In a snowy, half-filled car park in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, a group of masked men armed with clubs surge toward a crowd of anti-government protesters, weapons raised. As the protesters scatter, the men grab one straggler and hurl him to the ground, kicking his ribs and bloodying his face. Then, they pick him up and haul him off.
The scene, captured in a video available on YouTube, isn’t an isolated incident. In Ukraine’s ongoing and increasingly bloody political standoff, a group of predominantly young men known as “titushki” are roaming the streets. Wearing balaclavas and Adidas striped pants, they wield baseball bats and other bludgeons, using them to intimidate and attacking demonstrators. And reportedly, they are on the Ukrainian government’s payroll, committing violence either alongside or under the watchful gaze of the notorious special police unit, the Berkut (“Golden Eagle”). Sometimes, rumors say, the titushki are even acting as provocateurs for the state, posing as violent, anti-government demonstrators to justify harsh police crackdowns. “These guys chucked the first Molotovs, and they were paid to do this,” says Sergei Andrivenko, a barricade guard at the Euromaidan, as the protest movement is known. “It was obvious from what they were dressed in that they did not belong to the Maidan. It is too cold to wear such clothes living here for two months.”
The titushki’s precise number is unknown, but estimates in the Ukrainian press suggest there are up to 20,000. EuroMaidan SOS, an organization monitoring attacks on demonstrators, has reported titushki ambushes in the area surrounding protest barricades. According to Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch, who has been conducting research on the ground, the titushki have been linked to attacks on at least six journalists in Kiev. In Ukraine’s eastern cities — such as Odessa, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk — brazen attacks by titushki are now almost a daily occurrence. Their presence has become so dangerous that the U.S. State Department recently issued a travel warning about the group.
Titushki is a recent coinage, a linguistic hat-tip to Vadym Titushko, a “sportsman” who was convicted in May 2013 of assaulting two journalists. At his trial, it emerged that Titushko was being covertly paid to “protect” a pro-government rally at the time of the attack. Titushko received a three-year jail sentence; the state, however, got off scot-free.