Spectre of Ukrainian “fascism”: Information wars, political manipulation and reality

A torch procession in Kyiv to commemorate Stepan Bandera on 1 January 2014, organized by Svoboda

A torch procession in Kyiv to commemorate Stepan Bandera on 1 January 2014, organized by Svoboda 

2015/06/24 • Featured, Politics

Article by: Anton Shekhovtsov

This article is part of the Essay collection “What does Ukraine think?” published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), reproduced with permission. Original article and more essays on Ukraine can be found here.

The 2014 Ukrainian revolution made the country’s far right a topic of international debate.  Once the object of only a few academic studies, it suddenly became a key point of the information war unleashed by the Kremlin and Russia’s state-controlled media, first against the anti-government protesters and later against the new Ukrainian authorities. [1]

The focus on the far-right element in the protests and the revolution was aimed at advancing three major interconnected and mutually sustaining propaganda narratives.  Firstly, presenting the protest movement as “neo-fascist” was intended to lower its support among Russian citizens, among Ukraine’s ethnic Russian/Russian-speaking community, and from the European Union.

Secondly, the revolution’s supposed “neo-fascist” or “ultranationalist” character was held up as evidence of a conspiracy by the United States and NATO against Russia and the “Russian World.”  This was part of the larger conspiracy theory that the anti-government protests were inspired by the West, specifically the US, to further Western expansionism and the enlargement of NATO and to undermine Russia’s standing in its sphere of influence.  This conspiracy theory eliminated Ukrainians as such from the geopolitical equation, depriving them of any agency.

Thirdly, the myth of the “fascist junta in Kyiv” aimed to invoke the heroic Soviet imagery and rhetoric of the “Great Patriotic War” to mobilise the population in eastern and southern Ukraine (the Kremlin’s “Novorossiya”) to start an “anti-fascist struggle” against the new Ukrainian authorities.  After the (belated) adoption of EU and US sanctions, the same narrative was used to portray Russia as a victim of Western aggression, referencing the USSR’s suffering as “a victim” of the Third Reich.  This narrative has found particularly fertile ground in Germany, with its Kollektivschuld (collective guilt) that overwhelmingly “singles out as the object of German guilt only Russia but not Ukraine as the legitimate heir to the Soviet Union.” [2]

This is not to say that the Ukrainian far right was not involved in the revolution or the later political process.  However, ultranationalist elements were far from dominant, and the circumstances of their presence were much more complex than was presented either by the Kremlin and its media or by the Ukrainian revolutionary movement and the new Ukrainian authorities.  Furthermore, Moscow ignored the far-right element among pro-Russian separatists and Russian volunteers in the war in eastern Ukraine.

Svoboda

Two major far-right movements took part in the protests and the revolution: the Svoboda (Freedom) party and a coalition of minor far-right groups and organisations that became collectively known as Pravy Sektor (Right Sector).  Svoboda first made headlines when it obtained 10.4 percent of the proportional vote in the 2012 elections.  In over two decades of independence, no far-right party had ever won seats through the party-list system, although a few ultranationalists had been elected in single-member constituencies.  The Ukrainian far right had been largely fake actors in Ukrainian political life, at least at the national level. [3 ]  Former presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych used them to disrupt social protests, rig the vote, or serve as “scarecrow” images of “greater evil” to mobilise popular support for the regime.

In 2012, Svoboda was successful precisely because Yanukovych used it as this kind of “scarecrow” party.  The party’s media visibility dramatically increased, especially on government-controlled television channels.  Yanukovych and his associates wanted to damage the mainstream opposition by elevating the significance of Svoboda.  They were positioning Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, to be Yanukovych’s opponent in the second round of the presidential election in 2015.  With state media support, he would cruise through round one, but all opinion polls predicted that he would be unelectable in round two.  In February 2013, Mykhaylo Chechetov, then first deputy head of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions parliamentary faction, declared that Yanukovych would win the 2015 presidential election and that “Tyahnybok would be his contender. We know about this.” [4]

Once in parliament, Svoboda allied with the other two opposition parties: Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Fatherland and Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform).  However, Svoboda failed to live up to its image of being the most radical opposition to Yanukovych.  By 2013, it was already losing support.

