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The Ukrainian Revolution’s Neo-Fascist Problem360°ANALYSIS

The participation of neo-Nazi groups in the Ukrainian government’s antiterrorist operation discredits the peace effort.

On May 2, Europe saw its first major terrorist attack in years. The incident occurred in the bucolic southern Ukrainian resort city of Odessa, famous for its Greek and Jewish heritage, as well as a strong artistic tradition. The usual suspects were not involved; neither al-Qaeda, nor the Taliban, the Islamic State or even some offspring of the Red Brigades carried it out.

The perpetrators were from a neo-fascist group with special privileges under Kiev’s new Ukrainian government, born of the Western-backed February Maidan revolution. The leader of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector, Dmitro Yarosh, had been offered — but turned down — the deputy chairmanship of the country’s powerful Security and Defense Council after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich. Right Sector’s website was effusive about the Odessa atrocity: “May 2, 2014, is another bright page in our national history.”

In the same announcement, it also claimed responsibility for what was essentially a terrorist attack: “[A]bout a hundred members of ‘Right Sector’ and patriotic-minded Odessa residents countered the rebels,” and “Dmitro Yarosh ignored the ‘expedience’ of the election campaign to coordinate the action against the Russian aggression.” The  campaign to which the Right Sector refers was for the presidential election to be held 23 days after the pogrom/terrorist attack. In between his “coordination” activities, Yarosh openly campaigned and ran for the presidency — winning 1% of the vote. However, Yarosh and Right Sector’s game is politics by distinctly other means.

Right Sector’s Odessa pogrom is far from being an isolated incident. It is just one of many crimes committed by forces closely tied to the new regime in Kiev, and Right Sector is but one of the many extremist forces being forged in the crucible of revolution and civil war spawned on the Maidan. As October approaches, violence continues in the east and the ominous specter of socioeconomic breakdown persists. The strain is creating  fissures within the Maidan coalition between centrist-democrats — radical nationalist elements are growing. The conflict between the government in Kiev and the remnants of the revolutionary forces on Maidan is being driven by both ideological and strategic-tactical differences. The latter rage over how to defeat the Donbass rebel resistance.

There are several Ukrainian ultra-nationalist forces, in addition to Yarosh and Right Sector, that are poised to take advantage of the divisions and chaos, and bid for power — including Oleg Tyahnybok’s so-called Freedom Party, and Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party. In order to understand fully the nationalist element in the new regime in Kiev, we need to go back to Maidan and the heady days of the “pro-democracy” revolution and overthrow of Yanukovich.

Maidan and the Ultra-Nationalists

In autumn 2013, as Western governments and media enthused over the rise of yet another democratic revolution in Kiev, the demonstrators gathering on the famous Maidan — or central square — were from an ideologically, politically or socially diverse group. A key element consisted of nationalist, ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist groups. By late November, the Maidan was forming self-defense forces: the “holy hundreds” or sotniki. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of volunteers for the sotniki came from nationalist and neo-fascist groups. One Andriy Parubiy, who had a history of ultra-nationalist activity, was put in charge of Maidan’s self-defense forces. In 1991, Parubiy co-founded, along with Tyahnybok, the radical nationalist Social-National Party of Ukraine, which included Nazi insignia and anti-Semitic pronouncements and evolved into Tyahnybok’s Freedom Party.

On May 2, Europe saw its first major terrorist attack in years. The incident occurred in the bucolic southern Ukrainian resort city of Odessa, famous for its Greek and Jewish heritage, as well as a strong artistic tradition. The usual suspects were not involved; neither al-Qaeda, nor the Taliban, the Islamic State or even some offspring of the Red Brigades carried it out.

The formation of Right Sector was part of this quasi-militarization of the Maidan. On November 26-27, four ultra-right groups joined forces to found Right Sector: Stepan Bandera’s Trident, named after the head of the Ukrainian nationalist leader who allied and carried out massacres of Poles and Jews in league with the Nazis during World War II; the Ukrainian National Assembly; White Hammer; and the ultra-fascist Social National Assembly (SNA). The SNA’s program gives a glimpse of its ideology: “nationocracy.” It proposes banning all political parties, organizations, associations and ideological groups. The elite of the Ukrainian ethnic group or nation will hold full power: “Political power is wholly owned by the Ukrainian nation through its most talented, idealistic and altruistic national representatives who are able to ensure proper development of the nation and its competitiveness.”

