Ukraine has been in a deep crisis since the Ukrainian revolution in 2013-2014. The pro-Russian faction in Kyiv was thrown from power by the Euromaidan movement and replaced by the pro-European faction.
The country was fragmented in the months following this transfer of power: the strategically vital Republic of Crimea was annexed by Russia, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic declared their independence on the southeastern border of the country, and a protracted civil war began which has lasted to the present day.
Ukraine is now the subject of intense controversy and geopolitical disputes. Especially worrying to the global community are the accusations of racist violence and Neo-Nazi rallies. Is there substance to these allegations?
There have been many sensational reports of right wing violence in Ukraine since the Euromaidan movement began.
The Kyiv LGBT Equality March, which began in 2013, was attacked by far right activists in 2015. Right wing activists tried to attack the parade again in 2017 and 2018, resulting in clashes with police and dozens of arrests.
In 2018 a series of armed attacks on Romani camps in Ukraine made international headlines. Multiple Roma were murdered in these attacks. Further vandalism, intimidation, and assaults against Romani people continue to the present day.
From here in North America it isn’t clear what these crimes mean. Are they signs of actual, organized Neo-Nazis as the media claims? Or are they symptoms of the right-wing populism spreading across Europe?
Multiple far-right organizations have been accused of committing these racist and homophobic crimes.
The United Nations issued a report in 2018 warning that the C14 group was responsible for several deadly attacks on Roma camps.
NPR’s March 7, 2014 report said that C14 had taken control of the old Communist Party headquarters in Kyiv, from which leader Yevhen Karas claimed the group ran “a laboratory for youth movements.” C14 was then associated with the far right political party Svoboda (“Freedom”), which controlled four cabinet posts in the government.
Yevhen Karas described some of the “youth movements” and actions carried out by C14 members in his March 2018 interview with Radio Svoboda. He said that C14 had formed civic organizations including “Educational Assembly,” which hosts “national-patriotic” seminars for the public, and “Union of Veterans of the War with Russia,” which helps veterans integrate into society and carries our political actions on their behalf. Karas also said that C14 carries out anti-police demonstrations, protests to defend national heritage sites, and has shut down fifty alcohol bottling plants: “We are also fighting to create the conditions for a healthy lifestyle” (“Також ми боремося за створення умов для утвердження здорового способу життя”).
Karas denies that C14 is a neonazi group despite admitting that it exists to serve ethnic Ukranians’ interests against those of minorities. The group has also taken responsibility for the attacks on Roma; according to Amnesty International “C14 boasted about the attack on their Facebook page and one of its leaders warned there could be further attacks.”
Debate over C14 is centered on whether they are a “radical ultranationalist group” or an outright neonazi group in the model of Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Karas says that the name of the group is a pun on the word “Sich,” spelled “Січ” in Cyrillic characters. A Sich was “an administrative and military centre of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” who are venerated in Ukrainian nationalist mythology.
Critics claim that the “14” in its name is a coded reference to the Fourteen Words slogan of American white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” While it may seem strange for an American English slogan to be taken up by Ukrainian ethnonationalists there are examples of its use by another group which has attacked Roma camps, Твереза та зла молодь (“Angry and Sober Youth”). This is also a group that celebrates ethnonationalism and a straight edge lifestyle to maintain bodily purity.
Пра́вий се́ктор, “Right Sector”
Right Sector first came to public attention during the Hruschevskoho Street riots on January 19, 2014. Right Sector was widely reported to be at the core of the action, leading protesters in a street battle with riot police for the next three days.
The violent militancy of Right Sector created tension between the street fighters and the previously peaceful protests led by pro-European Union and right-wing opposition politicians.
The Euromaidan movement was sparked on 21 November 2013 by President Victor Yanukoych’s cancellation of the European Union Association Agreement. Yanukovich and his governing Party of Regions preferred to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union instead. In response to this cancellation Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the second-largest party in the parliament, Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”), called the public to action.
Pro-EU protesters began to gather in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) under Yatsenyuk’s hashtag, #EuroMaidan (“Euro Square”). Tens of thousands would come to these protests and others across the country in the days leading up to 30 November.
At 04:00 on 30 November the riot police Berkut (“Golden Eagles”) finally and forcibly cleared the Maidan of protesters. On the same day LIGA recorded protesters who had regrouped and were training to fight back against the Berkut. According to Open Democracy this training was provided by the Right Sector. In reaction to this crackdown Yatsenyuk announced that the three largest opposition parties in the parliament (Batkivshchyna, UDAR, and Svoboda) were forming the “National Resistance Headquarters” to coordinate a nationwide campaign to remove the President and government.
Right Sector’s own website says that the organization was formed at Maidan on 28 November 2013. They credit the paramilitary group Tryzub (“Trident,” the state emblem of Ukraine) with initiating a coalition of far-right groups. In his 20 January 2014 interview with Liga Tryzub leader Andrey Tarasenko said that these groups included “Tryzub, UNA-UNSO, Patriot of Ukraine, White Hammer and other patriotic groups from all over Ukraine.” He did not name two other founding organizations: C14 and the Social-National Assembly.
