KIEV — The acrid smoke of field stoves wafts over green and brown military-style tents. Stern sentries in combat fatigues stand vigil at makeshift barricades of scrap metal, tires, and bags of junk. A line of men, also in fatigues, marches in step against the backdrop of a burned-out building.
A month after deadly street fighting drove out Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Kiev’s central square still looks like a military encampment. Independence Square, known as the Maidan, has grand flower-and-candle memorials, guided tours, and selfie-snapping tourists. But the continued patrols of paramilitary militias controvert any notion that normal life has returned to the capital.
“We can’t budge from this square, because if we do, in two days Putin’s tanks will be here,” said Alexander Kononko, 39, a wiry and prematurely wizened fighter whose red-and-black insignia identifies him as a member of a militia that become a flashpoint in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The militia is called Right Sector, and the name has become synonymous with the ultranationalist presence in Ukraine’s new government that President Vladimir Putin has cited as justification for Russia annexing Crimea and tipping off a Cold War-style confrontation with Europe and the United States.
But though Right Sector helped put the new, Western-leaning government in power, its members express trust neither for the government nor for Western Europe. “We don’t need Europe, we need to build Ukraine,” Kononko said. As for the new government, “they are mostly the same, corrupt people as the last government.”
Kononko’s stance reflects how simplistic it is to characterize Ukraine as split between the pro-Europe West and the pro-Russian East and how difficult it is to define the militia that is at the center of the complex struggle within Ukraine. Unlike other nationalist groups with deep roots in western Ukraine, it formed only last year around the protests in Kiev.
The red and black they wear were the colors of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which allied itself with Nazi Germany when it invaded the Soviet Union during World War II. For Moscow, that association alone makes anyone who venerates Bandera a fascist; Putin has tarred the entire government a rabble of crooks run by fascists, anti-Semites and Russophobes. “Banderovtsy” is a name that stirs fear in the hearts of many in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Like many Ukrainians, Kononko sees Bandera’s alliance with the Nazis as a necessary evil to fight Soviet communists who wiped out millions of Ukrainians in the man-made famine of the 1930s. “Nationality doesn’t mean anything to us; we have Russians, we also have Armenians,” Kononko said.
He spoke as he gave a tour of the Maidan: the tire barricade where he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel from a grenade; the spot behind the former monument to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin where he lit molotov cocktails and handed them to a comrade when he could no longer throw; and the curb where progovernment special forces beat him senseless, and knocked his teeth out, when he couldn’t run away.
There are swastikas in the Maidan, but they are imprinted on Russian flags: people here equate Putin’s annexation of Crimea with Hitler’s actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938. It’s clear who Kononko thinks is the fascist criminal: His T-shirt depicts Putin with a Hitler mustache wearing prison stripes.
Kononko says he supports one of the nationalists’ rallying cries — that Ukrainian should be the sole official state language — but he and his men speak to each other in Russian.
Kononko said he has no animosity for the pro-Russian population in the east, though he did call some pro-Russian activists “scum whose heads I’d like to bash in.”
“I have friends in Donestk and Kharkiv,” he said. “Those people have been frightened and zombified by Putin propaganda.”
So if he is not a complete Ukrainian-speaking Russophobe, who is Kononko?
Like a lot of his men, he is a former soldier. He served in UN peacekeeping troops in former Yugoslavia and eventually worked his way up to the Russian equivalent of chief warrant officer. In Right Sector, he oversees “training exercises” of his men. “I am their mama, their papa, and their psychologist,” he says of his role.
He had a construction business that, he said, earned him between $2,000 and $3,000 a month — good money in Ukraine — until President Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010. “I stopped winning contracts, I had to pay bribes to get anything done, and ultimately went bankrupt,” Kononko said.
Kononko does admire Western Europe for one thing. “Corruption would be harder, because there would be rules,” he said. “In Ukraine, they raise taxes to build roads, the roads don’t get built, and the rulers all get richer.”
He has a wife and a daughter, and was still making a decent living as a contractor when he walked away to join Right Sector. “I have a lot of friends who think I’m a fool,” he said.
Right Sector, he said, was the only way to fix Ukraine. “It’s a new force, a force for honesty.”
Kononko did not reveal much about the specific size of this force (“we have thousands) or its weapons (“we don’t patrol with them but we can get them when we need them”).
Kononko did not say how long Right Sector would occupy Kiev if the threat from Russia diminishes . If Dmytro Yarosh, Right Sector’s leader and a ranking security official in the current government, wins his long-shot bid in the May presidential elections, presumably that could be time to stand down. But it’s clear to this de facto policeman of the streets of Kiev that the battle for a new country has only just begun.
“As a builder, I can say that if we were building a three-story house, right now we haven’t even put in the foundation,” Kononko said. “We’ve only just dug the ditch.”