KYIV, Ukraine—This was supposed to be a routine reconnaissance mission, but suddenly it became complicated.

They had been crawling in the woods to stay concealed when the jeep with four separatists inside pulled up and parked along the road a few hundred meters away. They had two options: Start running, or the other thing.

Mikael Skillt laid a reassuring hand on his Smith & Wesson knife.

They would wait until dark.

Skillt was unusually anxious. Normally before combat he went into what he called “work mode,” shutting off all unnecessary thoughts and emotions. He felt that way now too, behind separatist lines in Ilovaisk in eastern Ukraine.

But he also could feel his heart pumping, which was unfamiliar.

Skillt, a Swede, had killed many men in combat, yet this time would be different. Typically he saw the enemy through a riflescope. His enemy’s death was registered by the faster-than-gravity way that dead men fall to the earth.

And, in Skillt’s experience, a balaclava normally concealed the enemy’s face. Not that he looked at the faces. That’s what they teach you in sniper school: Never look at the faces.

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When night fell, it was time. The separatists remained parked at the same spot. They had rolled down the windows of the jeep and had been smoking and drinking vodka for a while. They were probably drunk, Skillt thought.

Creeping up to the vehicle, Skillt took the driver’s side. His friend, another Swede who had joined the Azov Battalion to fight for Ukraine, took the passenger’s side.

The man in the driver’s seat was asleep and hanging halfway out the window. Skillt put the knife in and pulled it out.

The doomed man made a few gurgling sounds and looked at Skillt in terror. He flailed his arms a little bit, but didn’t put up much of a fight. He was gone in 15 or 20 seconds.

On the passenger side of the jeep, Skillt’s friend did his job.

The back door on the driver’s side opened and a man spilt out. He tried to run, but slipped. Skillt lunged. He was a little nervous and slipped too, but he found his mark. He stabbed the man in the eye, breaking off the knife’s blade in the act.

Skillt noticed the copper smell of blood.

Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt

‘The myth is more exciting than reality,’ Skillt says. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skillt)

He and his friend dragged the bodies into the woods and took up positions to hide. The next morning, another car pulled up. The men inside got out, looked at the tableau of the jeep, which was swimming in blood, then fled.

“There are times when I can hear that nasty sound,” Skillt, 38,  says in his Swedish accent, almost a year later.

“The blood going down the windpipe. It’s a very nasty sound,” he says. “Sometimes when I go to sleep, I can hear the sound and smell the blood. If there’s one thing I wish I could be without, it would be that.”

Identity Crisis

Skillt sits in a plywood hut at the Azov Battalion’s barracks in an abandoned industrial park on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Outside is the sound of hammering as civilian volunteers and troops build a classroom and finish a CrossFit workout area. They are constructing, from scratch, a military training facility for the unit’s more than 1,400 soldiers.

Periodically, a soldier will open the door to the small room. Seeing Skillt inside, he lowers his head deferentially and apologizes for interrupting.

“The myth is more exciting than reality,” Skillt says with a sheepish smile. “But when you’re in heavy fire, it feels like all the guns in the world are pointed at your position. So when I, as a sniper, can make the firing stop for a guy, it makes me their hero.”

In a series of interviews, including visits to the locations of some of the battles in which he participated, The Daily Signal spoke with Skillt to gain an understanding of how his experiences in the Ukraine war have affected him.

Descriptions of the battles are based on his recollections as well as news reports and interviews with other Azov Battalion soldiers.

Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt

Skillt was at the front in eastern Ukraine for nine months. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skillt)

Skillt has close-cropped, reddish-blond hair and a beard. He has an easygoing demeanor and matter-of-fact way of speaking. He is quick to make a self-deprecating joke. But he rarely breaks eye contact while talking.

He wears U.S. MultiCam fatigues with a Ukrainian army sniper badge pinned to his left breast. He looks a little softer now than in some of the pictures of him on the front lines, the result of the more sedentary life of an instructor at Azov Battalion’s base in downtown Kyiv—and, he says, of the cooking of his girlfriend, Anna.

“Ukrainian women don’t like skinny men,” he explains.

“This may not be the most exciting thing I’ve done,” Skillt adds, “but it’s the most important. I was on the front for nine months, and I have a lot of things I can pass down.”

