The Stuff of Legend

You’ve probably heard the term “Kraken” used somewhere over the years. In Scandinavian folklore, a Kraken is a hyper-aggressive man-eating sea monster capable of dragging sailors from their ships to their doom. In modern-day Ukraine, their Kraken forces are no less scary, killing Russians by the score and taking back once-occupied sections of their homeland.

Beware the Kraken, a small unit making big problems for the Russians. Their unit symbol mimics the mythical monster. Image Credit:

The Kraken unit is becoming the stuff of legend, one of Ukraine’s better-known volunteer forces. Azov battalion veterans founded the organization on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For those not in the know, the Special Operations Detachment “Azov” (aka the Azov Regiment and formerly the Azov Battalion) is a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard, established in Mariupol in the coastal region of the Sea of Azov. They were formed as a paramilitary unit to fight pro-Russian forces in the Donbas War. In the past, they have been criticized for their ultra-nationalist ideology which has been compared to German Nazism.  In terms of Russian propaganda, the Azov is the boogie-men hiding under the beds of every child in Russia, but in truth, Azov is a fringe political movement in Ukraine garnering about 2% of the vote in the last national election and winning holding no seats in Ukraine unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.  Today, they are battle-hardened troops, holding out for months under the Azovstal Steelworks while the Russians tried to bomb them into submission.

The Kraken is commanded by twenty-six-year-old Konstantin V. Nemichev, a political and military figure in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv. He aspired for political office even before graduating from college and launched a failed campaign to become Kharkiv’s mayor last year. Much of his political base comprises the region’s rowdy young soccer fans, and many of these young men serve in the military under his command.

Konstantin Nemichev, Chief of Staff of Kraken Special Forces. Images from Twitter via @Anabel_Villeroy

Now that so many fighters of the Azov Battalion have been killed or incapacitated, the Kraken are slowly taking the place of their nation’s best-known band of volunteers. This is not without controversy, as some fighters from both groups have been accused of being drawn from ultranationalist groups, an allegation most Krakens brush off as propaganda. Their commanders acknowledge there may be a few far-right soldiers among their ranks, but claim the appeal of their unit to new recruits is that they fight hard and fight often.

In a Gray Zone

The Kraken is a unique group that they are not technically part of Ukraine’s official armed forces, yet they answer to the Defense Ministry. It would be more accurate to say that they are a government-backed paramilitary group. And they are not Special Forces in the same way that Navy SEALs or Green Berets are, though their mission profile is similar.  They are perhaps a bit rougher around the edges regarding their tactical skills.  They are on a parallel with organized Partisan Units of WWII in operating in Russia behind German lines. These groups were equipped and supplied by the Red Army but were under the minimal direct control of the Kremlin.

Sources in Ruska Lozova, a formerly occupied village north of Kharkiv, say the unit has roughly 1,800 soldiers. A fair number of them may be considered to be “gym rats,” bouncers, soccer hooligans, and the like…not that there’s anything wrong with that, there’s not. There’s a tough job for tough men. Many of this tight-knit group hung out at a sports bar by the name of “The Wall” that was bombed by Russian separatists in 2014. Eleven people were injured in that attack. These men have history and a united purpose forged by adversity.

Andrii Maleev, age 45, in Ruska Lozova after it was freed by his Kraken Regiment. Before he joined the Krakens, the closest he had come to having a weapon in his hands was the hammer he used to make his living as a construction worker. The Russian invasion changed all that. Image Credit: Wojciech Grzedzinski

In recent weeks they have been instrumental in liberating villages in the region north of Kharkiv from Russian forces. The people are grateful for their hometown heroes. One of these men is Anton, who gives only his surname for security reasons. He tells a story of how a young soldier, confident that he could teach the others how to fire a Czech antitank weapon, instead blew a big hole in a wall and injured several people. He also speaks of how the Krakens learn to fight by fighting, the best teacher of all. As a result, morale within the Krackens is high.

“We’re fighting an empire, not some villages in our country,” Anton said.