Why American Right-Wingers Are Going to War in Ukraine

What the Islamic State is for disenchanted young Westerners of an Islamist bent, Right Sector has become for young Europeans and American right-wingers with an antique passion for nationalism—any nationalism except for Russia's, that is.

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Jun 20 2016, 12:00am

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

When Ben Fischer stepped out of his jeep at the barracks of the Voloveka Tactical Group, in Donetsk, Ukraine, last May, he was a mercenary arriving to work on his third continent in as many years. The scene at the headquarters of a rogue unit within the rogue Ukrainian nationalist group known as Right Sector wavered between utter chaos and manic discipline. Stray dogs powdered with anthracitic dust ambled around anti-tank obstacles. Anti-aircraft artillery bristled from the beds of rusted-out pickup trucks. Some groups of Ukrainians were cleaning weaponry. Others were chopping wood. Others were doing push-ups. Many were drunk. A great red banner hung along the side of the barracks facing east: DEATH TO YOU KREMLIN INVADERS.

In a barren plain of coal pits and black sludge, Fischer found what he had come for: an experience full of violence and adventure. What the Islamic State is for disenchanted young Westerners of an Islamist bent, Right Sector has become for young Europeans and American right-wingers with an antique passion for nationalism—any nationalism except for Russia's, that is. Right Sector is committed to ejecting Russian separatists from Ukrainian soil. Only three months before Fischer arrived at the Voloveka barracks, Ukraine, Russia, and Western leaders had signed a ceasefire agreement known as Minsk II. Major engagements had become rare. European officials had begun making routine inspections of frontline equipment. But a shadow conflict still churned onward in the East, one that Kiev covertly outsourced to the very nationalist groups it once publicly disavowed. The Voloveka, a Right Sector contingent consisting of 27 men, had established a forward base six miles from the border of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. By the time Fischer arrived, it had become an anarchic force that answered to no authority but itself.

Fischer has a wiry black beard he twirls with calloused fingertips. Two swords tattooed on his right shoulder converge at a battle helmet. MOLON LABE—ancient Greek for "Come and take them," King Leonidas's reply to the Persian demand for the Spartan weapons at Thermopylae—is emblazoned on his right forearm. His mother, a Tunisian, emigrated to Austria 30 years ago, where she met his father, an engineer, in a skiing village outside Innsbruck. Fischer was sent off to a vocational school in Bregenz at 14. His junior year, he forged his parents' signatures in order to enlist early in the Austrian Armed Forces. "Austrians lead indoor lives," he told me. "It's the indoor life of the postman, or the mayor, or the teacher. Arguments are indoors. Feelings are indoors. And the one thing I knew, from very early on, was that I couldn't be indoors." The Austrian army did not give Fischer his interesting life. For six months, he drove a van around Prishtina, where his comrades gave out food packages and taught Kosovars how to hold guns. Fischer decided to take an indefinite sick leave; six months later, he was on the Red Sea, where he'd found work running security detail on a container ship. On his first stop in Mogadishu, port authorities disbanded his unlicensed crew. With a small layoff payment, he bought a ticket to Marseille, where the French Foreign Legion turned him down. The next months, he worked as a bouncer in Vienna.

In September 2014, Fischer took the train from Vienna to Kiev, where the Ukrainian army was leading major offensives to reclaim the Donbas. At Maidan Square, he found a recruiter for Azov, a white-supremacist battalion and one of the few volunteer militias then accepting foreign volunteers. Almost as soon as he entered, an Azov commander who thought he looked too Arab threw him out. Fischer transferred to the Donbas Battalion—"a bunch of alcoholics and PTSDs"—but saw little fighting when he bussed out to Donetsk; the first Minsk Protocol, which brokered a ceasefire, was signed just two days after he arrived.

