The leader of a far right nationalist movement that assembled the bulk of the fighters involved in the 2013 Ukrainian revolution will now advise the head of his country’s armed forces, Ukrainian media reported Monday.
According to the Defense Ministry, Dmitri Yarosh, the founder of Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), will advise Ukrainian Chief of Staff Viktor Muzhenko. Members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, a paramilitary group created by the radical group, will further integrate into the government’s official forces.
Due to the poor state of its military, Kiev has been forced to combat the Russian-backed insurgency in its eastern industrial regions using large numbers of semi-official volunteer units, including the Dnipr-1 battalion personally funded by recently ousted Dnepropetrovsk regional governor Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish oligarch. A growing number of Ukrainians have expressed concern regarding the growing military power of private individuals, such as members of the country’s post-soviet economic elite.
Yarosh and Pravy Sektor have worked hard to distance themselves from an anti-Semitic reputation, with members of the group protesting in favor of Israel during last summer’s Gaza war.
In a meeting with the Israeli ambassador to Kiev last March, Yarosh said that Pravy Sektor “will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means.”
Members of the group formed an armed honor guard at the funeral Alexander Scherbanyuk, a Jewish man killed during the Maidan protests.
In a book he had written prior to the revolution, Yarosh asked, “How did it come to pass that most of the billionaires in Ukraine are Jews?” according to Der Spiegel.
While the core membership of the Pravy Sektor has an extreme outlook, the group has also succeeded in widening its appeal beyond the far right, largely on the back of its central role in the street fighting that preceded the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich early last year.
The group’s appeal was not wide enough to bring it electoral success, however, with Yarosh garnering only 0.70 percent of the vote in May’s presidential elections.
Ironically, the group’s spokesman, Borislav Bereza, is Jewish.
The Kremlin has issued a wanted notice for Yarosh through InterPol, stating that he is wanted for “public incitement to terrorist activities involving the use of mass media” as well as “public incitement to extremist activities involving the use of mass media.”
The “formal integration of neo-Nazi Right Sector, including appointment of its leader D. Yarosh as an adviser to the Ukrainian army’s chief of staff, again proves the real nature of the regime which was established after the coup d’etat in Kiev in February, 2014,” a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Israel told The Jerusalem Post, accusing the group of burning police officers during the Ukrainian revolution.
In October, several Russian newspapers falsely reported that Pravy Sektor members were rampaging through the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, a claim that vigorously denied by members of the local Jewish community.
One communal representative, speaking to the Post at the time, said he believed that both sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict were making use of Ukrainian Jewry to disparage their opponents.
“There is no question that from the beginning we became a tool,” the representative said. “Both sides are trying to say [they] are the protectors [of Jews].”
Asked about about Pravy Sektor’s integration into the Ukrainian military, the same leader, who again requested anonymity, said he believes it is a “very disturbing development.”
“The Ukrainian government made this move in order to legalize the armed groups of Right Sector and to try and ensure the hierarchy of one army. For the Jewish community, there is fear that this will legitimize the anti-Semitic activities of groups of youth with racial tendencies. Pravy Sektor has repeatedly distanced itself from anti-Semitism in the last months, something which is important. However, the fears remain.
“No doubt that when they finish with the Russians somehow, they will look for something else, the Jewish communities being a natural target going by their history.”
Other Jewish leaders were more sanguine, however.
Rabbi Moshe Azman, a Chabad leader in Kiev, said that he does not see any particular problem with the group, while Dnepropetrovsk Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki told the Post that he sees the group as “neither anti-Semitic or Nazi” but rather as a patriotic Ukrainian organization.
“All those who support Ukraine consider them an ally. They have no Nazi symbols,” he said.
Fighters with neo-Nazi connections have been reported on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, including within the Ukrainian Azov battalion, a volunteer unit.
JTA contributed to this report.