Mike Skillt is a Swedish sniper and instructor that fights in Battalion Azov, the most famous (and talked) Ukrainian volunteers battalion. I was in contact with him for some time and had been so long that I wanted to meet him, it was not easy to reconcile our commitments. I met Mike on a sunny day in May in the new h.q. of battalion, on the outskirts of Kiev. He is a 38 years boy, he is fit , he smiles and greets me, he light the first of many cigarettes, inside the complex no one looks at me bad and the atmosphere seems relaxed, on my left, some girls cooking listening heavy metal, on the right there's building materials and some people with worker helmet, except for the camouflage does not seem to be in a military facility.
"We are here for three months in this Soviet factory, we have much work to do and the people give us a help, they are all volunteers like us, but they are civilians, they work for free or give us everything we needed, they know we're here to defend them, not excited murderers.” - Mike debut
I take a picture but he stop me - "Excuse me, unfortunately I have not yet said that it's forbidden to take pictures, the place is high risk target." - Ops!!! "The winter months was very hard for all of us, now we are building a sauna, so to have a bit of comfort for the netx winters, we think the war will be long, also I'm Swedish, I cannot live without sauna» (he laughs)
How did you start your military career? I know that for a long time you have been in the Swedish army. "In Sweden we have had to serve in military service, minimum of 7 months to a year, I served in the army, I liked and I was for 6 years."
And after these six years? You started to work as contractor?
"No, my experience as a contractor is an invention of enemy propaganda. I was in prison, The army has close my contract, and when I come back free I found a civilian work, I never made the mercenary, many of them do things for me are immoral. My civilian life began in 2009 until 2014 when I arrived in Ukraine."
So you have not been in any theater of war. "Yes!"
Not even when you was in the army? "The Swedish army takes part only in UN missions and the engagement rules are horrible, now the Scandinavian countries are strengthening their borders with Russia, but it is normal in such cases because the Russian policy is militarily aggressive but I don't think that Russia wants to invade more strongest countries than Ukraine."
You had a good job, why you decided to come here to fight as a volunteer? "I have some friends in Ukraine, knew three or four years ago, they showed me some pictures of the fighting in Maidan, when started to kill the protesters I thought I should help them. I quit my job, I left my girlfriend, I closed the house contract. Unfortunately I arrived late, four days after the massacre of Institutska where many people died."
You're one of the first foreign fighters arrived in Ukraine, I visited your base in Urzuf and noticed the large number of volunteers from other countries, especially Georgians and Russians, recently a Georgia volunteer was dead in Shirokino. Can acquire these soldiers some right, for example citizenship or special status? It is a very sensitive issue, especially about to the volunteers from Russia. "No, you remains a foreign citizen, if you die Ukraine does not pay the corpse transporting, the Azov pay the expenses for their come back. There was a Swedish boy who died, his name was Lear, battalion paid transportation expenses. The government should give the money to the repatriation of the body at least, I think is almost 800$, it don't seem too high price for those who given their lives for this country."
Are here some Italian volunteers? How many are there now? "We have some Italian guys, I don't know how many now, and their number and their name is a secret, but I can tell you that there are more than two."
And what kind of people are they? "Good people, I like Italians, very friendly."
Some commanders as Semenchenko (Batt. Donbass), Jarosh (Right Sektor) or Biletsky (Batt. Azov) are in Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), do you think that anyone using the current situation to the political career? "Except for Jarosh and Biletsky, it seems to me like a kind of political game, some use the ongoing war for their interests, but not all."
In such battles was you in the front line? "I fought almost everywhere here: In Ilovaisk have been fought for ten days, there I had the first evidence of the Russian army involvement in this war, then Mariinka, Mariupol, Novoazovsk, Shirokino... Every battle is different, initially when I fought in Mariupol or Mariinka there was not so much artillery, but in Ilovaisk both sides begun to make extensive use of artillery and after Ilovaisk has begun to fight as before WWII: Dig a hole, when then the artillery is covering you're moving in another place, dig a hole and you wait the artillery gunfire."
What happen when the artillery start to hit towards your direction? Can you do anything? "In Ilovaisk I was better because used the common mortars and Grad, you can hear them from a distance and you can lay on the ground, your artillery covers if you are unlucky you die but in many cases come back alive. But when I was in Sherokino or Novoazovsk there were other kind of artillery and it was scary because you could heard the boom on the one side and immediately after the boom in another and you did not know where to go."
Did you said: "ok I gave what I had to give now it's time to go home"? "They killed many of my friends, now it is personal."
Here in Ukraine I reminded some stories of WWII that my grandfather told me when was a child, there was a certain respect in particular between English and Italian. Do you think this "code of honor" among different armies still exist or certain chivalry rules is thing of the past? "It's old times stuff unfortunately, I respect the opponent soldiers opponents just if they give up. One my friend was taken alive and killed rather than be took prisoner, another were cut ears before was killed with a shot to the head. We fight against animal and I can't have respect for them. I respect the laws of war: if you surrender I'll take you as prisoner, but for now I always fought against animals."