‘Some Things Were Black and White’

Later, walking through the halls of Azov’s base, just a few hundred meters from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, Skillt’s prestige among the soldiers is apparent.

In a unit that eschews traditional military rank and protocol, the men treat Skillt like a commanding officer. Soldiers stand up when he enters a room and pull to the side of the hallway as he passes. Almost everyone greets him with the Azov handshake: Hands grasp forearms and voices intone, “Slava Ukrayini,” which means “Glory to Ukraine.”

Skillt bear-hugs a tall, tattooed soldier nicknamed Spider. He throws a few lighthearted jabs making fun of Spider’s dating habits.

“He’s fearless in combat,” Skillt says later. “Absolutely afraid of nothing.”


Map by Kelsey Lucas/Visualsey for The Daily Signal

Seventeen months ago, Mikael Skillt’s current life would have been unthinkable.

Skillt, who had served as a sniper in the Swedish National Home Guard, was a member of Sweden’s far right and a spokesman for several neo-Nazi groups. Before the Ukraine war, he was in and out of jail and working a job in construction.

Skillt doesn’t shy away from discussing his neo-Nazi past, but talks about it openly, referring to his earlier beliefs as “misguided” and “idiotic.” He claims his service in the Ukraine war shattered his previously held stereotypes and spurred him to abandon National Socialism.

“I’m not a Nazi, and I don’t believe in National Socialism,” Skillt says. “When I got to Ukraine 17 months ago, I was a real bastard. I had stereotypes against Jews, blacks, Arabs. But I’ve fought with them, and now they are like brothers. Before, some things were black and white. But now I know nothing is certain. Good and bad people come in all colors. The world is very gray.

“You know,” he adds, “the Mikael from 17 months ago would pick a fight with the Mikael from now. But the Mikael from now would win.”

Whether because of battlefield compromises necessary for victory or a genuine change of heart, to stand up the Azov Battalion’s training program Skillt also has worked with governments around the world, including Israel, the U.S., and his native Sweden.

He has helped build the unit from a civilian volunteer battalion with about 100 soldiers into a Ukrainian National Guard battalion sanctioned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with personnel topping 1,400 and bases throughout Ukraine.

New Azov Regiment recruits at the Kyiv, Ukraine training camp (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

New recruits to the Azov Regiment line up at the training camp in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Despite the unit’s growth, many of the soldiers Skillt trains receive only two weeks of formal instruction before deploying to the front lines. Skillt has studied the training programs of various Western militaries, making hard choices to condense into two weeks a syllabus that usually covers nine months.

“We focus on weeding out those who will freeze or panic under fire,” he says.

A Neo-Nazi Minority

The Azov Battalion has played a key role in the Ukraine war. However, the unit was excluded from Fearless Guardian, a U.S. training mission in Yavoriv, Ukraine, because of  a congressional amendment singling it out for an alleged neo-Nazi ideology.

As proof, Russian and some Western media outlets, as well as several U.S. lawmakers, point to the symbol of the Azov Battalion, which closely resembles the Nazi Wolfsangel.

Battalion soldiers disagree. They say their symbol stands for “idea of the nation,” which refers to Ukrainian nationalism. In the Ukrainian language, “idea of the nation” is phonetically pronounced “ideya natsiyi,” sometimes spurring what the soldiers claim are misguided Nazi comparisons because of mistranslation.

Within the Azov Battalion, however, are a minority of soldiers with far-right, neo-Nazi persuasions. And those soldiers do little to hide their beliefs.

Some have tattoos of the Nazi swastika and SS symbols. Others wear jewelry with Nazi symbols and read Adolf Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” at night in their bunks.

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But the overwhelming majority of Azov soldiers say they’re fighting for Ukraine’s sovereignty and to repel what they call a “Russian invasion” of their homeland. Those with far-right convictions live and fight side-by-side soldiers from 22 countries and various backgrounds, including Arabs, Russians, and Americans—as well as Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

“Young men often have extreme views,” Skillt says. “But they want to pick the raisins out of the cake. This part is good and that part is bad.” He adds:

In any army there is always a little bit of bad meat. For example, when I was in the Swedish army, I was that little percentage of bad meat. But is a man’s desire to die for his country or a cause any less heroic if he is a nationalist?

