Dispatch

Preparing for War With Ukraine's Fascist Defenders of Freedom

On the frontlines of the new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the hardcore Azov Battalion is ready for battle with Russia. But they're not fighting for Europe, either.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol's burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel ("wolf trap") symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.

The Azov Battalion -- so named for the Sea of Azov on which this industrial city is located -- is one of dozens of volunteer battalions fighting alongside pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine. After separatist troops and armor attacked from the nearby Russian border and took the neighboring town of Novoazovsk, this openly neo-Nazi unit has suddenly found itself defending the city against what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Russian invasion.

Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and "fascists" in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.

With the incursion from the Russian border, Mariupol, which had been peaceful since pro-Russian protestors were forced out in May, has become a third theater in the eastern Ukrainian conflict along with the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian forces claim this week's advance along the coast has been made by separatist rebels, but Oleh Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, comprised of some 500 men, said the Ukrainians are facing thousands of regular Russian Army troops. He claimed that his men have captured dozens of Russian soldiers over the past week and destroyed a Russian fighting infantry vehicle.

"Despite all its wishes, the Russian Army will have a difficult time taking Mariupol," Odnorozhenko said, cradling his Kalashnikov as two more fighters jogged laps with their weapons behind him. "We have left our positions so it's not possible to shell us from Russia. That's why they came to Novoazovsk. Mariupol won't be taken without blood."

Odnorozhenko said the city's defenders are "first and foremost volunteer battalions," with numbers of National Guard and regular Ukrainian Army troops playing a smaller role. Overall, there are more than 50 volunteer battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine, he said. The pervasiveness of these paramilitary units has raised concerns about their influence over the government. National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk said the volunteer battalions play a role in the city's defense but insisted that "all the battalions in the anti-terrorist operation cooperate according to the military chain of command."

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has come, in some ways, to resemble a battle between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. Volunteers from the nationalist groups who clashed with riot police on Kiev's Independence Square this past winter have filled out the ranks of the many battalions fighting alongside Ukraine's small, dilapidated regular army in the east, including Azov.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian forces are striving to reunite what they say are historically Russian lands to create Novorossiya ("New Russia"). Each side refuses to see anything of itself in the other. The pro-Russians call the Ukrainians fascists, who in turn portray their opponents as imperialists. Odnorozhenko said the conflict involved "people with a European identity fighting with Sovietness."

But the "European identity" to which Odnorozhenko aspires is one estranged from mainstream European and American liberalism. The Azov Battalion, whose emblem also includes the "Black Sun" occult symbol used by the Nazi SS, was founded by Andriy Biletsky, head of the neo-Nazi groups Social-National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine. Although the Social-National Assembly website linked to by the Azov Battalion's social network pages said its program was undergoing "development and modernization," other materials on the site give a clear idea of the group's political leanings.

"Unfortunately, among the Ukrainian people today there are a lot of 'Russians' (by their mentality, not their blood), 'kikes,' 'Americans,' 'Europeans' (of the democratic-liberal European Union), 'Arabs,' 'Chinese' and so forth, but there is not much specifically Ukrainian," read one text. "The reason for this situation is the mass propaganda of trans-myths that are foreign to us through advertising, television, laws and education. It's unclear how much time and effort will be needed to eradicate these dangerous viruses from our people."

According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion's political platform supports the natsiokratiya, a system of government devised by the Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, who fought Soviet forces but were also guilty of atrocities such as the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles. It supports a national government based on syndicates representing different classes of the population, as well as a strong foreign policy including the nuclear re-armament of Ukraine, he said.

The battalion has a number of foreign volunteers, including numerous Russians, four Swedes and one Canadian, but no Americans, Odnorozhenko said -- as two jeeps full of tanned fighters in sunglasses and bandannas rolled into base, a wolfsangel painted on each side.

Although he declined to provide details, Odnorozhenko said the Ukrainian forces are deploying armor, building fortifications, and "activating different military groups" in the Mariupol area. Local activists have been digging trenches in some places outside the city and organizing "civil defense" forces.

Ukrainian forces have been falling back in the face of the Russian advance. According to various reports, they had retreated to the west of the town of Bezimenne ("No Name"), which would put them within 20 miles of Mariupol itself.

Besides a strong defense, Ukraine needs the support of the West to defeat the invaders, Odnorozhenko argued. He called for the Europe and the United States to take a more aggressive stance on Russia and begin shipping weapons to Ukrainian pro-government forces. Oddly enough, he compared the conflict to World War II, when his battalion's ideological forebears were fighting Soviet and Western troops.

"The blindness and stupidity of the European political elite will lead to Russian aggression being open and unhidden, and Russian forces will soon be everywhere," he said. "A hybrid war? We have the kind of normal war that was last seen in Europe in 1945." 

SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP

Dispatch

The Dead and the Living in Luhansk

Amid the shells and explosions, there’s little in the way of normal life left in Ukraine’s besieged eastern cities.

LUHANSK, Ukraine — You smell it before you see it. With no electricity and a steady stream of casualties, Luhansk's morgue is struggling to keep up. On Thursday, Aug. 21, lined up on the lawn outside were 17 bodies -- bloated, engulfed in buzzing flies -- while the staff cleaned the refrigerators, hoping that they would soon restart after several weeks of power outage.

