By Max Hunder
YASNOHORODKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Standing amid the charred remains of a roadside hotel on a major highway near Kyiv, Isa Akayev explained what drove him to build his Muslim volunteer unit and fight for Ukraine.
“I just want to return home, to Crimea,” said Akayev, 57, a gently-spoken father of 13 who sports a long greying beard and shaven head.
When Russia annexed his home region from Ukraine in 2014, Akayev moved to Kyiv and formed the Crimea battalion, a small unit dominated by Crimean Tatars, the Muslim Turkic group indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, his unit’s 50 men took part in battles around the Kyiv region but are now seeking to be deployed to the southern front to fight in the Kherson region bordering Crimea.
Their eventual goal of recapturing Crimea looks harder than ever after much of the Kherson region fell under Russian control early in the war, pushing Ukrainian forces back more than 100 km (60 miles) from the peninsula.
But it is enough to rally the Tatars – and their Muslim Russian allies in the unit – behind the cause of Ukraine, which needs all the manpower it can muster as the war grinds towards its 100th day and Moscow’s forces make slow but steady progress.
Many Tatars opposed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which had followed the overthrow of a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president amid mass street protests.
Their suspicion of Moscow has deep roots. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Crimea’s Tatars – Akayev’s grandparents among them – in 1944, accusing them of collaboration with Nazi Germany.
They were only allowed to return with their descendants in the 1980s – as Akayev did from Uzbekistan in 1989 – and many welcomed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as a liberation.
Fearing a new wave of repression under Moscow’s rule, Akayev moved to Kyiv in 2014, where he was initially rebuffed by Ukraine’s security forces.
“It was very difficult, many people didn’t trust Muslims, and especially Crimean Tatars. Everyone thought we would be the separatists, not someone else,” he said.
But when Russian-backed separatists took up arms against Ukraine in its eastern Donbas region in 2014, all that changed.
His group was allowed to register as a volunteer unit under Ukraine’s interior ministry and fought in the ensuing conflict, with three of its men being wounded. Last month they signed contracts to become a fully-fledged unit of Ukraine’s army.
Dozens of other volunteer battalions sprang up in 2014 and began helping Ukraine’s unprepared regular army to fight in the Donbas. They included two Chechen units, a Georgian one, and several with a right-wing nationalist ethos. Some have since disarmed while others have joined the regular army.
Russia has been scathing about such units. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on the eve of the war that providing shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles to former volunteer battalions was evidence of a “militaristic psychosis”.
A Ukrainian presidential envoy said in March that such volunteer battalions now numbered more than 100. Ukraine’s government celebrates them as heroes, celebrating their exploits on an annual volunteers’ day.
Just over half of Akayev’s battalion are Crimean Tatars, who make up about 15% of Crimea’s population.
“The core (of the unit) is Crimean because they want to liberate their peninsula, but they don’t have a rule that it should only be Crimeans,” said Serhiy, a Ukrainian who converted to Islam in 2004 and is the unit’s imam.
The Crimean cause provides a focus for the unit, which includes a number of Russian citizens. Its few non-Muslim members are required to follow certain rules, including a ban on alcohol.
“The Crimean Tatars… suffered more under Russian occupation, and so they feel closer to us,” says Muaz, an ethnic Kabardian from Russia’s North Caucasus who joined the battalion a year ago.
A United Nations report in 2017 accused Russia of committing “grave” human rights violations in Crimea, including subjecting the Tatars to intimidation, house searches and detentions.
Moscow, which in 2016 banned the Mejlis, a body representing Crimean Tatars, rejected the report’s findings. It says a March 2014 referendum legitimised its “incorporation” of Crimea.
The Crimea battalion performed reconnaissance against Russian forces around Yasnohorodka, a village 25km west of Kyiv, and later in nearby Motyzhyn, Akayev said.
“The residents here were initially very scared when they saw us because they didn’t know who we were. We had to shout ‘we are Ukrainian’… then people started slowly coming out of their homes and they gave us tea.”
Nearby, the burnt-out hotel bears a special significance for Akayev.
“We wanted to buy this place, to build a Crimean Tatar school and a mosque here… It didn’t come to anything, and then this happened,” Akayev said, gesturing at the building’s charred remains which he said was the result of Russian shelling.
“I (still) dream about this project, but really I just want to return home to Crimea.”
(Editing by Conor Humphries and Gareth Jones)