ANALYSIS – The volunteer Azov Battalion, a paramilitary group whose emblem recalls Nazi imagery, has stirred heated debate since the Ukrainian government relied on it to recapture the strategic city of Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists last June. How deep are the battalion’s ties to the extreme right? What role do foreign fighters play in its ranks? And how important is ideology to the commanders and troops?
Almost a year after its so-called Maidan revolution, Ukraine remains locked in a “hybrid war” against Russian-backed separatists in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Officially, the conflict is called an anti-terror operation (ATO) in what is simply called the ATO area. While the new Ukrainian government’s forces seemed near victory in mid-summer, the tide changed in August when pro-Russian forces opened a new front on the Sea of Azov coast, seizing Novoazovsk and threatening Mariupol. Peace talks stalled, and in recent weeks the conflict there has heated up.
From the start, Ukrainian forces have been a mix of police, conscripts, volunteers from the regular armed forces and volunteers organized into paramilitary “territorial defence battalions”. The volunteer battalions started as militias backed by private donors ranging from ordinary citizens to the very wealthy. Some recruits came from eastern areas controlled or threatened by the separatists; others were veterans of the Maidan revolution, including some with backgrounds from the protesters’ self-defence groups. Some right-wing political groups formed battalions as well.
These battalions, which currently appear to include about 7,000 fighters and support personnel, were first organized in April and May 2014, following Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Most such battalions have been incorporated into official command structures such as the National Guard, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Interior, although some appear to remain largely independent, including the high profile forces of the Right Sector nationalist party.
One reason for the government’s willingness to accept support from these battalions was the miserable state of the Ukrainian army in February 2014, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. With the exception of small contingents that served abroad in UN and NATO operations, the national army had experienced no combat in the 24 years since independence from the Soviet Union. Corruption was rife and morale was low, with soldiers often put to work building luxury homes or earning money for officers. The army, moreover, was concentrated in western Ukraine. When the east erupted in conflict, the government in Kiev felt it had to accept any help that was offered.
While the volunteer battalions have been important to the government, they have also become a public relations liability amid allegations of prisoner and citizen abuse and close ties to the far right. Much of this criticism has focused on the Azov Battalion, which operates in the southernmost part of the Donetsk region, around the industrial port city of Mariupol.
A hard look
This special report by Hate Speech International – combining objective background information with exclusive in-depth interviews of far-right political and military figures – examines the nature of the Azov Battalion and other volunteer units fighting on the Ukrainian side.
Between April and June 2014, the Mariupol area was a disputed zone, with neither the Kiev government nor the separatist forces able to gain control. That changed in mid-June when government forces finally seized control of the city with the assistance – some say the leadership – of the Azov Battalion. Mariupol has since become the region’s de facto administrative capital. Russian and separatist forces attempted to retake it in a major offensive in late August and early September, but they were stopped on the eastern outskirts.
During the battle for Mariupol in mid-June, disturbing videos were posted on the website of a controversial politician, the nationalist Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko. Though he has no law enforcement authority, the videos showed Lyashko interrogating and possibly even beating prisoners. In one video, two blindfolded and tied captives were shown being interrogated inside a car. One of the captives was Igor Khakmizyanov, former minister of defence in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, shown almost naked with bleeding wounds.
Many Ukrainians see the Azov Battalion as heroes who liberated Mariupol from the separatists. Others, however, have pointed to close links between the battalion and the Social-National Assembly (SNA) and its paramilitary wing Patriot of Ukraine, both of which are seen as ultra-nationalist groups with neo-Nazi leanings. Social-National Assembly leader Andriy Biletsky is in fact the commander of the Azov Battalion. Both groups use the “Wolfsangel” as their symbol. This ancient German emblem was used by several divisions of the Nazi SS and is still often associated with neo-Nazism. The Wolfsangel was also the original emblem of Ukraine’s far-right nationalist party Svoboda (“Freedom”) before it adopted its current symbol showing a hand with three fingers raised.
The Social-National Assembly is one of several minor organizations making up the Ukrainian far right, which emerged in the early 1990s but has roots that extend back to before World War II. Other groups in the same political landscape range from neo-Nazis and fascists to more moderate nationalists, and include the biggest single group, Svoboda, and Right Sector. The latter was founded as an umbrella organization in late 2013 and became a political party ahead of the May 2014 presidential elections. At first, it included everything from the national-conservative Tryzub (Trident) of Stepan Bandera to the neo-Nazi White Hammer and C14, named after the 14-word slogan (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children”) of American Nazi David Lane. White Hammer was eventually expelled for lack of discipline, while C14 left when Right Sector became a party. To make things even more complicated, the respected researcher Anton Shekhovtsov says that, until recently, C14 was the paramilitary wing of Svoboda and that C14 leader Yevhen Karas was an aide to one of the party’s members of parliament. So it appears that these groups comprise an amorphous field where both personal memberships and organizational affiliations can change.
Patriot of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly are rooted in the Kharkiv chapter of the former paramilitary wing of the political party Social-National Party of Ukraine, which later became Svoboda. The original Patriot of Ukraine was dissolved in 2004, when the party changed its name and decided to adopt a right-wing populist image inspired by such western European parties as France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party. The current organization with the same name formally became a separate entity in 2007, although cooperation among individuals has continued. One source says some members joined Right Sector in the spring of 2014.
Many members of the Social-National Assembly, Patriot of Ukraine, C14 and other nationalist groups appear to have been recruited from among football supporters, including but not limited to fans of the clubs Dynamo Kiev, Metalist Kharkiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Ukrainian football supporters often display nationalistic leanings and tend to back Ukraine in the conflict with Russian-supported separatists.
In the years before the current conflict, Social-National Assembly, Patriot of Ukraine and C14 were all accused of hate crimes, included distribution of racist materials and attacks on market vendors of Vietnamese, Uzbek, Roma and other non-Ukrainian ethnic origins. The acts were apparently done in collaboration with football hooligans. During the 2000s, there were also clashes with pro-Russian groups in Kiev, and during the Maidan protests C14 was known to fly racist banners and attack other activists.
