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 The current ceasefire is holding and the Ukrainian National Guard in the area has been replaced by the Ukrainian Marine Corps.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.