clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

United Donbas: The politics of MMA in war-torn Eastern Ukraine

New, 12 comments

Karim Zidan delves into proliferation and politicization of mixed martial arts in Eastern Ukraine. 

It isn’t often when mixed martial arts is called upon to act as a unifying force in a ravished conflict zone. Despite its inherently violent nature, MMA will serve as the foundation for an unprecedented sports event in the Donbas, the Eastern region of Ukraine currently occupied by pro-Russian separatist forces.

Just hours before Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor square off in Las Vegas on August 26, UFC veteran Nikita Krylov will headline a one-off “United Donbas” event against Maro Perak in the occupied territory of Donetsk. The news was announced in a press release sent out by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Tourism in the de facto Donetsk People’s Republic.

The press release revealed that a total of 18 competitors from the occupied territories, Croatia, and China, will compete in nine fights before inviting “fans of martial arts in the Republic and those temporarily under the control of the Ukrainian authorities in the Donetsk region to attend and see grandiose sports event of this summer with their own eyes." In addition to the MMA event, a concert will be held featuring notable Russian artists. Attendance to both is free of charge.

The unique event is funded by the United Donbas Foundation, a humanitarian aid program started by the two self-proclaimed republics within Ukraine, the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), to unify the people of the Donbas. Over the past couple of years, both republics have shared a growing fascination with mixed martial arts, one that has led to the proliferation of the sport among the republics’ youth.

Naturally, the pro-Russian leaders have already glimpsed the sport’s potential as a political tool. UFC veteran Jeff Monson has already paid a visit to LPR in 2016, thus establishing a precedent for other athletes to legitimize the self-imposed government.

Jeff Monson in the LPR

In short, MMA has become a core component of the separatist republics’ political strategy. Its politicization is the result of the ongoing conflict and the inevitable nationalism that sprouts from the chaos and destruction left in its wake.

War Torn & Forgotten

In November 2013, Ukraine’s fourth president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a trade association agreement with the European Union, which triggered severe unrest within the country. Citizens accused the president of widespread state corruption and excessive loyalty to Russia instead of improving relations with Europe. The rapidly growing sentiment was that Yanukovych represented Russian interests and not those of the Ukrainian people. The organized uprising known as ‘Euromaidan’ lasted until February 2014, when president Yankovych was deposed and fled Kiev.

Yanukovych’s departure and eventual exile to Russia triggered anti-revolution backlash from Ukrainians in Russophone regions with loyalty to their neighboring country, as well as lightly veiled military intervention from Russia. Just a few months removed the Euromaidan movement, Russian forces swept in and annexed Crimea and Sevastopol in March 2014.

Concerns Grow In Ukraine Over Pro Russian Demonstrations In The Crimea Region Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Cities in eastern and southern Ukraine began to protest the decision to remove Yankovych from office, eventually resorting to armed resistance against the seemingly anti-Russian government. While Western Ukraine remains under government control, the Donbas region in the east has been divided into two de facto pro-Russian separatist states—the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) —which the Ukrainian government considers temporarily occupied territories. A bitter stand-off has ensued between the separatists and the Ukrainian government, making it Europe’s most volatile conflict in over 25 years.

Though fragile ceasefire agreements were imposed in 2015, the conflict continues to rage on. Between April 2014 and March 2017, report suggests that millions of Ukrainians have been displaced and nearly ten thousand have been killed. Casualties on both sides have sharply risen over the past two years as millions struggle for survival in a conflict zone.

The early days of Donald Trump’s presidency saw renewed escalation in the conflict between separatist forces and the Ukrainian government. The UN report documented 73 civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine in July 2016, which, at the time, was the highest death toll since August 2015; 69 separate civilian casualties had been reported the previous month. Despite the spike in death tolls and civilian casualties, the conflict in Ukraine has been woefully underreported in 2017.

Largely forgotten in the spheres of international politics, the separatist forces have been left to their own devices in their self-proclaimed (yet officially unrecognized) republics. Local leaders have turned to sports as part of a so-called humanitarian program to revitalize their struggling populations and distract the local youth traumatized by war. This has resulted in the proliferation of mixed martial arts in Eastern Ukraine and, hence, its inevitable politicization.

Cagefighting Nationalism

In February 2017, official envoys of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) unveiled a “humanitarian program” that sought to reunify the people of the Donbas.

In a joint statement read by representatives Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinego at an official meeting in Minsk, Belarus, the DPR and LPR described plans to provide humanitarian aid in the form of financial, medical and educational assistance to vulnerable groups of Donbas population, primarily those in regions controlled by the Ukrainian government.

All funding was provided through the United Donbas Foundation and approved by a special committee. According to acting DPR Health Care Minister Alexander Oprishchenko, “quality medical assistance [has been] provided to 105 patients who live in Ukraine-controlled part of Donetsk Region” since the start of the program.

After achieving modest medical success through the foundation, both de facto republics turned their attention to sports, a tool they planned to use to kindle nationalistic fervour and project the illusion of legitimacy, safety, and prosperity within the separatist regions. Combat sports, mainly mixed martial arts, took centre stage because of its growing popularity among the locals. By August 2017, MMA had been integrated into the LPR and DPR’s plans for unification in the Donbas, starting with a large-scale MMA event planned for the end of August 2017.