Nearly four months after the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists began in earnest, the war grinds on. The Ukrainian army has retaken some towns, closing in on Donetsk, the largest city in the area, which has come under increasingly heavy bombardment. In other places, separatist forces have launched counteroffensives, retaking the city of Novoazovsk and moving in on Mariupol.

But it is, perhaps, the residents of Luhansk who have been in the crossfire the longest. Normally home to nearly half a million people, the city felt like a ghost town when I arrived there recently. Locals arriving on the afternoon train rushed to the relative safety of their homes. There has been virtually no electricity and running water in the city for weeks. Stores are nearly empty. Cell phones and landlines rarely work.

In the morning, it becomes clear that the city is far from empty. Starting at around 6 a.m., hundreds of local residents line up for bread and water at distribution points around Luhansk. Dozens gather at the two points in the city where, if you are patient, you can catch cell-phone reception from a tower in a neighboring town. And they come to the central market as soon as it opens to buy what is left of food and other goods.

By early afternoon, however, the city again goes quiet.

"The shelling in this district always takes place between 2 and 6 p.m.," said the acting head of a local fire station. "On August 15, five shells struck an intersection, killing 18 people. On August 17, shells killed an 80-year-old woman and wounded a 7-year-old boy. On August 17, Grad rockets struck the Epicenter shopping mall where people go to make calls. We tried to extinguish the fire, but artillery shelling started when we arrived and we had to give up. We do nothing else but respond to shelling and rocket attacks these days." He said that in his district alone there had been at least eight incidents of shelling recently that killed civilians.

Luhansk's morgue has received the bodies of about 300 civilians -- about half of them women -- since shelling started in the city in May. The acting head of the morgue said 99 percent had died from shrapnel injuries. A nearby hospital, one of four in the city that receive war-wounded, has treated at least 500 patients, the vast majority with shrapnel wounds.

Anna Dmitrievna, 82, is one such patient. When shelling started one evening in August, she tried to make her way to a basement shelter in the neighborhood. Before she could get to safety, however, a shell exploded nearby and shrapnel tore into her right shoulder, leaving a long gash. She spent the night in the shelter because of continuing shelling, her shoulder bleeding and aching. Only the next day did she receive proper medical treatment at a hospital. Her right hand does not work properly because of her injuries, and she is worried about how she will manage since her family has left the city.

Tamara, 67, is in the same ward. A shell hit her house on Aug. 14, killing her son and husband, burning her house to the ground, and causing serious injury to her back and hip. "My husband is dead, my son is dead, and I can't even bury them because I am here," she said. "Everything was taken in one moment. My house is destroyed. I have no money. I might as well jump from the window. I have nothing left."

There are dozens of victims like Tamara and Anna Dmitrievna in Luhansk. Most of the injured believe that Ukrainian forces fired the shells or the rockets, though some said that they do not know. It is difficult to conclusively establish responsibility for specific attacks, and both the rebels and government forces usually deny responsibility for attacks that kill civilians. The circumstances of several of the attacks in Luhansk do, however, point the finger at Kiev. Because Ukrainian government forces are trying to retake the rebel-controlled city, it is logical that shells and rockets landing in separatist-controlled areas come from government forces and vice versa.

Some attacks also appear to have targeted separatist bases and offices, which would be consistent with government strategy. Some of the initial shelling in Luhansk, for example, struck close to one of the city's military recruitment offices, which had been taken over by rebels. "They tried shelling the recruitment office for a week," a local first responder said. "They hit everything around it, including the bus station and a hospital, but not the office itself."

Several shells also struck the area of Luhansk's central market on Aug. 18, killing four people and burning down a dozen small shops. That area has been shelled repeatedly, including this past week. Most likely, the attacks were directed at the regional administration building, about 300 feet away, which is the rebels' headquarters.

First responders operating under continuing bombardment also said that they could hear the shells being fired from government-controlled areas.

But the rebels bear responsibility as well. Outgoing heavy artillery fire could be heard in several places in the city, including near a hospital, which exposed civilians to the risk of return fire. Under the laws of war, warring parties must take all possible measures to avoid endangering civilians, such as, where feasible, not locating military targets within or near densely populated areas. In other places, such as in villages to the north of Luhansk currently under government control, Human Rights Watch has documented that rebels used explosive weapons in a way that injured and killed civilians and destroyed houses, shops, and infrastructure.

As the morgue and hospital staff explained, the vast majority of civilian deaths and injuries in Luhansk is due to the use of explosive weapons. As a matter of policy, these weapons shouldn't be used in populated areas such as Luhansk because of the risk to civilians. The use of some of the weapons documented here, such as unguided Grad rockets, is a clear violation of the laws of war; combatants cannot accurately distinguish military from civilian targets -- which may amount to war crimes.

I asked the acting head of the morgue what his biggest problem is, given the lack of electricity, shortage of water, and reduced staff,. After pausing for a second, he said: "These problems I can deal with. My biggest problem is that the fighting keeps killing too many civilians."

Fabio Bucciarelli AFP