Mariupol, Ukraine — The varied fortunes of war played out in cruel fashion in Ukraine last weekend as elation at an important victory against pro-Russian forces was dampened by the deaths of 49 Ukrainian servicemen when their plane was shot down.
At dawn last Friday I accompanied Ukrainian forces that launched an attack against pro-Russian gunmen who had seized power in April in the industrial city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. The pro-Russian forces had driven out a Ukrainian national-guard unit and murdered Mariupol’s police chief.
Ukrainians hope that the recapture of Mariupol heralds a turning point in their battle to prevent Moscow from annexing the conflict-ridden eastern parts of their country.
The attack on Friday was spearheaded by the Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those eastern regions — the focus of separatist activity intended ultimately to incorporate large swaths of Ukraine into Russia.
Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, the national guard, and other volunteer units, making a force of around 400 men whose actions were coordinated by an army general heading the government’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Donetsk.
I had got myself embedded with the Azov Battalion ten days earlier after I discovered that it was preparing to lead the Mariupol operation. The city is one of some dozen places in Ukraine where separatists violently seized control. Until Friday, attempts to reverse the occupations had failed because of a combination of ineptness on the part of the Ukrainian government and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Kyiv government’s military.
I met up with the Azov Battalion at its Kyiv headquarters for a ceremony where a batch of 53 new recruits swore an oath of loyalty to Ukraine before being dispatched southeast by bus on a 15-hour drive to their base on the Azov Sea — hence the unit’s name — near the town of Berdyansk.
Most of the soldiers in the battalion are well under 30 years old, many in their late teens or early twenties. Most have never had any military experience, and they underwent just three weeks of training at a national-guard or army camp before being judged battle-ready members of the battalion.
Also, most — around three-quarters — of the battalion are Russian-speakers themselves, belying Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempts to portray Russian-speaking Ukrainians as pro-Moscow Ukrainians suffering oppression and discrimination by the Kyiv government because they use the Russian language.
Many of the battalion’s members had taken part in the months of mass demonstrations against Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he reneged on a deal to bring his country closer to the European Union and instead sided with Putin.
Some of those now in the battalion were among those who transformed the passionate protests into revolution and were in the forefront of street battles against Yanukovych’s brutal security forces. The revolution culminated with Yanukovych’s ouster in February after more than 100 protesters were shot dead by his paramilitary forces.
Almost immediately after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Putin arrayed tens of thousands of his troops on Ukraine’s border and occupied Crimea. Many street-battle-hardened protesters swiftly joined the Ukrainian army or national guard, or the volunteer units that sprang up in response to the Russian aggression.
The Azov Battalion is one of these units. It has attracted protesters who were drawn to nationalist parties like Svoboda or militant groups that later morphed into political parties such as the Right Sector or the Radical Party, the latter headed by Oleh Lyashko, one of the Azov Battalion’s leaders. In last month’s presidential election, Lyashko caused surprise by coming in third in a field of 18 candidates.
Because so many of the battalion’s members are from eastern Ukraine, they wear balaclava masks to hide their faces for fear that if they were recognized, their families, many living in separatist-controlled areas, would come to harm. For the same reason, they use noms de guerre.