Ukraine’s neo-Nazi revolutionaries might be part of a Russian plot

A climber installs the Ukrainian national flag on a roof, marking the Day of the State Flag, on the eve of the Independence Day, in Kiev, Ukraine, August 23, 2016 (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
A climber installs the Ukrainian national flag on a roof, marking the Day of the State Flag, on the eve of the Independence Day, in Kiev, Ukraine, August 23, 2016
Intense official pressure to eschew anti-Ukrainian propaganda has conditioned Western observers since the 2014 Maidan revolution to give Kyiv benefit of the doubt when it comes to sensational Russian assertions about Ukrainian Nazis calling themselves social-nationalists, who led the violence in 2014 that overthrew pro-Russian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Most Westerners say Ukraine’s far right is fake – a plot to make Ukrainians look wild, illiberal and ungovernable. But regardless, radical nationalists are assuming renewed importance in prelude to next year’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Despite how life might feel in sophisticated urban centers to the educated elite and young professionals, it is quite different in the impoverished rural areas that make Ukraine Europe’s poorest country. If economic history is any indication, conditions are indeed ripe for fascism. The counterweight so far has been that civil and political society has proven remarkably resilient against the overt popularization of intolerance, even with infiltrators among them.
Slavic Aryan street fighters led the violence that overthrew the popularly elected but offensively corrupt Yanukovych. Since then, Ukraine’s radical right has moved out of rural margins into the mainstream. They have gained office and influence through election and appointment of powerful officials, like social-nationalist founder/speaker of parliament Andriy Parubiy and skinhead leader/deputy interior minister Vadym Troyan. This is powerful fake news because it is also true. Maybe they’re not all budding little Hitlers, but some seem like they want to be.
The West underestimates such men in the run-up to next year’s Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections. If they really are Nazis, then democratic processes mean little to them; likewise if they are actually Russian provocateurs instead. Ukraine’s last revolution proved the activist community does not hesitate from anti-democratic force: they overthrew Yanukovych eight months before Ukrainians could have voted him out within the existing legal framework.
Similarly, should current president Petro Poroshenko lose his reelection bid in March 2019, core Kremlin narrative players Right Sector and the Azov movement threaten to overthrow the next government – again, as they say in laying claim to the 2014 revolution and suppression of anti-Ukrainian politics. Should poll-leader and lone female oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko win, far-right fighters say it all depends on how – if allied to pro-Russia parties, they would also revolt. Again.
SO, WILL Poroshenko lose? If Ukrainian polls are to be trusted (they aren’t), then maybe – in late 2018, he tied with protest candidate and Netflix satire star Vladimir Zelenskiy at 12% for second place in a first round of hypothetical early elections. Will the current government even hold elections? Almost certainly. But will they accept or respect the results? Not if they can get away with saying all candidates but the incumbent are Russian agents. One stark campaign billboard is just six empty nooses captioned: “Current ratings of presidential candidates.”
There is little chance that the West would tolerate anti-democratic measures, like suspending elections to prevent a pro-Russian political revanche. Yet patriots in and out of government socialize both that prospect and renewed street violence, should opposition parties win or form the new coalition. This raises questions of legitimacy due to the sitting government’s deep unpopularity, and also of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy when it is inopportune.
Pro-Russia parties and candidates have a combined public approval rating between 10-15%, which is low but still much higher than ruling coalition junior partner People’s Front, who do not even meet the statistical margin of error anymore. Some average Ukrainians are also uneasy about the role played by right-wing infiltrators in government ranks, who for more than five years now have been great fodder for Kremlin propaganda about Kyiv’s fascist junta. Local media and civil society benignly call skinheads activists. And social-nationalist speaker of parliament Parubiy implied in 2016 that Jewish Bolsheviks sent convicts to settle eastern Ukraine’s Donbas and destroy the genetic memory of Ukrainians with the Holodomor.
In this ambiance, Ukraine is fighting an unwinnable war against predominant neighbor Russia, its soldiers don’t want to, and leaders say the only peace terms are humiliating compromises that surrender to Moscow everything Russia wants by conceding the same conditions that started the Ukraine crisis in the first place: Russian-language rights and local autonomy. The economy is bad, brain drain rampant, and populist appeals to religion and language widespread.
Truth is actually bizarrely close to Russia’s gleeful, fake news fiction: A diaspora-funded cabal of western Ukrainian anti-communists and crypto-fascists has been quietly plotting to take over the rest of Ukraine since independence in 1991. They have patiently interpenetrated ruling spheres of electoral politics, culture, education, civics, and the power ministries to outlaw opponents and ensure the impunity of their own political violence specialists in public service. They have also convinced the West to support them in rewriting the primarily Soviet history – hence illegitimate to nationalists – of the Holocaust by Bullets in World War II-era western Ukraine.
Anyone seeking to understand how the descendants of Slavs that Hitler called subhuman and sought to exterminate can honor him, as some Ukrainian right-wingers are prone, must understand that KGB – like any sinister intelligence organization worth its reputation – politicized Nazi crimes against humanity to the point that it’s now hard to tell where facts end and disinformation begins. In 1951, CIA even defended refugee status for anti-Pole death squad leader and ostensible Holocaust collaborator Mykola Lebed:
“The Agency… discounted the labeling of the OUN as ‘terrorist’ because this designation had been employed by the Soviets as well as other groups with an anti-OUN bent. Similarly, CIA believed that many of the sources of the allegations against Lebed were ‘questionable and probably biased.’”
Jonathan Brunson researches perennial Ukrainian instability – first at US Embassy Kyiv, then as Crisis Group senior analyst, and most recently on contract for a US government agency.