I left the hotel in Odessa just as the sun setting. Well-dressed citizens were wandering under the chestnuts of Pushkin Avenue in a picture of post-communist affluence, as life-weary teenagers smoked weed under the statue of the city’s modern founder, the Duke de Richelieu. Everywhere you looked, in every vista, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was fluttering.
As I approached the town hall, I met crowds of policemen. It looked like they were expecting a Russian invasion, but in fact they were only preparing for demonstrations that were slated for the following day, May 2. Southern Ukraine is still predominantly Russian-speaking and government forces retain a lingering fear of pro-Russian demonstrations and gatherings. The protesters were getting ready to commemorate a tragic event that occurred in 2014, when 42 anti-Maidan protesters were killed in a conflagration at the Trade Unions building, where they were hiding from their opponents.
“People fear the ultranationalists, but the state just makes room for them,” Timofei Hryniuk, a young lawyer and activist, told me, referring to government-sanctioned militias that have sprung up since Ukraine was invaded by Russia in 2014. “The problem is, it’s as if the war has created a permanent state of emergency. The city center is refurbished which is good for tourism, but who mainly benefits from the public spending? It’s the politicians. They are often the contractor and supplier at the same time. And by coddling the ultranationalists”—who often don the mantle of vigilante fighters against corruption—“they avoid protests.”
25-year-old Maksym Ishchuk has a different perspective. He had just graduated from university when the demonstrations on the Maidan in Kyiv in January 2014 broke out. He quickly joined the protesters. “When Yanukovych’s special police started shooting at us, it was clear that much was at stake. I know how it sounds, but I felt that our freedom was literally at stake.”
Journalist student Khrystyna Melnyk was also present on the Maidan. “We thought we were living in a European country, but the state did not protect us. We had to protect ourselves.”
But how? Maksym took part in the fighting on the Maidan and was among the first to volunteer for the so-called “self-defense battalions” that sprung up as Ukraine’s southern province, Crimea, was infiltrated and annexed by Russia, and as rebellion spread to eastern Donetsk and Luhansk. He had never planned to become a soldier, but in the spring of 2014 the country was racked by paralysis. “A friend, an officer, was stationed in Crimea when the Russians invaded. He called and called to central command but got no orders. So, they surrendered.”
When the war broke out in 2014, Ukraine’s army was crippled after decades of neglect. The central staff proposed establishing paramilitary groups to fight pro-Russian rebels. Dozens of such groups were assembled after the Maidan revolution had toppled the pro-Russian regime in Kyiv. After a few weeks of very basic military training, it became apparent that “the generals did not know what to do with us,” Maksym told me. “We were not sent anywhere.” He heard from friends that Russian flags were being flown in Odessa and got leave to go home. Odessa has a huge Russian-speaking population, and until recently Ukrainian was rarely heard spoken here. “We feared that Russia would create a pretext to occupy all of southern Ukraine,” Maksym continued.
The hostilities peaked on May 2. Pro-Russian protesters barricaded themselves in the city center. What happened next is hotly contested. Both sides threw fire bombs. Maksym participated in the street brawls leading up to the deadly fire, but he claims that by the time he got there, the building was already burning. “We built a ramp to get to the windows. I tried to get in to save the people inside, but the smoke made it impossible. It is sad that people on both sides died. They were being used, without understanding it themselves.”
After the tragedy in Odessa, Maksym returned to a special police battalion dubbed Storm: “It is important to remember that at this stage, we believed that the unrest in the east should be treated as a police mission, lest it not provoke a Russian military intervention. The newly assembled paramilitaries led the charge. Battalion Storm was 200-300 strong and was sent off without heavy weapons.” I asked Maksym if he really left the war almost without training. He smiled. “Well, my mother was unhappy.” And his father? “He did as most fathers do, and spoke with his silence.”
On August 20, the battalion was eight miles outside Luhansk when it encountered an artillery barrage and, eventually, the full force of the Russian army. “It was the first time I saw the enemy. They attempted to break us in a pincer maneuver, but we dug in and held our position.” He showed me pictures of smiling soldiers posing with busted Russian military hardware. Battalion Storm lost four men during that fight.