How do you feel when you've framed your target and shoot? "Mmm..." - he lights up another cigarette and thinks about it - "I really want to say what I feel but I can't, it's hard to explain, when you go on a mission you have a transformation, as if put in a side all your feelngs and emotions... for sure you don't go with a cheerful mood, when you are in mission you put them your whole personality. In those moments you feel more alert, smarter, stronger, but this is something that has not to do with the human side, you feel more like a machine. It is very strange and hard to explain this is happens."
Are you are planning to return soon to the front? "Yes, I think to come back to the front almost at month end, I do'nt know if I'll go to the front line or continue to do the instructor in Urzuf, will decide Biletsky (the commander of the battalion)"
And what after the front? Are you making plans for the future? "If I survive on this war, I'll getting married and I'll do family, I am 38 y.o. and my girlfriend 30, it's time and we want children."
Is she is Ukrainian? "Yes, she's from Kiev, but I can't say any more for her safety, only close friends have seen us together. She don't want that I'm going to the front but I have responsibilities"
Other projects with the battalion? "The place where we are is the last of the projects under way, then we want to expand the number of soldirs, we have to get to 1400 people to become a real regiment, we think we get to this number very soon."
You use social networks very much, are you considered a sort of "spokesman" or what? "Initially I started because there was a need to reply to foreign journalists and I speak English very well, so it was normal for me to talk to reporters also through social network. I'm not a "spokesman" even if that I know that what I say in public, or in the social networks, or with you now, makes me in a way a sort of representative of the battalion Azov."
It's arrived young guys dressed as civilians, they greet him and make him a question in Ukrainian, Mike reply in English - "I don't speak Ukrainian" - for a few minutes speaking in English. "They are new recruits, young and idealistic, it's their first day here"
Not much people in Ukraine speak English and even your Russian is not good, how can you give the orders? "Here is normal that the people don't speak any foreign language, we have Ukrainian guys who translate and mediate between the officers and their group, all people must speak English very well to join. But war is a universal language and when you fighting you know what need to do, you don't need to talk in perfect English with you comrades: you know when to advance, you know when you shoot. During the fighting you don't talk much, everyone knows what he has do."
He lights up another cigarette, I ask him: Can smoke a sniper during the battle? I imagine that the cigarette strongly attract the attention of the enemy. "I'm a chain smoker usually when I'm assigned to no-fighting duties, when I'm in the battlefield I don't smoke, enemy can feel the smell for several meters, and especially in the night you can see the little light for almost half a kilometer, so when I fight no cigarettes, I have this stuff from Sweden, is tobacco to chew it's like smoking continuously. These things give you the cancer but I can be killed tomorrow with a bullet. I am more afraid that due of the pollution in Mariupol some guys become impotent at 25 y.o."
Where do you had and what's your memories about your "baptism of fire?". "It took place in Mariupol, I knew what I should to do: I would be out of the car, take position and start to fire. My mission that day was the free hunting: I could do whatever I wanted Important was to kill the separatists. I don't was very scared, but when I came out from the car the separatists began to shoot and shooted our driver, I was very scared because they used a .27 caliber and I started to think: "Oh shit, we will die here in Mariupol." Probably for 10 seconds I did not do anything and my commander, Botsmann, shouted in Russian: "Mike let's go to work" So I got a flash and I put aside my feelings and my thoughts... I think for almost 6 hours."
And when you come back to the base? "We don't went back to the base, we sat behind some vehicles and the commander told me: You're ok, if you do what you must to do, you don't die. Since that day I never been afraid, if you die, you die, it depends on the decisions of the gods."
You just used the word godS, in the plural! "Yeah, not GOD but GODS, I believe in the ancient Norse religion, if I die in battle I'll going to Walhalla, my religion is not very different from the ancient Roman religion."
Ah yes, I read on your facebook that you would like to visit Rome. "Sure, I would love to visit the Vatican and all the ancient pagan temples, in Sweden we have not many testimonies of the past."
What you do before moving to the battle? Have you any ritual, as pray to the gods? "No, I don't pray, I have no rites... there is not much free time when you're in battlefield, you make an idea when you receive the orders, you make your plans where you will work, what you will do etc... you just have to wait for the order to move, one or two days, it depends... and when you're moving to the battlefield you only have to think about your job."
Mike... I understand it's a difficult question... how many people you killed? "The group which I am responsible collected a total of 150 separatists killed, I personally killed twenty enemy, actually I don't have an accurate idea because work is in a reconnaissance group and is in a assault groups, when you find a corpse with 10 bullet holes... what was yours? I think it's a good thing not know the number."
Have you a talisman or something similar? "No, I have my Celtic tattoos as talisman and emblem of Azov Battalion on my skin."
