Hundreds of men, lined up in rows of six, were marching along Kreshchatyk, Kiev’s central avenue. Some of these well-organized units were dressed in camouflage, some in black uniforms with faces hidden under black balaclavas. Above them waved black flags. The movement’s statement in the video said: “We are going to establish order in Ukraine.”
After more than three years of war, military marches and rallies on the streets did not surprise anybody in Ukraine; there was nothing unusual, either, in the words “National Squad” written on the backs of the marching men—far-right militia constantly challenge the government, threatening President Petro Poroshenko with another revolution.
But this march on Sunday, Jan. 28, was not ordinary. Its purpose was to mark the swearing-in ceremony for more than 600 members of a newly born nationalist paramilitary force of fighters intended to patrol the streets of Ukrainian cities.
The commander of the Azov Battalion, the former founder of ultra-nationalist movement “Social-National Assembly” Andriy Biletsky, also known as “White Leader,” personally took the oath from members of the militia for “faithful service to the Ukrainian people.”
Biletsky’s party, the National Corps, is against Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO. He says he thinks the EU wouldn’t let Ukraine join, and that he is “not a fan of NATO.” Among other things, both demand Western European democratic standards for membership.
Biletsky, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told reporters that members of the National Squad were on daily patrols of Ukrainian cities, fighting the drug trade and the “alcoholic genocide of the Ukrainian people.”
At a press conference held on Wednesday the leader of the National Squad, Igor Mikhailenko, described the plan of his militia’s duty: “By our presence on the streets we show that there is no place for crime.”
Earlier this week members of the National Squad demonstrated their skills at the city hall budget meeting in the town of Cherkasy. The city officials pulled their heads in and looked down when dozens of young militia members in balaclavas and uniforms lined up in the aisles.
National Squad members warned the deputies that nobody would leave the city hall until the budget was accepted. According to an online publication, Day.ua, after five attempts to vote, the majority, 22 deputies reluctantly supported the city budget.
“We are concerned that some of the National Squad militia are former members of neo-Nazi organizations,” Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. “We wonder if the Interior Ministry provided the militia with legal training, [and] whether this street patrol is going to defend everybody or only people they choose to protect.”
In the meantime, as public hype boiled over, shocked Ukrainians described the National Squad as an undemocratic force. Some suggested that the Ministry of Interior Affairs was behind the militia, with an agenda to put pressure on Poroshenko before the 2019 presidential election. The resurgence with government complicity, if that is the case, was very disturbing, not least because it played into Moscow’s hands. All week long Russian state media flashed headlines about the “Nazi march” in Ukraine.
More worrisome news had arrived from Lviv, Ukraine: Somebody threw a smoke grenade at a bookshop where several dozen people, including representatives of the Jewish community, were listening to a lecture about the Holocaust last Wednesday.
On Sunday a few dozen protesters came out to demonstrate against the National Squad. “We do not need your military order!” the protesters declared. The participants said there was no need for the National Squad, that they were happy with police patrolling Ukrainian streets. The protesters came out with banners that said: “We are against Nazism and Militarism,” and, “We are against a Reich in Ukraine.”
A Ukrainian sociologist, Anya Hrytsenko, analyzed the public reaction on social media this week. “We see a lot of negative reaction to the National Squad. Although the participants of the marches did not use Nazi salute gestures, did not chant anything ultra-nationalist, people already have a reflex and say they fear the return of 1930s,” Hrytsenko told The Daily Beast. She said many suspect that this force would be used as cover for racketeering.
Last Monday evening, a reporter from Aristocrats Radio, Yaroslav Lodygin, saw another march by dozens of National Squad members on Reiterskaya Street. On that day Kiev marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Kruty between Ukrainian volunteer soldiers and Bolshevik forces advancing toward the capital.
The militia’s torch-lit procession was chanting: “Glory to Ukraine! Death to enemies! Glory to heroes of Kruty! Ukraine is first!” The march was followed by several police cars.
“I found it ironic that militia claiming they were better than police at patrolling our streets used police for their own defense,” Lodygin told The Daily Beast. “As with many of my colleagues, I tend to believe that the National Squad is a manifestation of force by the largely unpopular Interior Minister Arsen Avakov addressed to President Poroshenko; I am convinced that the state is capable of controlling Ukrainian nationalists.”
At the press conference held on Wednesday, Roman Chernyshev, press secretary for the National Squad, described the militia as “a part of the Azov movement.”
Back in 2014, the Azov Battalion showed courage in the battles against Russian-backed forces in Donbas, the eastern provinces of Ukraine. The battalion’s soldiers were not shy about their ultra-right views. In an interview with The Guardian, an Azov soldier denied that the Holocaust had ever happened and said about the Russian president: “Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.”
Ukrainian minorities also felt concerned about the far-right power growing in Ukraine. But not everybody saw reasons to worry. The head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group in Ukraine, Vyacheslav Likhachev, believed it was too early to draw conclusions about the National Squad’s popularity. “The far-right groups and political parties have been losing their electorate in the last few years,” Likhachev told The Daily Beast. “I can see that the National Squad, as an alternative to the unpopular police, has a chance to find sympathy among ordinary people.”