“Supreme power (executive, legislative and judicial) of the Ukrainian state will be in the hands of the head of state, who is personally responsible to the nation’s own blood and property.” Capitalism is to be “dismantled” and democracy is to be “eliminated.” All actions that fail “to comply with obligations to the nation and the state will entail the restriction of civil rights or deprivation of citizenship … The ultimate goal of Ukrainian foreign policy is world domination.” Having gotten word of this radicalization and quasi-militarization, Yanukovich’s Berkut special police forces paid informal titushki thugs to beat up demonstrators on the night of November 30. The result was the radicalization and militarization of Maidan, and a vindication for the creation of the sotniki and Right Sector.

Revolutionary Seizure of Power

Through the cold winter months, the sotniki and Right Sector acted as the revolution’s shock troops that not only defended Maidan, but by January were increasingly on the offensive: attacking police with metal bars, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails, as well as occupying most government buildings in central Kiev. As the crisis deepened, the German and French foreign ministers as well as the Russian envoy, Vladimir Lukin, began brokering an agreement to put an end to the crisis and negotiate Yanukovich’s extrication from power. At the same time, a series of mysterious sniper attacks unfolded during the negotiations on February 18-20, killing some 40 people. The attacks, which were initially blamed on Yanukovich’s Berkut, served to aggravate tempers on the Maidan, tipping the scales in favor of the ultimate revolutionary outcome.

However, that version of events quickly fell apart, as many eyewitnesses confirmed that snipers targeted both police and revolutionaries, and doctors reported that casualties occurred on both sides. On March 5, an audiotape, likely recorded by Russian or perhaps Ukrainian intelligence, emerged on the Internet with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton discussing the sniper attacks. Both verified the veracity of the call and its contents. On the tape, Paet says that the people on the Maidan and elsewhere were increasingly convinced that snipers were provocateurs and likely came from within the revolutionary camp. He also reported that the pro-Maidan physician Olga Bogomolets had examined the corpses of demonstrators and police: Both had been shot by the same bullets.

Since then, the results of several journalistic investigations cast a grave shadow of doubt on Kiev’s version claiming that pro-Yanukovich forces were behind the sniper attacks and point a finger at the Maidan. The new Ukrainian government’s own investigation announced preliminary findings on May13,which conclude that the snipers’ bullets were not the kind used by Berkut. German and other foreign journalists analyzed video that shows snipers fired from atop the Hotel Ukraine, which was under the control of Maidan’s sotniki. If pro-revolutionary forces were behind the sniper attacks, then it will most likely turn out to have been the word of the “ultras.” Democrats do not usually deploy snipers to make revolutions.

On February 21, Yanukovich came to an agreement with the opposition that would lead to his stepping down from power by the end of the year. The agreement also stipulated that Yanukovich issue a decree within 48 hours, returning the country to the 2004 constitution and weakening his executive powers; the holding of a presidential election, which virtually guaranteed his removal from office; and pull all police and Berkut forces from the city center. In return, the opposition was to abandon all squares and buildings in central Kiev.

The ultra-nationalists’ leading role in fighting the police on the Maidan and forcing Yanukovich from power translated into key appointments in the post-revolutionary government. 

But the Maidan’s sotniki violated the February 21 agreement within hours. Rather than withdrawing from buildings and squares in Kiev, they occupied more buildings and threatened to take the presidential administration and kill Yanukovich. When Yanukovich fled Kiev for Kharkiv, the radicals stormed the parliament and oversaw the president’s illegal impeachment in violation of the constitutional procedure for such. They helped prevent the required quorum and kept down the pro-Yanukovich vote in the impeachment by detaining and sometimes beating deputies from his Party of the Regions. In other words, the ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists spearheaded the revolutionary seizure of power using significant force.

