The Battle for Kiev Begins

As bloody clashes between police and protesters kill 25 in Ukraine, both sides are rushing to form paramilitary forces to battle for the country’s future.

Violence between Ukraine’s authorities and the opposition erupted again on the streets of Kiev today, with at least 25 people killed in the clashes. Police forces armed with machine guns stormed Independence Square, while both sides are maneuvering to consolidate their own paramilitary forces to wage war for the country’s future.

PHOTOS: The Bloody Battle for Ukraine

For their part, the Euromaidan activists, who embraced non-violence in the early days of protesting, have started to organize in the face of increasing police brutality. Recently, Polish journalist Piotr Andrusieczko investigated evidence that riot police have used live cartridges against people in the streets of Kiev. He writes that he discovered thousands of cartridge casings on the barricades, apparently fired from the police squads. At least four protesters died from gunshot wounds in the vicinity of the casings, activists say. The authorities have flatly denied using live cartridges, stating that their rifles have only been loaded with rubber bullets.

Meanwhile, in a firsthand account of his arrest, magazine editor Ihor Kobzar detailed alleged brutality at the hands of Ukrainian security forces. “I was thrown into the police bus… A guy lay unconscious next to me. A riot policeman raised his head and inserted a gum shield in his mouth;other held the guy’s shoulders. Somebody cried: ‘Come on, boxer!’ And the guy got several strong punches in his face. I was beaten in my head, then policeman cut my hair, stuffed my mouth with it and forced my jaws to imitate chewing.”

And in a recent Youtube video, Automaidan activist Yaroslav Honchar posted a clip of riot policemen smashing up his car. He said he posted the video to counteractpolice claims that they have not been behind the rash of auto vandalisms in the capital. “Policemen destroyed my Citroën and tryed to draw me out; after that my car looked like it had been chewed by a dinosaur,” Honchar said.

Still, the authorities’ crackdown in Kiev has been restrained to some extent because of global media attention. But as protesters have refused to be cowed, some pro-government groups are taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this month, a local congress of the ruling Party of Regions in Kharkiv formed the “Ukrainian Front” in order to combat the opposition. The head of the local state administration, Myhailo Dobkin, vowed that a People’s Guard would be set up and supported with money from the local government. “The police will act together with us against Euromaidan activists”, the official said.

Later, local journalists managed to establish which organizations have been tapped to make up this “Ukrainian front.” The fight club “Oplot” (“Stronghold”) declared itself an enemy of the Euromaidan, with the group’s leader, Yevhen Jylin, declaring, “I was born in the USSR and I am ready to make war for that state. Men, be ready to die; women, put on your black kerchiefs. The war is already started. Our enemies should know that before we pass them to police, we can break off their legs or hands or knock out their eyes and it will be absolutely legal. Nobody will be punished for that. The law is on our side.” And on the Oplot website, one can read messages such as: “Yesterday we caught a protester and cut his ear.”

Along with Oplot, Cossack groups have been preparing to act in Eastern Ukraine. They declared their connections with the Russian paramilitary “Great Don Army” and got a promise that 10,000 fighters will be sent to aid their cause. The “Night Wolves,” a notorious biker gang from Russia, also recently landed in Crimea peninsula to join the “Ukrainian front.” The groupcounts Vladimir Putin as a fan and in the last year, the Russian president granted the gang $100,000 from the state budget for their activities. “It is a new Kremlin strategy, aimed to seize Ukraine without military or official intervention”, said Motor transport Association lawyer Yury Shulipa.

At the same time the “Slavic Anti-fascist Front” was created in Crimea by Russian MP Alexey Jouravliov and “Russian Unity” party leader Sergey Axionov. In fact, that organization does not have anything to do with anti-fascism. Jouravliov and Axionov put the call out for volunteers against the Euromaidan and said: “Today Western countries struggle against Russia in Ukrainian lands. Ukraine can be saved if only it joins the Custom Union with Russia”.

In response to the growing official and grassroots threats, Euromaidan activists created the Samooborona Maidanu (Self-defence forces of Maidan) in November 2013, which now numbers about 10,000 fighters. They guard Euromaidan territory on the barricade’s perimeter at the city center and help to defend peaceful actions in some other districts. Samooborona fighters are equiped with army helmets, bullet-proof vests, wooden or metal shields, bludgeons, and sometimes with rifles or tear-gas guns.

In an Al Jazeera video report “Learning to resist: women in Ukraine taught new tactics” journalist Neave Barker tells about Yulia, a Ukrainian émigré whocame back from London to join the Samooborona women squad. “After I saw how police were attacking protesters, I just cut off my [life in London] and went to the airport,” says Yulia, clad in a balaclava. She says she is ready to fight even to the death for a better life in Ukraine.