St Petersburg, Russia – When war broke out in Ukraine’s east in 2014, thousands joined volunteer militias to bolster the then-weak Ukrainian army. Among their ranks were Russians, including far-right activists taking up arms against Russia-backed separatists.
And now, as the Russian army amasses near the border with Ukraine, they say they are ready to do it again and fight against their own government.
“The final trigger for me was I knew some people in the military and found out they were in Donetsk, and one of them even invited me to come along. I immediately understood they’d been dispatched there by their superiors,” Nikita Makeev, 37, originally from St Petersburg in Russia, told Al Jazeera from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
“My government was committing a crime on the territory of Ukraine, not with the help of some kind of ‘volunteers’ but regular troops – if one guy I know from the special forces is there, and another guy from another division, then this was clearly an intervention, an undeclared war. And as a citizen of Russia, I didn’t want to be an accomplice to this crime, and I didn’t see the point of joining any anti-war marches in Moscow or Peter[sburg], as my friends had done,” he recalled.
“The decision had been made without us.”
Makeev travelled to the Maidan Square in central Kyiv in July 2014, where he found a booth recruiting for the far-right Azov Battalion. Drawing from football hooligans and members of the radical Social-National Assembly, Azov grew into the best-disciplined and funded of the volunteer paramilitaries, with a logo displaying the Germanic Wolfsangel symbol, commonly associated with neo-Nazis.
Azov, which has been accused of war crimes, has since been incorporated into the regular armed forces and distanced itself from those roots, according to Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert at the ZMINA Center for Human Rights, though its founders are still using the name for their movement.
“The creators of Azov are still trying to exploit this symbolic capital for political purposes, but this has nothing to do with the activities of the regiment,” Likhachev told Al Jazeera. “Today, these people, associated with the National Corps party, have no control over the unit.”
However, Azov Battalion’s rightist sympathies were considered troubling enough for the United States Congress to bar it from receiving aid in 2018, while the wider Azov movement, which includes the battalion’s veterans, the National Corps party, and street vigilantes remains an active force at the grassroots level, organising, among others, paramilitary training for civilians in case of a Russian attack.
The Azov Battalion took part in the battle over Mariupol in 2014, holding back pro-Russian forces from advancing through the strategic village of Shyrokyne, where Makeev suffered a concussion. Fighting alongside him was fellow Russian Sergei Korotkikh, nom de guerre Botsman (meaning boatswain, or petty officer on a ship).
“In my opinion, the best thing a man can do in his life is go to war, but you can’t really describe it to someone who wasn’t there,” Korotkikh told Al Jazeera, recounting his memories of the war.
“On September 5, 2014, we reinforced Shyrokyne and didn’t let the Russians reach the outskirts of Mariupol. Every two minutes, we came under severe artillery fire, and it was like this for several hours. Half of my unit was wounded and concussed, but thankfully, still alive. It was a rough day and when we returned to Mariupol, a thousand [locals] greeted us with flowers.”
Russia officially denied taking part in the conflict, although thousands of Russians fought alongside rebel forces, including serving soldiers which Moscow claimed had left for east Ukraine as volunteers.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin is socially conservative, he is despised among some far-right and ultra-nationalist circles who claim he does not have the best interests of ethnic Russians at heart.
“For a very long time I’ve struggled against the Russian government, which oppresses the Russian people,” Korotkikh said. “From my point-of-view, this isn’t a war against Russia, it’s a war against Putin’s regime.”
Although Korotkikh says his beliefs have now changed – he now describes himself as a “right-wing European conservative” looking up to Poland and Hungary, as well as relatively monoethnic Japan, as “healthy societies” – in 2004 he co-founded the National Socialist Society (NSO), members of which were later imprisoned for a racist murder spree. Botsman is himself wanted in Russia over a grisly 2007 snuff film in which two migrants are shot and beheaded in front of a Nazi flag by a pair of masked executioners. He has been charged with the murder of “two or more people, committed by an organised group motivated by political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred”.
Korotkikh denied any involvement to Al Jazeera, stating that the killers in the video are much taller than him and that the allegations against him in Russia only surfaced in 2015 after he took an active role fighting for Ukraine.
Korotkikh was personally handed a Ukrainian passport by then-President Petro Poroshenko in 2014 and a year later, despite his association with the NSO, was appointed the head of a police unit.
Ukraine has sheltered members of the far-right Russian opposition since 2014. However, according to Likhachev, the number of these Russian ultra-rightists is relatively small – in the low hundreds – compared with the thousands of Russian nationalists who fought on the side of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics.
“But, of course, one must understand that Russian ultra-right groups were not independent actors,” Likhachev said. “Far-right groups have often been used by intelligence agencies as technically non-governmental conduits to mobilise militants.”
Not all Russian citizens fighting for Ukraine subscribe to far-right ideas. Two battalions are made up of Chechens seeking another opportunity to face the Russians on the battlefield after a bloody armed campaign in Chechnya ended in the late 2000s.
Ukraine, however, has not always been kind to its foreign volunteers. In 2018, authorities extradited Timur Tumgoyev to Russia, where he was wanted for “terrorism”. Tumgoyev claimed to have fought with the Chechen Sheikh Mansur Battalion, but Russian prosecutors accused him of travelling to Syria to join ISIL (ISIS). Tumgoyev’s application to become a Ukrainian citizen was rejected.
“The Poroshenko government didn’t treat us foreign volunteers very well; in fact, it was rather ugly,” said Makeev, who campaigned for veterans to be awarded citizenship, only receiving his in 2019 under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
As the Russian military buildup has sparked fears of a renewed conflict, even as Russia denies it intends to invade Ukraine, Makeev and Korotkikh both say they are ready to return to the battlefield. But they have their doubts whether Russian tanks will cross the border, let alone make it all the way to Kyiv.
“My age and health still allow me, so if something happens I’ll actively take part. But I believe this won’t happen,” said Korotkikh. “Russia has other, less visible instruments. It’s less colourful than what certain pundits are saying about war, but it may be even worse for Ukraine. A war is simpler, more honest.”
Korotkikh considers it far more likely Russia will try to apply economic pressure to starve Ukraine and provoke unrest.
Makeev, meanwhile, prefers to focus on a different aspect: Ukraine is being well-armed by its allies.
“At least there’s a constant stream of armaments,” he said. “Any help is great … There’s probably enough Kalashnikovs floating around Ukraine now to arm the entire adult population. The Russians may try, but it won’t be a walk in the park.”