody, anti-Semitic diatribes against the “shameless yids” seizing power in Ukraine with help from the West.

In late February, when TIME first contacted him for an interview, he replied by sending back a theatrical nine-minute video – “an address to the American people” – warning of an apocalyptic war that would turn U.S. cities into “giant ruins” if Washington does not withdraw its support for the Ukrainian government. When pressed to comment beyond such bravado, he invited a reporter to visit him in the western Russian city of Ryazan, but backed out at the last minute and only agreed to talk via Skype.

In subsequent interviews, he says most of the financial support for the Kharkov Partisans comes from sympathetic businessmen living in Russia, who transfer funds into his bank account. Asked whether the Partisans receive support from the Russian military or security services, he says some Russian state support does come through the rebel leadership in Donetsk. “We don’t just cooperate,” Ekozyants says of that separatist stronghold. “We are one network. We are the same.”

And Russia clearly tolerates their activities on its territory. The bank account Ekozyants uses to gather donations is at a branch of state-controlled Sberbank, Russia’s biggest lender, in the western Russian city of Rostov. In his spare time, Ekozyants says he still earns extra money singing at banquets in Russia, and he also seems to have access to a television studio in one of the Russian cities where he operates.

In late March, he posted a video of himself in a studio interviewing Igor Girkin, a former agent of the Russian security services who led the separatist militias in their conquest of Ukrainian territory last year. The two of them muse for an hour about the future of the “Russian world,” which they see extending across much of Ukraine. The Russian government, Girkin says, has been too indecisive in pursuing its imperial destiny in these borderlands. “But I always felt that God realizes his will through individuals,” he says. Even when those individuals are prepared to set off bombs in peaceful cities.

TIME Germany

German Privacy Laws Let Pilot ‘Hide’ His Illness From Employers

Germanwings had no way to check even the basic details of Andreas Lubitz's medical history

For most of this week, Germanwings airlines has struggled to answer questions about the mental health of one of its co-pilots, Andreas Lubitz, who stands accused of crashing a plane full of passengers into the French Alps on Tuesday, killing everyone on board. But a stubborn set of legal barriers has hindered their search for information: Germany’s data protection and privacy laws.

Carsten Spohr, the head of Lufthansa airlines, the parent company of Germanwings, was not even able to answer basic questions about the co-pilot’s medical history during a press conference held on Thursday. He could not say, for instance, whether Lubitz had taken a break from his flight training due to illness. “In the event that there was a medical reason for the interruption of the training, medical confidentiality in Germany applies to that, even after death,” Spohr explained. “The prosecution can look into the relevant documents, but we as a company cannot.”

That is because privacy protections in Germany are among the most stringent in the world. Under their provisions, an airline has to rely on the truthfulness of its pilots in learning about their medical histories, and it has no legal means of checking the information the pilots provide.

“There is no general rule that obliges doctors of pilots to report medical conditions relevant to their ability to fly to the authorities,” says Ulrich Wuermeling, a Frankfurt-based lawyer who works on privacy law. On the contrary, a German doctor who reports such information could face criminal charges for violating his patients’ privacy.

The flaws in that system came into focus on Friday, when prosecutors accused the Germanwings co-pilot of hiding his mental illness from his employers. In his home in the city of Dusseldorf, prosecutors claim to have found a sick note excusing Lubitz from work on the day of the catastrophe. But the note had been torn up.

The identity of the doctor who wrote the note is still unclear. But under German law, only Lubitz – and not his doctor – would have had the legal right to disclose the details of his health to his employers at Germanwings.

“In practice, if you are sick and your doctor finds you unfit for work, he gives you an illness-based work exemption,” says Christian Runte, a German lawyer and expert on data protection. “It doesn’t say what the illness is. It just says you are unfit for work. And it is up to the patient whether they want to tell that to the employer or not.”

Based on the German prosecutors’ findings so far, it seems Lubitz decided not to use the work exemption on the day of the disaster and instead took his seat inside the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 9525. French prosecutors investigating the crash of that plane have since accused him of deliberately crashing the aircraft after the flight captain left him alone at the controls.

The incident has raised some troubling questions about lack of communication between Lubitz’s doctors and his employers at Germanwings. On Friday, the university clinic in Dusseldorf, where Lubitz was receiving care for an undisclosed condition, denied media reports that he was being treated for depression. But in describing their “preliminary assessment” of the evidence, the city’s prosecutor said earlier in the day that Lubitz “hid his illness from his employer and colleagues.”

In order to provide Germanwings with any details about Lubitz’s mental health, his doctors would likely have needed his express permission. “Therefore the doctor would not be in a position to inform the company directly even if he knows that this person is a pilot,” says Wuermeling, the lawyer in Frankfurt.

In some rare cases, doctors have been able to invoke the interests of public safety in trying to circumvent German privacy law. The Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt, for instance, even ruled in 1999 that a doctor was legally obligated to breach a patient’s confidentiality, because that patient refused to inform close relatives that he was HIV-positive.

But as a rule, when the German legal system is compared to those in the U.S. and other European states, Germany gives more weight to personal privacy than to public safety, legal experts say. Employers are even restricted in checking the criminal records of the people they are seeking to hire, as under German law, the employer must usually rely on the applicants themselves to provide such information voluntarily.

Part of the reason for this approach to privacy is rooted in Germany history. “In the end it probably goes back to the Nazi regime,” says Wuermeling. “The Nazis basically justified enormous infiltration into personal privacy with national security reasons.”

In communist East Germany, the secret police force known as the Stasi also practiced wholesale surveillance of its citizens. So as early as 1971, democratic West Germany enacted strict privacy protections, well before any such guidelines became the norm in other parts of Europe. The reunification of Germany in 1990 extended those protections to all German citizens.

