THE BLOG
07/13/2015 02:58 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2016

Ukraine's Far-Right: Sifting Facts From Fiction

On July 4, 2015, one thousand far-right supporters and pro-government fighters marched through the center of Kiev, calling for the end of the Minsk ceasefire, the nationalization of Russian businesses, and a declaration of all-out war on Eastern Ukrainian separatists. The presence of visceral white supremacist symbolism and the leadership role played by ultra-nationalist Right Sector supporters, provided yet another reminder of one of the darkest consequences of the ongoing imbroglio in Ukraine: the empowerment of neo-Fascist movements.

The extent to which far-right ideologies, have gained popular support and a presence in Ukraine's militias and political institutions is a subject of extensive debate. Putin regime officials and the Russian state media have frequently described the Maidan revolution as a Fascist junta; and have used vivid World War II imagery to compare Russia's intervention in Ukraine to the Soviet struggle against Nazism. Many Ukrainian media sources and analysts have vehemently shunned this view as Kremlin propaganda. They have pointed to far-right presences in Western European countries and Russia as evidence that neo-Fascism is far from a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon. They have also claimed that Neo-Nazi ideologies have very little appeal amongst a Ukrainian populace that is firmly committed to European democratic norms.

My assessment of far-right movements derived from my recent trip to Kiev and through interviews with numerous journalists and political analysts in Ukraine, is based on two main conclusions. Firstly, the current conflict has made far-right battalions very visible but has not increased support for far-right political movements to the same extent. Secondly, the Ukrainian far- right is not entirely a Western Ukrainian phenomenon or exclusively anti-Russian, as neo-Fascist movements largely do not operate under the Poroshenko regime's orbit of control.

Assessing Levels of Popular Support for Far-Right Movements in Ukraine

Russian political analyst Alexander Pavic, in an April 2015 interview with RT claimed that the Poroshenko regime transformed Ukraine from a corrupt country to a Neo-Nazi country by manipulating the historical legacy of World War II and revering participants in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) who collaborated with the Nazi occupation. The linkage between the Maidan revolution and far-right movements defies the political realities on the ground in Ukraine. Support for the far-right Svoboda movement became apparent with an electoral breakthrough in 2009, and rose rapidly in the lead-up to the 2012 elections. An opinion poll conducted in the early stages of the Maidan protests in December 2013, indicated that the Svoboda Party would win 28.8% of the popular vote to Viktor Yanukovych's 27.1% if a direct run-off election was held between the two candidates at that time.

The current conflict has had a paradoxical impact on Ukrainian public support for far-right movements. Nationalist resistance to Russia's military interventions in Crimea and the Donbas region, led to an upsurge in the visibility of far-right movements in Ukraine. Ruslan Bortnik, the director of the Ukrainian Institute for Policy Analysis and Management described the war's impact in an interview with me on July 9, 2015. Bortnik said, "Due to the Crimean annexation and conflict in the Donbas, far-right movements have the support of around 20% of the population in Ukraine. They have history and credibility as a fighting force against pro-Russian separatists, and this credibility poses a very dangerous threat to the democratic future of Ukraine."

Many political analysts have ignored the fact that the visibility of Ukrainian far-right movements on the battlefield has not been accompanied by a rise of the Svoboda movement as a political force. Svoboda fell below the 5% representation threshold in the October 2014 Ukrainian elections. The Poroshenko regime's de-communization laws and legislation praising the UPA has appeased Ukrainian nationalists to the extent that they have often become subsumed into the governing coalition. These soft nationalists have shunned far-right movements, on the grounds that their influence in the Rada would likely be highly disruptive.

Assessing the linkage between Far-right Movements, anti-Russian Militias and the Poroshenko Regime

One of the most striking developments in the battle against Donbas and Luhansk separatists in Eastern Ukraine has been the rise of the far-right dominated Azov Battalion, which has been regarded as one of the most effective fighting forces in the war against pro-Russian separatists. The linkage between the far-right and anti-Russian radicalism was first cemented during the Maidan protests themselves, where a far-right sect was especially vocal in calling for the fall of the Yanukovych regime.

Olena Goncharova, a columnist for the Kyiv Post described the activism of far-right supporters at Maidan in an interview with me on July 8, 2015. Goncharova said, "There was little support for far-right ideologies prior to the Maidan protests. But in Maidan, far-right groups gathered together and people began listening to their agendas. Some of these groups were very assertive in calling for Yanukovych's demise. One man who is now a member of parliament claimed that Yanukovych had 24 hours left to stay in power. During a period of revolution and war, some people began to regard these far-right movements as useful, but most saw them as too radical even in a time of war. Far-right battalions began committing war crimes and Western Ukrainian leaders became increasingly concerned about their impact."

The mixture of anti-Russian triumphalism and terror inspired by these far-right movements has come to define the narrative of their rise and impact on the Ukraine conflict. Yet Russian propaganda claims that far-right movements are almost exclusively composed of Ukrainian nationalists seeking to murder and persecute Russian civilians are erroneous. It is true that many of the Azov Battalion members have openly expressed Neo-Nazi views and virulent anti-Semitism (one battalion member interviewed by Guardian reporter Shaun Walker in September 2014 even claimed that Putin was Jewish and not a real Russian). However, it is frequently overlooked that there are many Russian speakers in the Azov Battalion. Walker discovered through a series of interviews in Mariupol, that the "lingua franca of the battalion was Russian."

The linkage between far-right battalions and the Poroshenko regime is even more tenuous. Many far-right leaders regard the defeat of Russia as only a temporary goal en route to the long-term objective of overthrowing existing democratic political institutions in Ukraine. This direct assault on Poroshenko's authority and the far right's dictatorial tendencies, mean that they are not Ukrainian regime puppets but a very dangerous threat to its stability.

While it is essential not to underestimate the power of far-right movements in Ukraine and their political influence (Poroshenko's decision to grant Belarusian Neo-Nazi and race war advocate Sergiy Korotkyh honorary Ukrainian citizenship is a sobering reminder of that), it is equally important to emphasize that far-right movements have limited public support in contemporary Ukraine. The mushrooming of the Maidan revolution after Yanukovych's decision to violently repress demonstrations also proved that the Ukrainian public's tolerance for institutional violence and authoritarianism is low. While anti-Semitism, and radical anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist sentiments are both tangible and bubbling below the surface, Ukrainians are very unlikely to embrace en masse an autocratic neo-Fascist ideological agenda.