What’s Behind Ukraine’s Shocking “National Druzhyna” Militia?
4 February, 2018

On February 4, residents of Kyiv took to the streets in protest. They gathered to speak out against the legitimization of paramilitary movements in Ukraine and carried signs that read “When people march in formation, there is no freedom!” and “Society without violence!”

The protesters were responding to a previous demonstration that had shocked many in Ukraine. On January 28, almost 600 members of an organization called National Druzhyna  — founded by veterans of the far-right Azov Batallion —  marched through the center of Kyiv. The marchers then “swore an oath” to defend public order.

Hromadske went to find out what National Druzhyna is, how it plans to protect the rule of law on the streets, and what gives its members the right to do this.

Who are the National Druzhyna?

National Druzhyna is a project run by the so-called Azov Circle, an organization associated with the Azov Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine and its veterans. In 2017, former soldiers from the regiment created the National Corps political party headed by MP Andriy Biletsky, who was previously associated with other organizations, such as Civil Corps and Protection and Reconstruction of the Country.

According to the State Register of Legal Entities, the founders of the National Druzhyna non-governmental organization (NGO), which is registered in Kyiv, are three veterans of the Azov regiment: Ihor Kashka, Artem Klimin and Maksym Klymka.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

Another former Azov soldier is listed as its leader: Ihor Bober. However, a former commander of the Azov Battalion, Ihor Mykhailenko calls himself National Druzhyna’s commander.

National Druzhyna formed in the summer of 2017, according to information on the organisation’s website. It now has branches in 13 regions of Ukraine.

As Ihor Bober explained to Hromadske, National Druzhyna now has NGO status in Kyiv.  However, in other cities like Lutsk or Cherkasy, they are considered to be a civic formation for the protection of public order.

“In Kyiv, we are still working on re-registering the documents,” he explained.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

However, Oleh Kuyavsky, the head of the Kyiv Directorate for Interaction with Law Enforcement Bodies, told Hromadske that the local authorities have not yet received the relevant documents from National Druzhyna.  

“We met with them and we realized that they were more interested in distributing information about themselves, rather than patrolling the streets with the police,” he said.

On January 28, around 600 “druzhynnyky” — a term that refers to members of civilian patrols during Soviet times — from across the country swore a so-called oath in Kyiv. They marched through the center of the capital dressed in masks and camouflaged uniforms reminiscent of the paramilitary groups of 1920s Germany, which went on to become the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party).  

According to Ihor Mykhailenko, many of the National Druzhyna members follow the ideology of “modern nationalism,” upon which the “National Corps” party was founded.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

For four years in a row, National Corps and soldiers of the Azov Battalion have faced allegations of supporting neo-Nazi ideology and using runic symbols, similar to those of Nazis.

The Azov Battalion itself was founded in 2014 as a special-purpose militia primarily by members of the radical right-wing organization “Patriots of Ukraine” and football ultras, who often do not conceal their far-right views.

When asked about National Druzhyna’s funding source, the head of the organization said that it exists thanks to contributions from its participants. Ihor Mykhailenko refused to tell Hromadske what his own personal contribution was.

The issue of financing is a sensitive subject for the Azov Circle. Both the regiment’s leader and representatives from the political party have stated on numerous occasions that they exist on donations from “Good Samaritans,” however they almost never mention any specific names.

How does National Druzhyna defend law and order?

The promotional videos for National Druzhyna include a wide range of activities — from fighting against poaching around the Kaniv Reservoir to shutting down illegal gambling halls.

The law on “Citizen participation in the protection of public order and the state border,” which the leaders of National Druzhyna have repeatedly cited, states that representatives from civilian formations can be involved in patrolling the street, but only in cooperation with National Police officers.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

“The police can’t cope with protecting law and order… We are not going to patrol the streets with them…The work will be specific, if we find out about an underground casino, or that someone has drawn graffiti, or they are advertising drugs, we won’t even beat them, we will just detain them until the police arrive,” Ihor Mykhailenko says.