The Azov Battalion unit symbol, which some claim closely resembles the Nazi Wolfsangel. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Some say the unit symbol of the Azov Battalion resembles the Nazi Wolfsangel. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Skillt says he isn’t a national socialist. He believes in nationalism, he says, and is fighting to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and to stop Russian aggression. He distances himself from the Swedish far right, which, he says, is focused on Muslim immigration into Europe.

Skillt’s self-proclaimed ideological evolution has left him a pariah among neo-Nazi groups in Sweden. That country’s far-right movement, which largely celebrates Russian President Vladimir Putin for his conservatism and hard line against homosexuality and immigration, frequently accuses Skillt of being on the wrong side of the Ukraine war.

A July 8 article posted by Nordfront, an online news site for the Swedish Resistance Movement (a militant, neo-Nazi group for which Skillt was a regional commander), provides an example.

“Skillt,” it says, “has long taken an active part in the U.S.-created civil wars that occurred in Ukraine after the U.S.-sponsored coup d’état in late February last year ousted the democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych.”

The article is one in a series in which the Swedish Resistance Movement criticizes Skillt for supporting a “Jewish coup regime” in Kyiv.

Nordfront also takes issue with the Azov Battalion, claiming “criminal Jewish billionaire” Igor Kolomoisky finances the unit.

“Russia calls me a Nazi bastard, and my old friends in Sweden call me a Jew-lackey,” Skillt says. “I’m having an identity crisis.”

Prelude to War

In February 2014, Skillt’s life finally seemed to be going in the right direction. He had a steady job with a decent paycheck, a girlfriend, a house in a Stockholm suburb. He was staying out of trouble.

In 2009, the same year he left the Swedish military, Skillt  was arrested for assault. He landed in jail for two months and spent six weeks in solitary confinement after attacking another inmate.

In 2011, Skillt ran into trouble with the law again. He confronted an undercover police officer who he says was beating up a drunken hooligan at a soccer game. “I told him I’d shove the baton down his throat if he hit the guy again,” Skillt recalls.

Because the officer failed to identify himself, Skillt spent only two days in jail. He was sentenced to three months of community service. The arrests made it hard to find work, though. So did his role as a spokesman for Sweden’s most infamous far-right groups.

“I was the representative of evil,” he says.

Skillt had joined the Swedish Resistance Movement in 2003, when he was 26. He rose quickly through the ranks of the neo-Nazi group, becoming the equivalent of a regional commander after one year. He left the group to join the National Democrats for a year, then jumped to the Party of the Swedes—a neo-Nazi political party that dissolved in May.

Frustration with the Swedish political system drew Skillt to the far right, he says, adding that he eventually became disillusioned with the movement because of those it attracted. He says:

I realized I was not a national socialist. Many of the people in the nationalistic movements were idiots, and did not behave properly. We attracted a lot of idiots.

Skillt’s time in the far-right movement overlapped his service in the Swedish National Guard from 2004 to 2009. He was a sniper, but never deployed or saw combat.

He says he turned down opportunities to go on U.N. peacekeeping missions, which were voluntary, because he found the rules of engagement too restrictive. So his military experience left him with unanswered questions.

“I think almost all guys who go into the military want to see combat sometime,” Skillt says. “I was always seeking adventure, no matter what.”

In 2011, Skillt says, he was approached by a Jordanian doctor who was traveling throughout Europe recruiting mercenaries for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Lured by the paycheck and adventure, Skillt seriously considered the offer.

“I would have done it, but the guy just vanished,” he says. “But now I’m very glad I didn’t go.”

Skillt landed a minimum-wage job with a construction contractor. He wanted to prove himself and move up. By February 2014, he was making about $32,700 (30,000 euros)  a year, and was on track to make about $65,400.  He had a stable life and a future.

And then Ukraine happened.

Unexpected Purpose

Cowards. That’s what Skillt thought as he pored over photos and YouTube videos of the carnage playing out on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in central Kyiv.

The snipers bothered him the most. Why don’t they just shoot the protesters in the leg? he thought. And why shoot protesters at all, anyway? What threat did a man in a motorcycle helmet and a metal shield pose to police in riot gear?

Civilians were dying. And here he was, working construction. Out of the action. Useless.

Watching the videos of snipers murdering protesters, Skillt was angry. He considered them cowards.

Let’s see if they have any counter-sniper training, he thought. Let’s see if they can survive me.