When the pro-European protests began in November 2013, Svoboda sought to take an active part.  Svoboda believed European integration would represent for Ukraine a definitive turn away from all Russia-led Eurasian integration projects.  Plus, in light of its dwindling support, it wanted to use the protests as a platform for self-promotion and propaganda.

But the revolution proved to be a political catastrophe for Svoboda.  Polarising events like the march to remember ultranationalist leader Stepan Bandera ran counter to the spirit of the Maidan.  Svoboda was increasingly seen as a noisy nuisance whose radical rhetoric did not match its actions.  When non-partisan protesters became radicalised in response to the regime’s brutality and demanded bold and direct action, Svoboda failed to rise to the challenge.  As one commentator put it, “within just a few weeks, the country had witnessed a real fiasco for the party that flashily promised to lead the revolution, but instead not only became its obstacle, but also its most flawed element.” [5]

After Yanukovych’s flight in late February 2014, Svoboda was given four ministerial posts in acting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s interim government.  This was inconsistent with the party’s declining public support: in March 2014, only 5.2 percent of voters backed Svoboda.  But Klitschko’s UDAR refused to join a government that was likely to enact unpopular measures, meaning that, without Svoboda, there would have been a one-party government controlled by Fatherland – which would have been a political disaster.  Ironically, Svoboda’s brief involvement in the interim government only reduced the party’s popularity further.

Right Sector

Partly because Svoboda could not match its radical rhetoric with action, some of the protesters’ sympathies shifted to Right Sector.  Right Sector was a broad coalition of far-right organisations and groups that came together at the end of November 2013.  Then, Right Sector comprised Tryzub (Trident), the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO), and Patriot of Ukraine (PU), along with smaller groupuscules and individual activists.  At the end of January 2014, activists from Right Sector said their movement had around 300 members. [6]  Their numbers apparently grew to 500 during the more violent part of the revolution in late January–February 2014.

Ideologically, these organisations ranged from the national conservatism of Tryzub to the right-wing radicalism of UNA-UNSO and the neo-Nazism of PU.  However, none of these ideological strands represented a unifying force for Right Sector activists.  And because PU was low down in the hierarchy of Right Sector, the neo-Nazis were a fringe element.  These disparate groups were loosely united at grassroots level by vehement opposition to Yanukovych’s regime, the desire for “national liberation,” and romantic militarism.  The consensus was reinforced by the leadership of Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Tryzub and of Right Sector as a whole: contrary to Yarosh’s demonisation in the (pro-)Russian media, he tried to moderate the movement by publicly denouncing racism and anti-Semitism.

To the Russian, pro-Russian, and pro-Yanukovych media, Right Sector was a neo-Nazi movement, and provocative neo-Nazi imagery was indeed employed by some – not all – activists of Right Sector.  But the consensus structure made Right Sector an increasingly inclusive movement; in the second half of the Euromaidan protests, it was joined by activists of various ethnic backgrounds.  Around 40 percent of the movement comprised ethnic Russians or Russian speakers.[7]  Right Sector seemed to be a disciplined and efficient fighting unit – one of several, but one that attracted many a young protester.

However, Right Sector had another aspect, one that was hidden from outside observers: behind the scenes, political manipulation was taking place.  Right Sector’s leadership included many members of UNA-UNSO, who had long been directly or indirectly involved in pro-Yanukovych and pro-government “political technology” projects.  PU was also involved in dubious activities ranging from attacks on Asian merchants, to intimidating Asian and African students, to illegal seizures of businesses (reyderske zakhoplennya).  PU also provided paid security services to the demonstrations and protests of other political forces.  In the Kyiv region, PU activists were involved – along with pro-Yanukovych politicians – in blocking observation of local elections, land-lease schemes, disrupting social and anti-government protests, and so on.

