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