“Something woke up in me,” he says. “Maybe it was the warrior mentality.”

Skillt bought a one-way ticket to Kyiv for Feb. 28, 2014. He told his boss he’d be gone for a few days and he tried to explain to his girlfriend why he had to go to Ukraine.

“Our relationship went from not the best in the world to the worst,” he says, chuckling. “And that was the end of it.”

Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt

‘Almost all guys who go into the military want to see combat sometime,’ Skillt says. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skillt)

Skillt had a friend in Ukraine who said he had a Saiga 7.62×39 assault rifle waiting for him. But Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukraine president, fled Feb. 21. By Feb. 25, the revolution was over.

When Skillt arrived in Kyiv three days later, he had “missed the whole shebang.”

In March, Russia annexed Crimea. A separatist movement took hold in eastern Ukraine and there was talk of war. Protest groups born on Independence Square began to morph into paramilitary units.

“We could see something bad was going to happen,” Skillt says. “The only reason we didn’t go to Crimea is because we had no guns.”

‘Work Mode’

“What’s the worst that can happen?” the Azov Battalion commander asked Skillt before they left for the front lines. “We all die in battle?”

A separatist movement had swept across the Donbas—Ukraine’s southeastern territory on the border with Russia—and cities were falling like dominoes. Ukraine, many worried, could be split in two.

The regular Ukrainian army had been caught off guard by the firepower and organization of the separatist forces, which received training, equipment, and weapons from Russia.

Skillt decided to join the newly formed Azov Battalion to fight in eastern Ukraine. He already was involved with pro-Ukrainian groups. He had been in street fights in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which in April 2014 saw violent clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.

As the situation in the Donbas deteriorated from street fights into a war, Skillt looked for a way to join the fight.

“Ukraine gave me purpose,” Skillt says, “and I think a man needs a purpose.”

The Azov Battalion was one of two dozen civilian volunteer battalions formed in the early days of the Ukraine conflict. These civilian combat units, along with ad hoc ones formed from Ukraine’s police and intelligence services, joined the overwhelmed and outgunned regular army to stop the separatist advance.

Ukraine’s oligarchs financed some of these paramilitary groups; others received most of their money from online fundraising campaigns and private donations. Initially, weapons were mostly small arms handed down from local police units.

Azov troops after the battle for Mariupol (Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

Azov troops assemble after the battle for Mariupol. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

The first time Skillt saw combat was in Mariupol, an industrial port city of 500,000 on the coast of the Sea of Azov.  Separatists had taken it over in the opening weeks of the war.

Skillt had been in plenty of fights, but true combat was an unknown. For him, experiencing war was as necessary as food, water and air.

How will I act when the time comes? he wondered. Will I be brave? Will I turn and run, or will I face the danger head on?

Skillt found the answers at a road crossing in Mariupol that June. Separatists shot at him with a 50-caliber machine gun, and he took cover behind an armored personnel carrier.

“The enemy drew first blood,” he recalls. “I froze, and I thought, ‘This is how it’s going to end.’ ”

He was paralyzed. Not by fear, but by overwhelming sensory overload. He snapped out of it, experiencing for the first time what he later referred to as “work mode.”

Thoughts, emotions, and sensations that weren’t necessary to his survival fell away. He was immersed in the anesthesia of hyperfocus, everything reduced to the singularity of here and now.

“All the things that kind of make Mikael, Mikael—those things go away. The speaking, the laughing,” he says, adding:

Normally I can’t run for six hours, but when I go into ‘work mode,’ I can. I can jump higher. I react much quicker. I don’t speak very much at all. Everything just zooms out. I don’t know what’s happening. You peel off what’s human to become some sort of robot.

Skillt and a comrade crossed the road under heavy fire. He could feel the bullets whizzing by, miniature sonic booms popping. On his legs, he felt the ricochets of shattering asphalt. He started to scream and laugh.

On the other side of the road, he saw a man pop up in the third-floor window of a schoolhouse. In one unthinking motion, Skillt’s gun was up. The man was in his scope, the man fell. Skillt thought nothing; he didn’t have time.

A short while later, once the battle had ebbed, Skillt and some others entered the schoolhouse. He climbed to that third-floor room, looking for the man he had shot. But it was empty.

Had he missed? Had he let the enemy escape? Skillt felt disappointed and useless.

