It has been six months since the war in Donbas began. From the official information from the UN alone, during this period throughout the region over 3,600 people have died, and over 500,000 have fled their homes [the latest 15 December UN report names the losses at 4,707 – ed.]. Among the first to come forward to defend Ukraine against the armed Russian mercenaries and separatists supported by Russia has been the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, Right Sector. This fall, two of their leaders were elected as people’s deputies of Ukraine. Oleksyi Byk has been counted in the ranks of this patriotic-volunteer formation since the early summer. Before the war he worked as a journalist at glavcom. Friend “Beech,” as he is known today by his brothers in arms, is well known not only in the media world, but also among musicians. It is as a musician that he and his acquaintances have recently been fundraising for the needs of the 5th independent Battalion. “I feel like a gypsy,” Oleksyi explains. “We’ve been traveling around, performing, collecting donations, and traveling to the next stop.”
What can you cover from the funds raised at these concerts?
Understandably, these funds won’t pay for all of our needs to fight this war, but in addition to the money, we are also making these concerts into a public relations campaign. In other words, the value of these concerts is not only measured in terms of finances. The more awareness people have that we are fighting, the more eager they will be to offer assistance. The basis of our support comes from monetary donations and the assistance of volunteers. As an example, in Kyiv’s Obolon district, the men from the same battalion as I am in, those who were either wounded or merely out on rotation, have developed such a well organized system of volunteers that practically every week now they are bringing convoys of food, clothing and other supplies to us.
There’s an option to donate to the Right Sector on your website. How else do you raise money?
In addition to our official accounts, we do have unofficial sources. We receive a lot through direct contact with people. Individuals simply forward cash or other necessary items to one of our contacts. The volunteers themselves do a great deal of the organizing. Currently throughout Kyiv there are containers near the supermarkets for the collection of funds for the ATO. These bins are self-contained, and when they are brought to us, witnesses observe how they are unsealed, and they make a complete record of all the money that is inside. Only then is the money earmarked for the needs of the battalion. The volunteers are involved in all aspects of this work, from food to clothing, to items such as night vision goggles.
Such items as night vision goggles aren’t cheap, so do you ever have all you need?
They are always in short supply, but for now each combat position has at least one of the night vision ones. There are some other kinds as well. Volunteers have also helped us obtain defensive uniforms that are undetectable by these goggles. Compared with the army, we’re supplied pretty well. Very often we trade food or alcohol for ammunition or weapons. I know of one instance in which a captured automatic weapon was exchanged for two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. Other times, seven liters of spirits would get one automatic weapon. Whatever the regular army lacks can be given to them or exchanged for weapons.
How many Right Sector soldiers are now fighting in the war?
If I’m not mistaken, we have 11 battalions, three of which are in reserve and one deployed at the front. Generally speaking there are around 500 soldiers per battalion. More specific than that is anyone’s guess. Individuals come and go; we’re not structured like the army. In addition, several of our members are fighting in the ranks of Aidar, Azov, Donbas, with even more to be found in Dnipro-1. I am with the 5th independent battalion of the volunteer corps, Right Sector, and we have around 500 men.
The Right Sector battalion currently does not have legal status in Ukraine. How do you obtain weapons, do you have enough?
We never have enough weapons. If we did have enough weapons, there wouldn’t be just one battalion at the front, we would all be there. We really don’t have enough weapons. We obtain them in all possible ways. I know what I am about to suggest is illegal, but if tomorrow someone would offer to buy me even a handgun, I would accept it and go with it to fight in battle, simply for the fact that it means we would have one more weapon. I won’t be cheap, or would ask Yarosh [Right Sector commander and parlamentarian] for the money. In fact, he himself said that we would even buy weapons on the black market if the opportunity arose. Initially, our main way to get weapons was to win them in battle. But now we are in a state of static, trench warfare. Mostly, it’s an artillery war; it also means we aren’t capturing many weapons. Earlier, we’d be advancing deep into enemy territory, a kilometer or more, and we’d be looking to see what we could take back with us. Now the regular army helps us the most with weapons. I won’t name the specific battalions, but the regular divisions always have a “surplus.” For example, if a soldier is killed, they’ll document that his weapon was never found at the site of his body. They’ll write that the enemy stole the weapon. In reality, they will bring it to us, unofficially. Whenever possible, they are willing to help. They will write a report that the enemy broke into the store of ammunition. I know of one commander from one of the units of the regular army who “documented” something like 1,500 automatic weapons. Others apart from us benefited as well, other volunteer battalions.
With ammunition it is a little easier. During a war no one keeps count of how many shell cartridges a soldier discharges, or how many grenades he throws, and so as a rule they are regularly supplying us with these. I mentioned earlier that we are like gypsies. For instance, August 2 is the day of the rapid deployment airborne army [a professional holiday – ed.]. Members of the Right Sector show up at any number of these paratrooper events, sing a few patriotic songs about the reconnaissance teams, or the “blue berets,” and leave with half a truckload of ammunition.
It seems then that the regular soldiers are bending the rules by giving you their own weapons?
