Kjell “Mikael” Skillt is a 38-year-old Swede who has served as an activist, foreign fighter, trainer, volunteer, and political figure in Ukraine. After nearly two years spent fighting in Ukraine, he’s become Kiev’s and Europe’s poster child for the defense of Ukraine. Russian propaganda campaigns, supported by Kremlin trolls, have slandered him and anyone else who has come to defend Ukraine, claiming they’re neo-Nazis. Despite that, Skillt has become a local sweetheart in Kiev, and now has a promising political career on the horizon.
Skillt’s commanders in the Ukrainian National Guard have noted his skill in combat and his professionalism while engaging with the media. As a soldier, Skillt was on the ground for Euromaidan and its initial fallout. In the midst of the chaos, he joined the only battalion accepting foreigners at that time—the Azov Battalion. Before the Azov Battalion was reorganized under government command and control at the beginning of 2015, it was a politically extreme right-wing organization. Despite the best efforts of Russia’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media to convince the world otherwise, Azov was not and is not a Nazi organization. That’s not to say Azov was not a far-right organization with some questionable members and origins, as discussed in the Fallout: Ukraine series.
Skillt didn’t care about who he joined, he just wanted into the fight. His own far-right political ideology at that time was a fitting match for the Azov Battalion. He saw combat in Kiev soon after linking up with the battalion. His first major engagement was during the August, 2014 capture of Marinka from pro-Russian separatists. There, the battalion moved in and engaged pro-Russian separatists on the outskirts of Donestk. Skillt was also on the ground for the Offensive on Mariupol, as well as for the subsequent skirmishes and static-line defense in the area, primarily around Shyrokyne. The area around Mariupol was an artillery-heavy engagement zone relieved only by the sporadic breaks provided by the many ceasefire attempts. The current ceasefire is holding and the Ukrainian National Guard in the area has been replaced by the Ukrainian Marine Corps. In January, 2015, Skillt left the front to accept an assignment as a director of training in Kiev, which has allowed him to steer the Ukrainian military away from the ham-fisted Soviet-era tactics, techniques, and procedures of the national commanders. Skillt is not perfect; he has a checkered past, and his initial reasons for joining the fight—perhaps the product of a growing pan-European racism—are not curriculum-vitae friendly. Yet it was warfare, and as is the case with many others who had never before experienced the world outside of their own backyard, it cleansed the soul and allowed him to see the light of common sense. During an August 2015 interview with The Daily Signal, Mikael stated that his involvement in Ukraine had transformed him, and that he no longer believed in national socialism. Now with the grit of experience, having let go of his youthful follies, he has repeatedly expressed that his previous views were “misguided” and “idiotic.” His remarks are similar to the things he told me during two of my 2015 trips to Ukraine, where I have now spent six months of this year. This allowed me to engage in multiple conversations with Mikael before conducting this interview in October.
Despite the many distractions from the reality of the conflict and the importance of a nation standing up against a hostile, drunk-on-power neighbor, Ukraine continues to slowly stride forward. The neo-Nazi allegations have been found to be little more than Russian disinformation traps. Of course, a responsible news media should investigate such serious allegations, but if they’re proven unfounded, such assertions should be summarily dismissed—not allowed to obscure the cause of a region with real issues during their struggle for sovereignty. Such sensationalist and shoddy claims have been a plague on Ukraine throughout the war and are often published by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)-backed pseudo-journalists, such as the United Kingdom’s own Graham Phillips. Phillips, a known FSB asset, was even decorated by the Border Service of the FSB for his work.
The Russians’ public display of awarding Phillips for his work is simply another Kremlin-based distraction, and a public-relations sham to attract additional foreign journalists to report propaganda for Russia. One must remember that wars are not only fought on the battlefield but across all spectrums, including in the media. A natural reactionary response may be to immediately believe what has been presented to you from an ostensibly authoritative voice, yet it is essential to remember that a battle for public opinion is being fought between those who would see a sovereign Ukraine and those who support Russian belligerence. Russia, since the Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union, has risen to once again be officially identified as the greatest threat to the safety and security of the American people and the world. This is a threat we have foolishly ignored while a bellicose Russia has been cutting swaths into Asia and Europe covertly and overtly since the late 1990s. As we wore blinders, focused almost entirely on terrorism and internal security threats during that time, Russia grew in strength.
Skillt is not the only foreign fighter in the Ukrainian National Guard. In fact the foreign fighter element of the Ukrainian military is now defunct, as the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has passed legislation allowing foreigners to join the armed forces and apply for Ukrainian citizenship. Skillt is one of these foreigners in the ranks of the Ministry of Defense (MoD), which is heavily populated by foreigners. The majority of these fighters hail from former Soviet satellites such as Belarus, Croatia, Chechnya, the Czech Republic, and Georgia. There is also a small group of western Europeans from Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Sweden and many others, as well as one Canadian soldier.
These once-volunteers, now-professional soldiers, have been represented on the global stage by Mikael Skillt throughout the ongoing propaganda battle between Ukraine and the Russian intelligence services. Much like any other rising star (and quite honestly with much less negative and shock press than the likes of Justin Bieber, et. al.), Skillt has effectively leveraged his fame, communicating a positive message from Kiev that Ukraine is a sovereign nation despite Russian aggressions, that the defenders of Ukraine are not Nazis, and that Ukraine will continue to fight internal corruption and grow stronger as a nation.
As Skillt has proven himself in the field and in front of the camera, his Ukrainian superiors have groomed him for greater things. Skillt may enjoy the very real possibility of a political career in Ukraine, starting on the anti-corruption front. Placing a foreigner like Skillt in a government-sanctioned anti-corruption capacity is a great move for him and the country, as Skillt is much less likely to be corrupted by cultural familiarities and local connections. Corruption is rampant in Ukraine, and those who bring about positive results are often forced out by unscrupulous power-brokers. The corrupt are sometimes caught, but are instead often promoted—a clear sign of a system in desperate need of immediate change.
A change for a free Ukraine is not only important for Ukraine, but for America and the West as well. Ukraine must walk away from corruption and into clean capitalism and democracy. The next real question for Mikael Skillt is, will he walk away from the battlefield with honor, joining the likes of Cincinnatus, or folly, like so many foreign fighters and mercenaries before him?