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Friday Night Fights With Ukraine’s Far Right

The Azov Battalion is using mixed martial arts to prepare to fight non-Europeans—and seems to be exporting that model to the West.

Courtesy of Reconquista Kiev

With burgers-and-beer menu in front of me, it doesn’t seem that different at first from a typical American sports bar.

The tattooed men nearby, maybe in their twenties, look like they spend every other day at the gym. There’s also a thirty-something wearing khakis and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He’s running around the place like a manager, cell phone in hand.

But right in the middle of this bar that opened less than two years ago is an octagonal mixed martial arts (MMA) ring, something that Reconquista Club managers say makes it unique among sports bars in the country. Tonight there are supposed to be ten fights, three rounds each, each round three minutes.

Those guys slowly gathering before the fights? Their tattoos feature symbols with neo-Nazi connotations such as the SS runic insignia. Their t-shirts are from well-known far-right fashion brands. That man running around like he’s the manager? He’s Denis Nikitin, a notorious neo-Nazi who has personally trained far-right extremists across Europe in combat, and has been called one of the most dangerous figures on Europe’s far right.

Here in Kyiv, at a venue owned and operated by Ukraine’s far-right Azov movement, you can pop in off the street and personally witness one of the ways violent extremists are prepping for the future.

It all got started a bit late, about forty minutes after the scheduled ten o’clock evening start time. With lights dimmed, save for colored spotlights above the ring, the twenty, mostly young, fighters were led into the ring and introduced by the bowtied host for the live audience and those on the internet livestream: At 500 hryvnias (approximately $20), as the deposit for a minimum spend—like a cover fee, but with food and drink subtracted from it at the end—it’s not a cheap night out.

Two young men, slotted into the lightest weight class, started off the night at the ding of a bell. At least to my untrained eye, they didn’t seem to go at each other very hard or systematically. They may have still been learning the ropes, given that the fight didn’t even last long enough for a “ring girl”—a young woman in a bikini and high heels, holding a placard announcing the round number—to make it into the ring for a few catcalls and whistles.

But at what I learned was his usual ringside spot, Sergei Korotkikh still seemed into it. Korotkikh is a recognizable figure on Ukraine’s far-right. Nicknamed “Malyuta” after an infamous henchman of Ivan the Terrible, he’s a Belarusian-born former fighter in what, back in 2014, was known as the Azov Battalion.

Five years ago, Ukraine’s army was disorganized, under-equipped and barely able to take on Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine. A number of volunteer battalions were formed in response, among them the Azov Battalion, which quickly became known as a place where neo-Nazis from Ukraine and abroad could make themselves at home.

Korotkikh became commander of the Azov Battalion’s intelligence service. Despite a past that included ties to notorious Russian neo-Nazi organizations, even reportedly running training for them on everything from hand-to-hand combat to knife fights, Korotkikh was given Ukrainian citizenship by then-president, Petro Poroshenko, in 2014.

As two of the young fighters grappled on the ground near his table, Korotkikh leaned far over the edge to get a good look. I was a bit more distracted, thinking about some of the other characters in attendance. Before the spectacle, Denis Nikitin had been running around checking up on things, even flicking the switches controlling the lights over the ring to make sure they worked. Nikitin’s was a face I recognized right away—as would anyone else who routinely covers the far right—no matter how ordinary he might have looked in his downtown-office-worker getup.

Nikitin, as Robert Claus, a German expert on right-wing extremism, put it to me the day of the fights, “is one of the leading militant fascists and far-right hooligans in eastern Europe.”

Nikitin, or Kapustin, as a February 2019 report from German newspaper Der Spiegel claimed was his actual surname, has a long history with the most violent fringes of the European far-right. A dual Russian-German citizen, he has spent years organizing MMA fights, giving combat training to far-right extremists—including members of National Action, a British neo-Nazi group now banned by the U.K. government—and promoting his far-right fashion brand, White Rex, to anyone willing to buy into his neo-Nazi ideas.

Nikitin, now based in Kyiv, has urged his followers to train up for violence against Muslims and migrants. (“We need to abandon the limiting mindset and fight to win,” one fan who heard him speak in the flesh in 2017 summarized.) Nikitin has also admitted to leading violence against non-whites. “After a forest fight, I would often say to the guys: ‘OK, who wants to go kick some immigrants?” he told The Guardian in 2017. With his White Rex brand he has expressed support for the so-called “14 Words,” a white supremacist slogan, and even posted a picture of Adolf Hitler on his birthday on Instagram (an account that Instagram has since removed).

Nikitin doesn’t seem to like journalists very much. In 2017 he agreed to do an interview with a Norwegian newspaper. “If I’m not satisfied with the article and the pictures,” he reportedly told them with a half-smile, “I’ll make sure you get a visit.” The journalists couldn’t tell whether he was joking.

