KIEV — An organization with a disturbing profile has burst onto the scene in Ukraine, causing confusion — and inviting contempt, in some cases — among the general public. The Natsionalna Droujina (national militia, in Ukrainian) first appeared in Kiev on Jan. 28, with a grand coming-out party, but is essentially a spinoff of the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary organization that formed in May 2014, at the beginning of the Donbass War, and is sponsored by people close to the minister of the interior himself.
The Droujina claims to have 600 members — young, athletic men sporting hipster beards. On that Sunday, the group filmed itself in the center of Kiev in a staging worthy of a German film from the 1930s. Dressed in black-and-grey camouflage, the members marched on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the capital's central square. That evening, between the walls of an old fortress and by torch light, the recruits took their oath before Andriy Biletsky, Azov's founding commander.
This video and its proto-fascist aesthetic, shot without the shadow of a policeman in sight, was seen tens of thousands of times online. In it, the organization's leader, Ihor Mikhailenko, speaks of "modern nationalism" and mentions the goal of "imposing the Ukrainian order, cleaning up the streets, fighting against alcohol and drug trafficking, illegal gambling." The message is clear: "We will not hesitate to use force to restore order if the government does not."
Vyacheslav Likhachev, who leads the National Minorities Rights Monitoring Group, has long been following this movement and its affiliates. "From a formal point of view, this brotherhood has no ideology. It's not a political party but rather a sort of NGO," he explains. "They only use the terms Ukraine and nationalism, but it is clearly a radical, right-wing organization, advocating racist and neo-Nazi ideas."
The battalion also trains children in military-ideological camps.
Centuries ago, the droujini were military guards working privately for the princes of the Kievan Rus. The same term was used later by the Soviet Union to refer to "volunteer patrols" fighting crime. Likhachev calls this new variant "part of a large Azov galaxy, which consists of the military regiment, a political party called the National Corps, and satellite organizations."
Kiev cityscape — Photo: GoodFreePhotos
At the beginning of the war, the volunteers of the Azov battalion grabbed people's attention because of the history of its commanders, former small-time hoodlums from the extremist underground in Kharkiv (in Eastern Ukraine), and because of its neo-Nazi aesthetics. The regiment was integrated into the official National Guard in the fall of 2014, under the supervision of the Interior Ministry. Today, the battalion is said to have 1,000 men and several hundred veterans that have been recycled into various "civic organizations."
The battalion also trains children in military-ideological camps. Since 2016, the National Corps, whose sources of income are murky, has been hiding its racist and violent roots behind a softer, patriotic and history-based rhetoric that looks to cash in on the national pride the war with Russia awakened. It tries to piggyback on socially acceptable struggles, like the fight against uncontrolled real estate speculation.
In fact, the Natsionalna Droujina is already active. In the Western Ukraine city of Khmelnytskyi, it violently clashed with police in December. In mid-January, in Cherkassy, a city of 285,000 inhabitants in the center of the country, its hooded members burst into a city council meeting and forced the government body to dissolve itself. In late January, during a historical commemoration, activists intervened in a public high school in Ivano-Frankivsk, in Western Ukraine, sporting Nazi symbols in front of the students.
In several cities, the group has already obtained the status of "civilian law-enforcement organization." In other parts of the country, for example in Kiev, real police officers are complaining. But the deputy minister of the interior, Ivan Varchenko, seems to be on board with Natsionalna Droujina. "We advise all citizens who want to help protect public order to join the work of these organizations, which work officially with the police," he surprisingly said.
I don't think the Droujina is really dangerous. It looks more like a club of people in military clothes.
The Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the second most powerful figure in the government, tempered his advisor's stance, recalling that "the state and the police hold the monopoly of authority." Still, it was Avakov himself, originally from Kharkiv, who politically sponsored Azov, playing the ad-hoc patriotism card.
But it's also true that Avakov's party, the People's Front — created by former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — has an approval rating of just 1%. Even together, Ukraine's three far-right parties are only backed by about 4% of the population. Their influence, in other words, is limited, according to Likhachev.
"I don't think the Droujina is really dangerous. It looks more like a club of people in military clothes," the researcher says. Their video, he adds, "is a good PR stunt to create the illusion of a strong group in their competition with other micro groups."