Looking for his next move, Fischer used Facebook to contact an American who had joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. A Dutch-Kurdish motorcycle gang eventually brought the two to the front lines near Kirkuk, where they saw spurts of action against ISIS. "I liked the Kurds and respect their fight, but those people have a problem: They're convinced everyone is out to betray them," he said. The Kurds did everything they could to break up groups of foreign fighters, to get non-practicing Muslims to pray with them, to pry foreign volunteers away from their smartphones. Fischer's commander was "brainwashed." An interview he gave to a local news channel made its way to Austrian television, and his parents sent him alarmed emails, which he ignored. One night, in an encampment near Mosul, an American Black Hawk helicopter landed. A soldier emerged and told the Kurds to disband foreigners from their ranks or risk losing American cooperation. Compared with the others, the foreigners were much more active on social media. They risked spilling operational secrets and increasing tensions with Turkey.

Back in Austria, Fischer learned that he had been put on a terror watch list for having fought with Kurdish guerrillas associated with the PKK. The government told him to stay in the country, but he left for Tunisia, where his mother's family still lived. "There's no war in Tunisia," he said. "Nobody fucks with you. You can relax." In Sousse, he received a Facebook message from Alex Kirschbaum, an Austrian army comrade he hadn't seen since Kosovo. "Alex wrote me saying that he'd just deserted the army," Fischer said. "He couldn't stand Austria anymore. He was going to Ukraine." The next day, Fischer began making his way back to Kiev. "You start out on this life out of a kind of pride, refusing to be like your peers," he told me. "But you stick with it because there comes a time when you can't turn back and accept that the only possible existence is a civilian one."

Kirschbaum greeted Fischer when he arrived at the barracks. "Sure, we'd been friends in Austria, had gone for beers together, but to see him out here, in the middle of fucking Donetsk—wow," Kirschbaum said. Kirschbaum has a slim build and a scraggy black beard. His eyes are dark brown chestnuts that glower passionately whenever he discusses weaponry. For Kirschbaum and Fischer both, Ukraine became an outlet for nationalism that they consider in desperately short supply elsewhere in Europe. "In Austria, our counterfascism units are larger than our counterterrorism ones," Kirschbaum told me. Austria, he said, was a "neutered" nation. The only nationalists it produced were soccer hooligans and Eurovision fanatics. But the Right Sectorites didn't watch soccer or Eurovision. In that convenient formulation of genuine patriots and nationalist extremists, they claimed to despise their government but love their country. Neither Fischer nor Kirschbaum remarked how strange it was that they had effectively transferred their national passion from one nation to another.

Illustrations by Skipp Sterling

According to Right Sector, the Maidan revolution remains unfinished. It's illegal for the group to use guns, but the Voloveka and units like it will not lay them down until Ukraine is a sovereign state. By this, the men mean a Ukraine that's completely independent from both Russia—a "Putinist empire"—and the European Union—land of "liberal homo-dictatorships." "The world must know that Ukraine is not its to use," Prut, a Right Sector commander in Mukachevo, told me. (The Ukrainian fighters in the Voloveka are known exclusively by their noms de guerre.) For their model Ukraine, some Right Sectorites point to the centuries of rugged Cossack rule. Others cite the West Ukrainian People's Republic carved out by Stepan Bandera, the hero of the Ukrainian resistance against the Soviets. Bandera's brief collaboration with the Nazis has led some members of Right Sector to meld their nationalism with a thin understanding of Nazism. Several I met did the Sieg Heil and praised Hitler. A few admitted that they did this because they knew Putin hated it, and they were willing to go to any length to aggravate him.

The Right Sectorites claim to be fighting on behalf of a vast and ignorant Ukrainian population that will welcome liberation when it comes but who lack the courage to achieve it. The organization coalesced in early 2014 out of a handful of far-right political parties and Maidan self-defense units. It claims to be neither racist nor xenophobic because it understands Ukrainian nationalism in "civic, not ethnic terms." Government institutions should be strong. National borders must be upheld. Those who think in like-minded ways, even if not Ukrainian, are encouraged to join. Dmitry Yarosh, Right Sector's founder, is a former foreign-language teacher from central Ukraine. Nearly half of all members identify as Russian speakers.

Right Sector is a ramshackle organization. None of its more than 10,000 members carries a party ID, attends regular meetings, or recruits in any systematic way. Right Sector's politically minded members strain to control its military branch of perhaps 3,000 fighters. Most have spent weeks training at Right Sector camps, where they are taught the rudiments of street fighting and get bused to demonstrations against the Kiev government, Russian national holidays, and gays. Right Sector fighters fall into 26 divisions. One is assigned to each Ukrainian oblast or province; two additional battalions stand guard on the front lines. None takes orders from a centralized command. They rarely exchange weaponry or government contacts.