The extent of the Azov Battalion’s political engagement is debatable. Diana, a former activist in the organization “Donetsk for Ukraine”, who coordinated pro-Ukrainian demonstrations before the establishment of separatist republics, seems to reflect the view of many Ukrainians when she describes battalion members as nationalists and patriots, and the battalion itself as the most effective in the war. Diana met members of the battalion and claims: “None of them ever mentioned Nazi slogans or thoughts, they just want to defend our land.” Most Ukrainian news organizations also share this view, and have portrayed volunteers such as the Swedish sniper Mikael Skillt and the Russian former FSB officer Ilya Bogdanov as heroes.
In recent months, Amnesty International has drawn attention (PDF) to human rights abuses by another territorial defence battalion, Aidar, which operates under the Ministry of Defence in northern Luhansk region. Aidar appears to be affiliated with the group White Hammer, a founding part of Right Sector that was expelled in March, allegedly for “lack of discipline”. The abuses, which Amnesty likens to war crimes, reportedly include the abduction of suspected separatists, beating of prisoners, extortion and theft. However, Azov, Aidar and Right Sector are just three of about 40 such units.
Reports on the many foreigners present in the Azov Battalion have gained widespread attention, especially outside the Ukraine. Many such foreign fighters have backgrounds from far-right organizations in their homelands. While most of them – perhaps surprisingly – are Russian, they also include French, Swedes, Canadians, Slovaks, Croats and Italians. Some foreigners have also joined the Aidar Battalion, and while their numbers are unknown, estimates range from 100 to several hundred.
Not surprisingly, the presence of nationalists and ultra-rightists in conflict areas has been seized upon by those, including many in the Russian media, who are averse to the new authorities in Kiev. These critics have questioned the validity of Maidan itself, citing the presence of Right Sector and Svoboda as grounds for branding the revolution a fascist uprising and coup.
Wolfsangels at the gate
The Azov Battalion is currently headquartered about an hour from the port of Mariupol, in one of the many estates once used by ex-President Yanukovych. Mariupol’s situation is once again precarious. Since August, despite a supposed armistice, the city’s eastern suburbs and coast guard vessels have come under frequent artillery shelling by forces that most observers assume are pro-Russian. What is particularly worrying to many is that the capture of Mariupol and areas even further west would be necessary to provide a land corridor between Russia and the Russian-held Crimean peninsula, which most of the international community recognizes as part of Ukraine. At times, storms cut off the sea lanes between Crimea and Russia.
The gate of the battalion’s compound is decorated with a mural portraying, among other things, a Wolfsangel and two Cossacks standing on either side of a large “Black Sun”, or twelve-armed swastika-like cross. The guard explains to this writer that both are millennia-old Ukrainian symbols that can also be found in India, which he says proves a connection between ancient Ukrainian and Indian cultures.
A battalion member named Stepan Holovko introduces himself as press spokesman for the battalion. As it happens, the 23-year-old is also a spokesman for the Social-National Assembly. Holovko is a former history student and a football supporter. He also turns out to be a Donetsk native. That may surprise those who see the nationalist movement as a western Ukrainian phenomenon. However, most members of this battalion are in fact Russian speakers, and commands are issued in Russian. According to a pro-separatist website, Holovko is a former Donetsk coordinator of Patriot of Ukraine who supported Svoboda in the 2012 presidential election. In October’s parliamentary election, he was a candidate in the party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In 2012, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper interviewed him about threats against black football players during the European Football Championship matches in Donetsk. While no one accused Holovko or his organization being party to the threats, his name was mentioned in connection with a video in which balaclava-clad members of Patriot of Ukraine received training in hand-to-hand and knife combat at a secret camp.
We sit down inside the dining hall, where lunch is being prepared. The hall is decorated with children’s drawings of flowers, hearts, Ukrainian flags, tanks and Wolfsangels. As we talk, a small kitten named Azov keeps climbing into our laps.
“Most of them sympathize”
Holovko readily admits the tight connections that exist between the battalion and Social-National Assembly, or SNA, while denying claims that volunteers have to become members.
“All members of the SNA are now in the battalion, but not everybody here are members of SNA although most of them sympathize with our ideas,” he says.
The battalion, he explains, grew out of the Social-National Assembly.
“Before all of this started,” he says, “we guessed that something might happen and started to prepare ourselves just in case. We began theoretical preparations for what would become the battalion back in the early 2000s. Even then, we understood that Ukraine did not have a strong government and that it was in a difficult geopolitical situation. We understood that Putin was not interested in letting Ukraine remain independent and that he had his own plans and that, for Europe, Ukraine is an object, not a subject of politics. We were surprised by the events of this spring, but not shocked.”
None of the first battalion members had previous military experience, but they managed to get hold of some weapons and training.
“Even before the official legalization of the battalion, we had set up medical commissions,” said Holovko. “Eventually, the Ministry of Internal Affairs applied to us for help and allowed us to legalize our activity and participate in the operations. In the beginning, we were working with police officers, so we were only equipped with very simple stuff. We didn’t even have guns. But on May 5th, we went to Mariupol on a mission and were attacked by armed groups. We avoided getting into a fight but after that the authorities realized that we had to be properly equipped. So we talked to them and got weapons for defence. The first official weapons came from former police station of Mariupol, before separatists occupied it.”
The battalion currently has more than 400 members. Several of them say it could easily have had more, but that the unit subjects volunteers to strict tests of physical condition, motivation and conduct. At the moment, it is in the process of transforming into a regiment – a larger body with better access to equipment. Its missions include participating in intelligence gathering around Mariupol, helping the army on patrols and sometimes manning checkpoints.
Best of the best?
The manifesto of the Social-National Assembly, written by Biletsky, speaks of a need to create a new kind of society, functioning as a single organism. According to Holovko, the ideas stem from what he calls the classical Ukrainian nationalism of 1939. He does not cite inspiration from such well-known Ukrainian nationalist figures as Stepan Bandera or Dmytro Dontsov.
“Bandera’s ideas were eventually transformed into socialism, so we respect him not as an ideologue but as a person,” he says.