In the wake of Tuesday’s air disaster, however, Germany may have to reconsider the way it balances privacy against security, at least in allowing airlines the ability to screen their pilots more thoroughly. Even a week ago, data protection authorities in Germany would likely have objected to a request from Germanwings asking doctors to reveal the details of their pilots’ mental health, says Runte. “But if you ask the same question today, I think the answer could be different.”

TIME

German Prosecutors Say Pilot ‘Hid’ Illness Before Crash

"Apparently he had a burnout, a depression," German media report

He left no suicide note behind. But when police raided the home of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot accused of purposely crashing Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on Tuesday, the officers did find evidence that he suffered from a mental illness, which he may have been hiding from his employers before allegedly taking the lives of 149 passengers and crew along with his own life.

Papers found at his home “support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues,” German prosecutors from the city of Düsseldorf said in a statement on Friday. Among the evidence found at Lubitz apartment was a sick note for the day of the crash that had been torn up, the statement said. Seized medical documents suggest “an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment.”

The Wall Street Journal also reported on Friday, citing a source close to the investigation, that Lubitz was being treated for depression by a psychiatrist who had excused him from work on the day of the crash.

German authorities also confirmed on Friday that Lubitz’s medical certificate with the federal aviation agency was marked with the code “SIC,” indicating that he was obligated to undergo regular medical check-ups. A spokesman for the agency could not say whether the illness was physical or psychological in nature, as that information remains confidential, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Police have denied earlier reports that any significant clue had yet been found as to the co-pilot’s reasoning. “The items need to be evaluated to determine whether they can give any indication of a possible motive,” police spokesman Markus Niesczery told the New York Times. Another police spokesman, Marcel Fiebig, told France’s AFP news agency that investigators had found no “smoking gun” at the co-pilot’s home.

Part of the focus of the investigation has turned to a break Lubitz took in his pilot’s training six years ago, possibly for reasons of mental illness or psychological fatigue. During a press conference on Thursday, the head of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said that such a hiatus is not unusual for pilots in training. “He took a several months break for reasons I do not know,” said the chief executive of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr. “Then he had to do the test again,” he added.

After he completed part of his training in Phoenix, Arizona, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave Lubitz a third-class medical certificate, the Associated Press reported. That document requires a pilot to demonstrate that he has no signs of psychosis, bipolar disorder and personality disorder “that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts.”

Early in his pilot’s training, Lubitz underwent psychiatric treatment for a total of 18 months, Germany’s Bild newspaper reported on Friday. Citing internal Lufthansa documents and sources, the paper claimed that the co-pilot was briefly deemed “unable to fly” while training in Phoenix, and that he had recently been suffering from a relationship crisis with his girlfriend.

At the press conference on Thursday, the Lufthansa chief said that Lubitz had passed all of the tests, including physical and psychological examinations, and was deemed fit to fly as a co-pilot for Germanwings in 2013. “He passed not only every medical test but every flight test,” Spohr said. “He was 100% flightworthy, without a single restriction.”

But acquaintances have told reporters since the crash that Lubitz had suffered from bouts of depression during his training. “Apparently he had a burnout, a depression,” the mother of Lubitz’ friend from school told Germany’s FAZ newspaper on Thursday, declining to give her name.

Other friends of the pilot, however, insisted that Lubitz seemed perfectly normal though at times somewhat quiet. “He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” said Peter Ruecker, a friend from the local flying club in Lubitz’s hometown of Montabaur, in western Germany. “He gave off a good feeling.”

TIME Aviation

Germanwings Faces Legal Fallout from Plane Crash

And an expert tells TIME that new revelations could make matters worse for the airline

In the minutes before their plane slammed into a mountainside in the French Alps this week, many of the passengers on Germanwings Flight 9525 witnessed a terrifying scene at the front of the aircraft. The captain of the plane found himself locked out of the cockpit by his co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, as the plane lost altitude at alarming speeds, officials said Thursday. After banging on the door and beseeching Lubitz to open it, the captain tried to break through its armor plating. Until the final moments, the screams of the passengers could be heard on the flight recorder later found at the crash site, French prosecutor Brice Robin said.

Under the aviation laws that apply in this case, these final moments of terror could be part of the airline’s liability, said Peter Urwantschky, a leading German aviation lawyer who has represented the victims of commercial airplane crashes. “What you could have here is pre-death pain and suffering,” he said. “If a court concludes that the passengers knew what would happen, you would have to assess the fear of death in those final minutes.”

The broader question of liability for the crash, he added, seems clear in this case. “If you have a pilot with intent to bring down this plane, then you can forget about the liability limit,” he said. “You can say there is no limitation of liability.”

Such limitations could apply if the causes of a crash are outside the control of the airline and its staff—for instance, if a missile strikes the plane, like it did with Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine last year. But such cases are extremely rare. Typically, the laws enshrined in the Montreal Convention, the international treaty that governs compensation for the victims of an air disaster, places the responsibility for an accident with the airline. That tends to encourage airlines to settle such claims out of court.

But because most of the claims in the case of the Germanwings plane would fall under the jurisdiction of German courts, the compensation available to the families would “not be very generous,” Urwantschky said. Unless a family can prove that it lost its breadwinner in the disaster, a claim for moral damages in Germany could be expected to bring about $20,000 to $40,000, far less than a similar claim in the United States, he said.

Speaking at a news briefing on Thursday in Frankfurt, the chief executives of Germanwings and its parent company, Lufthansa, declined to discuss issues of liability payments at this stage in the investigation.

Read next: Germanwings Plane Crash: We Could Be Doing Much More To Prevent Pilot Suicide

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