The way I understand it, these weapons come from the weapons cache of the Soviet era. There is no shortage of these weapons. There is no shortage of explosives, and no one counts how many containers get detonated per night, whether 10, or 8, or 5.
If no one knows how many weapons are in these arsenals, shouldn’t someone find out?
I can’t say about the weapons arsenals, but I can say quite frankly that the regular army soldiers highly respect our Right Sector fighters. The very fact that they are willing to supply us with arms, finding ways around the official system even to the point of risking facing criminal charges, clearly indicates the high respect and esteem they have for us.
In one incident, word got out that there would be a total retreat from the Donetsk airport. As the regular army men explained it, it was an order. This would have been at the end of August, or early September. We were located at Pisky at that time (a village near Donetsk – ed.), ready to go at any moment. Both Dnipro-1 and our battalion refused to leave the airport. And the army soldiers remained behind as well. They said that if Right Sector isn’t leaving, then we’re not leaving.
The head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, had never been in favor with the Right Sector. He has remained in his position after the formation of the new Government. Does he suit you now?
Let me put it this way: right now we are fighting in Donbas, and it was Avakov and his police who gave away all those cities in this same region.
But didn’t all this begin earlier with Zakharchenko, not Avakov, whose police officers betrayed the oaths they had taken?
Avakov was already in charge when city after city was being occupied [by separatist forces on Donbas]. Nalyvaichenko also bears responsibility: he was the head of the Security Service of Ukraine at the time when the militants were easily capturing the headquarters of the SBU. Our attitude to Avakov is very negative, as it is, by the way, to Poroshenko. They’re not in high esteem among the Right Sector, from what I could tell. If it weren’t for the war, the two of them should be scared. So many boys now have battle experience and know the smell of gunpowder. These two are scared of the Right Sector and don’t want to legalize it because they understand perfectly that we won’t disarm; we aren’t afraid of anything, neither prison nor any other form of punishment.
Does the Right Sector continue to insist on being legalized, and on what conditions?
Rumor has it that within the SBU, a new battalion is to be created, not only from the Right Sector, but also from the ranks of other interested volunteer battalions. For example, there are lots of men who have battle experience in the security battalions, but it’s not what they really want. It was suggested to us that we could become such a police battalion, which was such an unpopular idea that it was turned down. Personally, I don’t need this legal status. When I went to war, I bought everything I needed myself. So I’m even paying myself in order to defend my country. If I wanted the status, I could have joined a formation that already has it, such as the National Guard, or a police battalion such as Kyiv-1. It is not a coincidence that Avakov has been establishing his battalions within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the same place the former Berkut took their orders, the secret service, to be ready to respond (against the Right Sector – ed.). Unfortunately they are not particularly battle ready. These battalions (established by Avakov – ed.) are really just nurseries for the sons of Poroshenko, Avakov, and others.
On the other hand, there are those who say that battalions Dnipro-1 and Dnipro-2, or even Right Sector, are Kolomoiskyi’s formations [Kolomoisky is a pro-Ukrainian oligarch from Dnipropetrovsk – ed]. What’s the difference between you then?
there’s a lot of speculation out there. Believe me, Right Sector’s relationship with Kolomoiskyi is far different from the descriptions of interned trolls. Where did these rumors even start? It’s because when the war started, Right Sector wanted to fight, and Kolomoiskyi wanted to defend the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. We had common objectives but he did not finance us. What he did provide was some material assistance, fuel, for example, help for when we were in that oblast. The Right Sector, Dnipro-1, and Dnipro-2 battalions defended the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast against the advancement of the separatists, so in that way our paths have intersected. I know that a few private funded busloads of supplies have made their way to Dnipro-1. As far as Dnipro is concerned, they seem to have enough weapons, and in general have much fewer problems than we do, because they have official status. He has not been making such visible and regular donations of supplies to us. People react in different ways to Kolomoiskyi, the feeling being mutually both positive and negative, 50-50. Personally, my opinion of Kolomoiskyi is as low as it is for Avakov… I think that after the war he will have a big influence over some of the battalions, and will have control over a few oblasts…
As for official status: one of my brothers in arms is currently in hospital recovering after being wounded. The official reason is that his wounds were inflicted due to careless handling of a firearm. There is no mention whatsoever that he was in combat and in a war. Naturally, everyone wants the benefits afforded by legal status, especially as a security for one’s children, or parents, that there would at least be a minimum level of assistance. The process towards legal status is very belabored. We were first offered to be registered as part of the police. For obvious reasons we don’t want that. Right Sector has many members with a questionable past, meaning politically repressed people, football ultras that had problems with the law. This is the first reason. Second, if we would agree to join the security services, there would suddenly be an official record of those who are the really passionate, patriotic Ukrainians, ready to effect real changes within the country. How do you think the bureaucrats would respond, having such a list of names? Let me explain. As soon as a new Maidan were to begin, everyone on that list would be paid a visit, and kept under control. False accusations would be made of having a kilo of heroin in their possession, or a cache of weapons, and every one of them would then be sent off to Lukianivka (a prison in Kyiv – ed.), unofficially speaking. The revolution would thereby be quashed. These are the reasons we don’t want the authorities to have any lists of those who desire to defend their country.