Volunteers of the Ukrainian "Donbass" battalion take part in exercises in their camp on the border between Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk regions, eastern Ukraine on April 26, 2014Volunteers of the Ukrainian "Donbass" battalion take part in exercises in their camp on the border between Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk regions, eastern Ukraine on April 26, 2014 (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)
Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Vitaliy Feshchenko, one of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers fighting pro-Russian rebels, has this message for government leaders back in the capital Kiev: his battle-hardened men might come for them next.
The bearded fighter's warning illustrates the lack of trust Ukraine's young revolutionaries have in President Petro Poroshenko and other politicians promising to drag their country from a corrupt, post-Soviet past into a European future.
And this is why.
A peaceful, pro-democracy protest in 2004 on Kiev's Maidan Square toppled Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, but led only to bitter disappointment and Yanukovych's return. So this February, huge crowds once more braved the cold and riot police on Maidan to topple the government and demand reform -- and now their greatest fear is being let down yet again.
"There won't be a third Maidan if that happens," Feshchenko, 38, said in the frenetic headquarters of the Dnipro-1 volunteer militia in Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine, where he is deputy commander. "There'll be a military takeover."
It might be hard to imagine how Ukraine, nearly bankrupt and being steadily dismembered by Russian troops and heavily armed pro-Russian separatists, could get more chaotic. Angry veterans heading to Kiev would accomplish that.
"We're going to give them half a year to show the country has somehow changed, that even if it's hard, there's light ahead," Yuriy Bereza, Dnipro-1's popular commander, told AFP.
Asked what would happen should that deadline pass, another paramilitary member at headquarters, a tall man in civilian clothing with a pistol strapped to his side, didn't hesitate.
"A coup," he said.
- VOLUNTEERS TO THE RESCUE -
When Russian troops swarmed into Ukraine's southern region Crimea in March, Ukrainians dizzy with the success of the latest street revolution in Kiev were caught flat-footed. Their country of 45 million people, it turned out, barely had an army -- no more than 6,000 combat ready troops, according to the then defence minister.
That's when thousands of civilians, in large part activists from the Maidan, began joining hastily thrown together battalions funded by everything from oligarchs to grassroots charities.
Crimea, where entire bases of regular Ukrainian troops surrendered without a shot, was already lost, but a new crisis erupted in the industrial east, where separatists closely linked to Russia were taking over strings of towns.
Deploying alongside Ukraine's regular army, the sometimes barely trained, but enthusiastic volunteers helped stem the tide, forcing separatists into today's stalemate.
Military analyst Sergiy Zgurets said the regular army had weapons, but low morale, while the volunteers "had high fighting spirit, but, temporarily, a lack of equipment."
"The volunteer battalions did their task," Bereza, the Dnipro-1 commander, said. "They halted the aggressors. They stopped a second Crimea."
- GUNS AND MONEY -
Dnipro-1's headquarters are on the ground floor of the Dnipropetrovsk administration building. Upstairs sits the regional governor, Igor Kolomoisky.
The arrangement is no accident: Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine's most controversial billionaires, funds the paramilitary, which returns the favour in these troubled times by boosting the banking and industrial tycoon's personal security and political clout.
All the signs are of a flourishing military enterprise.
Young men with Kalashnikovs and pistols and several well dressed women working on laptops fill the anteroom to Bereza's office.
Inside, maps, aerial photos and a picture depicting Adolf Hitler as a father figure to a child-sized Russian President Vladimir Putin line the walls. Ammunition boxes lie in the corner. On Bereza's desk: three mobile phones, a laptop, the Ukrainian flag, and an icon of the Virgin Mary.
The commander repeatedly breaks off an interview with AFP to take calls, sign papers, or approve the purchase of a fleet of new pick-up trucks that will serve as machine-gun platforms.
When a young woman comes in to complain about difficulties in booking a theatre for a Dnipro-1 benefit concert, Bereza dials the theatre manager and yells for a full minute, before gently asking: "So, is there a problem? No. I didn't think so."
The woman leaves happy.
The interior ministry, which oversees the paramilitaries, was quoted saying in September that there are now 34 such groupings and Zgurets estimates that the country's total of combat ready troops now tops 50,000 men.
Although the army retains control over heavy weaponry, the motivated -- and increasingly well equipped and skilled -- volunteer groups remain crucial.
Dnipro-1 members have been in several of the biggest battles in the seven-month conflict, which has killed more than 3,700 people, including at the fierce, continuing standoff around Donetsk airport.
"It's not so easy for Russia now," said Bereza, who like most Ukrainians believes they are up against an undeclared Russian invasion, not just local separatists. "We were demoralised in the summer, but now we have a lot more experience."
Dnipro-1 has 700 men -- "officially," Bereza says with an enigmatic smile.
"Unofficially, it's 7,000."
- DARK SIDE -
Questions over the far right leanings of some volunteer groups and allegations of involvement in the murder of civilians cast a long shadow.
One of the most controversial is the Azov Battalion, which uses the Wolfsangel insignia -- an ancient design that was resurrected in Hitler's Germany. The Azov has been linked to Oleg Lyashko, a politician accused of neo-Nazi sympathies.
Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist party, also has its own battalion of several hundred men on the frontlines, even if the government refuses to register or pay them.
Dasha Slutskovska, a 29-year-old volunteer from the battalion in Dnipropetrovsk, conceded that Right Sector has an image problem -- they are relentlessly portrayed in Russia's state-controlled media as fascists. But she insisted her comrades only want the Maidan goals of ending corruption and steering Ukraine into Europe.
"Nationalists does not mean Nazis. We're just normal people," she said, adding with a laugh: "Well, maybe a bit more radical."
- BETRAYAL AND PAYBACK -
Amid Ukraine's increasingly feverish patriotism, Putin is seen as bordering on the diabolical.
"It's sadomasochism," Svyatoslav Oliynyk, deputy to the Dnipropetrovsk governor Kolomoisky, said of Kremlin policy.
"Putin is mad, a schizophrenic," Bereza said. "If we don't stop them here, Russian tanks will go all the way to Berlin."
But among the volunteer battalions there is almost equal hatred for the corrupt bureaucrats running their country and the military top brass responsible for bloody fiascos like the massacre of troops retreating from Ilovaisk in August.
Which is why if the government doesn't act quickly on those promises to rebuild Ukraine, today's battle might move to the capital, where the revolution began.
"The people who were in the war won't accept any sliding back," Oliynyk says.
Slutskovska's eyes shone with anger in Right Sector's dingy Dnipropetrosk office, when asked how she would react to failure of reforms.
"We'll just go straight there with weapons," she said. "There'll be a coup."