This is not to say that the whole of Right Sector was a fake movement or was part of “political technology” in the service of Yanukovych’s regime.  However, during the protests and the revolution, it seems likely that, on several occasions, Right Sector activists deliberately attacked the police to provoke a violent response towards other protesters.

After the revolution, Right Sector gradually distanced itself from some of its more dubious elements.  In spring 2014, the movement expelled the neo-Nazi groupuscule, White Hammer, and parted ways with PU.  Later, it also lost many members of the UNA-UNSO.

The presidential and parliamentary elections

In May 2014’s presidential election, Tyahnybok won only 1.2 percent and Yarosh 0.7 percent.  With Yanukovych gone, the far right lost their major source of negative-voter mobilisation.  Before the revolution, Tyahnybok could position himself as the leader of allegedly the only patriotic party.  But during the revolution, and especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, all popular democratic parties became patriotic, so Svoboda lost its “monopoly.”  Moreover, Tyahnybok lost the covert patronage of the old regime.

Far-right leaders, as representatives of populist, anti-system forces, often benefit from their opposition to existing elites. Ukraine in May 2014 had no full-fledged political establishment to oppose.  The times were more suited to the demagogic and “political technology” populist Oleh Lyashko, who railed against unseen enemies on behalf of unseen oligarchic sponsors, and won 8.3 percent.

In the parliamentary elections in October 2014, Svoboda secured only 4.7 percent of the vote and failed to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold.  However, it won six single-member districts.  Right Sector received only 1.8 percent, though Yarosh was elected in Dnipropetrovsk and PU’s leader, Andriy Biletsky, gained a seat in Kyiv.  Lyashko’s Radical Party, with 7.4 percent, attracted most of the populist vote.

After PU distanced itself from Right Sector in spring 2014, it briefly cooperated with the Radical Party.  PU also formed the core of the notorious Azov battalion, a volunteer detachment loosely responsible to the Ministry of Interior and headed by Arsen Avakov.  But this was more about nepotism than ideology: Avakov has cooperated with the leaders of PU since 2009–2010.

The (pro-)Russian far right

Most analyses of the far right in Ukraine overlook domestic anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian far-right actors, as well as external, that is Russian, far-right groups.  Even as the Kremlin attacked the “fascist junta in Kyiv,” it relied heavily – at least initially – on pro-Russian far-right actors in Ukraine.  In Crimea, the Kremlin supported and installed as “prime minister of Crimea” the ultranationalist Sergey Aksyonov, leader of the right-wing party Russian Unity.  This tiny party obtained only 4 percent of the vote in Crimea’s 2010 regional elections.  In Donetsk, the Kremlin initially supported Pavel Gubarev, a former member of the neo-Nazi organisation Russian National Unity, as self-proclaimed “People’s Governor.”

The Kremlin has been supporting (and inciting) pro-Russian ultranationalists in southern and eastern Ukraine since the 1990s, but it has done so more actively since Yanukovych’s election in 2010.  Many Russian far-right organisations have established local branches, including Russian National Unity, Aleksandr Dugin’s International Eurasian Movement, Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, and Russian Image. The most important example is the organisation Donetsk Republic, founded in 2005.  In 2006, its 86 leaders went to Russia to participate in the summer camp of the fascist Eurasian Youth Union, established with money from the presidential administration in 2005 on the initiative of Aleksandr Dugin and Vladislav Surkov, then deputy head of the presidential administration.  That summer camp aimed to further indoctrinate activists and offered training for fighting against democratic movements in neighbouring states.  Instructors from the security services taught espionage, sabotage, and guerrilla tactics.  Among the participants were Andrei Purgin, now one of the leaders of the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic,” and one of the top members of the Eurasian Youth Union, Aleksandr Proselkov, briefly a “deputy minister for foreign affairs” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” before he was killed in summer 2014 in eastern Ukraine in unclear circumstances.

