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.
In September I went to a Right Sector office in Obolon, a Kiev suburb. Earlier that week, the office had been grenaded by assailants whom Right Sector has called Russian agents. I arrived to find a queue of recruits lined up outside the office, already restored to working order. Joining Right Sector isn’t difficult. You need a cell phone and three to four weeks’ training at its camp outside Kiev, where you are taught the rudiments of street fighting; Right Sector–chartered buses run there daily. A month later I visited Right Sector’s blockade of Crimea in Kalanchak. Right Sector had set up check points along the three roads which lead into Crimea, through which over two thousand cars were passing each day. Trucks were denied entry. Each car was allowed to pass with fifty kilograms of food, one liter of alcohol and two cell phones. Thirty Right Sector units guarded each border unit. They worked in two-week shifts; Right Sector units from a different oblast would then come to replace them. The Right Sectorites were legally not permitted to wield guns—only the police and the local Kherson Battalion had permission—but they all did anyway. At any one moment, groups of Right Sector members were doing push-ups and sit-ups in a small wood yard abutting the camp. Other groups were sleeping. Others were shoveling coal into a new winter barracks.
In late November, saboteurs—possibly Right Sector members—blew up four power lines into Crimea, which has left the peninsula with spotty access to electricity ever since. Ukrainian riot police were immediately dispatched to the Crimean border, where they leveled the camp I saw at Kalanchak and pummeled a few of the Right Sector members I met there. But such confrontations between Right Sector and the state have been, on the whole, rare. Traveling through Ukraine, you could be forgiven for believing that Right Sector is not actually a paramilitary group despised by the state. Its members march in party fatigues around central Kiev and drive trucks with battalion license plates. Each Sunday there is a demonstration in Maidan where Right Sector heroes charge parents a few hryvnias to have their child learn how to grip an AK-47 that’s alleged to have been stripped from a dead separatist. The amount of weaponry the group has smuggled into different Ukrainian cities is an open secret. Western analysts believe a group like this could only operate so openly if the Ukrainian secret services allowed it to—that is to say, they must have some degree of control over Right Sector. But this claim rests on the shaky assumption that Ukraine is in complete control of its own secret services.
IN OCTOBER I travelled to the barracks of Right Sector’s Eighth Battalion. It occupies an abandoned Soviet spa resort in Yurivka, a dirt-lane, pro-Russian village thirty kilometers southwest of Mariupol. Its ninety members shared six trucks and seventeen Kalashnikovs. Like all of Right Sector’s weaponry, the group had acquired none of it legally. Some guns had been stripped from dead separatists; others had been exchanged with a local Dnipro Battalion unit in return for barrels of gasoline stolen by night from a gas station. Ammunition generally came by way of midlevel commanders in the Ukrainian Army who sympathized with Right Sector’s determination to continue the fight unabated against Donetsk.
A few weeks before my arrival, when a Danish news agency came to profile the barracks, almost everyone in the Eighth Battalion had to put on a ski mask for fear of being identified on TV. A member called Schmitt had been expelled from the Ukrainian Army for laying land mines that blew up more Ukrainians than separatists. A Chechen had three fingers missing from his right hand. He claimed they’d been lost to a misfired grenade; everyone else was convinced he’d received suicide bomber training in Dagestan. The former lobby of the resort had been renovated into a “chapel.” A pulpit was flanked by one cardboard box full of unpackaged cigarettes, another full of miniature Bibles. Ukrainian flags and standards bearing the Right Sector symbol—the trident of Ukraine formed out of two machine guns and a sword—were slung on the walls. The former hotel sauna had become the battalion jail: any Right Sector member caught drinking was locked inside for five days. The former hotel gardens had been converted into a training facility. There were tires and chains and faux door-fronts. In squads of twelve, Right Sector members learned how to seize street intersections and storm buildings. Three nights a week they were woken up without warning and taken for fourteen-kilometer reconnaissance marches. On the weekends they trained with live ammunition.
No one was telling the Eighth Battalion what to do. The greatest misconception about Right Sector—beyond often being characterized as neo-Nazi—is that it is a single group at all. Not only is there little ideological conformity within Right Sector; there is almost no communication.
