Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
As anti-Kiev demonstrations in the eastern Ukraine evolved into an armed conflict, the new government enlisted the support of volunteer units to supplement their underprepared standing army. Volunteers entered the conflict for various reasons, some to defend their homes, others had family in the military, and most participated in the Maidan protests that ousted the previous government. Others joined for ideological reasons. Among the most controversial volunteer units is the 500-strong Azov Battalion, which is known for including neo-fascists and soldiers of fortune in its ranks.
The battalion is led by Andriy Biletsky, who also heads two Ukrainian far-right organizations: the paramilitary Patriot of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly. In this Georgetown University panel discussion, experts describe members of the Azov Battalion as being neo-Nazis and fascists in the literal sense, stating that such labels are not merely Russian propaganda, at least not in this case.
On the 26th of October 2014, Biletsky was elected to a constituency seat in Kiev's Obolon Raion of the Ukrainian parliament. Biletsky ran as an independent candidate, not affiliated with any political party. Fellow battalion member Oleh Petrenko additionally won a MP seat (Cherkasy Oblast) as a member of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. President Poroshenko alsoappointed Biletsky a police Lieutenant Colonel.
On October 31st, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion Vadym Troyan was appointed Chief of Police for the Kiev Oblast.
Power Struggle in Kiev
Despite holding such important positions, there are indications of a power struggle between Ukrainian nationalists and the coalition government in Kiev. Of particular concern are the ongoing negotiations with Novorossiyan separatists, which lead many combat veterans to feel betrayed by Kiev, and the government recognition of WWII-era Ukrainian fighters, who are heroes to many volunteers.
Battalion members joined demonstrations organized by the Svoboda Party in Kiev over this issue, putting on an impressive show of force. The demonstrations caused some to worry that nationalist volunteer battalions might pose a threat to the central government. Direct threats to the regime made by members of the allied Donbass Battalion lend credibility to such concerns. The Right Sector paramilitary also threatened an armed march on Kiev over the arrest of their members. Dmitry Yarosh, leader of the 5,000-strong armed network, seems confident that he could deliver to Poroshenko the same fate of former President Yanukovich.
Battalion Composition and Foreign Volunteers
The Azov Battalion draws members from all over Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and even further afield. Particularly media-popular are far-right volunteers from Sweden, Italy, and other Western European countries. Dubbed the “black men” (in reference to the “Little Green Men” used in Russia’s Crimea operation), these volunteers have developed a fearsome reputation over the course of the war.
One of the more notorious “black men” is Swedish volunteer Mikael Skillt. In this interview he explains his motivations for coming to Ukraine which include coming to help “nationalists who were dying on the streets.” He discusses how he nearly became a mercenary for the Assad government in Syria before coming to Ukraine to “fight for his beliefs.” For him, this matters more than monetary compensation. His military experience with the Swedish army and National Guard earned him a position as instructor within the Azov Battalion.
Another high-profile volunteer is FSB defector Ilya Bogdanov. The former Senior Lieutenant stated that he “couldn’t take it anymore sitting at home in Vladivostok and seeing all the lies of the Russian media about the situation in Ukraine. So I left everything behind and got here as a volunteer to put all my skills to stopping the civil war in eastern Ukraine stirred up by Putin’s anti-national regime. I was well-off but I left everything behind to be a volunteer, to stand together with our fraternal Ukrainian people and really help them – with actions, not words. I’ve served in Dagestan, I’ve seen with my own eyes Putin’s regime rekindling the tension there for years. Now the civil war has spread to Slavic lands thanks to Putin’s antinational regime – I don’t know how else I could call it...I’m ready to fight in the Ukrainian army as a common volunteer. Because I want this war to end, for our fraternal peoples to stop fighting – because that isn’t right. That’s why I’m here.” He joined the Azov Battalion because the organization is more active than the Right Sector and other groups with similar political agendas.
The Azov Battalion is perhaps best known for its defense of the port city of Mariupol. Located on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol is home to a Greek community and hosted popular resorts and beaches before the war. It now sits on the front line between government troops and the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR).
Despite great territorial gains made by the DPR during their August offensive, the government retained control of Mariupol, largely thanks to the Azov Battalion. Donetsk forces vowed to re-take the city, but as of yet have not captured the city. The Azov battalion has since begun to train local residents in firearms use and self-defense tactics.
The unit was forced to make tactical retreats (warning: explicit language) but continues to train new recruits and remains in control of the city. Mariupol was even visited by President Poroshenko, demonstrating Kiev’s confidence in their control.
Frenchman Gaston Besson is in charge of recruiting international volunteers. Besson is a former French paratrooper, has military experience in Croatia, Bosnia, and Laos dating from the early 1990s, and seeks to create an international brigade to fight for Ukraine. Recruits are not subject to age restrictions and are known to make appearances at public events, such as football matches, from which nationalists traditionally draw support.
- It is highly likely that volunteer battalions such as Azov and Donbas will continue to play a central role in the Ukrainian conflict.
- Foreign volunteers are highly likely to contribute to military efforts on both sides, driven by personal motivations, ideological or religious convictions, and the desire to defend their homes or native countries.
- Tensions between nationalists and the government in Kiev will remain for the foreseeable future.
- Balancing between various internal factions and international partners will remain troublesome for Kiev and will complicate efforts to establish a lasting peace in eastern Ukraine.