Moscow, Russia – Fyodor, a middle-aged Russian man, pulls out his phone from his pocket and scrolls through photos of himself and several others in camouflage fatigues.
They are holding up assault rifles and machineguns next to the white, blue and red of a Russian flag decorated with the emblem of their unit, a sword-and-shield with an Orthodox cross.
“Our group was called the Russian Orthodox Army, even though I’m an atheist and we had both Christians and Muslims,” he told this reporter in a Moscow cafe, before swiping to the next photo.
“This guy on the left, he was a local guy. He was a Muslim, and he was my friend. He died. ”
Fyodor, or Fedya for short, does not want to be known by his real name.
In 2014, after watching the Ukraine conflict from afar, he says he was wary of propaganda and decided to travel to the Donbas to see for himself. He ended up joining the Russia-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, taking up arms with local rebels.
They were fighting a war with the central government in Kyiv, which they saw as having taken power in an ultranationalist coup during the Euromaidan revolution.
“Once, eight of us were out on patrol through a field when we came under mortar fire,” he recalled. “I do not know how we survived. There was debris flying all around me, I hurt my shoulder, and I still had to carry another guy who injured his legs. I’m not a believer at all but it was a real miracle all of us got out of there alive. ”
Fyodor saw how the war brought out the worst in people, and the grim realities of the rebels’ own brand of justice. He claims he once came across a 12-year-old girl who had been raped.
“The man that did this, let’s just say he’s not around any more,” he said ominously. “I would have him brought to trial, personally, but I understand the people that put him up against the wall.”
When he took the girl to hospital, he saw how locals in Donetsk perceived the conflict.
The staff took him aside and asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would wish them a Happy New Year in his annual, televised address to the nation.
Unlike Crimea, separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) were never absorbed into the Russian Federation. Neither were they recognized by any member states of the United Nations, including Russia.
“You can see that they really wanted to be part of Russia, but that never happened, even though most of them have Russian passports now,” he said, referring to Russia’s policy that has seen many in the rebel-controlled areas handed citizenship in recent years.
“I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but if you tell someone from Donetsk they are Ukrainian, they’ll take that as an insult. I kind of feel bad for them, like we let them down. ”
Fyodor believes there is a distinct possibility of the current standoff escalating, but says he would not return to the front.
“Sooner or later, I think, this conflict will turn hot. The guys at the front lines are under strict orders not to shoot, but you understand it only takes one shot from the other side and some hot-headed lads will return fire.
“If a war does break out, I hope at least we will get to Kharkov,” he said, using the Russian name for Ukraine’s second-largest city.
To the Ukrainians, the northeastern metropolis is Kharkiv, a former industrial center in the Soviet era.
“Ninety-nine of the population there supports us anyway,” claimed Fyodor, who is happy to watch the tensions from afar these days, as he works in advertising.
“I wouldn’t go back to war now, even though some of the lads are talking about it and they’re trying to draw me back in. I’d only return to deliver humanitarian supplies. My shoulder still hurts sometimes from that mortar blast. ”
Yuri Tikhonov is another veteran, originally from Pskov in western Russia.
Like Fyodor, he was in his 30s when he traveled to the Donbas in November 2014 after watching events unfold on news channels.
Having spent his compulsory military service doing tech support, his only experience with firearms had been, to that point, “firing three shots out of a rifle”. He was understandably anxious.
“I’d taken part in re-enactments, but it’s one thing running around with two swords and another charging the battle lines with an assault rifle,” Tikhonov, now in Saint Petersburg and working in construction, told Al Jazeera by phone.
“I didn’t have any romantic notions of war: my parents were veterans and knew what it was really like. But I had my mind set and I knew if I didn’t go, I’d never respect myself.
“I’m ashamed I didn’t head there sooner because the closer to the start of the conflict, the more important each step. Another 15-20 men could decide the outcome of one battle. ”
When he arrived, Tikhonov was sent near the town of Debaltseve, where he handled communications and radio intel.
He was grateful not to be assigned to any assault divisions since he is “as large as an elephant” and cannot shoot.
His duties included listening in to the Ukrainian army, which transmitted their artillery coordinates openly over the air.
“We listened in to the chatter from the Ukrainian army, who at the time were very poor at hiding their signals. We knew exactly where they were firing. It was very satisfying hearing: ‘Fire! No, stop, stop! They can hear us! They’re driving away! ‘”He said.
Even though he was not on the front line, Tikhonov still had a couple of close calls.
“Luckily, no one ever fired on me directly, but looking back, I can see how I was so young and naïve and I wasn’t really scared of anything,” he said. “I was installing an antenna on a roof when suddenly we came under mortar fire. I figured I didn’t have time to run and take cover. So I just stood there and clung on – I was more scared of dropping the antenna. ”
In January and February 2015, Tikhonov took part in the battle of Debaltseve.
“I’d go outside for a smoke while artillery rounds are whizzing over my head, like a passing train but much faster, while mortar rounds whistled as they flew past,” he said.
“But we managed to defend Debaltsevo until February, when we handed it over to the LPR.”
After that, Tikhonov and his team did not take part in any more battles and by April, it was time to go home.
“War is very interesting. If you have good people around you, it’s remarkable. I’d go down to the cellar to eat dinner with the other volunteers, sat down and listened to their stories of how they ended up there, and you’re proud to stand side-by-side with them, “he said.
“I was assigned to the communist volunteers’ detachment, and even though I’m far from a communist, we were all united.
“They love their people and are willing to sacrifice their lives for them, so no matter what their politics are, you’re always on the level with them.”
However, he was ashamed of all the looting he saw, particularly from his own side.
“The LPR practically robbed entire cities,” he said. “They told [people] they were about to come under fire so everyone hid in the basement, while their apartments were ransacked. ”
Yuri does not think there will be another war, since taking over territory – not to mention ruling it – is an expensive undertaking for which the Russian government does not have the capacity.
“Sure, it would be nice if all the Russian-speaking peoples lived together as one, but the government does not need Ukraine as another part of Russia,” he said.
“I’ve heard they’re being really careful now and not letting just any new volunteers to the front line. For these sort of escalations, you need completely controllable people that won’t try to storm Mariupol by themselves, because if you hit them too hard and the Ukrainians retreat, then we’ll have to capture more territory. No one wants this.
“The Russian army simply does not have the resources for such an expansive operation,” he added. “We might reach Kharkov, and that’s it.”