"We in Right Sector are part of that remaining twenty percent that believes we have to take matters into our own hands in Ukraine. We can only fix our country when we fix ourselves individually."

Two years of infighting and government crackdown have fragmented Right Sector further into dozens of small units, most of which operate with little awareness of one another. The Voloveka Tactical Group—named after a Right Sectorite who was killed by a land mine in Donetsk—was one of these. At war with eastern Ukraine, Kiev, and a half of Right Sector that submitted to government oversight last November, its fighters lived in a cement-block building that had housed coal miners before the war. The men of the Voloveka arrived one day last autumn and evicted them at gunpoint. They dug a moat around the building's perimeter and a pit for holding captives. They erected a barbed-wire fence. They laid land mines and anti-tank obstacles in the vegetable gardens. On the roof, they mounted black and red flags, the symbol of Ukrainian resistance under German occupation, and upside-down Ukrainian flags, the standard symbol of the briefly realized 1918 Independent Republic of Ukraine. At one point, they confiscated a yellow bus from the local elementary school to make weekly trips to the front lines, where the Right Sectorites spent several days firing RPGs at the separatist-held Donetsk airport. On the small dirt road leading to the barracks were two wooden guard towers. A guard was kept at all hours. The residents of Novogrodovka, the closest village, were known to be in regular communication with battalions in the Donbas. An attack could be expected anytime.

Command of the Voloveka fell to Simeon, the first civilian to steal a machine gun from a police officer at the Maidan and fire back. He was a household name in Ukraine and a legend within Right Sector. After Maidan, he'd survived the disastrous encirclement of the Ukrainian army at Ilovaisk. He'd been among the kyborgs, the vastly outnumbered Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, including Right Sector members, who defended Donetsk airport from rebel besiegers in the days before Minsk II was signed. Simeon was an artist with a weapon called the TOW, a missile latched to a two-mile-long wire that he guided into enemy territory with a pair of small steering wheels. In late 2015, the Ukrainian state declared him a terrorist. His face was put on notice boards throughout Kiev. The Right Sectorites had converted his home in Ivano-Frankivsk into an armory. They placed Claymore mines on the underside of his porch, and they instructed his teenage son to activate the devices if the police arrived.

Simeon's presence in the barracks was outsized. His drinking sessions began shortly after he emerged each morning from his drab cement room, decorated with a few family photos and several Russian army helmets on the walls. "Brothers!" he would cry in a faux-American accent. He possessed no civilian clothes; his fatigues had become so matted with dried mud and engine grease they had hardened into the consistency of cardboard. For Simeon, the war in Donetsk was less about fighting the Russians than it was about proving something to Ukrainians back in Kiev. "Sixty percent of Ukraine wants to join Europe," he told me one night while he was on guard duty. The occasional crack of artillery came from the east. "Their biggest concern is whether or not their WiFi works. Another twenty percent, well, these are pro-Russian trash. To them, the Soviet Union was a good thing. These types aren't as big a problem as you might think. They can be killed. We in Right Sector are part of that remaining twenty percent that believes we have to take matters into our own hands in Ukraine. We can only fix our country when we fix ourselves individually."

Despite Simeon's admonishment of the lack of commitment among his countrymen to the cause of their nation, most Ukrainians in the Voloveka did not have a strong grasp of Right Sector's politics. Many had been declared terrorists by the state and stayed in the Voloveka barracks mostly out of a refusal to face trial in Kiev. Colibian, the assistant commander, was the only Ukrainian making significant sacrifices to be in Novogrodovka; in Kiev, he owned a car dealership.

