URZUF, Ukraine — From his watch post overlooking the sandy beaches of the Azov Sea, Nemets is charged with guarding the shoreline against a possible Russian incursion.
“Twenty minutes by boat, and you’re in Russia,” the 30-year-old said, as he squinted into the midday sun and shrugged to adjust the heavy bulletproof vest weighing down his narrow shoulders in the summer heat.
Nemets, who prefers to go only by his nom de guerre, comes from the central Ukrainian city of Kirovohrad and is a member of the all-volunteer Azov Battalion, one of Ukraine’s many paramilitary groups formed in response to the government’s struggle against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, the territory where a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down on July 17.
“This is war, and this is how people become a nation,” he said. “This is the process in which we are learning who is strong and who isn’t.”
The pro-Kiev battalion was named after the blue waters of this southeastern Ukrainian sea that Nemets now guards. More than half of the battalion’s fighters are Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians, who were brought up in the region now being fought over and who may have spent summer holidays swimming in the sea’s warm waters.
Many of the Azov Battalion members are, by their own description, ultra-right Ukrainian nationalists. Ideologically, they are aligned with the Social-National Assembly, a confederation of groups in Ukraine that have drawn heavy criticism for their radical form of nationalism since the start of the protest movement in Kiev last November, which eventually ousted the Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
But in Ukraine’s current war the lines have blurred between patriotism and extreme nationalism in this former Soviet republic, now deeply divided as it muddles through its worst political crisis since the breakup of the Soviet Union. At times, the government has coordinated with groups accused of extreme nationalism in its military operation against what it says is a Moscow-sponsored separatist movement. The fighters of the Azov Battalion are a symbol of that alliance, and it is a coordination that some analysts say should be watched carefully.
“Modern history shows that any opportunistic cooperation of the authorities with the extreme right in the end results in problems for the government and society,” wrote Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Ukraine’s far right and a Ph.D. student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, in his blog last month.
The Azov Battalion is recognized as part of the Ministry of the Interior’s troops and has been actively engaged in battles in key areas of what the government calls an “anti-terrorist operation,” or ATO. It has included fights for Mariupol, the largest of the port cities on the Azov Sea, on May 9 and June 13.
The battalion has adopted symbols and slogans that come close to those used by neo-Nazis, drawing alarm from many moderate Ukrainians and fueling the fire of Russian media accusations that the current Kiev government is a “fascist junta.”
Oleh Odnorozhenko, the chief ideologist of the Social-National Assembly and a member of the Azov Battalion, insists that they and their sister organization the Right Sector are not neo-Nazis or neo-fascist, as the Russian media have depicted them.
“That is all Putinism propaganda,” Odnorozhenko said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that the groups are elements of an anti-Russian fascism determined to eradicate ethnic Russians from Ukraine. “We aren’t anti-Russian here. Two-thirds of the guys speak Russian. But we are anti-Putin.”
For all the controversy surrounding the government’s association with paramilitary groups like Azov, some argue that it is a necessary evil in extreme times.
“The country is quite radicalized on both sides now,” said Vasyl Arbuzov, a Donetsk native and an aide to the Kiev-appointed governor of the province, Sergei Taruta. “These aren't the kind of guys I hang out with on the weekend, but at the moment they are the kind of guys we need because they are willing to fight.”
When the battle for Ukraine’s east erupted in April, the country found that its defense forces were in a parlous state after decades of budgetary neglect. Ukraine, it turned out, was not prepared to wage a war on its own soil, particularly what the government claims is a fight against the heavily funded Russian military.
“I'm not sure their nationalistic ideology is taken that seriously by the guys at the battalion, but it's the thing that binds them together at the moment. It's the tissue that's holding them together as they fight for Ukraine,” Arbuzov said. “They aren't here to protect the white race. They are here to protect the state of Ukraine against oppressors, which today is the Russian Federation.”
The 300 or so troops of the Azov Battalion are living and training in the ousted president’s former summer residence here, a collection of multistoried beach homes in a landscaped setting atop a picturesque cliff overlooking the Azov Sea.
On the training grounds, men run drills on storming buildings and urban fighting in an open space in the middle of the seaside resort’s territory. Nearby, there is a common building housing sleeping quarters and a cafeteria.
While some of the men were on a training course, others were working out with free weights in makeshift outdoor gyms, or tinkering with the battalion’s military vehicles, including its own makeshift armored personnel carrier. A fighter who goes only by his nom de guerre, Malik, said he designed the APC himself, using welded steel to create attack-proof side panels on an old Russian Kamaz heavy truck.
Malik said he was a motorcycle mechanic before he joined the battalion in May, after his native Crimea was annexed by Russia. His APC creation survived an attack during a fight in Mariupol last month. “Everyone wants one now. The Right Sector tried to copy my design, but they couldn’t do it,” Malik said. “But we need more equipment here, particularly technical weapons and body armor.”
While the battalion is recognized by the Interior Ministry and provided with some arms, it is largely funded by charity from Ukrainians, wealthy businessmen, the Ukrainian diaspora and other European far-right groups.
Its ideological alignment with other far-right, social-nationalist groups has attracted volunteers from Sweden, Italy, France, Canada and Russia.
Lemko, a Canadian volunteer whose roots are Ukrainian, said he came to the Azov Battalion several weeks ago because he was concerned about the direction in which Ukraine was heading. He said he was a national socialist — though he rejected the term neo-Nazi — and was a member of far-right groups in Canada, many of which, he said, face problems with the Canadian government because of their political beliefs.
The Canadian volunteer said he was fighting not just against the pro-Russian separatists in the east but for Ukraine’s future; that is, a future that does not include joining the European Union. Joining the EU would destroy Ukraine’s national identity, just as it destroyed the national states of the rest of Europe by admitting economic refugees across borders, he said.
“Ukraine should be for Ukrainians,” Lemko said. “We don’t need the European idea of multicultural extremism here. Ukraine must protect its cultural and ethnic integrity.”
Such sentiments — which go directly opposite to what the pro-European leadership in Kiev and many of its supporters want — might bode ill for the future of the alliance between the far right and Ukraine’s current government.
Nor is Lemko alone. Sitting in a plastic lawn chair with a Kalashnikov resting on his lap, he discussed Ukraine’s future with two volunteer fighters from Sweden. They all agreed that Ukraine is a wealthy country whose economic potential was stolen by oligarchs. But recently elected President Petro Poroshenko was just another oligarch replacing the previous regime, they said.
“I’m here to support a national idea of Ukraine. I’m willing to die helping them get these bandits out,” said Sevren, 28, from Gothenburg, Sweden.
Lemko agreed. “We actually have two enemies now, the EU on one side and the Russian Federation on the other. But first, we need to deal with the separatists,” he said.