The nationalist militias of Kiev are ready for a fight with Russia.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering Russia and the former Soviet States. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Thick fog mingled with the smoke from the open fires and wood stoves that dot the revolutionary camp in downtown Kiev. The iconic statue of Archangel Michael could barely be seen in the cloudy sky looming over the Maidan, the capital’s central square, which has been ruined, charred, and turned into a memorial for the dead revolutionaries. Just by the Maidan’s main stage, a few dozen haphazardly uniformed men lined up before their commanding officer. Many of these volunteer soldiers, the militiamen of the Maidan, could hardly sleep on Monday night after local TV stations reported that the Russian army had issued an ultimatum for Ukraine’s new government: Either the Ukrainian military units in Crimea were to surrender by 5 a.m. on March 4, or Russian forces would strike. Nothing came of it in the end — but Kiev took the warning seriously.
The Maidan has undergone several transformations since protesters first took to the square in late November. What started out as a pro-European Union student camp soon turned into the scene of impassioned riots against now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. After that the square became a battleground, scarred by violent clashes with riot police. After Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev, the Maidan’s defenders turned it into a space for collective mourning for the more than 90 men and women who died in last month’s battles, now known as the "Sky Hundred."
But this week marked another transformation for the Maidan: Never before have they been as anti-Putin as they are now. From Monday night to Tuesday morning, after Russia’s threat, hundreds of volunteer recruits arrived on the Maidan and at other militia headquarters throughout Kiev, determined to join the impending fight against Russian forces. These well-organized and well-trained armies are independent from the new leadership. The nationalist armies, including Right Sector and White Hammer, are seen as the heroes of the Maidan — but they are critical of the new leadership. They told me they hate Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies who are now running the new government. But Putin’s threat of invasion brought these groups closer together again. On the Maidan, demonstrators chanted "Putin het! Putin het!" (or "Putin Out!" in Ukrainian) in the capital’s streets and squares. Signs reading "Putin, calm down!" and caricatures casting the Russian president as Adolf Hitler appeared all over the square: tacked onto piles of tires, on soot-covered barricades, on the nylon tents that have housed protesters for months.
On March 3, when the Ukrainian interim government responded to the Russian grab for Crimea by declaring a general mobilization, volunteers began signing up for military service. Others joined the unofficial, protester-led militias. The volunteers arriving at the former central post office in Khreshchatyk Street, now the headquarters of Right Sector (the Ukrainian nationalist militia that Russia simply calls "fascists"), were of all ages and came from all walks of life. One of the draftees, a 51-year-old former naval officer, Aleksei Tikonchyuk, was convinced he would be the oldest soldier at the mobilization — until he found out that the man in front of him in line had beaten him out by a year. Tikonchyuk had rushed to join the "self-defense army" after he heard a report on a local TV channel that the commander-in-chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet planned to launch an attack on Ukrainian military bases in Crimea.
"I had no other choice but to join the draft," he said. "Every man in Ukraine, from all backgrounds, is ready to fight to the last drop of blood for our independent borders." The man next to him, another draftee, demonstratively pulled a pistol out of his pocket.
On March 4, I spoke on the phone with the Kremlin’s spokesman in Crimea, Sergei Markov, about Russia’s reasons for intervening in Ukraine: "Vladimir Putin is clear: Our forces will be deployed as soon as citizens of Crimea or Ukraine’s east ask us to protect them from the repression of Ukrainian fascists against Russian nationals."
The commander of Right Sector’s militia, Ihor Mazur (nicknamed "topol," or "poplar tree," for his impressive height), was aware that the Kremlin saw him and his men as anti-Russian fascists. In 2008, he said, he swore to defend Georgia in its war against Russia, and Russian pro-Kremlin youth groups responded by putting him on a list of Russia’s top 10 enemies — a status that he’s proud to cite.
But Markov also told me that Russian authorities had evidence that the U.S. government had conducted a "military coup" in Ukraine. "The leader of that state coup, John Kerry, arrived in Kiev today to guarantee financial aid for America’s new colony and its junta," Markov said, referring to the new leadership of Ukraine, which Moscow refuses to recognize. "We’ll support the legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovych, until Ukraine holds legitimate elections. Even if Yanukovych is a criminal, even if he were in a coma, he is the real president of Ukraine today." Back in Moscow, however, Putin pulled back from his aggressive rhetoric, subsequently saying that he had instructed his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to call his counterpart in the new Ukrainian leadership, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
In Crimea, pro-Russian Ukrainians have held protests to support Russian intervention. During my trip to the area last week, I asked protesters in Simferopol and Sevastopol’s main squares about why they wanted Russia "to bring them back home." Many said they were scared to live in a country run by Ukrainian nationalists, who they claimed attacked Russians all over Ukraine, basing their opinions on Russian news stories. Mazur, however, denied that the nationalist Right Sector ever deployed their units to eastern or southern Ukraine to attack Russians. "If our units were present in eastern Ukraine, they would have protected Ukrainian deputies in Kharkiv, for example, from the Russian attacks on the local parliament there," Mazur said. "Back in the 1990s, Russian secret services blew up buildings in Moscow, and now we expect Russian attacks on us, right here on the Maidan — so of course Ukrainian families should have weapons to defend themselves, and our groups should organize their self-defense." (Last month, Mazur told an interviewer that Right Sector saw its ultimate mission as not only defending the country but also as shaping policy: "We need to do both — to fight in defense of Ukraine and also to govern it.")
It is unclear how long post-revolutionary Ukraine will be able to stay stable. It still lacks both a well-equipped army to defend its borders as well as an organized police force to tamp down a rising crime wave in the eastern regions. During his visit to Kiev U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will be sending an economic package and technical assistance to Ukraine’s new government. Right Sector, for its part, saw this as a "manipulation," not as straightforward assistance. The nationalists are not just wary of Russian involvement in Ukraine, but of any and all forms of foreign intervention.
To everyone’s relief in Kiev, Russian forces did not move into action with the passing of the rumored ultimatum. Putin declared an end to Russia’s military maneuvers close to Ukraine’s borders (although Russian troops remain in effective control of Crimea). But the Maidan militias are determined to stay on the scene. Back on the square, an unshaven young man in the front row of a self-drafted unit — who reminded me more of a rock star than a combatant — expressed intense devotion to the nationalist cause, and pledged to obey his commander when fighting inevitably breaks out. This time, the command was to march to the nearest church to pay tribute to yet another "hero of the Maidan," a 26-year-old protester who died of his wounds last Sunday.