Right Sector distinguishes itself from the pro-EU politicians leading the Euromaidan protests in two ways: they desire a strong independent nation instead of EU membership, and they reject the pacifism of the parliamentarians. Thus on 1 December, while the National Resistance Headquarters set up committees in the country’s far west, Right Sector “activists” attacked the police barricades on the road to the Presidential Administration in Kyiv. Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok visited the action to call for peace, and was shouted down by the crowd.
The dramatic eruption of Right Sector came on 19 January. A large rally gathered on the Maidan in response to the laws passed on 16 January that effectively criminalized protests. LIGA reported that the opposition party leaders called for the president and government to resign while urging peaceful action. They were jeered by some in the crowd who then led hundreds or thousands of protesters down Hruschevsky Street towards the parliament building, the Verkhovna Rada.
Tarasenko’s LIGA interview illuminates the political strategy of Right Sector. He told LIGA that Right Sector will fight until its vision of the country can be established, even if the nationalist opposition parties formed government:
We are constantly trying to coordinate activities with them, but, unfortunately, there is too little revolutionary in them. Accordingly, we constantly put forward conditions. The Ukrainians themselves demand that the opposition take concrete steps. And we, among other things, force the opposition to act, and not sit back. If you look at the statements of the Right Sector lately, you will see that they are forced to comply with 70% of our conditions.Andrey Tarasenko
In that same interview Tarasenko defends Right Sector against accusations of Neo-Nazism by saying that “People with completely different views enter the Right Sector. We have no right to tell them how to think and what chants to use.” Collaboration with neonazis like the Social-National Assembly was thus justified as part of the Nationalist project.
батальйон «Азов», “Azov Battalion”
Perhaps the most notorious far-right group in Ukraine is the Azov Battalion.
The battalion was formed after the rebellions in Donetsk and Luhansk began. New Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov disbanded the old Internal Troops of Ukraine, including the Berkut riot police. To replace them he began recruiting volunteers for the newly established National Guard and Special Police Patrol Services.
Azov was one of these volunteer battalions, based in the city of Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov. They have since been included in the National Guard and have been prominent in the fight against the pro-Russian rebels.
It is not hard to see why they are so infamous, as they present themselves to the world with very provocative and obvious symbolism:
The Wolfsangel rune is commonly associated with Nazi Germany, particularly with units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS. Members and representatives of the Azov Battalion deny that their emblem, which is flipped horizontally, is the same as the Nazi wolfsangel. They say that their symbol is a superposition of the letters “I” and “N”, standing for the “Idea of the Nation.”
This reads as a deflection in the context of the other symbol in the Azov insignia: the Black Sun. The Black Sun is an unabashed neonazi symbol created by order of Heinrich Himmler to decorate the headquarters of the SS. In the 1990s it was popularized among neonazis by the Landig Group as an alternative to the swastika.
The Azov Battalion barely conceals their ideology. Shaun Walker traveled with the group in 2014 as a correspondent for The Guardian. His report from Mariupol illuminates the political goals and ambitions of the Azov:
Many of its members have links with neo-Nazi groups, and even those who laughed off the idea that they are neo-Nazis did not give the most convincing denials.Shaun Walker for The Guardian
“Of course not, it’s all made up, there are just a lot of people who are interested in Nordic mythology,” said one fighter when asked if there were neo-Nazis in the battalion. When asked what his own political views were, however, he said “national socialist”. As for the swastika tattoos on at least one man seen at the Azov base, “the swastika has nothing to do with the Nazis, it was an ancient sun symbol,” he claimed.
In March 2015 a USA Today reporter was also told that the group is full of neonazis. One drill sergeant told the reporter that half of Azov are Nazis; the official spokesman revised that to “only 10 to 20% of the group’s members are Nazis” adding that the sergeant “has no right to make statements in a way they can be construed as the position of the regiment. He will be dealt with severely for his lack of discipline.”
Azov may be full of Nazis, signalling this to other Nazis, and trying to conceal their ideology from outsiders. Members of the group told multiple western reporters that they planned to march on Kyiv and establish a dictatorship once the war ended. This has not happened in the eight years since the unit was formed, but we cannot dismiss it yet: the war in Donbas has not yet ended.
On-the-ground reporting by Western and Ukrainian journalists makes it clear that there are in fact organized and active neonazi groups in Ukraine today. They commit pogroms against the Roma people, assault LGBT and left-wing activists, and dream of taking power in the capital.
We are left wondering: why do people join these groups? Will they still be tolerated when the war ends? And are they anything more than violent gangs with fringe politics?
In the next part of this series we will try to answer these questions by looking to the past, before the Euromaidan and the division of Ukraine.
[ Part 2: Their War Will Not End ]
[ Featured image from Russia Matters ]