MANY VOLUNTEERS I encountered in Ukraine—both those from Right Sector and those from the other battalions—had their version of the bounty story. They were tales about how they had caught the attention of rebel intelligence. A volunteer I met in Maidan named Grek, who has a Greek flag stitched on his right shoulder, told me that Donetsk commanders spotted his Greek flag during the retreat from the battle of Debaltseve and immediately assigned a $3,000 bounty to his head. In Mariupol, I met Mikhail the Second, a Georgian volunteer for the Azov Battalion. (It’s still custom in parts of the Caucasus to share a nom de guerre with your blood rival. Mikhail the First almost killed Mikhail the Second two decades ago in a duel in the Svaneti. Mikhail the Second did not want me to put Mikhail the First’s name into print on the off chance that Mikhail the First reads this online and travels to Mariupol to murder him, so I’ve changed the name here.) Mikhail the Second has sustained more than a dozen injuries in six different wars against Russia. He said the bounty on his head is $15,000. The most storied volunteer in Ukraine is probably Amina Okueva, the Chechen sniper in the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion who has allegedly killed over one hundred separatists and is wanted for $1,000,000. “Ukraine is a continuation of Chechnya’s war,” she told me in Dnepropetrovsk. “Our war will be brought to each new place Putin chooses to terrorize.”
Elizabeta Shaposhnikova—“Tiger”—was born with no forearms. Her elbows immediately give way to fists which cannot entirely extend their fingers. I met her in Kiev with her husband, a ruddy-faced man in his forties called Cat. Tiger, who originally comes from Donetsk but moved to Ternopil when she was a teenager, fought at Sloviansk for three months last summer. Cat reloaded for her. Tiger said the bounty on her head is $10,000. Being a peculiar sight at the Maidan protests, she was handpicked by Poroshenko himself last April and flown to Paris, where she was propped up for the cameras next to President Hollande. Even a woman with no forearms was struggling for Ukraine to join Europe! Tiger no longer cares about whether or not Ukraine joins the EU. She lives in a smoked-out tent on the grounds of the Ukrainian parliament, where she is determined to stay until Poroshenko—whom she now takes to be a traitor—is removed from power.
Tiger and Cat are members of Aidar Battalion. It was among the first battalions to form, banding together as a Maidan Self Defense unit at the end of 2013. According to the battalion bard Jan April, a shaggy-haired welder from Chernivtsi the Aidarites call Nasha Ptitsya, “Our Bird”:
“When the sun stopped shining in the sky,
And black smoke had clouded their shields,
Still there stood the Aidar Guard!
Who freely let forth our blood,
To defend our freedoms.”
Aidar is also the least reputable of the battalions—not because it’s ineffective on the front, but because Aidarites tend to be misfits. A disproportionate number are ex-convicts. Approximately half are ethnic Russians who came to Maidan to fight what they considered Putin’s hijacking of their state. “I wouldn’t shake his hand if I met him,” “Yeltsin” from Yekaterinburg told me in Kiev; the actual Yeltsin’s profile spanned the stock of his machine gun. “I’d just thank him for uniting all his enemies in one place.” Members greet one another with Allah Aidar!, a riff on Allah Akbar!
“Padre,” whom I met in the Kiev train station, has a shrub of grey hair on his chin and a cleanly trimmed bowl cut. He grew up in Kaliningrad and worked fishing trawlers for most of his life. He’s deft with his hands; when he yanked out an Aidarite’s broken tooth during the drive into Donetsk, he was christened the Aidar Battalion dentist. “Warnings have always come to me through my teeth,” he told me. His eyes glowered as he bashed the butt of his cane into the pavement. “As soon as I stepped off the train in Kiev, my back molars began to ache. Two weeks later, Yanukovych fled!” A crucifix dangles from Padre’s neck on a chain made of expired grenade pins. His pistol holster is filled with six-inch nails, which he says he can carry around Kiev legally. “They’re the weapons of Christ.” Padre gingerly removed his left boot for me and pointed to his knee, where a shrapnel wound from Shakhtarsk had left a scar which he says God had rendered a swastika. “Heil Sieg!” In 2004, when Padre went to renew his citizenship for the first time under Putin’s presidency, he stopped at the sight of strange symbols on the new Russian passport issue. He pulled several black-and-white photocopies out for me and gestured violently at the bisection of three dotted lines. “Freemasonry.” Putin was former KGB, which if you pronounce as one word in Yiddish, sounds a bit like “murder.” Padre unsuccessfully attempted to sue the Russian state for Satanic sympathies. He claims to have been excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate. He left Russia and went to Ukraine, where he’s now fighting the Putin regime for the Russian soul as a fervent neofascist.
