Tough Guys

Ukraine’s Military Veterans Protect Kiev Protesters

Veterans of the Soviet wars in Afghanistan have turned out to help protect protesters in Independence Square as they call for the ouster of Ukraine’s government and for joining the E.U.


In the dim light of a kerosene lamp, commanders of what is now known as the Military Headquarters gathered in their tent to discuss strategy for the upcoming night on Independence Square, the center of the Ukrainian protests. The demonstrations are peaceful—even when police pushed onto the square earlier this week in a concentrated crackdown, protesters only pushed back with their bare hands. But the talk here often sounds more serious. Most of the commanders who strategize about rebuffing the riot police raids are veterans of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan. Once again, their patriotism called them to serve their motherland, though this time it’s not the Soviet Union; their job is to protect Ukraine’s capital of Kiev from violence, they said.

Around the tent, the square stormed with revolutionary energy. Thousands of Ukranians chanted “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!" Covering their hearts with right hands, people sang the national anthem or read prayers. Most of the protesters still came to Maidan with the strong belief that Ukraine should become a member of the European Union, and that their government had to resign. But there were also deeper values that inspired people to spend days and nights in the cold: protesters wished to live in a free and honest country, where laws worked.

The veterans in the tent did not belong to any opposition parties participating in pro-E.U. protest. “We do not trust politicians—not a single of them came out to meet us when we were coming back from Afghanistan,” said the leader in the tent, sergeant major Oleg Mikheyev, a former paratrooper fighting in the Fizagat region of Afghanistan. At today's protest on the square, Mikheyev and other commanders played the role of peacekeepers—they negotiated a detente with official security forces. And at night, when police attempted to push people out, the Afghan war veterans made a living shield between the crowd of protesters and riot police.

Last Tuesday night, when thousands of interior ministry forces surrounded Maidan, there were only 30 Afghan veterans left in the tents. For the first time in 10 days, Mikheyev had gone to spend a night at home with his wife. His phone rang, when he got out of the shower “Berkut is about to attack Maidan,” his friends told him. Mikheyev said he ran faster than he'd ever run in his life from his house to Maidan. “I rushed as fast as I could, I knew my friends were in trouble,” Mikheyev said. That night, police bruised the veterans on their faces and legs, but what mattered most is that the vets managed to prevent widespread violence.

One of the reasons that Maidan's defenders were meeting on Thursday night—despite the extreme cold outside, which had chapped their faces and hands—was the video they had discovered on the Internet. In the footage shot by German journalists, Wladimir Klitschko, the boxer brother of Udar party leader Vitaliy Klitschko, was making a deal with Berkut police. “Nobody is going to throw anybody away,” Klitschko said to a man in black uniform and helmet about “the pushing” scenario of clashes between opposition and police on Tuesday night.

Furious about politicians once again betraying them, officers marched towards Udar party headquarters. “Klitschko should personally explain to us why they did it,” said sergeant Alexander Abayev, as he was walking fast by people serving free snacks and tea for protesters. “Maidan is not a place for secret deals,” he said.

A man guarding the door to the Udar party office on the second floor of the Trade Union building asked the officers to wait in the hallway. After a few minutes, one of the Udar party's key politicians, Kiril Kulikov, came out to talk to the veterans.

“People on the square are very upset about the deals made behind their back, you have to explain to us what the conversation on the video was about," Mikheyev said. The politician assured the military men that not later than Friday morning Klitschko would tell truth to the square. “If he had something serious to say, he would have called us on the phone,” said, sergeant Abayev, looking disappointed.

Unlike the Orange revolution in 2004, today’s Maidan does not belong to political parties; it lives its own life and is mobilized by the grassroots. Activists of a well-organized student movement of a few thousand young people built barricades almost nine feet tall around the square using wooden boards, tires and heaps of snow. A group of tall and broad-chested young men in camouflage guarded rows of tents in the military part of the camp. “Any true soldier of Ukraine should be on Maidan. I am a soldier, as was my colonel grandfather,” said Anton Fadeyev, 29. “We are made of the most solid material.”