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Ukraine: Far right on the Southern front

October 5, 2015

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon*

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog ( on topics related to ongoing conflicts. Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: As the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine have solidified, extremist political groups – often ideologically confused – are arrayed in geographical clusters. This post will take a look at the far right groups which occupy the southern front of pro-Russian Donetsk, the ideologies which they follow and what significance such groups hold in Donetsk.

Inside eastern Ukraine, the disputed territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (“DPR” & “LPR” respectively) have become a melting pot for armed nationalist groups of various convictions. The “DPR” and “LPR” are the two pro-Russian de facto states which comprise the disputed eastern territories in Ukraine. Together they form a confederation known as “Novorossiya”, meaning “New Russia”. This confederation exists only on paper, and is as controversial as the de facto states that comprise it. Over the course of time nationalist groups have fallen into geographic clusters in which groups of different convictions are located. In Lugansk, historically a Cossack area, the Cossack identity is very strong. A “National Militia” has been formed in which Cossack battalions perform a task equivalent to that of the less impressive “DPR” Republican Guard – a type of territorial defense brigade. Militia groups in the Donetsk region, on the other hand, appear more diverse, including Soviet revivalist groups to the north and west of Donetsk and Rus’-centric nationalist groups lining the southern front.

Rusich, nationalist

Storm Group Rusich: perhaps a few dozen strong

Rus’-centric nationalism is nostalgic for the old Rus’ states of medieval times. They are considered to be the predecessors to modern Russia. This is often characterized by the use of Slavic pagan symbology and runes of that era and location. Such nationalism is not new, nor is it specific to Russia: nationalists of Scandinavian countries often look to Viking/Norse roots to strengthen and reinforce their own national identity. These fighters often arrive in theatre voluntarily through privately funded organizations similar to the Imperial Legion , a radically orthodox neo-monarchist organisation. Such organizations are often responsible for tasks such as preliminary training and transport to the “war zone”, at which point the local authorities will take over.

When talking about Rus’-centric nationalism, a prominent group is Storm Group Rusich (referred to simply as Rusich from now on) which is, curiously, a favourite all around. Although the Rusich group is only a few dozen strong, it has become quite popular with pro-Novorossiyan media and has caught a lot of attention from western social media sources . It is to be found within the 1st battalion “Viking” of the 1st brigade of the “DPR” army corps which embraces the same kind of ideology although to a much lesser extreme. Just south of the Viking battalion is the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard commanded by Aleksander “Varyag” Matyushin, who was far more vocal with his nationalist ideas before the fighting started. The culture of this battalion is similar in many ways to “Viking”, although more geared towards a revival of the Russian monarchy rather than being infatuated with Rus’/Viking symbolism (although they are no strangers to such things). This rather odd mix of interests makes it one of the more ideologically confused groups in the conflict. But one thing all of these groups do have in common is a distaste towards the “DPR” leadership and the “communists, socialists and Chechens” which hold the front line in the capital region.

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the “DPR”

Varyag group

“More enemies, more honour!”

Ironically, the infamous Azov battalion of Ukraine, to be found on the other side of the front lines, espouses similar views and symbology. Azov has taken criticism from western and Russian media alike for its strong nationalistic overtones and use of symbols rooted in the regional ancient culture long irrelevant to everyday life by now. Azov embraces symbology tied to Germanic neo-paganism. The most notable example being the unit logo which features the black sun – most commonly associated with Nazi symbology. Recently the logo has transitioned into something resembling the SS twin lightning flash symbol. Rusich, which in the past has engaged in battle with Azov, is more partial to Slavic neo-paganism as evidenced by their usage of the Kolovrat – the Slavic equivalent of the black sun, however they do at times use Germanic neo-pagan symbology. A qualified guess as to why both sides employ such symbology is used is that they consider the old Vikings, both Rus’ and Scandic/Germanic, to be the ultimate representations of whiteness and that they in turn believe that employing such symbology will make them culturally pure. On top of this, these symbols all tie in to the Rus’ state run by the Varangians back in medieval times, suggesting strong nostalgia for a “pure” Russian state.
The use of neo-paganism amongst these militia groups seems more for cultural and ideological purposes than religious ones, Rusich being the only known exception which actually carries out heathen rituals, footage of these rituals used to be publically available but were taken down due to negative attention. There is also a high presence of Russian imperial symbology. This is especially popular with the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard, which finds inspiration from different times at which Russia and its predecessors were considered to be great on their own, in this way, neo-pagan symbology does not directly clash with the Orthodox Christian undertones of Imperial Russian symbolism.

Such strong symbology attracts many new outside fighters who recognise this symbology as an invitation to fight for their cause. These fighters often stem from various nationalist groups like Russian National Unity but also nationalist groups from countries outside Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact the most prominent fighters from Rusich are not even native to Russia. Rusich’s leader Alexey “Serb” Yurevich is a young Serb, with somewhat of a celebrity status in “Novorossiya” and Russia, even taking a trip to St. Petersburg with a Norwegian neo-nazi from his platoon last year to attend a conference with active duty Russian service members. These two fighters receive the majority of pro-Russian media attention in the form of interviews and airtime when they have announcements to make.

Although the most prolific groups with nationalistic ideals of this kind are mostly situated along the southern “DPR” front, small groups with similar views of neo-monarchism and Slavic neo-paganism are starting to pop up in Lugansk, both in Cossack units as well as independent brigades. This is no great surprise as Rusich began as a Lugansk militia group. But it does seem to be colliding with what seems to be an attempt by higher powers to concentrate that brand of nationalism in one place. This might address a fear that groups of opposing views could turn against each other in the absence of a tangible common enemy if ceasefires hold.

It is not uncommon for militia units to operate vigilante night patrols and enforce their own forms of localised martial law: the “DPR” leadership may have chosen one of the least densely populated regions for the least-disciplined of parts of their militia which they have less control over. The “DPR” in particular appears to be reacting to fears of infighting, effectively militarizing the political party “Donetsk Republic” which holds the majority of seats in the “People’s Council”, the legislature of “DPR”. This is being done by accepting large amounts of soldiers from the same units to join the party , .

Donetsk and Lugansk have been host to many lethal power plays between militia groups and the local governments. The assassination of Aleksey Mozgovoi, the former commander of the “LPR” Separate Mechanized Battalion “Prizrak”, is one of the better known examples. Mozgovoi was vocally critical of the “Novorossiyan” leaderships and survived one assassination attempt before being killed in the second. Other militia leaders have suffered the same fate, or have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

There are many different politically charged militia groups within “Novorossiya”. The ones this article focuses on are the most notable in the context of political ideology or because of the extreme nationalist nature of their beliefs.

There is cause for concern here.  Such a large collection of militia groups with more or less the same nationalist ideology in a small region with a power vacuum still being filled is dangerous. This could have serious internal political and security implications for the ruling governments of these de facto states, which have a history of less than ideal ways of dealing with opposition. In the long run, if these factors do lead to instability, it will mean more trouble for the Donbass region and its stakeholders.

At the international level, where people come from abroad to fight for a common nationalist cause, returning fighters could pose a security risk to their home nation.  The prospect of the pro-Russian nationalism in its different forms having a recent military experience is worrisome.

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