Ukrainian military volunteer unit known as Kraken

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RUSKA LOZOVA, Ukraine — Andrii “Belyi” Maleev came closest to a weapon in his hands, it was the hammer he used as a construction worker.

A patrol of about 30 troops entered the village of Maleev on foot around 6 a.m. on March 14, Maleev, 45, recalled. Several stood outside his door, pointing guns at him, while two others searched his house and demanded to know if he had any weapons.

When the soldiers left, so did Maleev — for military training. Eventually he returned to the village, this time as a member of the Kraken Regiment, a unit that is quickly becoming one of Ukraine’s best-known volunteer forces.

The Kraken unit was formed by veterans of the Azov Battalion the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, a military spokesman said. That makes the Krakens something like a little brother to the former Azov unit, whose fighters achieved world-renowned status last month for their epic final stand inside Azovstal, a sprawling steel complex in the port city of Mariupol.

Like the Azov Fighters, whose name comes from the Sea of ​​Azov, the regiment’s name and insignia evoke a different maritime theme: the kraken, a mythical sea monster resembling a giant squid.

The Kraken Regiment operates in somewhat of a gray area – a force that falls under the Ministry of Defense but is not part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. (Video: Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)

Their commander is Konstantin V. Nemichev, a political and military figure from Kharkiv. The son of a schoolteacher and an electrician, Nemichev, 26, launched a political career in the right-wing National Corps party before graduating from university, including an unsuccessful bid last year to become mayor of Kharkov. He relied heavily on the support of rambunctious young football fans, many of whom now serve in his unit.

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Now that the Azov Battalion has been decimated, the Krakens are on their way to becoming Ukraine’s most famous volunteer group – and arguably the most controversial, like their Azov brethren. Critics said the two had drawn fighters from ultranationalist and far-right groups, an allegation their soldiers dismiss as Russian propaganda. Although commanders acknowledged far-right soldiers could be in their ranks, they said they outnumbered a more diverse group dedicated to defending Ukraine.

The Kraken unit operates in somewhat of a gray area – a force that falls under the Ministry of Defense but is not part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ruska Lozova soldiers say the unit has about 1,800 soldiers. The military spokesman declined to say how many serve in the unit.

The Kraken unit – which in recent weeks has helped retake villages north of Kharkiv – has filled its ranks with “gym rats”, bouncers and “ultras”, the professional football fans who have occasionally shown their love for the Metalist team from Kharkiv with a raging behavior. Many also hung out at the same sports bar, a place called the Wall, which was bombed, allegedly by Russian separatists, in 2014. Eleven patrons were injured.

But their unit also attracts regular army veterans, battle-tested paramilitary fighters from Donbass and other volunteers aged 25 to 60.

William – who would only give his first name out of concern for his family’s safety – hitchhiked about 325 miles from Kyiv to join friends in the unit near the Kharkiv front. Now he is hobbling from a Russian-made claymore mine that peppered his right leg with shrapnel. Like others, he went to war after receiving combat training where first aid instruction was more plentiful than ammunition.

And there’s still more than a little tinkering left in Unity’s Warcraft, despite nearly three months of sometimes fierce fighting. Their battle wagons are SUVs, pickup trucks, ATVs and, that day, a Nissan Murano painted bumper-to-bumper green, right down to the hubcaps. Anton’s AK-74 camouflage is also homemade. Fearing that the factory black finish would stand out in the Ukrainian forests, he painted his gun in multi-toned greens that look more like Grateful Dead tie dye than military camouflage.

“It was chaotic for the first week and a half,” said Anton, 27, who also gave only his first name for security reasons. He recalled how a soldier, convinced he could teach his comrades how to fire a Czech anti-tank weapon, blew up a wall and injured several people instead.

Even now, on a quick tour of the village, the small Kraken squad is less disciplined when it comes to basic gun safety, such as pointing the gun barrel only skyward or down. As he took cover under a tree with a Russian drone overhead, a soldier pressed the barrel of the AK-74 against his crotch. Inside a blown up hospital, another soldier knelt over an unexploded tank shell, pretending he was about to poke it with his finger.

Yet Kraken members have also learned to fight by fighting, and their morale is high.

“I fought in the Donbass and — how can I put it? – things are better organized here,” said Oleg Sapalenko, 27, a member of the 25th Airborne Brigade who got a transfer to the Kraken unit so he could fight for his hometown among friends. “Teammates are much better team players, and that helps a lot.”

Kharkiv residents emerge from underground to find their city in ruins

All Ukraine needs, Anton said, is for the world to provide the weaponry to repel Russian forces across the border, and soldiers like him will provide the spirit.

“We are fighting an empire, not a few villages in our country,” Anton said.

The Krakens were also accused of abusing Russian POWs, a potential war crime. Last month, Moscow put Nemichev on a wanted list, alleging he was responsible for an “attempt on the lives” of eight Russian soldiers, according to a report by Tass, the Russian news agency. A BBC investigation of a video showing several Russian prisoners of war being deliberately shot in the legs revealed that Kraken forces were operating in the area at the time. Nemichev denied the BBC account’s allegations. He did not respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on the report, but his unit’s press secretary provided a Telegram message from late March in which Nemichev called the video “fake news” and said that his unit was “always very humane” with prisoners of war. .

By the time the Kraken unit liberated the suburban village of around 5,000 in late April, many had fled. Maleev estimated on Tuesday that only 200 people remained in what looked like a newly liberated ghost town. Few here even came out as Ukrainian and Russian forces continued to exchange mortar fire.

Much of the village was also damaged or destroyed, including St. Nicholas Church, the village council building, and a small hospital. Elsewhere, a tidy row of beehives stood in a field near houses whose heavy wooden roof beams had been broken and charred. A massive crater lay not far from the gutted, ash-filled house where Maleev’s brother lived.

As in so many other places, the Russian occupiers drank heavily and looted local homes and businesses, villagers said. Maleev’s mother Claudia, 81, described how the Russians even fed local citizens meat they had stolen from a local processing plant when the conversation was interrupted by the sound of a Russian drone above their heads.

“It’s buzzing,” Maleev said, silencing everyone. The Russians often use drones to identify targets to attack. The sound is low, like a gas-powered model airplane, but it was enough for the unit members to interrupt the conversation and take cover.

Ievgenia Sivorka contributed to this report.

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