Maksym willingly acknowledged that he was initially filled with a sense, as the Roman poet Horace expressed it, of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—it is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland. But the realities of war tend to curb one’s enthusiasm. When I ask about the weeks and months when he fought in Donetsk and Luhansk, he grimaced. “I do miss the simple life at the front, but I do not want to return.”
An inconvenient truth: Some soldiers like war. Most men like competing, and war is the ultimate competition. In the chaos after World War I, a volunteer paramilitary faction was formed in Germany to defend its eastern borders against a bevy of new nation states that sought to expand their territories at Germany’s expense. You cannot understand recent German history without understanding the role of these “Free Corps,” and you cannot understand the Free Corps without understanding the Battle of Sankt Annaberg in 1921. In his 1930 novel, The Outlaws, Ernst von Salomon described the scene of setting out for the battle:
The train ran through the night. I stood out on the hallway and enjoyed the thrilling excitement over what had been set in motion. In all the carriages were young men like me standing and sitting. The conductor kept a suspicious eye on them, because they were dressed in worn grey cloth like myself; Their blond hair and arrogant faces gave them a family resemblance. We recognized and greeted each other. Without knowing each other, we had been drawn from all parts of the German-speaking world by the prospect of battle and danger. Without orders and without any other clear goal than reaching Upper Silesia.
In Leipzig, young men with feathers in their hats came on the train chatting in the Bavarian dialect. I walked past them, gesturing to their luggage and muttering. Firearms? The man who stood closest smiled. The boxes were marked “Oberland”. They came from all over the German empire. There were frontiersmen from the Baltics, members of student associations, union workers and business people. There were men from the Rhine and Ruhr, from Bavaria and from Dithmarschen. Balts, Swedes, Finns, Men from Transylvania and Tyrol, from East Prussia and Saar. All young, all prepared.
Although it would be going too far to suggest that modern German identity was created in the Free Corps wars, those wars nevertheless represented an important step in the evolution of Hessian or Bavarian identity into something bigger—the Deutschtum of which poets and thinkers spoke. The Weimar Republic had neither the ability to act nor the will to try. Von Salomon writes:
Where was Germany? In Weimar? In Berlin? Once upon a time it was at the front, but the front did not exist anymore. Was it the people? But the people shouted from bread and voted to get their thick bellies filled. What about the government? But the state was looking for an identity and instead found irresponsibility.
The Free Corps were united in their hate of the invaders in the east and of liberal politicians who seemed more interested in making moneyed interest prosper, rather than the people or the “culture.” The main character of the book, an airbrushed version of the author, put it best: “We believed that for Germany’s sake, we and no others should have the power. We felt that we were the embodiment of Germany. The ruling power in Berlin had no such legitimacy. “
A similar mentality can be found among volunteers in the now-infamous Azov battalion. Nestor Makhno is a nom-de-guerre. Behind the tinted windows of a restaurant in the Odessa district of Arcadia, he had few good things to say about the government in Kyiv. “We have given our blood for Ukraine. Ukraine was forged as a nation in our struggle. Are we nationalists? Of course we are! And people know we will not accept betrayal. Not by terrorists and not by our own politicians.”
I asked why the right-wing nationalists have so little support in elections. He waved his fist under my nose: “The politicians lie, steal and cheat. When the people wake up, we are ready.”
“For revolution,” he responded.
Ukraine’s paramilitaries trace their lineage to Germany’s Free Corps, specifically to their popular struggle against French occupation under Napoleon. The term itself refers to armed political formations, organized according to military principles. They represent not only the power of violence, but also a new source of political authority and organization of the state. In the book Paramilitarism in Europe after the Great War (Oxford, 2012), Ukrainian academician Serhy Yekelchyk describes how nationalist groups played a key role during the civil war in Ukraine in 1917-20. He claims that they are not best understood as the armed wing of a united Ukrainian people’s struggle for independence. Rather, the Ukrainian Freikorps represented “a confusing struggle between Ukrainian patriots of different shades” about what the future of Ukraine should be.
