KIEV, Ukraine — A dozen men, the oldest just 21, jumped out of a minibus and filed through the main entrance of the ATEK heavy machinery plant in Kiev recently.
They were members of the National Militia, a new patriotic organization that has been recruiting only male Ukrainians for the purpose of “patrolling the streets” to “establish Ukrainian order.”
The vigilante organization announced itself with 600 athletic men in gray military uniforms marching down Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main street, in late January. Since then, National Militia units have spread all over Ukraine. The organization now has several thousand recruits, said the group’s spokesman, Igor Vdovin.
The movement is just one more sign of the troubled state of democratic rule in Kiev, where the government tries to ward off a Russian-backed separatist movement in the east while dealing with troublesome nationalist political currents closer to home.
The new recruits were about to have their physical exams in the ATEK factory, which is also a training base for other right-wing militias. It was their last hurdle before becoming full-fledged militia members.
Oleksandr Synyook, a 21-year-old deputy commander of Kiev’s National Militia squad, was the examiner. He had been in the militia for a year. He now leads a squad of 127 recruits. Most are war veterans and young recruits.
“Ukrainian order for us is when our streets are clean from crime and lust,” Mr. Synyook said. “We see injustice, we call the police and force them to do their job.”
Their roots are in older paramilitary organizations such as the Azov Movement, a right-wing paramilitary and political organization that has neo-Nazi sympathies.
In the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has stoked nationalist sentiments in the face of Moscow’s onslaught, the Azov Movement is thought to have attracted thousands of members in the country.
In 2016, Azov nationalists created a political party, the National Corps, headed by Andriy Biletsky, a former parliamentarian and commander in the Azov Battalion, a special forces unit that volunteers founded in 2014 but which has since joined the Ukrainian military.
“We all work on other jobs or study in the universities,” Mr. Synyook said, “so we patrol the streets only when we can.”
However, National Militia units have been quite visible. In February, they disrupted a court hearing for Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, clashing with police when they attacked Trukhanov supporters. The mayor faces corruption charges but has been released on bail.
Police tried to interrupt the fight. About a dozen militia members and Trukhanov supporters were arrested and one police officer was wounded in the scuffles.
In another incident, the mayor of the central Ukrainian city of Cherkassy called the National Militia into a municipal council meeting in January to intimidate lawmakers into voting for a budget.
Political analysts here say the militia’s emergence highlights popular disenchantment with the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, in which street protesters rose up against the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych. The president stepped down and fled to Moscow, and the revolt sparked a chain of events that led to a civil war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas.
Today, ordinary Ukrainians have witnessed a decline in security and public safety as the legal system fails to deal with criminals.
In March, more than 38,000 crimes were committed in Ukraine, but police are investigating only about 13,000 of them, said the country’s prosecutor general.
National Militia members say they patrol the streets to make people feel safer by fighting drug dealers and illegal gambling rings.
The government insists it doesn’t welcome their help.
“No paramilitary units should enforce justice in Ukraine,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement this year. “Only the government has the monopoly to use force.”
Many Ukrainians saw a parallel between the military squads marching and patrolling the streets of Ukraine in 2018 and Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Russian media have played up the resurgence of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism. Media outlets covered events last week marking the birth of Adolf Hitler, including an exhibition in the western city of Lvov marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the 1st Galician Division, a force of mostly Ukrainian volunteers who worked with the invading Nazis.
Militiamen denied those associations.
“People call us Nazis just because they don’t know about us and can’t believe in our time people can voluntarily risk their lives for a good cause,” Mr. Synyook said.
Steel magnate Serhiy Taruta, an independent member of parliament from eastern Ukraine, financed Mr. Biletsky and his Azov Battalion in 2014 during the liberation of Mariupol from Russian-backed mercenaries.
But Mr. Taruta said he had no ties to the Azov movement and accused the National Militia of trying to become a parallel armed force outside the control of the civilian government.
“The militia is yet another evidence of a deep crisis of the government institutions,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong in citizens’ desire to assure public order. It is even necessary in some cases, like when today’s militia members played a key role in Mariupol liberation.”
In three months of patrolling, National Militia members have clashed occasionally with police but also cleared drug dealers from neighborhood corners, shoveled snow from streets and carried out other public services. Recruits said they stepped up because the government was falling short.
“It is just that we want to be like in Europe, where the law and order is working,” said Denys Tretyakov, 20, another militia member and a student of architecture. “Here, every other sphere is corrupt. Officials and their friends, children can easily escape justice, as can those who spread narcotics, gambling, prostitution on our streets.”
Mr. Synyook and others said they joined the vigilante patrols because the reformed police were slow and never arrived at crime scenes on time. The militias apprehend suspected criminals, citing a law that allows civilian arrests but not the use of force.
At the training factory, the newcomers demonstrated their skills in street fighting and Thai boxing as part of their examination.
Recruits underwent introductory interviews with National Militia and National Corps commanders and had to have passed a test on Ukrainian civics. Owning a registered weapon was considered a bonus.
“It’s not that we are walking on the streets armed,” Mr. Vdovin said. “But if the Russian war will spread to other cities, we should be prepared for everything.”