Conclusion

The Kremlin’s focus on the Ukrainian far right and its allegedly dominant role in the 2014 revolution was part of an information war intended to delegitimise the opposition to Yanukovych’s regime and, later, the new Ukrainian authorities.  Moscow’s arguments were ultimately undermined by the low electoral results of the Ukrainian far right and by Russia’s use of ultranationalists in its invasion of Ukraine, as well as its flirtations with the European far right (which require a separate discussion).  But, by then, the damage had been done.  The far right of course exists in Ukraine and, in the case of Svoboda, was even briefly relatively successful.  But it is important to stress the element of political manipulation in its rise.  Far-right parties and organisations were often exploited in different political games, either as “scarecrow” parties or fake opposition, or as private “security firms” employed by more powerful political actors.  Hence, for all the Kremlin’s rhetoric, Ukrainian ultra-nationalism will most likely remain an extra-parliamentary force – as it was in the 1990s – until it is again involved in another “political technology” project.

Other articles from this series:
Serhiy Leshchenko: Sunset and/or sunrise of the Ukrainian oligarchs after the Euromaidan revolution?
Volodymyr Yermolenko: Russia, zoopolitics, and information bombs
Anton Shekhovtsov: Spectre of Ukrainian “fascism”: Information wars, political manipulation and reality
Olena Tregub: Do Ukrainians want reform?


Notes

[1] On the Kremlin’s information war, see Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (Princeton: Institute of Modern Russia, 2014).

[2] Anna Veronika Wendland, “Levy neoimperializm i sostoyanie ‘rossiyskikh’ issledovaniy: Participant Observation nemetskogo diskursa ob ukrainskom krizise,” Ab Imperio, 2014, p. 193.  See also Timothy Snyder, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” the New York Review of Books, 20 March 2014, available at www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/mar/20/fascism-russia-and-ukraine/.

[3] On political manipulation in Ukraine, see Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[4] Dmytro Barkar, “Rehionaly vvazhayut’ Tyahnyboka yedynym real’nym konkurentom Yanukovycha,” Radio Svoboda, 1 February 2013, available at http://www.radiosvoboda.org/ content/article/24889869.html.

[5] Ostap Drozdov, “Ruka zdryhnulas,” Dzerkalo tyzhnya, 14 February 2014, available at http:// gazeta.dt.ua/internal/ruka-zdrignulas-_.html.

[6] Interview with the author, Kyiv, January 2014.

[7] Interview with the author, Kyiv, January 2014

 

Edited by: Paula Chertok
Source: ECFR

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  • what’s what

    Thank you, Mr. Shekhovtsov, for this important research. Putin’s russian horde has done such a great propaganda smear campaign against Ukraine & Ukrainians for so long that many uninformed western european and american citizens & politicians, and willfully ignorant anti-ukrainian hate-mongers, like stephen f. cohen, actually believe the Kremlin’s absurd lies. (By the way, if Ukraine truly WAS full of fascists and neo-Nazis, then why do prominent and highly-respected Russian Jews, like Kasparov and the late Nemstov, stand up for Ukraine???)

    I’ve often thought, isn’t it strange that if you’re an American who loves the U.S.A., or a citizen of any other country who loves his home country, even Russia, you’re respectfully considered a patriot, but if you commit the grave “sin” of loving Ukraine, you’re labelled an “ultra-nationalist.” We have the despicable, pathetic dictator putin & his troll army to thank for this. Stalin would be proud.

    • puttypants

      I agree. I’ve been wondering the same thing. Unfortunately, these BS stories started in the communist revolution and went to great heights during WW2 and have been continuing since . In US every Jewish person thinks Ukrainian are anti-Semitic barbarians. When you try to tell them differently their eyes glaze over… they don’t wanna hear it.

    • Turtler

      Beautifully well said, and it is shockingly stupid how these people believe it. It reminds me a bit of how the Japanese sold their invasion of China (and war with the Nationalist Party that had been trying to wipe the CCP off the face of the Earth) as Anti-Communist.