“I was so upset I wanted to kill myself,” he says.

As he stood there, dejected, Skillt’s commander approached and congratulated him. For what? he thought. I’m a failure.

The commander told Skillt they had found his man dead on the street. Shot through the lung, he had managed to crawl for a distance before dying.

“I actually thought it would feel really, really bad,” Skillt says. “But in the end, I didn’t feel much. I wish I never had to kill a man, because once you do it, you cross a big moral line. But I know if I don’t do it, this guy might kill my friends.”

Skillt had survived his first battle, killed for the first time.

“Ten hours of fighting and not a scratch,” he says:

Now I knew I could react. I could survive and I could work good. It was a big boost to know I was not useless. Because you never know how it’s going to be. You really don’t know.

(Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

A friend says combat made Skillt (right) ‘more humble.’ (Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

Full Circle

It’s 2 a.m. at an underground night club in Mariupol, more than a year after Skillt’s first battle. The walls, covered in multicolored lighted tiles, flicker with the heavy bass notes of the Russian techno the DJ is spinning.

Despite the war, a 20-minute drive away in Shyrokyne, the dance floor is crowded.

Skillt is sharing a bottle of cheap vodka and some Red Bulls with Jonas Nilsson, a Swedish army sergeant and friend of more than 10 years.

Nilsson and Skillt used to be roommates. They worked for the same construction contractor in Sweden, and Skillt used to help out with the event-planning business Nilsson ran.

Nilsson has an eclectic background. He’s a former French Foreign Legion soldier and a mixed martial arts fighter who has written a book on gender roles in the modern family. And, like Skillt, he’s a former member of the Swedish Resistance Movement.

Now Nilsson is an outcast, criticized for his libertarian writings as a freelance journalist on subjects such as social issues and immigration—and for  expressing support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

A student at the Swedish Defense University, Nilsson is in Ukraine researching Azov and other volunteer battalions. Sweden has so far shied away from allowing similar groups to exist, but concerns over Russian aggression have spurred the historically neutral Scandinavian state to reexamine how its military is organized and even consider the possibility of joining NATO.

As the night drags on, Nilsson and Skillt trade stories about their time with Sweden’s far right. Skillt talks about his experiences in the Ukraine war, explaining how the transition back to civilian life in Kyiv has left him feeling out of place.

“He has always been a very confident man in his nature, almost to the grade that one might think that he believes he can fight the gods himself,” Nilsson says later:

This is where I find the change in him during this war to be the greatest. He still has his confidence, but he is more humble. Everything isn’t black and white as it maybe once was.

Skillt in Mariupol at the scene of his first battle. The school house and third-floor window are in the background. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

A third-floor window behind him was significant in Skillt’s first battle. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Earlier in the day in Mariupol, Skillt takes Nilsson to the scene of his first battle. They wear multi-cam uniforms and carry water bottles. It is a hot, cloudless summer afternoon in the seaside city.

Bullet holes in trees and the sides of buildings, and burn marks on the asphalt, are the only evidence of the combat that took place more than a year ago. Skillt indicates the windows where he had set up his sniper rifle; one is still shattered from the return fire of a separatist’s machine gun.

The friends walk through a courtyard, dense with foliage, where Skillt says the separatists had planted booby traps. They were mostly untrained fighters who holed up in a few poorly defended buildings. But, he admits, the booby traps were sophisticated and would have required professional military training to set up.

Skillt walks up the street he had dodged bullets to cross the previous spring. A mother pushes a stroller on the opposite side as light traffic moves along the road.

Skillt pauses beneath the schoolhouse. It is mostly repaired, painted pink, although bullet holes dot parts of the exterior. He points to a window on the upper floor.

“That’s where he was,” Skillt says. “He just popped up, and I pulled the trigger. I didn’t even think about it.”

Nilsson says nothing.

“After everything else I’ve been through,” Skillt adds, “this first battle was a walk in the park.”

His Regret

It was on the retreat from Ilovaisk. Three white cars drove into a field. Skillt had the driver of one car in his scope.

It was a chaotic time. Ukrainian forces had launched an offensive to take back the town in eastern Ukraine. Now, surrounded and outgunned, they were suffering heavy losses as they attempted a retreat.