In this way, many of the foreign mercenaries fighting with the Voloveka weren't so different from their Ukrainian brethren. As Ben Fischer was fighting ISIS, Craig Lang was getting laid off from his North Dakota oil rig. "That boom up there is fucking dried up," he told me in his room in the barracks, where an American flag stretches over his bed. Lang is gaunt, with an angular face hidden behind a wild ocher beard. A Molon Labe tattoo is also emblazoned on his right forearm. He has a long, thin mouth, deep-set eyes, and an unhurried Southern drawl. Donetsk is Dawntesk. While serving in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb detonated Lang's Humvee, leaving him deaf in his right ear and severing several of the nerves connecting his irises to his brain: Lang cannot look other people squarely in the eyes.

When he was 12 years old, Lang's father attempted to murder his stepmother in a drunken rage. Lang Senior went to jail, and Junior had to live with his stepmother. At that point, he decided joining the army would be his best way out; at 17, he finished high school in order to do so. At 22, he'd completed two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Lang speaks glowingly of military life. In Novogrodovka, he strode around the barracks mimicking NATO assault postures—reloading while running, peering around buildings—and scrolled obsessively through US Army manuals on his phone for fun.

Two years ago, Lang made local headlines when he deserted Fort Bliss in El Paso after his pregnant wife sent him videos of her sleeping with other men. Lang loaded his car with body armor, night-vision goggles, and two assault rifles, and he drove nonstop to North Carolina, where he set up a perimeter of land mines around her condominium and attempted to murder her. He only got several months' jail time because, he says, the US Army knew that he had mental problems and did nothing to address them. "I told my commanders repeatedly that I was going to murder her," he said. "The motherfuckers thought I was bluffing." Lang received a dishonorable discharge, losing all veteran's benefits, health insurance, and his gun license. Child-support payments mounted—he is currently $92,000 in debt—and consistent work never came. He spent time in and out of jail. His wife took his truck and home and filed a restraining order against him. Lang hasn't seen either of his children in almost three years.

Every human impulse was exaggerated in the Voloveka. When keys were misplaced, doors were blown in with TNT. Walnuts were cracked open with grenades.

Lang felt betrayed by the army. "You have a prison record, you can't get a good-paying job, you can't pay child support, you're sent back to jail. Repeat." But he still adored combat. Blackwater rejected him for being half-blind, he said. (He mentioned nothing about how his criminal record might have affected his application.) In February, after reading about the Battle of Ilovaisk, during which Russian separatists ambushed retreating Ukrainian soldiers, Lang got the idea to come to Ukraine. He'd heard that NATO veterans were highly valued on the front lines, where Ukrainian soldiers lacked even rudimentary medical training. He told me he chose Ukraine over Syria for two reasons. First, seeing Maidan on the news convinced Lang that Ukrainians were serious about their national war of liberation. "These people fucking want change." Having served in Iraq, he thought that Iraqis were not serious about their sovereignty. "Iraqis give zero shits," he said. Second, he takes Putin to be a communist. Lang, who describes himself as a strict constitutionalist, despises communism.

Three weeks before I visited Novogrodovka, I met two Americans in Kiev. Quinn Rickert of Illinois and Santi Pirtle of California were in their early 20s and had checked into the Delil Hostel, where I overheard them hashing out their plans to join Right Sector. They knew nothing about the group other than that it had a bad reputation. But it was also the only battalion in Ukraine still accepting foreigners, and Lang, whom Rickert had found on Facebook, had told them which trains could take them to Novogrodovka. Rickert had met Pirtle weeks before in Paris, where the French Foreign Legion had rejected both of them. "The legion doesn't accept criminals, but I thought it would respect my honesty," Rickert told me. When he was 18, Rickert had joined the US Army, but he never got the chance to deploy and mostly did desk work on bases in Georgia and Virginia. During one leave, Rickert and a friend were caught stealing car parts from auto dealerships in suburban Chicago. He spent a year behind bars and jumped parole to come to Ukraine. "If I ever go back to the US, I'll spend seven years in jail," he said.

"That's the problem with a privatized prison system," Pirtle added. He is half-Filipino, half-black, with glasses and a stubble of dark hair on his chin. "It has to keep people in jail to make money." Pirtle was in Ukraine because he despised American culture, which he considers frivolous and too in thrall to celebrities. From Paris, Pirtle and Rickert had considered traveling to Syria, but they couldn't afford the plane ticket. The train from Paris to Kiev used up the last of their combined savings.