Under the Maidan Regime

The ultra-nationalists’ leading role in fighting the police on the Maidan and forcing Yanukovich from power translated into key appointments in the post-revolutionary government. Tyahnybok’s Freedom Party members were appointed to head five ministries in the provisional government: Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych; Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Andrey Mokhnyk; Agriculture Minister Ihor Shvayka; Prosecutor General Oleh Makhitskiy; and Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh.

In addition, the de facto purge by intimidation of many Party of Regions deputies from the Rada gave the Freedom Party greater weight in parliament than its 10% of the seats would otherwise provide. Freedom Party members proudly posted a video of themselves beating the director of Ukrainian state television for broadcasting the Kremlin ceremony officially annexing Crimea by Russia. More importantly, for his organizational efforts on the Maidan, radical nationalist Parubiy was given the key post of chairman of Ukraine’s Security and National Defense Council. He would focus much of his activity on recruiting his “hundreds” and Right Sector-like groups into the Ukrainian army and National Guard prior and during the “antiterrorist” operation in the east.

Here the ultra-nationalists are again playing the lead role in Kiev’s antiterrorist operation to crush eastern Ukraine’s separatist rebels. This could allow the nationalists to increase their political weight once the rebels are crushed, and the leaders and the volunteer battalions they control return home. Tyahnybok and the Freedom Party have been suspiciously quiet, continuing to lead the nationalist cause in parliament and government ministries. The declining authority of the Maidan-installed government is allowing competitors within the ultra-nationalist movement to overtake them.

The rising dark horse within the movement is the youthful Lyashko and his Radical Party. Lyashko, a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament, or Rada, champions “the sacred cause — creation of a Great Kievan Empire.” His party is polling strongly, with parliamentary elections and intensifying social dislocation set for autumn. In a June-July survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), the Radical Party registered as Ukraine’s most popular party among likely voters, supported by 12.5% of respondents.

The moderately national chauvinist and de facto ruling party, Batkyvshchina, took 9.3%; centrist Vitaliy Klitchko’s Udar Party received 7.2%; Tyahnybok’s Freedom Party had 3.7%; and Yarosh’s Right Sector with 1%. Undecided voters comprised 46%. Therefore, according to KIIS, if the elections were held and all undecided voters stayed at home, as of July the Radical Party would win nearly a quarter (23.1%) of the Rada’s seats, the Freedom Party with 5.7%, and Right Sector with 1.9%. This would give the neo-fascist movement 30.7%, with some deputies from other factions also sympathetic to their cause. And this is the case before the expectedly hot autumn has ensued.

Lyashko and his Radical Party and Yarosh and his Right Sector have committed several of what can be characterized as terrorist attacks in recent months. In addition, their recruits into the Ukrainian army and National Guard are likely behind some of the raping, pillaging and shelling of residential areas in the war. As this author noted months ago, Lyashko claimed responsibility for organizing the storming of a government building in Torez by his “soldiers from the Lyashko Battalion ‘Ukraine’” on May 23. Lyashko’s soldiers killed an unarmed pro-Russian supporter of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and maimed a second.

Other battalions with neo-fascist elements, like the oligarch and Dneprpetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoiskii’s signature Dnepr Battalion, are also making illegal arrests that include beatings and likely torture.

Immediately after the murder, Lyashkov boasted on his Facebook page: “Soldiers from Battalion ‘Lyashko Ukraine’ just liquidated and released from the Colorado the executive committee of Torez, Donetsk Oblast. Two terrorists killed, nobody among our soldiers suffered there. Glory to Ukraine!” The post received 5,000 likes in just a few hours before Lyashko deleted it. But the Kyiv Post retrieved a cached mobile version.

Despite this record, Lyashko attended a high profile July 1 meeting with Petro Poroshenko, in which he announced his plan for the second phase of the antiterrorist operation in Donbass. After hearing from the president “what he had wanted to hear from him,” Lyashko returned to his nationalist vigilantism.

Soon, Lyashko’s activities earned him a rebuke from Amnesty International, which calls them “a terrible violation of international law and standards.” Amnesty has asked Ukraine’s prosecutor general to investigate Lyashko for organizing abductions, noting:

Though he doesn’t have the right to detain people, he abducts them and abuses them verbally and physically while the camera is rolling. His and other similar websites feature numerous video clips showing what appear to be cases of abduction and violations of the rights to fair trial, liberty and security of the person, and the right not to be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.”  

