Off to an Unquiet Eastern Front


By William Risch

On June 23, Kyiv sent over 500 men off to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.  Outside the city well over 400 soldiers, including at least one woman, swore solemn oaths to the Donbas Battalion, a paramilitary unit led by Donbas native Semen Semenchenko.  On Sofia Square in central Kyiv, I witnessed the swearing-in ceremony for soldiers of the Azov Battalion under Andriy Belitsky, leader of the right-wing political organization Social-National Assembly (SNA).  Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has employed both battalions to fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.  Today’s recruits left for the front right after the ceremonies were over.

Azov Battalion’s swearing-in ceremony took place in front of the city’s monument to Bohdan Khmelntysky, a Ukrainian Cossack leader whose rebellion against the Poles in the mid-seventeenth century has been called a Ukrainian war of national liberation.  The latter-day Cossacks standing beneath him, fighting a new war of liberation, were men mostly in their twenties, yet some were in their thirties, forties, and even fifties.  Most of them were from eastern Ukraine, including cities like Luhansk and Donetsk.  They stood at stiff, somewhat nervous attention as a defiant Khmelnytsky brandished a mace from a mounted horse above them.  Dressed in green camouflage, these men’s faces were hidden under black masks, but I could tell their ages from their eyes.  While a few betrayed heavy wrinkles, most had the wandering eyes of men who had just left their teens and were fumbling their way through adulthood.

Before the new recruits took their oath, the crowd began greeting them with slogans, pleas, prayers, and tears.  A short elderly pensioner with dyed black hair led a group of women her age in a set of chants familiar to Maidan protestors these past seven months.  “Glory to Ukraine!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.  “Glory to the heroes!” chanted the crowd.  “Glory to the nation!” she cried out.  “Death to the enemies!” responded the crowd.  “Ukraine!” she chanted.  “Above all!” replied the crowd.  As this grandmother repeated these chants, I saw women her age shaking their fists as they burst out with “Death to the enemies!”

These chants, which came from the faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) led by Stepan Bandera during World War II, have taken on new meanings recently.  Earlier aimed at Poles, Jews, Russians, Germans, Soviets, and fellow Ukrainians, they were deployed against former President Viktor Yanukovych and his regime during the Euromaidan protests last fall and winter.  They were hurled at police forces who had kidnapped, tortured, and killed protestors.  Now they are war calls against Russian-led forces in the east.

The ceremony had disturbing symbols connected with Ukraine’s far right.  As the battalion’s new recruits quickly marched across Sofia Square to the Khmelnytsky Monument, they carried the SNA banner, which has a symbol resembling a neo-Nazi Wolfsangel rune.  A journalist friend noted racist tattoos on the arms of unmasked SNA activists present.  Yet these symbols seemed secondary to a war against foreign aggression that was affecting everyone in the crowd.

“Come back, guys!” pleaded one elderly woman in Russian.  A woman in her twenties yelled out, “Your future wife’s waiting for you here!  Come back!”  “Stay safe!” called out others.  Girlfriends were crying.  Grandfathers were crying.  Mothers were crying.  “The flowers of the nation, the best!” said one grandmother to her friend.

After the crowd had sung the national anthem and the men had taken their oaths, elderly women started impromptu political debates.  They bemoaned the traitors who had let the army fall apart.  They singled out incompetent and corrupt officials for failed anti-terrorist operations in Ukraine’s east.  They shared their loathing for Viktor Medvedchuk, a former Yanukovych ally recently appointed intermediary in peace talks between the Ukrainian government, the separatists of the People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) and the People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and Russia. And they damned the “traitors” of the Maidan.

Dozens of journalists rushed toward the men to take photos and get interviews.  I tried to speak with two men standing in formation – both in their early thirties – but they told me they were not allowed to speak to the press “until later.”  However, leaders of their group, also masked, did speak to reporters.  One of them, a Soviet army veteran in his fifties, assured me that the men were in “high spirits” and that they had sufficient training.  Another man, probably in his thirties, told a television reporter that many of their supplies and equipment had been donated.  When asked about negotiations and a possible truce, he retorted, “There’s no truce!  You hear me!?  No truce!”

Donbass3There were plenty of photo-ops that afternoon.  A little girl, about four years old, offered the troops a box of Roshen chocolate bars, produced by the company President Petro Petroshenko owns.  A crowd of photographers tried to get the best shot of her holding up these candy bars in front of an unmasked man in black posing with a rifle.  Journalists took photos of battalion members embracing their girlfriends, wives, and fiancées just before they were to board the two busses waiting for them.

I managed to speak with the mother of one of the departing soldiers.  Not shedding a tear, remaining calm all the way through the ceremony, she told me simply, “We have to defend our homeland, and that’s it!”  Still, she asked that her name not be mentioned.  “In wartime, it’s better to be anonymous,” she said, smiling.  As the men boarded the busses, I saw her engaging in small talk, apparently with her daughter-in-law, who told her that she had tried to make her husband a farewell cake with red-and-black icing (the colors of the OUN flag), but the red turned out pink.

Amid the banter, the tears, the silent pauses between friends, the long embraces with lovers, and the haggling over Maidan politics among the elderly, no one wanted to talk about what was coming next.  The general mood suggested that negotiations were an illusion and that war was on, but no one wanted to predict what Russia plans on doing.  Still, one bystander told a commander that if Chechen fighters from Russia engaged in all-out war, many of the men there would not come back.

The rain that had briefly let up for the ceremony was back on again as the busses started leaving, accompanied by the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem by a dozen people, mostly elderly men and women.  The small talk and laughter exchanged between soldiers and the crowd had pushed back the air of uncertainty, but I couldn’t stop crying when I went to get coffee afterward.  Very soon, what had happened on Sofiia Square could become either one more chapter in these young men’s lives, or their last.  It all depends on how brutal the war on Ukraine’s eastern front becomes.

William Risch, associate professor of history at Georgia College, is author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011). He’s currently volunteering at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.