Instead, he refers to Ukranian nationalist Mykola Stsiborskyi (1897-1941), one of many Ukrainian leaders who rejected democracy in favour of the idea of the nation as an organic unit in the interwar era. A founding member of the underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), he chose to side with Bandera’s rival Andryi Melnyk when the organization experienced a schism in 1940 – a choice that might have led to his assassination by followers of Bandera in 1941. As a theoretician, Stsiborskyi was an advocate of corporatism and of what he called “nationcracy”, which he elaborated in his 1935 book Nationcracy.
“To understand, you should read his book,” says Holovko. “Stsiborskyi analyses all types of societies, their positive and negative sides. Then, in the second part of the book, he describes nationcracy as the best solution. His idea is that in the middle of everything is the individual and that the place of the individual is in society. We have to understand that we live in a society and that we depend on it. And this means that those who lead this society must be the best of the best – not because they have money or because of their origin, but because they are the best and fit to be leaders.”
The manifesto also calls for the replacement of liberalism and democracy with a “natural hierarchy”. Holovko explains this hierarchy with an analogy: “You get an education and start working at some plant. Eventually you become head of a department of the plant, then director of the entire plant. Then you rise from there and become a government minister. You shouldn’t be able to become a minister directly just because you have the right relatives, or a director just because you have a rich father. To us, democracy is irresponsible behaviour. For example, a majority in parliament can vote in any laws they want to, but none of them have to take any kind of responsibility for these laws. There is also the problem that in a democracy, people who are in the special forces, or mothers of seven children, or professors, have the same rights as drug users, prostitutes or other unsocialized people. People who are productive and contribute to society must have more rights than those who do not.”
As an example what some people deserve and others don’t, he cites “the right to vote and to take part in politics.”
The nation as manifestation of race
In the same Social-National Assembly manifesto, Biletsky states his conviction that the nation as a cultural and linguistic community is simply a manifestation of the race. According to the manifesto, the mission of the Ukrainian race is “to lead the White peoples of the world in the last crusade for their existence”.
Surprisingly, Holovko explains this “crusade” as a reference to the “civilizational” fight against Russia. “‘White people’ means Europeans,” he says. “We are referring to a literal crusade, about getting people together to fight. It is about returning leadership to Europe.”
As for the role of race, he claims that the Ukrainian nation is part of European civilization and European genetics. The same, he appears to imply, would be true of Russians.
“This is not a war between Russians and Ukrainians, but between systems of values,” he says. “The fact that there is a lot of protest against the war in Russia and a lot of Russian volunteers here – and that many of us here speak Russian – proves the case. If someone attacks your country, his genetics do not matter.”
Elsewhere, the battalion has claimed to be fighting against “the residues of modern society represented by ‘khachi’ (a racist slur for natives of the Caucasus region), chavs, communists, liberals, Asians and other Untermenschen (subhumans)”. While Holovko does not deny the quote, he insists it is taken out of context and that it apparently refers to the fight against Russia: “You must see that there are a lot of people from Caucasus fighting on the other side, both in the regular army and in volunteer groups,” he says. “As for Asians, it is not about race, but because we see this confrontation as a confrontation between Europe and Asia as civilizations.”
I ask if that means the battalion would welcome volunteers from, let’s say, Africa.
“A person from Africa would not come here, not to fight on our side, because this is not his war,” Holovko replies. “The only motivation he could have would be to hate Russia. He would not have motivation. He could be on another side.”
It would be a disaster for everyone, including Russia itself, if it managed to seize Ukraine, he claims.
“If that happens, Russia will have to fight partisans. What is going on now will be like a kindergarten. It will destroy the whole system in Russia. And it will even be good for Ukraine in the long run, because if Russia wins this war we will want revenge and the will to win back what we lost will make us stronger. Being in a corner will make us fight harder. It can take years, but at the end we will win it back.”
Asked what Europe can learn from Ukraine, Holovko appears agitated.
“I want to explain this,” he says. “I am not sure you understand. Europe currently has problems on a civilizational level. Multiculturalism and the multicultural society are destroying all of the traditions that made Europe strong. Ukraine can bring back to Europe the traditions that made Europe strong in the past, like a strong culture, a strong value system – family values, you know.”
Lyashko and the Radical Party
Holovko laughs at the mention of Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko’s name and denies any formal links to him or his party, despite the fact that several members stood on the party list for the Kiev local elections and later parliamentary elections.
“He is good with PR. He knows how to use it,” says Holovko. “Yes, it is true that he helped a lot with the legalization of the battalion. We let him help us and in return we allowed him to take some pictures with us. But we never had any strong or formal connection to him and when he attempted to make us into his tool, we severed ties. We are not in cooperation with him.”
Holovko himself ran as a candidate of Yatsenyuk’s party. The same was true for Biletsky, the battalion commander. Other Social-National Assembly members, including former Azov Battalion deputy commander Igor Mosiychuk, ran on Lyashko’s list. Mosiychuk is a veteran of the Ukrainian extreme right, having served from the early 1990s as a member of the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO). Other parliamentarians said to be connected to battalions include Aidar commanders Serhiy Melnychuk and Ihor Lapin, who both were elected on Lyashko’s ticket.
According to Holovko, SNA members are free to join and run as candidates for any political party.
“This is all about their personal decisions and personal contacts. Some of us have chosen to go into parliament to work for Ukraine and for the battalion, through the Radical Party, as independent candidates in majority districts, or through Poroshenko’s party and other parties. It does not mean there is some formal relationship between us and these parties,” says Holovko.
About an hour’s drive to the northeast from the Social-National Assembly base, members of another small right-wing movement, C14, man one of the many road checkpoints dotting the Mediterranean-like coastal landscape. The checkpoint on the highway leading to the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk is the last one on the Ukrainian-controlled side and only 14 kilometres from the separatists.
C14, who is currently operating under the banner of Kiev II Battalion although some members have also joined Azov, was established in October 2010 and is led by Yevhen Karas, 27, who until sometime in 2014 was a deputy assistant for the nationalist party Svoboda. The C14 name refers to the 14 words of American neo-Nazi David Lane and also forms the word Sich – a Cossack fortress– when read in Cyrillic script. Despite having studied at the philosophical faculty at the university of Kiev, Karas – nicknamed Vortex – has for some years had a name among football hooligans and has been accused by at least one source (PDF) of involving supporters of the clubs Dynamo Kiev and Karpaty Lviv in the fight against police during the 2014 revolution.