The Ukrainians spoke gushingly to the pair about American gun laws—"Everyone in your country gets a firearm. Splendid!"—but here that fantasy had been put into reality. Small talk wheeled around the different preferred methods for killing separatists. A Texan named Russell Bentley was known to be fighting for one of the Donetsk battalions.

"He's not from Texas," Lang said. "He's a piece-of-shit communist from Austin."

"Would killing him get you in trouble with US law?" Rickert asked.

"No," he replied.

Lunch in the Voloveka usually consisted of fist-size chunks of raw pig fat. Potatoes were served for dinner; body bags of them lay in a heap below a stairwell. Every provision—coats, gauze, jugs of water—came from volunteers in Kiev or was "requisitioned" from locals. Stolen coal and wood were mixed with trash in a furnace that spewed thick clouds of poisonous exhaust. It settled on the skin in mole-like clumps. The Voloveka paid for its cigarettes and internet by baking this coal-trash concoction into bricks and selling them throughout the rest of Ukraine.

Every human impulse was exaggerated in the Voloveka. When keys were misplaced, doors were blown in with TNT. Walnuts were cracked open with grenades. Stray cats chased one another down the hallways of the barracks, most of which were lined with 60-pound bombs typically used for destroying bridges. The Right Sectorites liked to evict the cats by throwing them from the second-floor balcony with the motion of a shot-putter. They fell to the earth with a terrifying cry. A few weeks before I'd arrived, a Ukrainian named Geronimo beheaded a cat after he caught it peeing on his bed. Fearing a PTSD outbreak, Simeon attempted—unsuccessfully—to take away everyone's guns. The Voloveka also had a dog, Fly, whose original owner had died from the blast of a land mine. Fly trembled in strange, berserk motions every time a soldier cocked a gun.

The members of the Voloveka frequently boasted that they possessed enough explosives to eradicate a small Ukrainian oblast. The battalion had smuggled in all of it—the six armor-plated trucks, the helmets and medical kits, the hundreds of boxes of ammunition—tirelessly, illegally, from every reach of Ukraine. The men used donations from the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada "for medical supplies" to purchase Kalashnikovs off Chechen arms dealers in Vienna, which were smuggled through the Carpathian Mountains by members of the Voloveka who caravanned out to western Ukraine every few months in battalion pickup trucks. They also claimed many guns off dead separatists. One afternoon, Fischer took me to the company armory—six windowless nooks on the second floor. The air was heavy with the waft of cat urine. Anti-aircraft missiles and RPGs lay haphazardly stacked everywhere like planks of wood. Fischer grabbed two rusty black mortars out of a moldy cardboard box. "A war museum in Lviv gave these to us," he said, flipping them lightly between his palms. "Red Army issues from the Second World War. A lot of Ukrainian battlefield reenactors admire the work we're doing out here. They send us these antiques all the time," he said, tossing them back into the box. "The only problem with them is that they can easily detonate if you drive over a bump too quickly in the bus."

At any moment the SBU—the Security Service of Ukraine—could have come and arrested every member of the Voloveka, whose presence on the front lines was illegal. But the Right Sectorites assured me this would never happen. When they needed help pursuing trucks they suspected of smuggling supplies into Donetsk, the SBU called the barracks for reinforcements. Most of the oblast was pro-Russian, so to help give the impression of occupation, local authorities encouraged Right Sector to drive its vehicles slowly through nearby villages and walk their streets with glocks in hand. (Though the residents of Novogrodovka despised Right Sector, they weren't too proud to come to the barracks at night begging for food, which was always given. The drunk ones often fell into the moat.)

The Ukrainian army was also technically obliged to arrest Right Sector members on sight at the front lines, but it didn't. During the night, officers sympathetic to Right Sector's cause filled the Voloveka's school bus with rockets and other large-caliber guns forbidden by European monitors. Right Sector was the Ukrainian army's way of getting around Minsk II while still hitting back at separatists who refused to allow international organizations anywhere near their trenches: Right Sector, Ukraine told inspectors, was out of its control. The local police also wouldn't arrest any members of the Voloveka, to whom they outsourced their terrorism. Of course, when asked about their connection with Right Sector, Ukraine's SBU, army, and police vigorously disavow it. But what I saw on the front lines was nothing short of active cooperation. The fighters of the Voloveka, for their part, were contemptuous of any cooperation with Kiev. But the fight could only turn against Ukraine once the more immediate threat in the Donbas had been destroyed.