Skillt was about to pull the trigger, but hesitated. It was the white color of the cars that threw him off. Something didn’t feel right. He made a radio call to ask for confirmation to take the shot. He kept the driver in his scope and his finger on the cold metal trigger.

The fate of the man in his crosshair depended on about seven pounds of pressure.

Skillt was told not to shoot. The door to one car opened, and a man stepped out with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The man fired and the RPG skipped off the ground, ricocheted, and exploded over a position where Azov troops were hunkered down, killing one.

“I only have one regret,” Skillt recalls. “I didn’t take that one shot. And that bothers me so much.”

On Aug. 7, 2014, the Azov Battalion joined the Ukrainian regular army and other volunteer battalions in the offensive to take Ilovaisk.

“Every mission we went on was successful,” Skillt says. “Until Ilovaisk.”

By Aug. 18, Ukrainian forces had pushed into the town but were forced to fall back when combined Russian-separatist fighters surrounded them. Although the exact numbers are disputed, about 360 Ukrainian soldiers died and about 550 were taken prisoner in the retreat. It remains one of the bloodiest and costliest battles of the war.

When he arrived Aug. 7, Skillt immediately sensed something wasn’t right. He was under heavy artillery fire on his first scouting mission.

“I understood this was going to be the mother of all battles,” he says. “We were ordered to attack, and we saw we were going to do a head-on attack on a fortified position. And, of course, it ended very badly.”

In the days leading up to the main assault, Skillt became bold, sometimes crawling within shouting distance of the separatist lines. He began taking as many as 50 or 60 shots from one place, knowing he was giving away his position.

“It was good practice at least,” he says.

Skilt inside an armored personnel carrier in eastern Ukraine (Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

Skillt rides in an armored personnel carrier in eastern Ukraine. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skillt)

Four days before the retreat, Skillt’s commander sent him about 10 kilometers behind separatist lines. A Ukrainian armored reconnaissance unit had dug in there, with 60 soldiers, one tank, two armored personnel carriers, and a mortar.

Bullet holes and shrapnel marks speckled almost every vertical surface. The outhouse, one of the separatists’ favorite targets, was riddled with bullet holes.

Skillt got his mission: He and another soldier were going to cross a field 400 meters wide to climb a rise from which they could fire on a separatist camp. Normally, Skillt wouldn’t cross an open field in daylight, but he had his orders.

They crossed the field and Skillt set up his rifle. He looked through his scope at the camp, scanning for targets. He saw a man in the front seat of a supply truck. Skillt’s spotter measured the distance with a laser range finder and it came back at 1,410 meters—4,626 feet.

Skillt’s eyes locked on the target through the scope of his Remington Model 700 sniper rifle. His cheek on the rifle stock, he controlled his breathing and focused on his heartbeat. There was nothing except him and the target. Everything else was gone. He was in work mode.

He pulled the trigger and felt the recoil. An instant later, he heard the impact of the bullet on glass. The door opened and the man got out. I missed, Skillt thought. Then he saw the blood on the seat. The man staggered and dropped to the ground.

It was Skillt’s longest kill, and he enjoyed it.

Four days later, two friends from the 51st Mechanized Division, the guys he “liked the most,” were surrounded with no chance of escape. Rather than surrender, they pulled the pin on a grenade.

“Ilovaisk was hell on earth,” Skillt says, pausing for a moment. “And it was the best time of my life.”

No Man’s Land

There is a moral cost to war that reveals itself in the way a soldier lives in peace.

Months after leaving the front lines, Skillt was out to dinner with his girlfriend. Outside the restaurant, he saw a man hit a dog. Without thinking, Skillt was up, moving to the man, his hand on his knife.

Skillt’s actions were no more under his conscious control than a balloon in the wind. Only his girlfriend’s scream brought him back.

The war is still there, but Skillt doesn’t go to it any more. And in many ways, life in peace is more complicated. The black-and-white, kill-or-be-killed simplicity of battlefield morality doesn’t exist.

In war, a soldier temporarily is relieved of the moral consequences of his or her actions by the necessity of duty.

“I saw the movie ‘American Sniper,’ and I never had to make the kind of choices he did,” Skillt says of the biopic about Chris Kyle, the late Iraq war hero. “It was very simple: them or my friends.”

“But on the other hand,” he adds, “I passed a moral line that is not good.”

Despite the ease with which he did it, Skillt says the killing was never personal.