According to Karas, C14 was formed as a reaction to what he calls discrimination against Ukrainian-speakers in Ukraine.
“Ukrainian speakers risked being discriminated against if they applied for a job,” he says, explaining that speaking Ukrainian “meant you were from a village”. Wearing a Ukrainian embroidered shirt on the subway was enough to provoke a beating, while Russians in Ukraine were free to organize marches in Kiev under Russian flags.
“The police were totally corrupt and if they knew that you were from some Ukrainian nationalist organization they would beat you,” alleges Karas. “They were educated in the Soviet system, many were former KGB. In 2011, the head of one local police department in Kiev even had a picture of KGB founder Felix Dzersinsky in his office, so it was a very heavy environment for Ukrainian identity in Ukraine.”
He readily admits being involved in clashes with rival Russian nationalists.
“So we organized actions to save Ukrainian language and culture and fight Russians,” he says. In addition to joining fights in soccer stadiums, defending nationalist marches and demonstrations and attacking the annual Russian March, these actions also included disrupting book presentations with a pro-Soviet message and punishing restaurants who refused to hire Ukrainian-speakers by reporting them to the health authorities.
“Most restaurants here have some faults, but usually people close their eyes to them. So we would send complaints about bugs in the kitchen, or say the employees were not correctly registered. Soon the owners would be on their knees asking if we wanted money. No, we said, we want you to stop refusing to hire people who speak Ukrainian.”
Karas explains that the group eventually decided to broaden its actions to reach more people.
Fourth branch of civil society?
“Most nationalists were only concerned with questions of nation and history while other people were concerned with no food, no jobs, and corruption. We had to change our range of activism.
“From 2010, almost all our actions were not about nationalism or Russia, but about preventing corruption and assault on our forests, which was a problem because if you had money you could buy a judge who made some arrangements and build a building in a forest or destroy a park or playground. Sometimes ecologists would try to save a forest or some trees and the bosses would hire titushkis (bullies) to beat them or chase them away. We would come and defend them. Yesterday some TV reporters came here and recognized us. ‘You were the ones who were defending a forest in Kiev’, they said. Or the police would try to attack demonstrators outside parliament, who were not used to street fighting. We were some kind of fourth branch of civil society.”
According to Karas, C14 is about defending Ukrainian identity, not race.
“We never had actions against anyone based on race,” he insists. “If we did anything it was only if some members of an ethnic group killed or wounded Ukrainian workers and then went to the corrupt police and gave them money to avoid prosecution, so we did some public actions.”
He adds: “All ethnic groups have their mafias here, except maybe Georgians and Japanese.” He says that includes Russians, Tatars, Jews, Arabs, even Chinese.
“It was also about protecting ourselves from Ukrainians who do not see themselves as Ukrainians, who said they did not care about nationality and identified themselves as people from the Soviet Union,” says Karas. These people are a threat to the nation and our children.”
He sees the current fight as a continuation of the street fights against pro-Russians activists in the 2000s.
“We have seen people with the separatists who we recognize from Kiev streets earlier, back when Ukrainians were discriminated against in their own country. We used to fight them in the streets, now we are fighting them here with guns and rifles,” says Karas.
Russians against Putin
The Azov Battalion currently has about 30-35 foreign fighters, including French, Swedes, Slovaks, Croats and Italians. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest foreign group by far are Russians. There seem to be about 20 Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side in various battalions, in addition to some 300 men from Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus who went to Ukraine to fight the common enemy.
Among the Russian fighters, Ilya Bogdanov has drawn great media attention. Bogdanov is a former officer in the Russian intelligence service FSB who is currently among the Right Sector forces defending Donetsk Airport, which is still under Kiev’s control. Bogdanov has told Ukrainian media that his motive for joining the Ukrainian forces was a desire to overthrow the “totalitarian” Putin regime.
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, claims there is another version of Bogdanov’s past, which includes links to the neo-Nazi organization Wotanjugend.
“About half the Russian citizens fighting on the Ukrainian side now are from Wotanjugend,” Verkhovsky says.
According to Verkhovsky, most of the Russian neo-Nazis and nationalists who have gone to Ukraine have joined the Azov Battalion. Most came specifically to join the war, while a few had already emigrated to Ukraine before the start of the conflict. Most of these are affiliated with the neo-Nazi movement Restrukt, whose leader – Maxim Martsinkevich, alias Tesak or “Hatchet” – is currently in prison awaiting trial. Others are connected to Wotanjugend, or to both groups.
While many Russians from the extreme right dislike the Putin government, most consider the war to be in the interest of the Russian people and have chosen to support the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Lugansk People’s Republic and the notion of a reclaimed Novorossiya, or New Russia.
“Putin will disappear in the long run, but Crimea will remain Russian,” Verkhovsky says.
Verkhovsky believes the reason so many Russian neo-Nazis heading to Ukraine choose to join the Azov Battalion, rather than Right Sector or other organizations, is its affiliation with the Social-National Assembly.
“Right Sector is not a Nazi organization,” he says. “They are more like traditional nationalists and therefore anti-Russian. Neo-Nazis are more internationalist and can unite behind all ‘white’ nations. Those who join the Ukrainian side view Putin’s regime as anti-Russian and as part of the global, American or Zionist conspiracy. They see the war as a part of an eternal struggle between the white race and evil forces, and as a war between brothers, two parts of the same Slavic nation, where they take the side they see as closest to them. You must also see that, to these people, the Azov Battalion, which is headed by neo-Nazi activists and is unique in a European context, is something of a dream come true to them.”
Fighting for Europe
The Azov Battalion also includes several volunteers from western Europe, including the high-profile Gaston Besson, a 47-year old Frenchman who lives in Pula, Croatia, and fought on the Croatian side during the Yugoslav wars. In June, Besson posted an “advert” on his Facebook site inviting everyone to “join our revolution” and describing the Azov Battalion and the Social-National Assembly as “Socialist, Nationalist and Radical” with “strong ideas about the future of Ukraine and Europe”.