      “(By the way, if Ukraine truly WAS full of fascists and neo-Nazis, then
      why do prominent and highly-respected Russian Jews, like Kasparov and
      the late Nemstov, stand up for Ukraine???)”

      As much as I hate to say it, some devil’s advocacy. Jewish ethnicity- and to a lesser extent religion- has never been mutually exclusive with Fascism (Neo-Nazism is a more tricky issue). One of Mussolini’s most prominent mistresses was both Jewish and Fascist, and nobody saw any contradiction until Mussolini began passing anti-semetic measures due to influence from Hitler.

      So I could see a case where plenty of Jews (by one definition or another) could hypothetically support a Fascist regime. Though that obviously isn’t the case here.

      “I’ve often thought, isn’t it strange that if you’re an American who
      loves the U.S.A., or a citizen of any other country who loves his home
      country, even Russia, you’re respectfully considered a patriot, but if
      you commit the grave “sin” of loving Ukraine, you’re labelled an
      “ultra-nationalist.” We have the despicable, pathetic dictator putin
      & his troll army to thank for this. Stalin would be proud.”

      If anything, I’d say the poison stretches far deeper. A century before Stalin and the Muscovite state was still stigmatizing, persecuting, and even murdering those who called themselves Ukrainian patriots or sometimes even those who simply indulged in Ukrainian culture. The very idea that Ukraine could be separate from the great Rossiyan Empire- let alone should be- was treason to the Tsar, regardless of what crown he wore or what ideology he would practice.

      So to many Russians, a Ukrainian who calls themselves Ukrainian is a traitor.

      • what’s what

        Yes, I agree…and it’s true, russian persecution of Ukrainians does indeed go back centuries.
        On another note: I like the title of the essay collection: “What does Ukraine think?” Far too many self-proclaimed experts are fretting over what russians, and putin, specifically, think. WHO CARES???? Does France have a say over Britain’s politics? Does Spain get to hack away parts of Portugal because they don’t speak Spanish there? (even though they’re all part of the EU) Hell, NO! So f*@%! russia’s claims to a “sphere of influence.” If France or Spain, or any other civilized country tried this, they’d 1st be laughed at, then attacked.

  • puttypants

    Excellent article. What can Ukraine do to counter what Putin is doing in Ukraine? The west has done nothing of use either in Ukraine or in th e west.

  • Dirk Smith

    After 90+ years of subjugation, genocide, political manipulation, election fraud, theft, etc., Ukraine is entitled to have as many nationalist organizations it desires. Whatever it takes to remove the muscovite cancer once and for all. Slava Bandera!

    • Milton Devonair

      Exactly. Stephen Bandera is a hero of Ukraine as he fought both the nazi germans and the russian bolshevik apes, all in favor of “Ukraine for Ukrainians”.
      However, the leftists that control the media and educational systems in free countries have made “nationalists” a bad thing.
      I have mentioned it before quite a bit and I’ll do it again. There will be no help for anyone, anywhere by the US. Our government is being ran by leftists, so their biggest concerns are gay rights, bringing in more mexicans, expanding the social welfare programs to create dependent class that always votes for them, reducing energy use and eliminating production.
      All of these are directed at basically destroying the US as who it is, a conservative, christian nation and making it just another secular progressive failed european social democracy.
      We are being destroyed here, in america, so there will be no help in the future either.

      Get weapons, train, train and fight, every man, woman and child, killing the russian invaders at every opportunity you can, wherever you can, however you can. You are your only help, so stand up and fight, clean out your own govt, kill russians, repeat.

  • Tony

    Since Russian propaganda loves whataboutisim so much, it should be brought up that Russia has half the worlds neo-nazi population, more than any other country.

    So if we were to blow this issue out of proportion like the Kremlin trolls like to do, then we should conclude that the WHOLE of Russia is Neo-Nazi instead of Neo-Nazi’s simply being a fringe group in Russia as they are in Ukraine.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=3718255&page=1#.UCDbiaA4SuI