KIEV, Ukraine – In late May, Oleh Lyashko posted a picture on Facebook of himself standing over a suspected separatist who had been stripped, bound, and loaded into the trunk of a car: "Today was a good day — we detained four terrorists. Glory to Ukraine!"
Lyashko was little more than an entertaining curiosity in Ukrainian politics a year ago, noted for bringing vegetables and livestock to parliament where he was the only representative of a fringe nationalist party. His star has risen in tandem with Ukraine's spreading chaos.
A pragmatist, Petro Poroshenko, won election as Ukraine's president, but the surprise third-place finish of Lyashko suggests a strong undercurrent of support for extremism fed by the ongoing bloodshed.
A slight man with a startlingly deep voice, the 42-year-old Lyashko tailors his image to the occasion. On the hunt for pro-Russian separatists in the east, it's black paramilitary garb. In parliament, it could be traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts. Campaigning, he tends toward business-casual.
No matter the situation, he offers up a mixture of theatrical bravado and inspirational rhetoric to Ukrainians angered and frightened by the pro-Russian uprising in the east, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the threat of worse to come.
Lyashko's appeal is less about his politics, which is heavy on catchphrases and light on substance, than in his image as a man of action. His office is a monument to himself, the walls plastered with giant posters of him riding tanks and hobnobbing, and retro Soviet posters altered to include his face.
"That's why people support me. Now I'm in a suit and tie — in two days I'll be in a bullet-proof vest on the frontline," Lyashko said in a recent interview.
The government's tacit approval for Lyashko's videotaped interrogations, during which he often undresses, hoods, and insults detainees, raises concerns that Ukraine's embattled armed forces may be encouraged to turn a blind eye to vigilantes. He posts the sessions on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Raised in an orphanage and with a criminal record for embezzlement dating back to his early 20s, Lyashko is truly a one-man show in his nascent Radical Party, which scraped just 1 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections. His political ascent accelerated after the country's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in February. In last month's presidential elections, Lyashko won 8 percent.
Other nationalist candidates did not do nearly so well. The Svoboda party, which counted the defense minister among its members, lost credibility with the military's haphazard response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. Right Sector, another nationalist party, never really got its campaign off the ground.
"Lyashko was able to mobilize support primarily in the agriculture-based electorate of central and western Ukraine thanks to his calls to action, simple messages, and the theme of defending Ukraine," said Yuri Yakymenko, a Kiev-based political analyst. "These results already allow him to speak about the formation of a stable base of supporters."
In early May, Lyashko traveled to east Ukraine to join what he says is a group of 400 volunteer soldiers working for the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defense.
His role is murky. Lyashko says he supports the men "morally and materially," but he has primarily used the campaign in the east to promote himself.
"If I see a separatist, I consider it my personal obligation to detain him, because the fewer separatists there are the more peace there is," says Lyashko. He denies that his interrogation techniques like stripping — which he says he uses only to demonstrate to the camera that the victim has not been beaten — violate international norms. "This is war."
Lyashko's unexpectedly successful presidential campaign could give his party new influence if his ratings remain high ahead of a parliamentary election that Poroshenko has promised for this year.
"Whether his success translates into his party's success depends on when the elections will be: the sooner the better," Yakymenko said.
Lyashko's interrogations could become fodder for Russia's government and its state-controlled media. Lyashko's past also makes him an easy target: in 2011, a video leaked in which someone who appears to be Lyashko describes performing sexual acts on another man. Lyashko, who is married, was expelled from the mainstream Fatherland party a week later. He says the footage was faked.
Lyashko's actions have also raised serious concerns among human rights activists, who condemn his actions and the Ukrainian government's tacit approval.
In a video released on May 7, Lyashko interrogates the self-proclaimed defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Kakidzyanov, who is stripped down to boxer shorts and has what appear to be scratches on his arms and legs. Kakidzyanov is then hooded along with another detainee and boarded onto a helicopter. That same day, Ukraine's Interior Ministry announced that Kakidzyanov's capture, but made no mention of Lyashko or the circumstances.
Nataliya Stativko, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Interior, said that the politician had "no relationship to the Interior Ministry," but she also said the ministry was in dire straits and was forced to attract "charitable help" from the likes of Lyashko.
"We condemn some of his actions and wish he would conduct himself with more restraint," she said. "But we are thankful to him that he supported the battalion financially."
On May 23, Lyashko wrote online that his battalion killed two rebels in the east Ukraine city of Torez. The killings were confirmed by reporters from the Kyiv Post, who reported that the slain men did not appear armed. Lyashko told The Associated Press he did not condone torturing or killing detainees. A May 23 post on Facebook bragging about the Torez killings was subsequently deleted.
Anna Neistat, an associate director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch who spent time in east Ukraine, said she had received little response from the Kiev government about Lyashko's actions.
"If you don't stop people like Lyashko, it sends a very strong signal that the Ministry of Interior and the Ukrainian government will tolerate this kind of behavior," Neistat said.
But morale is sinking among Ukraine's ill-equipped, underfunded soldiers, who have struggled to contain the pro-Russian insurgents. Troops have been known to wait in vain for reinforcements or more ammunition as they come under attack at bases and border posts.
With the army reeling, volunteer groups like Lyashko's may become increasingly important. He was so enthused by his last trip that he was heading back east on Sunday — armed, he said, with 250 bullet-proof vests for the troops.
"I'm going to the front," he said. "When we're done there, we'll go south to take back Crimea."