Apparently, none of the volunteers appear get paid – indeed, it is specified in Besson’s “advert” that this is a war “for idealists”: “You will find nothing but trouble, war, adventure, and perhaps death or serious injury, but you will definitely have great memories and make life-long friends.”
Speaking separately, Holovko said the foreign volunteers are not entitled to any payment from the Ukrainian state and must make do with shares of the fees for Ukrainian fighters that are collected and divided equally among the members of the battalion.
David Eriksson is a 48-year old Swede from Stockholm who has lived in Estonia for three years. Eriksson spent several months with the Azov Battalion, starting in late August, and took part in fighting around the village of Shirokino in early September. He states explicitly that he holds no Nazi or far-right sympathies.
“I am a classic liberal,” says Eriksson. “To me, this is about eastern Europe. I live in Estonia myself – if the Russians are successful in Ukraine, they will eventually try to grab a bite of Estonia and the other Baltic states, if not all of them. After all, Putin has himself declared the loss of the Baltic States as a tragedy. I read about a Swede who had been there, Mikael Skillt, and about the battalion. I knew that he was far to the right of me politically, but decided to lay politics aside.”
Eriksson also read about Besson and his efforts to recruit Westerners for the Azov Battalion, and decided to contact him.
“I explained that I was no Nazi and that while I did have some military experience from the Jägertrupp (military troop) in Kiruna in northern Sweden, it was 28 years ago. Gaston checked with Skillt and the other Swedes, who agreed to let me in. Usually you have to go through all sorts of tests and interviews to get into the battalion, but I was let in immediately. Already on my second day in Mariupol, I was out on a mission,” he says.
According to Eriksson, politics is seldom a topic of conversation in the Azov Battalion.
“Yes, it is an extreme-right battalion,” he says. “On the other hand, my guess is that with the exception of the Russians, who are extremists, only around 10 per cent of the fighters are actually from the far right. I know several great guys there who are definitely not right-wing extremists. Most of the Ukrainian members are politically to the right – conservatives or nationalists, which is not frowned upon in eastern Europe in the same way as in the west – but not right-wing extremists.”
After all, he says, the Russians installed the allegedly corrupt Yanukovych as president and invaded the country, so it is little wonder the Ukrainians now want revenge. Eriksson says he has witnessed little or no political proselytizing from the leadership and other far-right members of the battalion.
“I guess that while most Ukrainian members are aware of Biletsky’s positions, they view it as simply his opinions,” he says. “They are mostly concerned with fighting the Russians.”
Eriksson is now back in Estonia, where he has a daughter and runs his own company.
“Mentally I am not through with Ukraine. I miss the excitement, the sense of purpose and the comradeship,” he says. “As long as you take care of yourself, the others in your unit and your equipment, you don’t have to worry about anything else. I am a civilian, but the excitement on the day we were shot at by the Russians at Shirokino – even though we lost, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I still get a high just from thinking about it. However, my daughter has told me that if I go back again I have no daughter anymore.”
A Swede in charge
Like Eriksson, Skillt is Swedish. The 37-year-old is from the northern city of Sundsvall. Unlike Eriksson, however, he has a background from the far-right Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas Parti), which is often considered a neo-Nazi organization. He says he is no longer an active member. Skillt has been in the Azov Battalion since the start of the conflict and is currently in the process of establishing his own military company.
“It has no name yet, but they want me to make a flag and everything,” he says. “It is still very small, which is good because I have been given the permission to create it from scratch. I have the soldiers but I haven’t chosen them yet. At the moment I have gathered about 40 men, which is only one-third of a company. Hopefully I will have all the structures and men I need within the next two to three weeks.”
The café where we meet is just across the street from Maidan in Kiev, with a view to Institutskaya Street, where several protesters were killed by Yanukovych’s forces in February. Skillt says he is responsible for receiving and training foreign volunteers, who arrive every week. Most of these go directly into his command. Almost all have previous military experience. Skillt himself is a former member of a Swedish elite recon unit. Like Holovko, Skillt says the number of fighters is less important than their quality.
“There is no point in taking in lots of Europeans with no experience, who would just be killed, when Ukraine is full of brave people,” he says. “It would also be bad propaganda, because if too many fighters were foreign, the Russians would have used it to claim that this is not a Ukrainian war at all.”
Skillt arrived in Ukraine in February, just after the overthrow of Yanukovych.
“We were a couple of friends, all of us nationalists, who decided we had to do something,” he recalls. “A loose group of friends formed what we called Swedish Volunteers for Ukraine. I sent one guy down to establish contact with Ukrainians. I myself arrived two days later with some Swedish guys who brought what was needed and we could provide. We were met with a member of Svoboda which we had established contact with through the guy I sent, who again put us in contact with a small group called Sich (another name for C14), who had a ‘hundred’ called “Bratoslav the Brave”. We met up, talked to them and agreed that we would work together.”
Czechs, Canadians, Russians, Italians, French
Skillt was not the only representative of the Scandinavian far right who visited Ukraine at the time. Other visitors included Danish Daniel Carlsen from the ultranationalist Danes’ Party and Fredrik Hagberg and at least three other members of the group Nordic Youth who arrived in early February while the uprising was still going on. Hagberg met with and addressed members of Svoboda and C14, and left stickers displaying the logo of the party near Maidan, but did not stay to fight. On 22 February, representatives of the Swedish right-wing website Motgift (“Antidote”) also arrived to do reporting from Maidan. At least one, Robin Holmgren, stayed and eventually joined the Azov Battalion, where he is still believed to be active. Two representatives of Fria Tider (Free Times), another far-rightist website, arrived on 23 February.
According to Karas, C14 was part of Right Sector at that time and, like the rest of the network, was aided through the winter by volunteers from the Czech Republic, Canada, Russia and Italy. The Italian volunteers belonged to the neo-fascist social movement CasaPound, which cooperated with Right Sector and continued to help C14 by sending medicines. According to Italian sources, official support from CasaPound eventually ended when the organization decided to stop taking sides in the conflict following a dispute over whether to support Russia or Ukraine. According to Karas, C14 also received some help from Polish football supporters. According to Eriksson, the Estonians went home after the start of the war due to concerns that their presence might be seen as a provocation by Russia and an excuse to increase pressure on the Baltic republics.