Not Cossacks? The Ukrainian Cossacks were great warriors. "I don't have Cossacks tattoos, I fought with some of them, I heard about them but I never seen before the war, they have their ethics, for example: they don't fight against other Cossacks. Once time came to train to us twenty Cossacks from Dnipropetrovsk, during the stress test the new recruits must do my orders, if I order to jump from a window they must do even if they risk to break every bone. I ask him to fight, and they remain there to do nothing, my Russian is not good so I thought that I was not able to express myself as well, I called a translator and they told me that they cannot – are you idiots? I say – and them: No Cossacks never fight against each other."
Has it happened that someone used civilians as human shields? And if so what should you do? "(Takes a deep breath)... It happens but not as people imagine, the Russians bring the artillery in populated place and shoot, in some cases the Ukrainian army fired back because there wasn't other solutions. Unfortunately they do. Until now never happened to me, but if should happen I can shoot a terrorist between the eyes 200m away."
How far did you hit an enemy? "My record was 1400mt"
Have you your own rules to respect? "My rule is that if someone tries to kill me I shoot him before”
What think your family about your choice to fight in Ukraine? "No problem, of course my mother is scared but she accepted my choice, I talked to my grandmother she accepts it, how they do I don't know."
How was your childhood? "Typical Swedish childhood, I spent many years in a countryhouse, I don't was bad at school (but not very well)... the typical life of Swedish boy, I never thought that I would become a warrior, I think It was kind of a call from the gods."
Are you a former member of the battalion? "No, the battalion was founded before I came, was born in Karkiv by the Patriots of Ukraine, I met Kosatsky in Maidan and a week later I came to be part of it, we were 120 and 80 were soldiers."
A rather unpleasant question: where the battallion find the money? Have you any oligarch behind? "No, we have no oligarch, except for Right Sector battalions the volunteer battallion work from begining in cooperation with the structure of the minister of interior Navakov, the ministry pays its employees and those who want give a part of the salary to foreign soldiers. Of course there's private donations from citizens from Ukraine and abroad. Kolomowsky (former governor of Dnipropetrovsk and oligarch) gave us money during the first few weeks and then the Russians started to say that our battalion was founded by Kolomowsky, but it is not true. Taruta (former governor of Donetsk, kidnapped a year ago by separatists) gave us some money but not many, Ahmetov (the oligarch of Mariupol) tried to get their hands on the battalion but did not succeed and however, except for some concrete block for checkpoint and a bit of steel to our base in Sherokino he has not given us a single penny. "
What you do when you have free time? "I have not much free time, max a couple of days at month, all of my time when I'm not in front I spend here, once I was back from the front and I happened to have a few weeks free, I spent these days doing absolutely nothing and relaxing, I slept like a king."
What do you think, how much will be long this war? "I think will be long, at least this year for sure."
Where do you see your future, in Ukraine or are you thinking to come back to Sweden? "No, I want to stay here, I want to open my Security Company."
Do you mean you contractor agency? "Yes, but it's a long time plan, I'll need a good lawyer, police authorizations and above all I'll need to obtain Ukrainian citizenship."
In an old interview you said that you wanted to fight in Syria for Assad army, did you changed idea? "I had this idea to go to fight in Syria, collecting lot of money and then retire, but then I saw that the Free Syrian Army and Assad's army massacring civilians as butchers and I can't serve someone who kills civilians, if I could going now I would fight for the Kurdish Peshmerga, they looks different but then you must to be there to see the reality."
How do you feel to know that the separatists have put a price on your head? "Nothing special, they can try but will be very difficult for them, I have one million dollars bounty, is a good price but they kill me first, then advance under fire battalion, cut off my head and go back... it's just propaganda, they will never have my head but are free to try."
Foreign media, not just Russians but also many Westerners, wrote that you're a Nazist, how true this statement? "For a long time I was National Socialist, until seven years ago, I was young, maybe not a kid but I was more younger than now. In the last years I read and understood a lot of things, now I definite myself as Nationalist. For Russians I'm a Nazi for obvious reasons and the Western media must catch attention to sell more copies or make greater share. I want say them the truth and they write the real things, but is not possible and I'm bored about."
After the chat we do a tour inside the base and Mike show me some vehicles returned from the front. "Look here, the Russians using cluster bombs that are banned by international law, take a picture, please and show to your country the real things."
He show me the officine and then we come to take a tea, he explain that now it's more difficult for foreigners to enter in Azov. "We had some problems with foreigners, many of them wanted to enter just to live an adventure, we narrowed the standards for selection, once a Croatian boy exibit to us a military service document, I think was false, when he went to the front and started shooting to us is completely went crazy, I had to order my soldiers to close him in a toilet so he could not do bullshit that could endanger his and our life, the day after we gave him the money to go home. Currently we accept a few foreigners, mostly Croats, Georgians, Russians and Belarusians, if you see there's the Belarusian flag, the real white and red, not the actually used by the puppet regime of Lukashenko."
Later we went to the center where he have to meet with some of his fellow soldiers: another Swedish and an Italian, his name is Claudio 45 years with nordic accent, he recently entered in the battalion, he speaks little of him and does not give interviews, but that's another history...