IN ACCORDANCE with the Minsk II Agreement, Poroshenko has been pulling Ukraine’s volunteers back from the frontline, busing them back to their cities and disbanding their ranks. A few battalions were even tasked with ceding hard-won swathes of Donetsk back to separatists before their presence on the frontlines was declared illegal entirely. “Imagine being told you can’t pass a frontline checkpoint by recruits out of Kiev who can’t grip their guns correctly,” Mikhail the Second told me. “Right Sector didn’t sign any Minsk Agreement,” Ben, a Right Sectorite from Austria, told me. There are Right Sector units that still regularly fire at the Donetsk Airport terminal. No major skirmishes have broken out, but there are daily exchanges of rockets on the front that far exceed the specifications of Minsk II.
The feeling of betrayal now runs high among all volunteers. Men who for a fleeting moment had a hand in the future of their state have been abruptly relegated to ignominy: Poroshenko got what he needed and now he was disposing of them. Many foreigners, particularly those from the former USSR, volunteered in the hopes of being granted Ukrainian citizenship. Virtually none has received it—owing partially to the concern that many of the foreign volunteers are criminals, but also to a disastrously incompetent Ukrainian state apparatus that can’t currently fund itself. Grek idles around Maidan instead of returning to Thessaloniki because he claims that Poroshenko still owes him fifteen thousand hryvnias, or about six hundred dollars. When Poroshenko declares on state television that “Without the volunteers, we still would have won the war, but it would have been more difficult,” he continues to traffic in false hope that citizenship and payment may be forthcoming.
As Ukraine neglects its irregulars, the state’s vulnerabilities are being laid bare by those among them who claim to know things that civilians don’t. Since the summer of 2014, Ukrainian forces have suffered three extraordinary defeats—each an uncanny repetition of the last. It’s the volunteers who claim to have disproportionately been the pushechnoye myaso, the “gun meat,” of these disasters. Ilovaisk: In late August 2014, Ukrainian forces entered the town, a supply link between Donetsk and Luhansk. Reports that it had been secured were false. Within four days the soldiers were surrounded. Reinforcements were never dispatched. A green corridor was arranged in which the soldiers were given safe withdrawal. Russian mortars pounded them. Ukrainian artillery never provided cover. Poroshenko said four hundred died, the volunteers I met put it closer to seventeen hundred. Donetsk Airport: In August 2014, a few hundred Ukrainians seized the airport, only to be quickly surrounded by enemy troops and left to endure a two-hundred-day siege after being informed that reinforcements would not be sent to rescue them. Debaltseve: In February 2015, Ukrainian forces captured the town, only to be ensnared again and gunned down during an allegedly safe retreat. Poroshenko said two hundred were killed, volunteers twelve hundred.
Volunteers are hard to miss today. They’re the grizzly figures ambling about public spaces in fatigues all around Ukraine. Few of them are younger than forty. Many are back in Maidan, where some of them first felt compelled to fight nearly two years ago when they witnessed Yanukovych’s police battering teenagers with batons and shooting civilians from the upper stories of the Ukraine Hotel. They’re unshaven, unwashed, frequently drunk. Most refuse to reintegrate into civilian life. Many make a point of only answering to their noms de guerre. They embrace one another with martial greetings: Slava Ukraïna! says one, raising a clenched right fist. Heroyam Slava! responds the other. “Glory to Ukraine! / Glory to the Heroes!” They drift to the newly arrived correspondents and freelancers, promising stories, or exact accounts of casualty numbers, in exchange for small amounts of hryvnia.
In Kiev the fragile mythology of the 2014 revolution has unraveled. Decades of mass corruption are no closer to being addressed by a Poroshenko regime that now appears more like an exchanging of one elite for another, rather than the product of popular upheaval. Among the roving bands in the Maidan, the narrative of this latest national betrayal still hovers below thousands of individual grievances that have yet to coalesce into something greater. But the ire that has built up in the last two years—first directed against Yanukovych, then Putin—now tilts toward the latest imposter, Poroshenko. Tinder collects in the capital. Among the volunteers are shadow formations that have mobilized before. Enough heavy weaponry now sits in private hands in Kiev to ensure that the next Maidan protest—whenever it comes—will be equipped with more than stones and Molotov cocktails.
Alexander Clapp is a journalist who lives in Kiev. His work has appeared in the Balkanist and the Times Literary Supplement.
Image: Alexander Clapp