The same is true of today’s Ukrainian militias, which after 2014 have fractured into ever smaller ideological segments. Some of the paramilitary formations have been incorporated into the Ukrainian military forces, but not all. Despite international criticism of the fact that some of these groups harbor right-wing radicals and neo-fascists, the integration process has been slow. This has to do with the fact that these groups are popular: Their young men were willing to sacrifice themselves when the Ukrainian state floundered. It also has to do with the fact that paramilitaries are cheap. They come without pension obligations and are always ready to fight.
Yekelchyk claims the defeat of the Free Corps in the face of the Red Army owed a great deal to what he calls “failed state-building.” A shared struggle, it turns out, was not sufficient in itself to create a functioning state. The same conclusion held when Ukrainian patriots once again came together in various paramilitary organizations during World War II. One of the iconic leaders of that time, Stepan Bandera, is today one of the great Ukrainian heroes—this, despite (or, in some cases, because of?) Bandera’s cooperation with the Nazis, death at the hands of Communists and apparent willingness to abandon all principles in order to achieve an independent Ukraine.
Historian Jens Petter Nielsen has written that “the anarchy that developed in Ukraine after the February Revolution in 1917 triggered dormant contradictions, conflicts and enmities that were previously suppressed or played themselves out under the surface in controlled civilized forms. Now they were fought on open ground with weapons in hand, in violent confrontations.” Bandera saw the militias as the manifestation of the Ukrainian nation, even when fighting other Ukrainians.
What was once an icon of football hooligans and the radical right has been embraced by the state. Statues of Bandera are mushrooming all over Ukraine in the shadow of the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Scientist Vyacheslav Likhachev concludes in a report to the French Institute of National Relations that “the mere fact that these volunteer formations materialized had propaganda value in the first weeks of the conflict; but, on the whole, the media has seriously exaggerated the role the volunteers played in the Anti-Terrorist Operation. They did not actually play a significant role during military operations.”
And yet they have become a significant player in Ukrainian politics. The largest of these groups, Pravyi Sector, the militias’ umbrella organization, has been highlighted among the EU’s running concerns about the internal situation in Ukraine.
Artem Filipenko, who has been active with the Border Guard in Odessa, believes Pravyi Sector is “a ghost”, a phenomenon that acts as a kind of franchise—a label Russian propaganda uses to justify the fiction that Pravyi Sector is the armed wing of a “fascist regime” in Kyiv. Artem gave Battalion Storm support and equipment in 2014. The state had some weapons but lacked uniforms and boots. The lack of equipment is now less of a pressing issue, partly because of support from the United States. He believes that Western Europe’s warnings against nationalism are misplaced. “Modern Ukrainian nationalism is a self-defense ideology, not a political project.” Nobody knows how long the Minsk agreements, whose goal is to deescalate the conflict, will hold. Filipenko believes that the war can flare up again. “The Ukrainian army is much stronger than it was in 2014 and is likely to reclaim areas in the east, unless Russia intervenes…”
This may be a part of the logic underlying the fact that, despite repeated promises, Kyiv has failed to disband all of the militias. They are still fighting against the Russian-supported separatists in the east. But these informal groups have proven to be difficult to control, and a few of them are criminal outfits. Many have either been integrated into the armed forces or sent home. Those that have been integrated fight side by side with the government army, but it is unclear to what extent they answer to the government.
Perhaps the government does not feel strong enough for a confrontation. A poll taken in November 2017 on behalf of the International Republican Institute showed that only 3 percent of the respondents believed that President Petro Poroshenko is doing a good job. Perhaps the state of play can be best understood as a kind of internal ceasefire. Some commentators have argued that Pravyi Sector has become less interested in the corruption that characterizes parts of the political system.
Meanwhile Ukrainian authorities have striven to explain away the paramilitaries to Western observers. Radical statements and actions are attributed to a small minority of members, which may well be true. But the group has indubitably attracted right-wing radicals and fascists from a number of European countries, and it takes only one Nazi to give an entire group a bad reputation. Thus, as long as these paramilitary groups are allowed to exist, Ukraine is running a grave reputational risk. The country is only a single paramilitary war crime committed away from suffering a stinging loss of moral credibility—not least in Germany, which, due to its own painful experience with its Free Corps, will be less than understanding.