By Antonia Cundy 13 September 2022 •
The divisive regiment was formed by a network of football “ultras” and veteran fighters when war broke out in February
“We’re training to kill Russians,” the tattooed commander known as Viking told me, as he jammed blank rounds into his rifle’s magazine. What sort of training, specifically? “Specifically to kill Russians,” he repeated without elaborating.
Viking’s bravado was typical of the Kraken, the renowned, and divisive volunteer Ukrainian regiment he belongs to, which has played a critical role in this week’s counterattack of north-east Ukraine, which has seen dozens of villages and towns recaptured and astonished military analysts with its speed and efficacy. In the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian forces have reportedly advanced by around 30 miles in less than a week, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.
I met Viking in an old sports complex in Kharkiv, now requisitioned for military drills, with ammunition littering a ping pong table, shooting targets tacked to hurdle jumps and gymnastic springboards upturned and draped in camouflage.
The Kraken has a powerful PR strategy but little formal military experience. The regiment was founded as the war broke out on February 24 by an established network of football “ultras” — zealous fans with often violent tendencies — and veteran fighters with military and paramilitary experience in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Nagorno Karabakh. At the core of this group, rallying the troops on Telegram and in person, were former members of the Azov regiment, the battalion with historic far-Right links which has gained widespread support since its fierce and devastating last stand in Mariupol at the outset of war.
Its distinctive branding features the mythological sea creature which inspired Kraken’s name, harking back to the Azov fighters, namesakes of the Azov Sea. Kraken’s top commander, Konstantin Nemichev is the Kharkiv representative of the National Corps, the Right wing political party of Andriy Biletsky, founder of the Azov Battalion.
Kraken’s ex-Azov base is now much diluted – its ranks have swelled to more than 1,000 fighters, many of whom have “zero zero fighting experience”, another soldier, with the codename “Simple”, tells me. Others who spoke to the Telegraph consisted of a former mechanic, carpenter, blacksmith, photographer, HR manager, and policeman.
As a volunteer unit, Kraken comes under the auspices of Ukraine’s ministry of defence, while Azov is part of the National Guard and overseen by the ministry of internal affairs. But the close ties have led some to direct the same criticism towards Kraken that is often laid at Azov’s door: that its members are far Right and ultranationalist ideologues, disciples of Azov’s unsavoury founder, Biletsky.
In the kitchen at the sports complex training base where some of Viking’s company are sharing a vast box of chocolate biscuits, Viking makes his opinion on this subject clear. “People don’t understand the situation about Right wing people or nationalists, ” the 36-year-old says, flinging a knife into a chopping board. “If you are a patriot of Ukraine, then it’s, ‘Oh, you’re a nationalist! You’re Right wing, you’re a fascist, you’re a Nazi.’ But this is Russian propaganda.
“I came to the military because I want to live in a European country that has democracy and freedom, not like Russia,” he adds.
Some of the Kraken troops specialise in thinking creatively: running saboteur missions behind enemy lines and using drones to collect intelligence. Members of the unit liberated the key city of Balakliya last week, hoisting the Ukrainian flag on camera and declaring: “Mr President… your order has been executed.”
But despite the recent successes, months of fighting has taken its toll. Viking has had to tell multiple families he knows that their son or husband has died. “It’s not easy… But the problem is that you become accustomed to it,” he says softly.
Kraken’s vehicles, painted matte green from the hubcaps to the headlights, are often seen tearing around Kharkiv’s streets; its sea monster insignia, framed in a red and yellow warning triangle, is plastered over bus stops and advertising panels.
The regiment’s recent military efforts have warmed residents’ feelings towards the group. “I do think of them now as heroes”, says 38-year-old Maria. But she questions their social media braggadocio, which claims that the group liberated more towns and cities than is perhaps strictly true.
Meanwhile serious questions over their association with fanatics and criminals remain – human rights groups have raised concern about their activities, and a BBC investigation found the group were operating in the same area where a video that showed the deliberate “kneecapping” of Russian prisoners of war was filmed. The regiment has denied any connection.
The Kraken’s fighters — many of whom express themselves more gently than Viking — do not deny that the football and military social groups that underpin the regiment are more likely to lean towards a conservative than liberal world view. But they insist these are personal opinions, not a prerequisite of membership, and that bar a few extreme cases, most of them are gently held.
“I’m Right wing, fine, I’m Right wing,” Viking says. “I’m a traditionalist, I like it when there’s a man and a woman and they have a child, but this is just for me.”
Today, the group says it will continue to push Russian forces further back in the Kharkiv region “until the end”.
In the meantime, the ragtag regiment continues to swell. “It’s not a question of colour, politics, or religion,” says one young member called “Mini”, on account of his short stature and youth. “We understand that all people are different, but we all want one thing: to end the war.”