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Four days at the front with the Right Sector battalion

Four days at the front with the Right Sector battalion
Article by: Alya Shandra
Demonized by the Kremlin’s disinformation machine, the Right Sector is perhaps Ukraine’s most legend-shrouded organization since the times of the Euromaidan revolution that started on November 21, 2013. Putin’s virtual reality propagated by Russian medias goes as far as to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by protecting the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine from mythical “fascists from the Right Sector.” We traveled to the forefront of Ukraine’s battle against the Russian army and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas to see for ourselves who are the people that Putin so much fears and why.

 Why are they here?

Friend Instructor (left) and Bars (right)
Friend Instructor (left) and Leopard (right)

I had no choice,” says one of the fighters, Friend Instructor from Kyiv. “I am a man, my country is being attacked. It’s my responsibility to defend it.” Another, Friend Leopard, said: “I was woken up by Maidan. My soul told me it’s time to do something for this country. You know, we’re a body, but the soul tells us what to do.” He is 45 years of age and half-Romanian, half-Russian by origin. Friend Leopard left his wife in a Romanian-leaning district of Chernivtsi Oblast in Western Ukraine to become a deputy commander of the 5th separate division of Right Sector’s Volunteer battalion. His division has been stationed on the Ukrainian-Russian front in the village of Pisky near Donetsk for over 3 months.

Friend Leopard tells that he is fed up with life in Ukraine. “I wanted to do something for this country, and live freely in it. If I commit a crime, I want myself to be judged, and not to have the possibility to bribe myself out of responsibility. Not like it is now, when you can pay UAH 60 000 and get away with killing a woman and child. Corruption. I don’t even understand how that’s possible.” Like other battalion members, he is radically determined to change Ukraine no matter what, after the border is protected and invaders are kicked out. How Ukraine is to be changed exactly is not yet clear, but one thing is for sure: corruption must be eliminated, as well as irresponsible politicians and the rule of oligarchs.

Friend Moses
Friend Moses

Friend Moses, who is a bishop of the protestant church “Glorification” in Kryvyi Rih (central Ukraine), says that after Maidan he felt a mission from God to help his country. “We came here so Ukraine would live a new life. It’s our obligation to protect our land if it’s attacked. Right now there is a war of light with darkness. God’s hand is in this war, and He is on the side of those that are attacked. My mission here is to speak about God and that there is salvation: even if a soldier is killed, his soul will go home. Some people from our church say that we shouldn’t take up arms, but I think it’s our obligation to protect this land if it’s attacked.” Like many other Right Sector battalion members, he is one of the legendary Cyborgs that are responsible for the Donetsk airport still being under Ukrainian control after over 5 months.

“War happened to start in my lifetime, and I couldn’t miss it. The war is a continuation of events at the Maidan. At that time, Russia attempted to return Ukraine to the Soviet empire, and it’s doing that now, but more intensively. So I’m here – because there are no absurd orders in the Right Sector. People decide for themselves how they should carry out tasks. The Right Sector goes and does what the army can’t. There was a call on the Maidan to change the format of governance. There power must go to the people. That’s what we’re aiming at,” tells Friend Japanese of his reasons for coming to the front.

Right Sector battalion member receives a token from schoolchildren
Right Sector battalion member receives a token from schoolchildren

I don’t want to wait until the Russians are at my doors,” is a reason that is shared by all battalion members that don’t come from the occupied territories. “My three-year-old son in Mariupol tells my wife ‘Mommy, run to the bomb shelter!’ when he hears distant shelling. What sort of a life is that? That’s why I’m here,” says friend Dolphin. He is one of the lucky 30% of the Donbas battalion that came out of the Ilovaisk battle free and alive, and joined the Right Sector battalion while the Donbas battalion trains and regroups. There are members from Donbas and Luhansk whose families live in the occupied territories. Like Friend Dolphin, they request that their photos not be shared, fearing for their family’s safety.

Taking into account the Right Sector’s role in Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, there is little doubt that they will continue to act to carry out their plans. It was the Right Sector that on January 19 initiated Maidan’s departure from months of peaceful protests into a phase of active and violent resistance that eventually lead to the toppling of the Yanukovych regime.

How do you get in and how does it work? 

