Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist political group in Ukraine with known neo-Nazi and far-right elements within its ranks, is still actively fighting on the frontlines of Europe’s forgotten war.
A VICE News investigation into the ongoing operations of volunteer units in Ukraine, formed on an emergency basis at the outset of the 2014 war in the Donbas region against Russian-backed separatists, shows those units are not only manning frontline positions, but still engaging in firefights.
But according to Oleksandr Turchynov, who heads one of the highest national security agency’s in the country and was briefly President of Ukraine on an emergency basis in 2014, volunteers no longer fight.
“There is a volunteer movement that works to help the army,” said Turchynov in an interview with VICE News in the capital Kyiv. “There are small groups that, let’s say, that didn’t go into the Armed Forces, but their role is exclusively assistance.
“Because we have a very clear position: 'If you want to defend Ukraine with a weapon in your hands please go to the Armed Forces or the National Guard' this is the position of Ukraine,” he said.
When pressed again if volunteer operations go beyond assistance, Turchynov was clear.
“Without a doubt. I’ll say it again, it is the General Staff in command of the Armed Forces. (It is their) responsibility to lead the military action against Russian aggression,” he said.
But in Marinka, on the frontlines of the continuing war in Eastern Ukraine, a forward operating base is protected and run by a Right Sector unit, and access to the position itself is guarded by Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers who vet any vehicle entering the premises.
None of the militiamen would openly admit to being members of Right Sector, likely in fear of upsetting authorities, keeping their existence covert. But all insisted they were volunteers fighting a national enemy and would never give up their weapons to the state if officially compelled to do so.
Though neo-Nazis are alleged to be fighting with Right Sector, VICE News did not encounter any among this particular unit. Ultranationalism and a profound sense of duty seemed to drive all of the volunteers on the frontline.
The emblematic red and black Right Sector flags are adorned all over the compound, along with a tongue and cheek sign at the entrance of the Right Sector base that says, roughly “we’re not here”—a nod to the unit’s murky status within the conflict. And the leaders of the unit operate outside of the formal military command structure.
While the group is known for its ultranationalist politics, it is also a rallying point for anarchists and other political followers weary of government corruption and eager to fight unabated on the frontlines of a violent conflict.
"We have a very clear position: 'If you want to defend Ukraine with a weapon in your hands please go to the Armed Forces or the National Guard'"
For example, an Australian national and former soldier turned neo-Nazi recently returned from a stint as a volunteer soldier fighting in Donbas with a Right Sector affiliated unit.
A detailed Washington Post report in early 2017 showed the same types of units operating in the same region.
Combat typically begins in Marinka at dusk and lasts into the early hours of the morning.
“You’ll probably see a firefight. Every night there is a risk of them firing on us,” said one Right Sector soldier who identifies as ‘Thunder’.
VICE News witnessed a night-time firefight where a unit of armed Right Sector volunteers wielding variants of Kalashnikov assault rifles and antitank weapons like SPGs and RPGs, traded fire with nearby separatists for hours.
With heavy tracer fire exchanged from either side, the fighting included the booms of howitzers throughout the night.
At least one Ukrainian Armed Forces soldier was fighting alongside Right Sector in the same bunker location, while outgoing artillery sounds were heard from close proximity, but were not physically witnessed by VICE News.
Under the Minsk Agreement, a shaky deal between separatists and the Ukrainian government, artillery cannons are banned from the frontlines.
Western nations, such as the US and Canada, recently permitted the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine—including javelin anti-tank weapons, which Russia has taken extreme exception to.
When asked about the presence of Right Sector on the frontline of the war in Ukraine, in light of the new arms deal, the CIA—which was instrumental in identifying what it considered moderate rebel groups in Syria and arming them with weapons—declined to comment on this story.
The Canadian government was equally as cryptic in its response to alleged far-right militiamen continuing to fight on the frontlines in Ukraine.
“Canada’s position is clear: we condemn Russia’s pattern of unacceptable international behaviour,” said Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock. “This includes Russia’s illegal annexation and occupation of Crimea, the violence perpetuated by Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime in Syria.
Canada is unwavering in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Canada has similarly allowed the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, a development that emerged in late 2017.
Babcock says Canada’s support for Ukraine includes, “assistance with internal reforms (including anti-corruption) and over $750 million for financial, development, stabilization, and non-lethal military and humanitarian assistance.”
The Canadian government did not address the continuing combat role of Right Sector.