Lyashko boasts of his work:

If the government and law enforcers are inactive, the patriots must act. Especially now, when Ukraine is fighting for its independence.” His Radical Party members are also prominent in the Shakhtyorsk Battalion ostensibly subordinated to the Internal Affairs Ministry headed by the nationalist Arseniy Avakov. Lyashko is demanding that Radical Party members fighting in the anti-terrorist battalions “have to immediately after the war become prosecutors, judges etc.” 

Much of the criminal activity being carried out under the cover of the antiterrorist operation is rooted in the recruitment of volunteers from and through Lyashko’s and Yarosh’s organizations. Lyashko was removed allegedly as a supplier of his fighters after Avakov discovered that 12 of the first 15 Lyashko recruits had criminal issues.

Other battalions with neo-fascist elements, like the oligarch and Dneprpetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoiskii’s signature Dnepr Battalion, are also making illegal arrests that include beatings and likely torture — adding to the general disintegration in law and order and reflecting Ukraine’s state breakdown, democratic backsliding and violations of human rights. These acts are often videotaped and posted on the Internet.

As noted above, Yarosh and Right Sector led and promptly claimed responsibility for the horrendous May 2 terrorist attack in Odessa. Moreover in April and May, while Kiev refused to negotiate with the rebels, regular Ukrainian army troops along with Right Sector and Right Sector-penetrated National Guard troops attacked southeastern resistance forces, who had undertaken no operations, and unarmed activists. For example, in late April, they killed some 30 of the Donetsk resistance in and around Slavyansk and, in Mariupol, they killed another 20 for refusing to crack down on demonstrators. Some of the Mariupol casualties were unarmed civilians. One was a Russian journalist.

Yet months after the Odessa atrocities, Yarosh remained free and was allowed to travel from his field headquarters in Dnepropetrovsk to Kiev and participate in a presidential debate. Yarosh ran in the May 25 presidential election, unhindered by Kiev’s law enforcement organs controlled by leaders with ties to Tyahnybok. Ukrainian state and independent media have given Yarosh and the Right Sector a free pass. Even Poroshenko has refused to speak out against Yarosh, least of all called for the arrest of him and his storm troopers. Poroshenko most likely has no sympathy for the neo-fascists’ ideology. His lack of action against them seems to be motivated by a fear that it could split the Maidan coalition and spark a neo-fascist backlash, even a coup. At present, Yarosh and many of his Right Sector members are fighting openly under the banners of oligarch Igor Kolomoiskii’s numerous battalions nominally subordinated to the Defense or Internal Affairs Ministry and National Guard — such as the Donbass, Dnepr and Azov Battalions in Poroshenko’s Western-backed antiterrorist operation.

Western claims that the ultra-nationalist element is non-existent or at least irrelevant are dangerously off the mark. Ignoring reality, the West’s unqualified support for Kiev’s politics, its antiterrorist operation and its refusal to negotiate with Vladimir Putin over the crisis will come home to roost.

The aforementioned ultra-fascist SNA predominates in the several hundred-strong Azov Battalion. The SNA’s leader, Andriy Beletskiy, is Azov’s commander and has written: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival … A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” According to the one journalist who has examined this subject in any detail, the Azov Battallion’s ideology is Nazi-oriented — as are many of its members — who include not just ethnic Ukrainians and Russians from Ukraine, but also volunteers and mercenaries from Greece, Ireland, Italy and Scandinavia. Azov’s fighters are emblazoned with Nazi insignia, espouse Nazi ideas, and fly a neo-Nazi flag.

The Donbass, Dnepr and Azov battalions along with regular army artillery units are responsible for many of the attacks on civilians and residential areas in eastern Ukraine under Avakov’s antiterrorist operation. The tactics appear to be that regular army artillery units soften the target, “followed by chaotic, violent assaults” by the battalions. The Ukrainian army and some of the more well-armed neo-fascist battalions’ paramilitary groups have been using heavy weapons, including unguided Grad rockets, in civilian-populated areas for months. Human Rights Watch released a belated report condemning Kiev’s practice.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) chief, Avakov, Parubiy, and other officials defend their use of neo-Nazis in their antiterrorist operation. According to Avakov’s advisor, Anton Gerashchenko: “The most important thing is their spirit and their desire to make Ukraine free and independent. A person who takes a weapon in his hands and goes to defend his motherland is a hero. And his political views are his own affair.”

