As with so many matters of national importance, the annexation of Crimea that swiftly followed the Ukrainian revolution has largely faded from the global spotlight. But the backdrop of violence, cut supply chains, and ongoing skirmishing has coalesced into a dysfunctional state of normality. Most of those who remain—whether they identify as Russian or Ukrainian—are embittered by the war, unable to decide on a viable way forward.
News of the Russian annexation of Crimea dominated headlines in early 2014, giving way to updates that regularly made appearances in the news. But for better or worse, Westphalian principles and a whole host of other factors ultimately choked other nation states, preventing them from getting involved in the events, though many condemned the Kremlin’s actions. Many citizens in Crimea took matters into their own hands, whether they were for remaining a part of Ukraine or otherwise.
The soldiers of the Azov Battalion are known for their patriotism and courage. Once Russian forces had taken advantage of the power vacuum in Kiev in February, entered Ukraine and begun establishing control over territory, the Azov battalion formed: a 150-men strong volunteer brigade of loyalists. They served as a local self-defense force amid the pro-Russian unrest in Mariupol, a key city by the coast on the mainland. Six months later, the Azov Battalion was also involved in the attempts to recapture Ilovaisk, a city in Donetsk, which was controlled by Russian and pro-Russian insurgents. Hundreds of the Ukrainian military and paramilitary forces were trapped, surrounded, and then killed. After a few days, an uneasy ceasefire was reached, but not honoured. As Ukrainian forces fled, they were massacred by the pro-Russian rebels. The Internal Affairs Ministry of Ukraine condemned their behaviour, indicating that many volunteers—including the Azov battalion—had been killed. The then Azov commander, Andriy Biletsky, claimed that “the regiment took part in the operation for more than 13 days and did not receive any backup from the armed forces.” Their bravery caused a spike in their popularity among the pro-Ukrainian forces.
The fighting was chaotic, and civilians were caught in the crossfire. The pro-Russian insurgents in many parts of the mainland, even where they were more organised (such as in larger cities like Donetsk) they were untrained and not ready for formal combat, even though they had Russian support in the form of funds, weapons, and resources. But they were not the only ones: the Ukrainian army was disorderly; the pro-Ukrainian militant groups, more so. Amid the rising civilian death toll, those who were pro-Ukrainian and could afford to leave left Donetsk. This augmented anti-Ukrainian sentiment among those who chose to stay, or were forced to by their circumstances. Because of the sizable populations of both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, anti-Ukrainian attitudes infiltrated the mainstream.
Some people dismiss the conflict as that of a nation governed by neo-Nazis, protected by neo-Nazis. The Azov battalion leader mentioned in this article—Andriy Biletsky—eventually won Kiev’s local elections and became a member of parliament. Biletsky wrote that the “treatment of [Ukraine’s] national body should begin with racial cleansing of [the] nation…Ukrainians are part of European white race, of its highest quality.” This is not to create a straw man of his argument, which contends that a cohesive regional identity based on something central and irrefutable is essential. To him, race satisfies these criteria. For many Ukrainians, and especially the people stuck in the twilight zone of the conflict, rhetoric like this (and others) helped to solidify what a Ukrainian identity meant. People with pro-Russian sentiment had essentially destroyed their own economy. The rest of the country and the military, in shambles though it was, managed to rally and stop the Russian advance. Today, the Azov battalion has expanded into a regiment, spelling fears that Ukraine has only become more insular. Recently, child patriot camps run by the Azov came into the spotlight, where children from between 8 and 16 attend summer boot camp and learn how to best serve the country—as armed combatants, apparently.
Today, the struggle for Ukraine has moved to Kiev—a struggle between the oligarchs and the reformers. Matters of ideology cannot simply be swept under the rug; if these militias are part of the government, they represent the government. These are people who are actually part of the civil forces in Ukraine, and holding on divisive views and policies do not spell good news for the chaotic and constant changes in power in the country.
Can the pre-eminence of the Russian military in the region be used to justify the Azov battalion’s involvement, and therefore, validation? How has the dogmatic pursuit of racial cleansing by some Ukrainian officials affected the people who identify as multi-ethnic?