KYIV -- They patrol the streets of the Ukrainian capital in matching urban camouflage and march in lockstep through Kyiv with torches.
They attack minority groups, including Roma and LGBT people. And some of them have trained with visiting American white supremacists.
They are the ultranationalist National Militia, street vigilantes with roots in the battle-tested Azov Battalion that emerged to defend Ukraine against Russia-backed separatists but was also accused of possible war crimes and neo-Nazi sympathies.
If we need to punch someone in the face in the name of justice, we will do this without hesitation."-- Ihor Mikhailenko, commander of the National Militia
Yet despite the controversy surrounding it, the National Militia was granted permission by the Central Election Commission to officially monitor Ukraine's presidential election on March 31.
Now the commission appears to be rethinking that decision after the group's spokesman warned that its members will take matters into their own hands and use force in instances where law enforcement "fails" to stop election fraud.
"If law enforcers turn a blind eye to outright violations and don't want to document them," spokesman Ihor Vdovin vowed on March 6, the group will follow the instructions of its commander, Ihor Mikhailenko, who wrote on Telegram, "If we need to punch someone in the face in the name of justice, we will do this without hesitation."
'Only Police Can Use Force'
That call prompted the election commission to appeal to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to assess the seriousness of the threat. And while it didn't threaten to revoke the National Militia's monitoring authority, the commission said it considers violence "inadmissible."
So far, the SBU has not commented on the matter.
The threats of force alarmed some activists and law enforcement bodies.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov was quick to respond, saying the right to use force belongs to the police.
"Neither volunteer squads nor any other organization can [use force], and [they] will not determine the situation by force," Avakov said in his statement. "Only cooperation and appeal to the legal forces of law and order are acceptable."
He warned that "any attempts to intervene in the electoral process will be firmly and, if necessary, harshly suppressed."
But it is unclear whether the pledge to keep the National Militia and other groups in check will convince the interior minister's critics, who have in the past described Avakov as a "far-right sympathizer" with "close ties" to some of the Azov veterans and commanders.
The National Militia's ranks number in the low thousands, nationally.
In torchlight marches and ceremonies as recent as March 3 (below), its members have sworn an oath to cleanse the streets of illegal alcohol, drug traffickers, and illegal gambling establishments.
But minority groups have seemingly been a favorite target, and the group appears at times to have acted with impunity.
On June 7, National Militia members used axes and hammers to destroy a Romany camp in Kyiv's Holosiyivskiy Park. None of them faced charges for the attack, which sent women and children scrambling to escape the violence.
Under a special agreement with the government, the National Militia enjoys many of the same rights as police officers, although its members may not carry arms. Still, the group -- which includes several openly neo-Nazi members tattooed with swastikas and SS bolts -- often resorts to violence and has been known to interrupt city government meetings to intimidate council members into supporting nationalist causes.
Independent polls show only around 1 percent of Ukrainians support Azov's political wing, the National Corps.
That low level of public sympathy is what kept National Corps lawmaker and former battalion commander Andriy Biletsky out of the crowded presidential race this year, according to Ukrainian sociologist Anya Hrytsenko, who researches far-right groups.
Instead, Biletsky and his party appear focused on trying to muster the 5 percent support to reach parliament in elections slated for the fall.
But while such Azov-related groups remain generally unpopular with voters, their slickly produced videos, street fashions, and mixed-martial-arts centers have attracted a growing young, mostly male following whose presence on Ukrainian streets has rights groups concerned.
In its latest show of force on March 3, nearly 2,000 National Militia members in matching uniforms gathered in Independence Square in the capital. Then, carrying torches down Kyiv's busiest streets, they forced police to intervene to stop traffic as they made their way to a fortress on a nearby hill.
There, as they pounded their chests and chanted, "Glory to Ukraine! Death to enemies," they demonstrated "what the steel fist of Ukrainian nationalism looks like," in the words of their press service.
Addressing the group from the stage, Biletsky called 2019 "the year nationalists must go on the offensive."