Kristian Bjørkelo on Casa Pound: A new fascism?
Skillt and the others from the Party of the Swedes had been in contact with Svoboda for some time before the revolution. Representatives of the party had visited Svoboda in Ukraine, and Svoboda’s international spokesman Taras Osaulenko visited Sweden and the party for the 2013 conference Vision Europa. Their main contact in Ukraine became C14, however, where Skillt soon was made an associated member. In an interview with Fria Tider, he expressed distrust for Right Sector because he viewed its conduct as unprofessional, especially concerning firearms. He also expressed an interest in creating an international centre on C14’s premises, where nationalists from several countries could meet and exchange experiences and strategies.
“We did some patrolling with C14,” he says. “We assisted in the arrest of some former Berkut members and helped an organization called ‘Never Again’ gather information about corruption and send it over to the state prosecutor. For instance, we went to the local Kiev office for selling metro tickets, where the people from ‘Never Again’ discovered documents from Yanukovych’s office proving that they had been stealing money. We occupied the building and made sure nobody could leave with documents, and called the police. They did the arresting, (as) we did not have the authority to do so.”
When the conflict in the east began, Skillt found C14 lacking in some areas, but he still thinks of them as “nice guys”:
“They lacked a military structure and a way to get weapons. You need that, and a ‘go’ from the government; otherwise you will eventually get in trouble. I had a friend who was the Kiev recruiter for the Azov Battalion, so we set up a meeting where both of us asked a couple of questions to make sure we were compatible.”
Adventurers or thugs
According to Skillt, Swedes are currently the biggest group of foreigners besides Russians. At the moment there are about 10 Swedes fighting in Ukraine – eight in the Azov Battalion and one or two in Aidar. The longest-serving Swedish member of the Aidar battalion seems to be Henrik Fridén, who like Skillt is a member of the Party of the Swedes.
According to Skillt, the battalions include other members of his party as well as “normal Swedes with some nationalist ideas that have never been part of any organization”.
Mikael Ekman, of the anti-fascist magazine Expo, partially agrees with Skillt’s description, saying:
“In many ways, the Swedish volunteers in the Azov Battalion resemble the Swedes who joined the Waffen SS during World War II. There are various categories: Some are like Mikael Skillt, who is a Nazi but also an adventurer, which is in many ways the perfect combination for this kind of operation. Then there are those who are solely adventurers, or who have a kind of longing for death on the battlefield. Finally there are those who have left the country because things have not worked out at home. For example, there is one person on my list who has no nationalist connections, but has been sentenced several times for breaking restraining orders from his former girlfriends, and another who is simply a long-time heavy criminal.”
As far as Ekman’s knows, none of the Swedes has a Ukrainian background, but according to Eriksson several Swedes in the battalion seem to have at least one Finnish parent, which he believes may explain some of their hostility towards Russian aggression.
Like Holovko, Skillt denies that there is any active recruiting drive in Sweden or elsewhere abroad aside from social media. He says the attraction occurs through a chain of inspiration:
“It is natural that if there are one or two Swedes here, they will know some more Swedes or have some connections on Facebook or elsewhere, and thus attract more people. I use Twitter actively myself, and now and then there will be some Swedes who take contact and say they have read my tweets, that they have military experience and view us as a serious organization. We then exchange emails and explain the rules of the battalion – which is technically a regiment now. Then it’s ‘Welcome to Kiev’. When they arrive we have a little chat, and if they are found useable we go to one of the bases around Mariupol. French volunteers are recruited the same way. Some of our guys will have army friends, and attract others through them.”
According to Karas, C14 is also in contact with foreigners, who are referred to the Azov Battalion for bureaucratic reasons.
Ekman, however, says recruitment is a bit more active than Skillt describes:
“The main reason why many Swedes have gone to Ukraine is because of Svoboda, which was in touch with Swedish nationalists before the conflict even started and made it natural for Swedish nationalists to initially support Ukraine. They established a Facebook page called Svenska Ukrainafrivillige (Swedish Volunteers for Ukraine), which is administered by, among others, Skillt and another volunteer called Robin Holmgren, who has connections to the Party of the Swedes and Motgift. There is also the circle around Motgift, which has had several interviews with volunteers who describe the situation.”
A quick look at the Facebook page of Svenska Ukrainafrivillige shows a mix of newspaper articles about Skillt and other volunteers, requests for donations of warm clothes for the fighters and contact information. It also points out that recruiting people for foreign armies is illegal in Sweden.
Skillt’s mobile telephone rings with news about a new recruit. “They arrive tonight,” he tells the person on the other end, a French instructor. “Give them a soldier to help them buy tickets.”
“Two Italians will arrive tonight,” he explains after hanging up. “The recruiting officer has not seen them before, but they have background from the Italian Special Forces. There are many professional militaries in the West now that harbour a hatred for Putin.”
The third-largest contingent, says Skillt, are the French, who also are represented on the other side of the front.
“They have a large presence on both sides, not only among the separatists. And that’s good; otherwise I would lose all my faith in that nation. Canadians, Swedes, French and Italians are always good additions to the division and to my company. They usually have a good military background, and make excellent instructors for others.”
In the interview with Fria Tider, Skillt claimed no longer to be a National Socialist and described himself as an “ethnic nationalist” critical of migration and multiculturalism.
“I want diversity,” he says to me. “I want to see white people still around in three, four, five hundred years, if the world still exists, the same way that I want to see Chinese and black people. This is the way of nature. Fifty or 60 years ago, someone suddenly decided that we had to migrate like we have never done before, and what has that gotten us? Diseases like Ebola are spreading all over the world, something that has never happened before. We pay the price for breaking the order of nature.”
Skillt also turns out to have anti-Jewish sentiments, despite the presence of Jews at Maidan since November. He sees them as “a bit too imperialistic in their way of thinking”.
“They don’t want Israel to be just a little state in the Middle East,” he says. “They also want to have influence over other countries; both Sweden and the USA have powerful Jewish lobby groups. If you have your own country, you should work within that country instead of forcing other countries to do your bidding. I am not a hundred per cent sure that their loyalty lies with Ukraine. It might just be a way to gain loyalty to use for the interest of Israel in the future.”
