THE UKRAINIAN army was so pitiful when fighting broke out in the Donbas in April 2014 that President Petro Poroshenko had to outsource the nation’s defense to volunteers. By July, approximately fifteen thousand citizens and foreigners had joined “volunteer battalions.” There are two main types. Territorial units were raised throughout Ukraine’s twenty-four oblasts, including Donetsk and Luhansk. There’s a Lviv Battalion and a Kremenchug Company. The Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion is made up of several hundred Chechens who arrived in August to avenge Putin’s waging of the Second Chechen War. The second type is ostensibly ideological. Sankta Maria is Orthodox Christian. Sich Battalion is ultranationalist. The distinction between the territorial and ideological units quickly became trivial. Members of the Azov Battalion, based in the eastern city of Mariupol, are reputed to be Aryan racists. But most members I met were foreigners who joined because Azov—allegedly funded by Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk steel tycoon—pays five hundred dollars per month. If there is a shared sense of mission among the volunteers, it may be best described as anti-Putinism. Almost every volunteer I have met this winter at the Donetsk front bears a personal grudge against him.
The battle-line in eastern Ukraine would look very different today had volunteers not answered Poroshenko’s call. Last summer, at least seven oblasts east of the Dnipro River—the strategic port of Mariupol, the industrial strongholds of Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk, the “second capital,” Kharkiv—nearly fell to separatists, or “se- pederasts,” as volunteers call them. The volunteer battalions were disproportionately responsible for preventing these incursions. Initially they served in defensive roles. Their potential as mobile units was soon realized by the Ukrainian high command in Kiev. Most of their members had fought in previous wars—sometimes with the Russians, sometimes against them. Volunteers were intrepid enough to traverse deep into separatist-held territory. In July the Donbas Battalion forayed seventy kilometers into the Luhansk oblast and seized the town of Popasna. The Fifth Battalion of Right Sector helped take back the villages of Karlivka and Pisky. Dnipro-1 Battalion recaptured the port of Novoazovsk from one thousand Russian regulars.
In return for submitting to the control of the regular Ukrainian army, Kiev granted around fifty volunteer battalions the right to equip themselves with offensive weaponry. Only Right Sector and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists refused. Battalions acquired heavy guns by way of a handful of oligarchs, who lavish their karmannaya armiya , “pocket armies,” with the best equipment hryvnias can buy. Many have antiaircraft missiles. Azov Battalion has access to a tank factory. The Dnipro-1 Battalion operates heavily armored vehicles and drones and fires Swedish-manufactured sniper rifles. I have met former drill instructors from Israel and Western Europe assisting in battalion training camps. “Soviet mentality says that when one man is killed, send in another,” an Azov Battalion member told me in Mariupol. “The Ukrainian army still thinks that way. Volunteers are trained in NATO ways—to survive.” For the last eighteen months, the volunteer battalions have served at the Donetsk-Luhansk front on a rotating basis, cycling back to their oblasts for garrison duty when not engaged in the east. Civilians who volunteer to become soldiers often spend most of their time as policemen.
RIGHT SECTOR occupies a unique place among the battalions. Its origins were neither wholly territorial nor ideological, but a blend of the two. A series of nationalist organizations and armed groups—Trident, the Ukrainian National Assembly, the Patriots of Ukraine—coalesced during the Maidan protests, with Dmitry Yarosh of Trident emerging as the leader. The group is rumored to have been funded by the Kremlin in its earliest days, but its most prominent financier today is a Jewish industrialist from Dnepropetrovsk named Igor Kolomoisky; many Ukrainians call Right Sector his personal army, though Kolomoisky himself denies any connection to the organization. Twenty-one Right Sector battalions are garrisoned throughout Ukrainian cities, with three stationed on the Donetsk front. It is also a political party, controlling one seat in the Ukrainian parliament. This party has not done a very good job explaining what Right Sector battalions are fighting for. Very few Right Sectorites I met were classically fascist, as is commonly supposed. They often spoke scornfully of Nazism and were open to nonwhites and foreigners joining the organization. Right Sector is strenuously antigay; its members like to storm pride parades with stones and batons, but so do many ordinary Ukrainians. Right Sector is ultranationalist, though most of its foreign volunteers don’t speak Ukrainian; at the front, all orders are relayed in Russian. The group’s much-flaunted obsession with Stepan Bandera—the hero of the Ukrainian Resistance who committed atrocities against Jews and Poles—is not so much a celebration of Bandera the Nazi collaborator as Bandera the Ukrainian hero suppressed by the Russian historical conscience. The nationalism of Right Sector is a bit more ecumenical than one might expect. When I asked a group of Right Sectorites in Kiev to give me a model of what they were aiming for, they cited Poland unironically: Polish nationalism, they said, was back in good health after having endured half a century of disrespect. The Right Sector narrative curiously mimics that of the separatists in eastern Ukraine: Both agree that the Donbas has never been Ukrainian in any meaningful cultural or historical way. Of course for Right Sector, the Donbas must upgrade its “Ukrainianness” if “nationalism” is to be respected, and the group has pledged to ensure this at any cost. “When we liberate villages, residents now know to bring us a list of who the separatists are,” Yarosh told a reporter last year.