The event, dubbed ‘United Donbas,’ was announced by the president of the Association of Combat Sports in Donbas Roman Torshin, who referred to it as a key event of mixed martial arts not only in the Donbas, but also in the territory of the entire former Ukraine.” The show will be headlined by UFC veteran Nikita Krylov, himself a native of Donbas.

Krylov exited the UFC in early 2017 following a dispute in contract negotiations with the promotion. He returned to Russia, where he fought for Fight Nights before agreeing to a one-off fight in the Donbas. While Krylov’s incentive to participate on the fight card stems from his yearning to fight in front of his fellow countrymen, he also echoed the same statements about unity in Donbas that were propagated by the separatist governments.

“It is a huge event aimed at uniting the Donbas as a whole,” Krylov told “And I'm very glad that I will fight at home. It was my dream. A great event for the residents. You need to charge the local people. MMA is the number one sport there. They don’t care about football or anything else.”

Krylov’s response adequately summarizes the reasons why MMA was strategically selected for the United Donbas project. The violent sport can be used to stimulate residents of the war-torn regions and unite them by cheering for hometown heroes like Kyrlov. Unlike more traditional sports like football, where rigid international structures and bureaucracy make it impossible for unrecognized de facto states to compete in legitimate tournaments, MMA does not follow such guidelines and is easier to recreate as a tool for national pride. In this case, the separatist forces have been able to hire a fighter who once competed in the world’s most popular MMA promotion, and have him compete on their local show for political gain.

Monson & the Miner

The politicization of mixed martial arts in occupied Ukraine territory is evident in the current landscape, which underlines the sport’s potential for political influence and diplomacy, particularly when applied in regions ravished by war.

Krylov left the Donbass region of Ukraine shortly following the start of the conflict in mid-2014. Originally a miner from Krasnyi Luch in the Luhansk province, Nikita fled his home in Donetsk just a few weeks ahead of his scheduled fight against Cody Donovan in Dublin, Ireland. He won that fight by TKO, the very same week that the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down while flying over Ukrainian airspace. Krylov fled to Kiev, where he found himself unwelcome because of his pro-Russian stance on the conflict. He was labelled a separatist and was shunned from gyms and training camps. A near-altercation with a soldier from the far-right Azov battalion helped Krylov make the decision to move his family permanently to Moscow.

Krylov screen grab 2

Since then, the fighter has openly questioned the ongoing conflict, the ideological schism leading Ukrainians to kill other Ukrainians, and the traumatic effect of war on the innocent locals. Indeed, when asked whether he considers the ‘United Donbas’ event a political one, Krylov’s response encapsulated his perspective on the matter: It is a human one. An ideology of unity.” Seemingly unconcerned with the overshadowing political context, Krylov’s focus is on the event’s potential as a form of entertainment for an injured population.

“This is necessary for lifting spirits,” Krylov explained. “Some people have not see any holidays and shows there for a long time. It is dangerous in the city and it's dangerous where they fight. And in Donetsk, there live peaceful people, to whom this war brought many misfortunes. It's time to raise their morale.”

While Krylov, a native of the Donbas and victim of the ongoing conflict, was a natural pick to headline the show, he is not the only athlete being used to advance the LPR and DPR’s plans for combat sports diplomacy. UFC veteran Jeff Monson, a self-proclaimed anarchist and libertarian communist, recently became the first American citizen to accept a LPR passport, a symbolic gesture that preceded his decision to open martial arts schools in the occupied territory in late 2016. Monson’s ambitions were approved by the local leaders, and backed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).

Jeff Monson passport
Jeff Monson’s LPR passport

Currently in the process of obtaining Russian citizenship, Monson was named the sports ambassador for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in July 2016. The Communist Party sent Monson to Luhansk in September as part of a new “sports programme”, which is designed to improve the party’s image both on the international stage and at home. Given that American support is rarely available to socialist groups, the KPRF jumped at the opportunity to enlist a willing American communist’s support.

The KPRF recruited fresh faces to the party by enlisting youngsters in deteriorated regions such as Donetsk and Luhansk into martial arts programs. It is an example of sports diplomacy and how political parties enlist the support of popular athletes to further their overarching goals.

"I want to work with the Communist Party to move it further left," Monson told me in 2016. "A lot of the social projects we are discussing, including opening up free schools to promote youth martial arts, can be done despite capitalist restraints."

Monson’s involvement in political sport in eastern Ukraine doesn’t end with martial arts academies. Reports recently revealed plans for the LPR to host a martial arts event dubbed the “Monson Cup.” The UFC veteran is expected to headline the event, which will feature an array of grappling and MMA showcases. The news was first announced by the leader of the Donbas faction of the Night Wolves, the infamous biker gang affiliated to Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

Jeff Monson and Nikita Krylov are the first UFC veterans to be indoctrinated into the separatists’ sports agenda. Despite contrasting reasons for their participation, the two fighters are a blueprint for how to help legitimize de facto regimes using professional fight sports such as mixed martial arts. Whether it be a tool for diplomacy, kindling nationalism, or even as a distraction from the trauma of war, MMA is a sport that continues to be weaponized by authoritarian regimes anxious to reap its rewards.