Recalling that episode, I decided to sit back, stay quiet and take in the surroundings without drawing too much attention. Aside from the fights going on in front of me, the literal writing on the walls gave a good indication of what this place was all about.

“So harden your hearts, sharpen your swords and when the enemy is here gut him like a pig!” read a slogan on the wall to my left. “One of you is worth any number of them,” declared another on the far side of the ring. The only slogan visible from my seat not written in English was in German, rather than Ukrainian or Russian: “At the end of the battle, the dead will be counted.”

“It’s a recruitment ground,” Pavel Klymenko, a researcher of far-right extremism with the Fare network, told me earlier that week when I asked him about MMA’s role in far-right groups. “It’s a means of preparing for physical confrontation, it’s a means of spending time together,” said Klymenko.

And like the far right itself, far-right MMA culture is increasingly international.

Members of the California-based Rise Above Movement (RAM), an American group that once described itself as “premier MMA club of the Alt-Right,” visited Kyiv in 2018 as guests of the Azov movement, with RAM’s leader himself taking part in a Friday night fight in this very same ring.

Four of RAM’s members were charged last year under the federal Anti-Riot Act for instigating violence against counterprotesters at rallies in 2017. A California judge dismissed the case on First Amendment grounds earlier this month. The group has a reputation for undertaking intense physical and combat training with the purpose of attacking their ideological foes and perceived enemies—a reputation that was well known when Azov invited them here in early 2018.

Several RAM members have long criminal histories; in 2009 the group’s leader himself ran after and stabbed a Latino man in a gang attack after confronting him in a store. The group is also associated with racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, from complaining about “Facebook Jew police” online to sharing memes of African Americans and Muslims as dogs under the control of Jews.

The international secretary of Azov’s political party, Olena Semenyaka, complained about media coverage of RAM on Facebook in June 2019, criticizing what she called “tremendous efforts by ‘independent’ media to make these idealistic, polite, and reasonable lads look like some serious extremists.”

Growing international networks like these leave Claus, who is currently writing a book about the European far-right’s combat sports, concerned.

“The development [of this scene] is very dangerous,” he said. “Militant neo-Nazis use combat sports to professionalize their violence.” The far-right’s interest in violence is well established. But what is new, he told me, is the growth of far-right MMA events all over Europe, as well as associated clothing labels and international networks led by figures like Nikitin. One of the largest far-right MMA events, Claus says, is in Germany: the “Kampf der Nibelungen“ (Battle of the Nibelungen), part of Nikitin’s White Rex network. It’s an event that members of RAM have also attended.

The “valorization of violence,” in the words of far-right extremism scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss, runs through everything at the Reconquista club, inside and outside the fighting ring. Certain aesthetic choices that could be interpreted as innocent or a bit eccentric in a different context—a fake skull mounted on a Ukrainian trident on the wall, a shelf in the men’s bathroom “for your pistol,” or a check that comes in a leather holster—take on a more serious meaning given Azov ownership.

Even the placemat on my table was part of the design. With Ukrainian on the left and English on the right, you can, while you eat, read a spiel about what the word “Reconquista” means to Azov. They, like other far-right groups, have borrowed the word from the fifteenth-century expulsion of Muslims from Spain and given it a new meaning as a quest to keep all perceived non-Europeans out of the continent.

“Reconquista is a call for the reconquest of the World—the world to come,” the placemat proclaimed in clear, albeit slightly awkward, English. “Reconquista will make Europe great again. Reconquista has already begun. Has begun from Ukraine. The future belongs to us!”

In front of me, the weight classes got heavier, the breaths through the fighters’ mouthguards louder, and the fights more fierce. In his checkered suit, the bow-tied host —speaking Russian, not Ukrainian, in a nod perhaps to potential livestream viewers outside Ukraine—seemed to get more excited introducing each bout.

The final fight I saw was enough for me. Unlike the previous ones, which ended by submission or by the referee stopping the fight, this one almost went all three rounds. The taller and lankier of the two men looked battered, eyes glassy and knees wobbling, as his trainer outside the ring literally threw in a towel to stop the fight. A black eye already forming, he made his way out of the ring with assistance and sat down next to the ringside medics a few feet from me as I got up and left.

Outside the bar, I remembered something Klymenko, the Vienna-based researcher of the far-right, told me when we spoke earlier in the week.

“Growing up in eastern Europe,” Ukraine-born Klymenko told me, “witnessing the development of the far-right, it was always looking to western Europe or the United States, and looking at what trends the Ukrainian or Russian far-right were going to copy.”

But now, he thinks, it’s started to work in reverse. Figures like Nikitin—and movements like Azov in Ukraine, able to take advantage of the politics of a country at war and a mainstream loathe to acknowledge the depth of the country’s problem with the far-right —have become “trendsetters” for the rest.

“Eastern Europe’s far-right is exporting its models to the West.”