Representatives from National Druzhyna generally interpret the law quite loosely. In a press conference in Kyiv on January 31, Ihor Mykhailenko did not deny that some members of the organisation are minors.

“These 17-year-olds have already finished school, I don’t see anything wrong with this,” he said. At the same time, the law on “citizen participation in the protection of public order and the state border” states that members of these civilian formations must be adults.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

The law also bans civilian formation participants from using cold weapons or firearms. However, the form for joining National Druzhyna includes a question about possession of registered weapons.

On the organisation’s website and Facebook page, there are also a few images of weapons trainings. Ihor Mykhailenko explains this by saying that the National Druzhyna must be ready to move from defending law and order to serving on the frontline or the “partisan fight against the occupiers.”  

What rights do militia members have?

According to the law “On citizen participation in guarding public order and the state border,” participants in civilian formations must wear armbands and carry identification approved by the local authorities. In that case, they have the right to

✅ Check civilians’ documents.

✅ Write citations for misdemeanor violations of the law.

✅ Detain and deliver individuals who commit malicious disobedience and refuse to cease committing a misdemeanor offenses to a police station or to their own headquarters — but only in cooperation with representatives of the National Police.

✅ Enter clubs, cinemas, stadiums, and other public places with the consent of the owner in order to stop misdemeanor violations of the law and other crimes. They also may enter these facilities in pursuit of an offender.

✅ Use private means of transportation in emergency situations with the permission of the owner.

 Check drivers’ licenses and prevent people without the required documents or who are intoxicated from using means of transportation.

✅ Use physical force, pepper spray or traumatic weapons and other special instruments for self-defense and the defense of citizens and administrative buildings from mass unrest.  

How many “druzhynnyky” are there in Ukraine and who are they protecting?

Hromadske appealed to the National Police of Ukraine for information on how many civilian formations like National Druzhyna are registered. However we have not yet received a response.

According to Oleh Kuyavsky, there are currently three similar organizations registered in Kyiv. Other cities also have them. The Mykolaiv city council website, for example, states that, as of April 1, 2015, there are 13 organizations like this registered in the city. And the Sumy city council website states that there are eight of these formations as of March 2014.  

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

“Previously, private security firms were frequently registered with the status of civilian formations. Thus, their fighters received the right that to carry traumatic weaponry,” says Oleh Bondarchuk, the civilian head of the Kyiv City Council’s commission on law enforcement, law and order and corruption prevention and a member of the nationalist Svoboda political party. “Then these ‘formations’ took part in conflicts with developers and other business disputes, de facto becoming hired thugs.”

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

Representatives of National Corps and the Azov Circle organization have repeatedly taken part in conflicts surrounding construction in Kyiv and other cities. In 2017, members of the Kyiv ATO Veterans’ Union — a union of former fighters in the Anti-Terrorist Operation, Ukraine’s official name for its war with Russia-led separatists in the east — created Municipal Guard, civilian formations to defend law and order. Its members were also supposed to work the streets in cooperation with police.

The Kyiv city administration supported the project. Using the Municipal Guard as a foundation, it created a communal firm for protecting buildings and other objects belonging to the city.

C14, another far-right organization, is also competing for leading positions in the Municipal Guard, C14’s leader Yevhen Karas told the Glavkom news site.

Photo credit: Azov Battalion/facebook

Meanwhile, Kyiv police chief Yury Zozulya says that no civilian formations are currently patrolling the streets with the police. “This is my position: You want to defend law and order? Join the police,” he says.

However, Oleh Keyavsky explains that civilian formations cannot drive around with patrol police because they do not have the right uniforms.

“My are resolving this problem. We are allocating funds for this,” he says. But neighborhood foot patrols in cooperation with district police inspectors remain a priority, he adds.

/By Sofia Fedeczko and Matthew Kupfer