Ukraine’s neo-Nazi problem

Josh Cohen

National Militia’s march in Kyiv, January 28, 2018. Photo: National Militia’s official website.

 

As Ukraine’s struggle against Russia and its proxies continues, Kyiv must also contend with a growing problem behind the front lines: far-right vigilantes who are willing to use intimidation and even violence to advance their agendas, and who often do so with the tacit approval of law enforcement agencies.

A January 28 demonstration, in Kyiv, by 600 members of the so-called “National Militia,” a newly-formed ultranationalist group that vows “to use force to establish order,” illustrates this threat. While the group’s Kyiv launch was peaceful, National Militia members in balaclavas stormed a city council meeting in the central Ukrainian town of Cherkasy the following day, skirmishing with deputies and forcing them to pass a new budget.

Many of the National Militia’s members come from the Azov movement, one of the 30-odd privately-funded “volunteer battalions” that, in the early days of the war, helped the regular army to defend Ukrainian territory against Russia’s separatist proxies. Although Azov uses Nazi-era symbolism and recruits neo-Nazis into its ranks, a recent article in Foreign Affairs downplayed any risks the group might pose, pointing out that, like other volunteer militias, Azov has been “reined in” through its integration into Ukraine’s armed forces. While it’s true that private militias no longer rule the battlefront, it’s the home front that Kyiv needs to worry about now.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea four years ago first exposed the decrepit condition of Ukraine’s armed forces, right-wing militias such as Azov and Right Sector stepped into the breach, fending off the Russian-backed separatists while Ukraine’s regular military regrouped. Though, as a result, many Ukrainians continue to regard the militias with gratitude and admiration, the more extreme among these groups promote an intolerant and illiberal ideology that will endanger Ukraine in the long term. Since the Crimean crisis, the militias have been formally integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces, but some have resisted full integration: Azov, for example, runsits own children’s training camp, and the careers section instructs recruits who wish to transfer to Azov from a regular military unit.

According to Freedom House’s Ukraine project director Matthew Schaaf, “numerous organized radical right-wing groups exist in Ukraine, and while the volunteer battalions may have been officially integrated into state structures, some of them have since spun off political and non-profit structures to implement their vision.” Schaaf noted that “an increase in patriotic discourse supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia has coincided with an apparent increase in both public hate speech, sometimes by public officials and magnified by the media, as well as violence towards vulnerable groups such as the LGBT community,” an observation that is supported by a recent Council of Europe study.

In recent months, Ukraine has experienced a wave of unchecked vigilantism. Institute Respublica, a local pro-democracy NGO, reported that activists are frequently harassed by vigilantes when holding legal meetings or rallies related to politically-controversial positions, such as the promotion of LGBT rights or opposition to the war. Azov and other militias have attacked anti-fascist demonstrations, city council meetings, media outletsart exhibitionsforeign students and Roma. Progressive activists describe a new climate of fear that they say has been intensifying ever since last year’s near-fatal stabbing of anti-war activist Stas Serhiyenko, which is believed to have been perpetrated by an extremist group named C14 (the name refers to a 14-word slogan popular among white supremacists). Brutal attacks this month on International Women’s Day marches in several Ukrainian cities prompted an unusually forceful statement from Amnesty International, which warned that “the Ukrainian state is rapidly losing its monopoly on violence.”

Ukraine is not the only country that must contend with a resurgent far right. But Kyiv’s recent efforts to incorporate independent armed groups into its regular armed forces, as well as a continuing national sense of indebtedness to the militias for their defense of the homeland, make addressing the ultranationalist threat considerably more complicated than it is elsewhere. According to Schaaf and the Institute Respublica, Ukrainian extremists are rarely punished for acts of violence. In some cases — such as C14’s January attack on a remembrance gathering for two murdered journalists — police actually detain peaceful demonstrators instead.

To be clear, the Kremlin’s claims that Ukraine is a hornets’ nest of fascists are false: far-right parties performed poorly in Ukraine’s last parliamentary elections, and Ukrainians reacted with alarm to the National Militia’s demonstration in Kyiv. But connections between law enforcement agencies and extremists give Ukraine’s Western allies ample reason for concern. C14 and Kyiv’s city government recently signed an agreement allowing C14 to establish a “municipal guard” to patrol the streets; three such militia-run guard forces are already registered in Kyiv, and at least 21 operate in other cities.

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