The Ultra Coup Threat

The political views of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist battalions could have far broader resonance in the present period of political violence, economic collapse and social chaos. There is a real risk that neo-fascist warlords like Beletskiy and Yarosh will attempt to seize power in a coup during or after the antiterrorist operations, in the event that key decisions do not go their way and/or Ukraine’s domestic circumstances continue to deteriorate.

Indeed, the powerful Donbass Battalion and its commander, Semyon Semenchenko, recently demonstrated this potential. On the eve of President Poroshenko’s pivotal June 30 meeting with Parubiy, Avakov and the powerful Defense and Security Council, Semenchenko and members of his battalion led a several thousand-strong demonstration backed by two other “volunteer” — Dnepr and Aidar — battalions. The demonstrators demanded that Poroshenko end the truce, declare martial law and destroy the eastern rebels, or they would remove the president from power “like Yanukovich.”

At the demonstration, a journalist was beaten up and stun grenades were thrown, seriously injuring several demonstrators. One demonstrator claimed he saw MVD officers hand the stun grenades to members of Avakov’s Kiev-based paramilitary group 17+ Sotny, who threw the grenades. Although Avakov condemned the violence the next day, no one was arrested.

Before the June 30 council meeting, Poroshenko had said he intended to extend the truce after its June 30 deadline, in accordance with the wishes of Brussels and Moscow. However, after the four-hour long meeting, he emerged to announce an end to the truce and ordered a new offensive to wipe out rebels. The Donbass Battalion and its ilk had prevailed over the great powers of Europe and Russia.

The June-July scenario played out once more on August 6, when the authorities in Kiev sought to clean Maidan of remaining demonstrators. Right Sector, which constantly criticizes the government and calls for a purge of the Ukrainian elite, attacked the Kiev’s efforts and called for the resignation of Avakov. Right Sector has organized small demonstrations and pickets in the nationalists’ stronghold in western Ukraine. In August, Right Sector activists stormed a concert of an allegedly pro-Russian singer, Anna Lorak, an action that had to be put down by police. In response, the Right Sector again called for demonstrations and Avakov’s resignation.

On August 7, Parubiy resigned as chief of the Security Council, reportedly so that he could focus on his work supporting the volunteer militias. The reason for his resignation may be that Parubiy understands the Maidan government — in its present configuration — will collapse, and he is preparing for a return to power on the back of his battalions’ volunteer fighters returning home from war — either emboldened by victory or disgruntled by stalemate or defeat. Such a situation could be ripe for a coup or electoral path to power on an ultra-nationalist agenda. 

Negotiate With the Rebels

None of the above should be construed as a claim that all the forces in the post-Maidan government are neo-fascist, as some Russian statements state or imply. Rather, it should serve as a warning to the West that the threat of a fascist hijacking of the Maidan regime is growing, and Western claims that the ultra-nationalist element is non-existent or at least irrelevant are dangerously off the mark. Ignoring reality, the West’s unqualified support for Kiev’s politics, its antiterrorist operation and its refusal to negotiate with Vladimir Putin over the crisis will come home to roost.

The West, especially the US, is operating under and proselytizing the illusion that Maidan was purely a democratic revolution, aimed at overthrowing a corrupt regime installed by devilish Putin’s Russia. We have been shown this scenario before — with the West’s misplaced support in Georgia for the beacon of democracy, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who started the August 2008 war with South Ossetiya and has been indicted in absentia for illegally nationalizing the media, cracking down on demonstrators and torturing prisoners during his rule.

The West must take off its black and white blinders. Putin and the Russians are not the only kleptocratic autocrats and opportunistic nationalists in the post-Soviet space, which includes almost nothing but such elements. The good news is that real fascists of Lyashko’s, Beletskiy’s and Yarosh’s ilk are not in power yet. The West can avoid this by demanding that Kiev clean up its act and limit the chaos of war by forcing Poroshenko to negotiate with the rebels.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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