The way DUK members address each other is “Friend” plus callsign. One would address the Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh as Friend Yastrub [hawk in Ukrainian] or Friend Providnyk [leader]. You either make up the callsign yourself or it finds you. “Pan [the Ukrainian analogue to Sir] is too hierarchical; we are all equals and friends here,” explains Friend Leopard: “we are closer than brothers here, more than brothers. Under danger, we are all the same, because bullets do not choose, we have to hold and support each other.” The Ukrainian word pobratym nails it pretty well: a pobratym is your named brother, one that you share a mission and a life adventure with. This feeling of brotherhood is one that attracts most in the DUK, according to Friend Monakh [Monk]. “We are here like in a monastery. We forget about money, live in a brotherhood, try to help each other.”

Friend Monakh
Friend Monakh

The Right Sector battalion is one of the most well-disciplined formations in Ukraine’s armed forces. Drinking is severely punished, which sets them apart from the regular army. So is negligence of duties. The worst punishment a Right Sector battalion member can face is expulsion from the team. One becomes part of the battalion by signing up at the regional Right Sector branches and undergoing a three-week training near Kyiv where fighters learn the essentials. More experienced members train new members.

The leadership is elected based on achievements; decisions are made at a lower level. Friend Leopard says that he would observe the fighters for some time and then make a proposal to assign some of them to a post at the morning assembly. The community would then have a chance to voice their opinion. Hearing about this leadership selection method sends me back four centuries to the time of the Zaporizhzhia Kozaks, a military formation in Ukraine’s steppes that battled the Poles and eventually made the fateful decision to ally with Moscow in 1654. With a legacy boasting to have the first Constitution in the world, the Kozaks were famous for their democratic and community-based methods of governance, at least at early stages of the existence of the Zaporizhzhia Sich.

What do they do and how are they supplied?

“If it wasn’t for the volunteers, the Russian invaders would be at Poland’s borders”

Friend Hunter, Donetsk Airport Cyborg
Friend Hunter, Donetsk Airport Cyborg

“Volunteer battalion” means that fighters sign up voluntarily and do not get pay: hence, a division of motivated patriots willing to give their lives to defend their country. Furthermore, the battalion receives no help from the state. Some volunteer battalions in Ukraine (like Azov and Donbas) have become part of the structure of the Ministry of the Interior or Ministry of Defense, which is why the fighters receive at least some kind of pay and provision (recently, Azov was made a regiment and now receives heavy ammunition). However, the Army is too corrupt for the Right Sector battalion to go under its command, tells Friend Leopard: there have been too many betrayals, and it is rumored that the Russian agents in Ukraine’s army sell out their division’s location to the enemy. Nevertheless, Right Sector works closely with the regular Ukrainian Army units stationed in Pisky, and performs the most dangerous and risky operations: for instance, more than half of the last rotation’s Cyborgs defending the encircled Donetsk airport from Russian attacks were from Right Sector. However, on November 12 the Right Sector command decided to withdraw their forces from the airport, as they saw their mission accomplished: “volunteer battalion” also means independence from central army command.

But the mere existence of volunteer battalions is made possible thanks to another army of volunteers – the ones crowd-sourcing funds and providing everything from thermal underwear to first aid kits to food for the troops, both from volunteer battalions and the regular army. For many of them, helping the army has become their lives, and they place themselves in danger when going up to the frontline under enemy shellings. The volunteers are doing so much that they are even getting criticized for taking the load that should be the government’s on their shoulders, and thus allowing for it to remain inefficient and inactive.

How do they get weapons?

Battalion members learning to operate a grenade launcher

“Volunteer battalion” in Right Sector’s case also means they don’t get weapons and ammunition from the Army. Their rifles are mostly won in battle; ammunition is bartered from the regular army units in exchange for supplies brought by volunteers. Sometimes the “barter” is purely symbolic: it’s in the Army’s interests for the Right Sector to be armed and protect their backs. The Right Sector has access to the Army’s heavy artillery for the same reason: they want to fight so it’s best to give them the opportunity to do so.

What do they think about the government?