“I would never treat an enemy badly,” he says. “I have given first aid to enemies on the field. But as long as they shot at my friends, it wasn’t hard to shoot at them.”

Mikael Skilt at the Kyiv, Ukraine training camp (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

‘Every soldier experiences the same things’: Skillt at the training camp. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

When duty is a memory, however, soldiers can question the things they’ve done. The line between right and wrong no longer is blurred. “Work mode,” the protective cloak that shuts off the emotional hesitation to do what is necessary, no longer exists.

The stripped-away layers of humanity begin to reform. In addition to his changed attitude toward blacks, Jews and Arabs with whom he served, Skillt’s relationship with his enemies also evolved off the battlefield.

Last fall, Skillt started receiving Twitter messages from Dimitri, a separatist fighter. Dimitri had been on the opposite side of the line from Skillt in several battles in eastern Ukraine.

Casual emails eventually developed into “quite a good relationship,” Skillt says. They agreed that if they were to ever see each other in real life, however, they would try to kill each other.

Their online exchanges grew to the point that Dimitri warned Skillt of an imminent attack on Shyrokyne, the small town just outside Mariupol where Skillt was deployed.

“There will be a big assault soon,” Dimitri wrote. “You should leave.”

Dimitri was killed in fighting near Mariupol, but he wasn’t the only one from the other side to reach out to Skillt.

>>> In Ukraine, War and Peace Live Side by Side

Current and former separatist fighters living throughout Europe continue to communicate with the sniper.  In the emails, which The Daily Signal reviewed, they complain about their suffering in combat and how their Russian handlers have abandoned them after they returned from the war.

“It’s easier to speak to me, someone who has been in the same situation in the same battlefield, than to a friend who has never been in battle,” Skillt says, adding:

You can’t explain those things to your wife. And you can’t explain those things to civilian friends. They are disappointed, those who contact me. And they know I’ve seen the same horrible things they have.

Skillt compares his online relationships with the enemy to the “Christmas Truce” of 1914, during which French and German troops in World War I left their trenches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to exchange gifts, sing carols, and play soccer.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Russian or Ukrainian,” he says. “Every soldier experiences the same things, no matter what side of the battle he’s on.”

Skilt next to a piece of shrapnel in the conflict area (Photo courtesy Mikael Skilt)

‘Ukraine has the possibility to build something good’: Skillt and shrapnel on a battleground. (Photo courtesy Mikael Skillt)

‘War Made Me a Better Person’

Skillt sits with a former French special forces soldier in the outdoor, tented terrace of  a bar in downtown Kyiv. A vegetarian, Skillt is eating a pizza, smoking a cigarette, and sipping an Americano coffee.

A soccer game is on TV. Dnipro, a Ukrainian team, is playing Napoli in the Europa League semi-final match. It’s raining outside and getting late. But Azov soldiers in the stadium at the game are going to unfurl an enormous Ukrainian flag.

Skillt is texting them. He doesn’t want to leave the bar until he sees the flag on TV. As he watches the game he tells war stories, casually laughing off details of life-and-death drama.

Interrupting the conversation, a young Azov soldier walks up to Skillt’s table and shakes his hand. In his broken, limited Russian, Skillt returns the greeting. He politely declines to join the soldier and his friends for a beer, explaining that he has to be up early the next morning to train new recruits.

Most nights, Skillt sleeps in a bunk in one of the camp’s plywood huts. He could sleep at his girlfriend’s place, but he feels like he needs to be close to the men. He worries that every minute he misses with the trainees might be a lost opportunity to keep them alive.

Skillt doesn’t go to the war anymore, but he never truly left it. Over pizza and coffee he talks about combat and “work mode.”

He also talks about Ukraine’s future, linking it to his own. He plans to run for parliament in 2019 to help Ukraine “find its own way.”

“Ukraine has the possibility to build something good,” he says. “If only Russia would leave it be.”

The bar erupts in celebration when penalty time runs out and Dnipro wins the game, 1-0. The TV screens show Azov’s enormous Ukrainian flag waving in the stands. You can’t hear over the sounds of laughter and cheers in the bar. A breeze carries in the clean smell of rain.

“War can bring a man to destruction or help him to reach new heights,” Skillt says. “War peels off every layer of your humanity. But, in the end, war made me into a much better person.”

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