Meet the Pro-Russian Separatists of Eastern Ukraine

Mozhaev and his comrades took control of Slavyansk about a week ago. But over the past few days there has been no evident sign that they are receiving material support from Russia. Their foot soldiers have been so short on fuel that they have asked journalists to bring them gasoline in exchange for granting interviews, saying they don’t have enough fuel to go on patrols.

Their leader, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a soap manufacturer who took the title of “people’s mayor” after seizing power, has pleaded for assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has apparently been ignored. “We need guns, you understand? We’re running out of everything but spirit,” he tells TIME. His militia force, he admits, is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union. But Kiev’s cries of a separatist insurgency fueled with money, weapons and troops from the Russian government look out of sync with the reality in Slavyansk. . . .

In reality, Mozhaev, 36, fits the description of many of the separatist fighters in the area around Slavyansk, a zone of about 100 km in diameter that all branches of the Ukrainian state, from the police to the tax authorities, have effectively abandoned to the separatists. According to his passport, which he showed to TIME, Mozhaev hails from the town of Belorechensk in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, the traditional stomping ground of the Cossacks, the warrior clan into which he was born.

Though he would have liked to have served in the Russian special forces, he says his service was in the regular Russian army, and it ended in the mid-1990s, when he attained the rank of staff sergeant. His reasons for coming to Ukraine in March had a bit to do with Russian nationalism, but more to do with adventurism, and even more to do with his apparently being a fugitive from Russian law. Earlier this year, Mozhaev said, just as a revolution was forcing Ukraine’s old regime from power, he was charged in Krasnodar with a violent crime — which he described as “threatening to kill someone with a knife.” When he failed to come up with the bribe money for the corrupt officials who he says fabricated the charges, Mozhaev was put on a national wanted list in Russia and went on the run, according to his account, which could not be verified.

By coincidence, he says, he was forced to flee arrest on March 7, in the middle of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. He chose Crimea as his destination. As TIME reported last month, thousands of state-sponsored Russian Cossacks were then streaming into Crimea to aid the Russian troops with that invasion. For most of March, Mozhaev says, he was there along with some of the men from his Cossack battalion, the Wolves’ Hundred, helping in the siege of a Ukrainian military base near the city of Bakhchysarai and guarding a local TV tower. In late March, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, “we were sitting around down there and wondering what to do next,” he says. “So we decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands.”