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.