A nationalist militant
Unlike Mikael Skillt, who arrived in Kiev after the fall of Yanukovych, and other Swedes who arrived during the last, violent days of the revolution, Francesco Saverio Fontana became involved in Maidan in January.
Fontana, a 52-year-old from Italy who was a member of the fascist National Vanguard in the 1970s, had been to Ukraine several times before in connection with his job, but had little interest in Ukrainian politics and was initially not impressed with the demonstrations he witnessed in November 2013.
“I have always been a nationalist militant,” he says. “When I see a crowd, I go there. What I saw was absolutely disgusting. It was just pro-European, a new Orange Revolution like the one in 2004. Not my thing at all. When I returned in January, however, the atmosphere had changed. It was no longer just about stuff like freeing Yulia Tymoshenko, who is just another oligarch who belongs in prison. Nationalists had joined the demonstrators following Yanukovych’s attempted crackdown and the clashes with the police and the Berkut.”
Fontana, who describes himself as “national revolutionary, anti-imperialist, anti-communist, anti-USA and anti-Soviet”, called the Ukrainian revolution the sort of nationalist uprising against a corrupt regime that he had wished to take part in most of his life.
“The atmosphere of national revolution fascinated me,” he says. “Many different forces were fighting side by side, from Euro-democrats, whom I dislike, not because they are democrats but because they are pro-Europe and support a bureaucratic, banker-driven Europe, which is definitely not my Europe, and to all sorts of other groups. For the first time, we had the people behind us, from intellectuals to workers to the unemployed. It was a fantastic experience. Differences were not important – what was important was to fight the regime. Right Sector was itself comprised of many different groups, from Christians to pagans like myself, and even some skinheads, who thankfully were eventually thrown out.”
Fontana says he soon found himself drawn towards Right Sector.
“People like me easily recognize others like ourselves, despite the language barrier. So I started to spend more time in Kiev and to help Right Sector, although I did not fight in the first line,” he says.
Fontana became the only Italian militant with a membership card in Right Sector, and met leader Dmytro Jarosh and other key people in the movement.
“Jarosh turned out to be the opposite of what the propaganda has described him as,” Fontana says. “He was a small guy with the kindest eyes and smile I have ever seen, and the first thing he said was, ‘How may I help you?’”
“A full soldier”
Fontana eventually decided to leave Right Sector in an amiable manner after street fights in Odessa on 2 May. He wanted to fight, but Right Sector leaders opposed letting a foreigner go to the front where he could be used in Russian propaganda. Like Skillt, Fontana found the Azov Battalion a better-organized alternative to Right Sector, which had been losing members to Azov and to the national guard. He met with Skillt in Kiev in the middle of May and soon after left for Mariupol, where he underwent various physical and ideological tests. Gaston Bresson, who had also been a member of Right Sector, joined him about a month later after learning that the forces of Right Sector were then down to 50 or 60 people with few or no weapons.
In August, Fontana went back to Italy because of family reasons.
“I left a part of my heart there,” he says of Ukraine. “But I am 50 years old, so I can’t make that much of a difference, even though that might just be an excuse towards myself. My purpose when I joined was never to go to war, but to make a revolution. And what I have experienced has given me back a lot from the past. I have learned to renounce, since at first they didn’t want to take me because I was too old and too big. I had to push myself, and I was really proud when they accepted me. It has brought back thoughts and dreams that I used to have. I became a full soldier and I am really happy for that. I even have an Azov tattoo now, so it is part of my heart and of my skin.”
During the interview Fontana, who is from Pisa, refers to himself as a fascist. But he is adamant that he is not a Nazi, despite having respect for all nationalists. He is also reluctant to describe members of the Ukrainian nationalist movement or the Azov Battalion as Nazis, joking that some pro-Russian propaganda even paints Ukrainian Jews as Nazis.
Fontana sees the conflict as a war between two capitalist powers over oil and money and says that when he chose the Ukrainian side it was primarily out of loyalty and love for the land and the people of Ukraine, not what he calls the political elite who remain in control despite the revolution. He says he can understand other Italians who have chosen to fight for the Russian-supported separatists, a remark that diverts him briefly into geopolitics:
“Frankly, I can understand it when Putin doesn’t want NATO and others in his backyard. I was myself a Putinist when I arrived on Maidan, and if I have to choose between Russia and America, I choose Russia. First, Russia is a part of Europe. If you go to St. Petersburg you find Italian architecture, if you go to New York you find fake Italian pizza. It’s different cultures, with different roots. Second, the Americans and British invaded Italy. Just near Milan, they killed 190 people with bombs.”
He adds, however, that Ukrainians have historical experiences that make Russia a more natural enemy to them.
“There is a certain respect and affiliation between European right-wingers and nationalist volunteers on both sides,” he says. “I don’t care about people from Transnistria or the Caucasus. I have no problem shooting at them. But there is a curiosity and respect between us volunteers. I know their backgrounds; I could have been among them myself. But the gods like to play with destinies. We even talk to each other, of course not about military secrets. From a political point of view, I understand the reasons of my enemies, and they call me ‘mon honorable ennemi’ – my honourable enemy.
“There is one Italian there, he is a Tuscan like me, from Lucca. He has a wife and son in Donbass and like me he is against the United States. I have never seen an American in Donbass and if they came here I would feel it had been for the second time. I have found things here that I thought were dead to the world and I don’t like the idea of having this country filled with McDonald’s over the next 10 years, and loose all its traditions.”
End of support?
Most of the European far right has taken a pro-Russian position for most of the conflict, viewing Russia as a bulwark against American and – for the more national-socialist-oriented movements – Jewish influence. Some also seem to be influenced by the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who was known for his fascist views. According to both Karas and Fontana, support originally given by Italy’s CasaPound ended in the summer when the organization decided on neutrality. The same eventually happened with the Party of the Swedes, despite its previous cooperation with Svoboda.
