In the first week of February, the war in Ukraine flared up again. The town of Avdiivka saw the worst outbreak of violence in several months. Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have been killed in Eastern Ukraine. But still nobody really knows what the fighting is about.
At the end of November I visited Kharkiv and had a firsthand account of the war in Marinka, a small city in the Donetsk region on the frontline of the war in Eastern Ukraine. In the summer of 2014, Ukrainian forces recaptured Marinka after pro-Russian militants launched attacks on neighbouring towns. Since then, it is shelled on a regular basis, but under control of the Ukrainian army.
It is, however, not completely clear who is actually fighting in Marinka. Most of the troops in the city belong to the Azov Battalion, a former volunteer paramilitary that is nowadays a regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine, but over which is hanging a lot of controversy. The United Nations has connected the Azov Battalion to alleged war crimes and the unit is linked to neo-Nazism.
The battalion’s extremist views have attracted hundreds of foreign fighters who are currently fighting under the Ukrainian flag. Not only volunteers from France, Lithuania and Spain have joined the Azov Battalion, but also Russian nationals are defending Ukraine’s borders. Most of them were not willing to tell me why they had left their countries and come to Ukraine.
However, in Kharkiv I had the opportunity to speak with a Russian soldier from Astrakhan, who was now living in Ukraine’s second-largest city without identity papers. “When I heard about the war in Eastern Ukraine on Russian television, I decided it was time to oppose Putin’s regime. I packed my bags and illegally crossed the border with Belarus to enter Ukraine. Thanks to the help of volunteers I joined the Azov Battalion and fought for several months in the Donetsk region.”
Last year, Vlad von Bummel – as he calls himself – left the battalion under vague circumstances. “I had seen enough. I had the feeling I had played my role. If I regret my choice? I don’t know. The experience of being involved in a war is priceless. Yes, I have lost my family and friends, but I needed to be here. A solution won’t be found soon, though. There are too many parties with contradicting goals. And my own future? Ukraine doesn’t want to recognise me and I cannot go back to Russia. Or I will survive or I will die. I cannot turn back the clock.”
When I was talking to him and looking in his fragile eyes, I could see how naivety had brought him to Ukraine and how war had destroyed his future. He spoke about idealism, but what I heard, was a desire to flee a boring life for imagined excitement. The same paradox I felt in the stands of Kharkiv’s football stadium, where the Azov Battalion has its roots. I was standing among the Ultras, watched their neo-Nazi banners, listened to their racist chants and saw them fighting in the stands.
But it would too easy to call them a far-right movement with Nazi sympathies. Some are extremists, but most of them don’t even realise what they are shouting. When listening to their stories, I felt how neglect and boredom drove them to violence. They adhere to any kind of ideology as long as it brings excitement to their lives. Promise them childhood desires and they will defend any political cause.
The war in Eastern Ukraine is not only a conflict between Ukrainian and Russian elite with geopolitical goals, but also a naïve window of opportunity for young men searching for the meaning of life. Politics is just one part of a much bigger story. It is a war full of paradoxes, where you can see so-called neo-Nazists bringing food and clothes to Jewish orphans. Where you can see so-called progressive feminists supporting racist machos. Where you understand that thinking in boxes is what prevents us of finding solutions.