Ukraine’s newly decorated war hero remains troubled by an ill-chosen remark concerning the bones in the cage of his unit’s pet wolf.
By rights Dmytro Kotsyubaylo, nom de guerre Da Vinci, should be basking in glory. Last month the 26-year-old captain became the first living recipient serving in the ultra-nationalist Right Sector volunteer battalion to be awarded the title Hero of Ukraine by the country’s president.
Photographs of him shaking hands with President Zelensky at the ceremony in the Ukrainian parliament, where he was also decorated with the Order of the Golden Star for courage on the battlefield, marked not just a moment of personal glory for him but a political rehabilitation for a unit mired in controversy since its formation.
“The honour is a good recognition from the state, both for me and for other volunteers,” Kotsyubaylo said from the headquarters of the paramilitary unit in the eastern city of Avdiivka. He was seated beneath his unit’s flag: an emblem of three raging wolves’ heads and a winged dagger imposed on a stark red-and-black background.
“Before me, the only volunteers awarded this way were dead.”
Ukraine, the target of possible Russian attack, is preparing for an escalation in the eight-year conflict in its eastern regions and is looking to a wide array of fighters to bolster its chances — Right Sector nationalists among them.
The group originated in 2013 as a militarised movement that included both ultra-nationalist extremists and right-wing supporters, and quickly became a mainstay in the fight against Russian-backed separatists. Though its political wing flopped, failing to secure a single seat in the 2019 elections, the Right Sector’s volunteer units are widely regarded in Ukraine as a dedicated force of patriotic volunteers committed to preserving the country’s territorial integrity.
In Moscow, they are seen as fascists intent on purging ethnic Russians from Ukrainian territory. Indeed, scarcely had Kotsyubaylo time to relish his moment with Zelensky than the Russian media recalled a remark he had made to a New York Times reporter last spring. Asked about bones in the wolf cage maintained by his unit, Kotsyubaylo — all too aware of media tropes portraying Ukrainian nationalists as savages — replied that they came from “Russian-speaking children”.
“It was a joke,” he said. “The journalist knew it was a joke, reported it as a joke. They were sheep and cow bones.”
But in the age of hybrid war, where misinformation and twisted narrative are as much part of the arsenal as tanks and munitions, no quarter is given to a bad joke. Within hours of receiving his award in Ukraine the Russian media was describing Kotsyubaylo as a right-wing brute who had spoken of feeding Russian children’s bones to a wolf.
At home, as the threat of a Russian invasion looms, the Right Sector has found itself in an era of revitalised prestige, exemplified by Kotsyubaylo’s public recognition as a national hero. Based behind the front line as a reserve force, Right Sector fighters are training reservists and volunteers across eastern Ukraine. “We are an integrated part of our country’s defence who co-ordinate at the highest level with Ukrainian military,” Kotsyubaylo said.
He took me on a tour of a training camp in the eastern town of Novohrodivka, where his unit runs three-month training courses for up to a thousand people a year. Basic soldiering and combat first aid are taught, along with specialist skills such as drone surveillance and target acquisition. School children are frequent visitors to the camp, where they are taught about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of the Second World War, a nationalist force that fought as guerillas against both the Red Army and the Nazis, and in whose ranks Kotsyubaylo’s grandfather served.
“It is important that our children learn the real version of our nationalist fighters, rather than hear them described as ‘fascists’ by Russia,” he said.
Yet Ukraine’s volunteer formations have a chequered recent history. They played a key role in the early stages of the Ukrainian conflict, when they stepped in to fill the gaps fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east as the regular Ukrainian army crumbled.
Kotsyubaylo was among them from the start. An art student from Halych, in the west, he was 18 when he joined the pro-western Euromaidan protests in Kiev in 2013. Within a year he was leading Right Sector volunteers into battle against separatists in the east.
Badly wounded by shrapnel from a tank shell, he recovered and went right back to the fight. Aged just 19 he became the youngest assault company commander of his generation.
The volunteer formations have attracted fighters of every persuasion; extreme and mainstream. “I am a warrior, trying to share my military knowledge based on ideas of Ukrainian nationalism, not Nazism,” Kotsyubaylo said. “There are many like me. To confuse our nationalism with what the Russians describe as fascism is a mistake.”
His comrades-in-arms included men such as Vasyl Slipak, a baritone opera singer who had frequently performed in venues like the Paris Opera. He was killed in action in 2016.
Yet Right Sector units were also cited in multiple human rights reports concerning the abuse of prisoners, and in May 2015 Amnesty International wrote that detainees held by the group had endured “a horrifying spectrum of abuses, including mock executions, hostage taking, extortion, extremely violent beatings, death threats”.
Among the most infamous foreign members was Craig Lang, 31, an American former soldier now fighting extradition to the US, where he is accused of a double murder in Florida. He is also under investigation by the US Department of Justice for possible war crimes in Ukraine in 2015.
By 2016, as Ukrainian regular forces re-established their role in the east, and amid criticism that many paramilitary formations were little more than the private armies of oligarchs or political parties, a process began to remove volunteer units from the front, or to assimilate them into regular units. Right Sector’s Ukrainian Volunteer Corps has taken up reserve positions and training roles under the auspices of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.
“We can mobilise thousands of our people in the event of Russian aggression,” Kotsyubaylo said. “We will protect Ukraine street by street.” There is no shortage of Ukrainian volunteers willing to take up arms in the event of a Russian invasion. The Ukrainian military, now 255,000 strong, has reorganised itself into a professional force equipped with precision weaponry, much of it given by the US, but there is also a general public willingness to join the fight, hence the use of organisations such as Right Sector to train them.
“Our struggles for independence from Russia are not centred on the West’s disputes with Russia, they are about Ukrainian people’s real wish to be free,” Kotsyubaylo said. “If the Russians decide they want to seize Ukraine they will find their way home in coffins.”
He stepped out of the base into the howling wind and snow, striding towards the enclosure to see the company’s pet wolf, which he cuddled affectionately. A huge bone, freshly gnawed, lay in the straw.
“It’s so obviously a cow bone,” Kotsyubaylo frowned, running his hands through the wolf’s fur. “You don’t even have to ask.”