The Army is not the only organization whose corruption is despised. Friend Leopard says that the Euromaidan revolution did not succeed, and this is only the start. “Our government right now is led by traitors. Not one person responsible for the Maidan shootings has been prosecuted, and neither have the army generals responsible for all the soldiers killed in the battle of Ilovaisk. Corruption still thrives; the people in power have been replaced by others but they are going down the old rotten road. What we all want to do is march on Kyiv and make them either work for the people or leave. But we understand that if we do that, the Russian army will be in Kyiv the next day. So first we will protect the border and then go to change the system. It will take not one year and not two, but we will change it.”

The Right Sector is famed by its radical actions and a refusal to compromise with corruption. For example, when Ukraine’s corrupt border service demanded their regular bribe to clear customs for vehicles designated to the battalion as aid in fighting the war, a phone call from the Right Sector’s leadership promising that if their vehicles weren’t cleared the customs officers’ cars would be taken instead managed to solve the problem in a matter of minutes.  Amid growing dissatisfaction with slow reforms in post-Maidan Ukrainian society, many here see radical action to be the only way to advance justice and change the dysfunctional societal system rotted away by corruption over many years. “How else can you deal with these people…

How far-right is the Right Sector battalion?

Wedding in the Right Sector battalion
Wedding in the Right Sector battalion

The members of the battalion are so diverse it’s almost headspinning. There is a charismatic church pastor who is always jolly, no matter the situation, and a neopaganist. An anarchist that joined the battalion because he saw they were doing the “right thing” and a young man fed up with low salaries and the general state of affairs. People from West Ukraine fighting for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and from East Ukraine because they want to return home and kick out invaders from their land. A buryat (one of Siberia’s ethnic groups) from occupied Crimea says he will only stop when Crimea is returned to Ukraine. A city mayor and first-year university students sneaking away from studies to become soldiers. There are young and old, men and women. Some are even wed in camouflage uniforms right at the front.

Not all are part of the Right Sector movement or support the political party, some just joined the battalion because of its reputation as a motivated combat group with good commanders (those that “keep to the oath given to the Ukrainian people” and care about their soldiers – don’t treat them as cannon fodder). The political party itself proclaims as its goal the creation of a “Ukrainian national state governed by the people,” its struggle is to “establish a power of the people instead of a power over the people,” and “imperialism, chauvinism, communism, nazism, xenophobia, cosmopolitism, globalism, pseudonationalism” as enemies in that struggle.

I tried to find out who exactly a Ukrainian is. “In order to be a Ukrainian you don’t have to be born as one, you have to feel yourself as one. You have to be one in your heart and soul. A nation is made up of the people around us that say “yes, I am a Ukrainian, and I want to live here and I will not leave.” Another answer: “Ukrainian isn’t a nationality, it’s a state of mind.” All those asked cared little about nationality or ethnicity, but cared greatly about removing corruption and oligarchy. Many of them don’t want Ukraine to be part of EU and NATO – these are considered to be empires. The goal is the establishment of a strong Ukrainian independent state.

So, it’s hard to say how much this is far-right in the classical meaning. The Right Sector’s nationalism is mostly about liberating Ukraine from remnants of Russian imperialism which has been the centerpoint of the struggles of Ukrainian nationalism in the 20th century, as well as liberating Ukraine from the “internal occupation” of traitors and oligarchs. The varied ethnic backgrounds of Right Sector members suggest that “nationalism” in this case is more about patriotism than anything else.

Chances are, a Ukraine without corruption is becoming the new national idea of the nation that, according to some, is being reborn. However, Right Sector’s radical determination to eliminate corrupt officials and traitors doesn’t seem to address the reasons for their existing in the first place. Further from the frontline, the sheer heroism of Right Sector members becomes diluted with actions somewhat less brilliant. Friend Leopard told me that if we were to fundraise for the battalion, we should make sure we send the supplies directly through volunteers to Pisky; if it goes through the central base, the chances are that the Pisky division will not see them. On Right Sector checkpoints, people can be arrested for ideological support of separatism. The ones arrested can be thrown into the Right Sector dungeon. The ones in the dungeon may be tortured and beaten. The Right Sector’s arguments are that the separatists are much worse, and that they tortured our guys. War is ugly, and it permeates a cycle of hate. But one thing remains certain: it is the Right Sector that is defending their land from an invasion, and not the other way around.

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