Foreigners join far-right militias in Ukraine’s fight against rebels
Sitting in the shade of a broad pine tree and a pink-and-orange umbrella, two Swedes and a Canadian explain why they are ready to kill, and be killed, for the future of a free Ukraine.
They are members of the Azov Battalion, one of several units of volunteers fighting alongside Ukraine’s military and national guard against separatist rebels – allegedly backed by Moscow – who want the country’s eastern regions to join Russia.
The battalion is based by the Sea of Azov in southern Donetsk province, in a beachside complex formerly used as a holiday home by the family of Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted as Ukraine’s president in February.
The unit was formed by the Social National Assembly, a Ukrainian nationalist group described by critics as violently racist, and its emblem includes variations on the “black sun” and “wolf’s hook” symbols long associated with Nazism.
The ideology of Azov is a gift to the Kremlin, which has used lurid propaganda to discredit Ukraine’s revolution as a fascist coup that threatens the country’s tens of millions of Russian-speakers and, more broadly, Europe.
There are also growing fears in Ukraine that Azov and other far-right militias could ultimately turn on its new rulers, whom they see not as representatives of the revolution but of a venal oligarchy that has dominated the country for decades.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert support for rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk regions has fuelled radicalism in a Ukraine already reeling from the revolution, and stoked national passions in a country that feels attacked by its huge neighbour and largely abandoned by its supposed allies in the West.
Azov now plans to expand its ranks from 300 to 500 men, and a French supporter called Gaston Besson – who fought for Croatian independence in the 1990s – is forming a brigade of foreigners willing to take up arms for Ukraine’s freedom and territory.
“Volunteers have come from Russia, France, Italy, Belarus, Canada, Sweden, Slovenia – many countries,” said Oleg Odnorozhenko, a self-proclaimed ideologue of the Social National Assembly.
“We have had about two dozen foreigners so far. Lots more want to come but we select those with relevant experience,” he added, noting that a Georgian special forces trainer was working “semi-officially” with Azov.
The shouts of children on the beach drifted through Yanukovich’s old compound on a warm sea breeze, as three of Azov’s foreign contingent discussed why they were here, far from home, and ready to spill and shed blood for Ukraine.
“I was sick of the television pictures from CNN and Russia Today, so I decided to come to Ukraine and see for myself. I found a great people, who desire freedom, being used in a tug-of-war,” said Severin (28) from Gothenburg in Sweden.
“I would love to solve Ukraine’s problems with political discussions. But that’s impossible now,” he added.
“I am in favour of a free European people. And I am here to help these European people live in freedom.”
Severin calls himself a national socialist, but rejects the connotations that he says come with the term “neo-Nazi”. He wanted to serve in the Swedish army “to protect my land and people” but was rejected due to his political beliefs.
Like the two men alongside him, Mikola from Stockholm and a man from Canada who uses the nickname “Lemko”, Severin is against immigration, multiculturalism, globalisation and the rampant capitalism and liberalism he sees ruining the modern world.
The three men share a faith in the strength of ethnically pure nations, living according to their traditions.
Lemko, who hails from Canada’s large Ukrainian diaspora, said he believed in a “Ukraine for the Ukrainian people” and saw the western social model as just as great a threat to the country’s future as the antipathy of the Kremlin. “I lived in western Europe for 11 years, so I know,” said Lemko, who is in his 30s. “Ukraine has two enemies – Russia and the EU.”
Disillusioned by a western world that they regard as feckless, decadent and enslaved by high finance, the men saw an inspiring sense of purpose, patriotism and self-sacrifice in the tent camp on Kiev’s Independence Square, where the revolution played out last winter.
Severin saw his first combat action on June 13th, when the Azov Battalion fought separatist militants in the nearby port city of Mariupol.
“On the way there, I thought this would be a special day. But it was harsh, and after experiencing that no one would say war was beautiful. Mortars went off close by and two of my comrades were injured. But I was proud to serve.”
Lemko has no plans to return to Canada and Severin says he could be here for “two months or years”, while Mikola hopes to return to Sweden in the near future to continue his psychology studies.
“I’m here to deal with the separatists,” Mikola said. “After that, let’s see.”
The foreigners, like the local members of Azov, are derisive of Ukraine’s billionaire president, Petro Poroshenko, the pro-EU government in Kiev and western states that have been deeply reluctant to take a tough stand against Russia.
“A split is a definite possibility,” Lemko said of fears that the various units fighting the rebels today will one day clash over political differences, and over who exactly controls these increasingly large and well-armed paramilitary battalions.
What is clear is that Azov’s extreme nationalism does not have widespread support in Ukraine: three far-right candidates mustered barely 10 per cent of votes between them in May’s presidential election, even during a deep national crisis.
Desire to defend
Vasyl Arbuzov, an adviser to Donetsk governor Sergei Taruta, said Ukraine’s nationalists were bound far less by ideology than by a desire to defend the country.
“These aren’t the kind of guys I hang out with on the weekend but, at the moment, they are the kind of guys we need because they are willing to fight,” he said.
Inside their seaside base, Kalashnikovs on their laps, three of Azov’s foreigners said they were ready for anything.
“How much talking can you do?” said Lemko.
“Whatever it takes – there’s no turning back now.”