According to Ekman, of Expo magazine, a major cause of the break between the Party of the Swedes and Svoboda was a statement by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
“Bildt visited Ukraine, where he also met with representatives of Svoboda,” Ekman said. “Afterward, he declared that they were not dangerous and that there was no reason to view them as extremists, something I, of course see as a totally bizarre statement, but that is beside the point. But anyway, this gave the Swedish Nazis a big problem, because they suddenly found themselves on the same side as the hated establishment politician Carl Bildt, which played right into the hands of the most radical elements who saw this as proof that the Jews were behind Svoboda, especially because Svoboda was at the same time moving towards supporting EU membership. At the same time, there was the case of Patrik Fridén, a local candidate for the Party of the Swedes in Karlskoga who visited his brother Henrik in the Aidar battalion and posed with uniform and weapon. It created havoc (back in Sweden), and led to a ban on going to fight for party officials.”
A loud minority?
The remaining question is how important the role of the far right actually is in Ukraine today. According to Andreas Umland, senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv
“Frankly, in reality some of these organizations really consist of a few dozen people each, people who were totally unknown only a year ago except by a handful of experts and researchers,” says Umland.
He added that right-wing extremists, including the national-conservative Right Sector, accounted for a few hundred of the more than two million people present on Maidan last winter – or five to six million including all who contributed without being present. Umland said their uniforms and symbols made them stand out on international television and thus helped shape the public image of the Maidan revolution.
Umland estimates that perhaps 500 protesters were involved in Right Sector at its peak. Umland also notes that few if any of the “heavenly hundred” killed in the fighting in Kiev belonged to Right Sector, and that such groups remain a small minority in the current anti-terror operation.
“There are over 30 or maybe 40 battalions,” says Umland. “So the problematic ones, Azov and a few others, are a minority here as well.”
Umland believes that many Western commentators frequently overestimate the role of the extreme right in Ukraine. Many rightists in the fight do appear to view the Ukrainian crisis as a nationalist revolution, he says, but they are engaged in wishful thinking, since the values of Maidan and the new government are fundamentally liberal and Eurocentric.
“A fellow researcher, Anton Shekhovtsov, and myself have written an article about this – the strange alliance where radical nationalists that by implication should be anti-EU, because the EU has values radically opposite to the (Maidan), still joined a revolution that was about European values. Some, like Svoboda, have embraced EU integration to hold or increase their electorate, while others like the Social-National Assembly, the creators of the Azov battalion, are still anti-EU.”
Marginalized by elections
What happened in the winter of 2014 was not a nationalist revolution, Umland continues. Nor has it become an ethno-nationalist project. The presidential and parliamentary elections have made that clear, with the Right Sector and Svoboda both getting less than 5 per cent of the vote. Among 423 deputies in the new parliament, Umland and his colleague have counted 13 right-wing extremists.
In my conversations with Holovko and Karas, I was struck on several occasions by their appropriation of language and terms usually associated with racism or national socialism. Lane’s 14-word slogan and the “fight for the white race”, for example, are applied the struggle for Ukrainian cultural and political autonomy from Russia.
Umland says this observation is consistent with a tradition that goes back to Ukrainian nationalists in the interwar era who similarly fluctuated between liberationist language and what is usually associated with fascism.
“This is an old problem when it comes to understanding the Ukrainian right,” he says. “Both a liberationist democratic nationalism, and an integral or extreme nationalism associated with fascism are all present, and both persons and organizations tend to move back and forth between these positions. Sometimes they are liberators, sometimes they are racists.”
As for Karas and Holovko, the identity they wish to emphasize may be a matter of whom they are addressing, according to Umland. From their writings, he says, he is certain that the leaders of the C14, the Social-National Assembly and Azov Battalion are national socialists and racists, even if they are reluctant to say so to a foreigner.
Umland does not know whether to label the entire battalion as racist or fascist, or only the leaders and some members:
“I am not sure that those who go there to join the battalion are even fully aware what kind of ideology Biletsky and his people are actually pronouncing. At the moment it is not well known among Ukrainians in general what kind of ideology Biletsky and others actually represent, and it will be a big embarrassment when that is finally revealed to the general public. Earlier this year there was much talk of the husband of investigative journalist and political activist Tatiana Chernovol, who was killed fighting for the Azov Battalion. I find it difficult to imagine that someone like that would actually be supporting biological racism. It is possible that they are trying to manipulate or brainwash members politically after they have joined, but still I don’t initially think one can classify the whole battalion as a hotbed of racism.”
“An expression of the chaos”
According to Umland, the Ukrainian government view is that the presence of units like the Azov Battalion must be judged in the context of the precarious situation Ukraine found itself last spring, after the fall of Crimea, when the country lacked a properly trained and equipped army.
“They were offered fully formed units from the self-defence forces on Maidan, and from other organizations who were ready to fight and who were already collecting money for weapons and equipment,” Umland recalls. “Perhaps it would have been better to spread these people in various units, but they were motivated and ready to fight. Incorporating them into the amerd forces was the most rational thing to do.”
But if the revolution and the war have never been a nationalist struggle, why did the radical nationalists choose to join and why they are still fighting in the east? Umland explains that the alliance forged on Maidan represents one side of the metaphorical barricade separating those who wanted to overthrow Yanukovych and those who did not. “It is an existensial struggle. Even for the liberal majority, questions on who were fascists or racists became less important.”
“Now they are fighting because they are anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian independence,” Umland says. “From a nationalist point of view, it is not illogical that Ukraine should be independent from Russian domination. On the other hand, EU integration is contrary to what they stand for, because such integration will imply Ukraine will become a non-nationalistic state. Otherwise it will never be accepted by the EU. But for both sides, this will come later. At the moment there is still this sort of a barricade, where you can be only on one side or the other.”
Umland sees rise of certain commanders, including Bieletsky, into political positions as an emerging problem fuelled by the media who promoted them as war heroes.
“These people are not representative of any larger social trend,” he says. “One should take into account that we are in a war situation with lots of chaos, where these aberrations are an expression of the chaos, but not symptoms of ideological shifts. These people are now making their careers by going to war and becoming war heroes. This is what is driving their careers now, not ideologies. When it eventually comes out who they were only a year ago, it will be a big embarrassment.”
Cas Mudde: A new (order) Ukraine
Øyvind Strømmen: A multifaceted revolution
Øyvind Strømmen: An interview with Per Rudling on understanding Svoboda
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article contained some mistakes in the interview with Umland, which have since been corrected.