Several weeks before I visited the Voloveka, a man had been picked up wandering the streets of Novogrodovka at night, drunk. Police confiscated his phone and found photos of him posing in front of Donetsk tanks on VK, a popular social network among Russian speakers. They brought him to the Right Sectorites, who locked him in a standing-room-only shower stall. The lights stayed on for a week. They beat him with a sock stuffed with sharpened rocks. They stripped him of his clothes and made him clean the barracks on his knees. An interrogation session involving repeated threats of deportation to Guantánamo Bay revealed only that the man came from a local village and apparently knew nothing about rebel troop movements. After a week, the police picked him back up and brought him to Kiev—presumably for a jail sentence, though no one could tell me what actually happened to him. "It is a pity to have to beat these people," Kirschbaum said. "But I'd have more sympathy for them if we got any sort of similar treatment in Donetsk. Right Sector members captured there get their noses and ears cut off."

A loud noise shook the front entrance of the barracks one night. It was followed by a string of murderous groans. "Separatists!" someone screamed. Fischer extinguished a cigarette, then whipped an RPG off the wall and slung it on his right shoulder in a single uninterrupted motion. Lang burst out of the room with a pair of grenades cocked in his hands. Out in the hallway, a dozen startled Ukrainians stood in a heavily armed throng. One was peering through a sniper scope.

At the doorway, as a haze of grenade smoke slowly dissipated away, we saw Simeon lying in a lake of bubbling blood. Purple-black strings—his intestines—were on the walls. A de-fingered palm of a left hand teetered off a nearby pile of tires. Exiting the barracks for Novogrodovka, where he planned to toss a few grenades in the town square to celebrate the two-year anniversary of his entry in the war, Simeon had slipped on the staircase and accidently detonated himself. Turning his head toward us, he let out a few last breaths, then died.

The next night, we held a funeral for Simeon. His mother, son, and wife arrived by car from Ivano-Frankivsk. Two Right Sectorites briskly escorted them to a side door, away from the entranceway in which Simeon had been dematerialized. "Two land mines exploded under Simeon as he charged toward the Donetsk airport," Colibian, who had been declared the Voloveka's new commander that morning, told Simeon's family. They cried. "After this, it took machine-gun fire to bring him down. We recovered him, brought him back to our trench. He was still breathing. He refused to die." Colibian placed his right hand on the shoulder of Simeon's mother. Most of the onlooking Right Sectorites were drunk. What remained of Simeon's trunk of vodka had been finished off that afternoon.

Next Father Pavel arrived from Krasnoarmiisk, the local ecumenical seat. He was a big man with wire spectacles and greasy locks of hair held back by a black Astrakhan cap. Pavel moved quickly around the barracks, jingling a golden incense burner inlaid with amber gems, chanting a prayer. The smell of Simeon's insides gradually gave way to the musk. "Oh great Lord, oh great Lord."

Simeon was the last to arrive. Six Right Sectorites lifted his body out of a refrigerated meat truck that had taken him to the morgue the night before. He lay on a white cloth inside a purple coffin. A facsimile of his lost hand had been made with a glove filled with dirt and propped carefully next to the uneven stump of his forearm. On Simeon's left cheek, you could still see a few bits of shrapnel. The morgue attendant thought it would only further mar his face if he tried to extract them.

The Right Sectorites carried Simeon up to the second-floor canteen and placed him on the dining table. They cleared away the jars of pig fat. Everyone gathered around the coffin. "Simeon, you were a real dog of war," Pavel said. "A loyal son of the Dnieper." "Slava Ukraina!" cried Simeon's mother. "Geroyam slava!" The Right Sectorites cried back. "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!" Outside, after lifting Simeon's body back into the meat truck, the now-26 men of the Voloveka formed a line and fired their AKs into the sky with tracer bullets, which cut the air with red streaks before falling onto nearby Novogrodovka.

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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