It is bewildering to see the Russia/Ukraine war be reduced to a cheering contest, as if a football game were being watched. For those along much of the political spectrum, this cheering for “our side” is not a surprise given the well-oiled propaganda apparatus that constitutes most of the corporate media. But many on the Left have substituted cheerleading for analysis, on both sides.
On one side, we have a capitalist country run on behalf of selected oligarchs in which a reactionary church aligns itself with a powerful authoritarian ruler who oversees an intensely patriarchal social policy featuring deep sexism and violent homophobia (Russia). On the other side, we have a capitalist country controlled by shifting alignments of oligarchs in which a virulent nationalism long intertwined with fascist ideologies are backed by far right militias given free rein (Ukraine).
Why should we be rooting for either of these? To say this is not to deny the brutality of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or to condone it, nor to deny the reality of U.S. imperialism and the aggressive, destabilizing NATO expansion that contributed to the tensions that detonated into war. But it is ordinary Ukrainian people who are paying the biggest price of this war — if we are anti-war, then perhaps our efforts might be directed toward bringing the war to a negotiated end. Both sides still believe they can win militarily, but as the war increasingly develops stagnant front lines, it seems that negotiation may be the only way to bring the fighting to an end. From a humanitarian standpoint, ending hostilities not only will save Ukrainian and Russian lives, it will also save lives elsewhere, given the blockades on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that have prevented the export of grain.
The July 22 agreement among Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations to allow grain shipments to resume was a hopeful sign, although the bombing of Odessa’s port a day later demonstrates there are many difficulties to come and that humanitarian concerns are not at the forefront of military minds.
A serious look at the two combatant countries might provide us ample reason to not engage in cheerleading. Is Russia really classifiable as a progressive bulwark because of its opposition to U.S. domination of the world as some would have us believe? Is Ukraine really a democratic beacon in which fascist groups are so minuscule as to be completely irrelevant as some others would have us believe? Let’s take a look.
Putin represents a continuation of Yeltsin
To understand President Putin’s rise and continuing grip on power, it is necessary to summarize Russia’s post-communist history. Boris Yeltsin was able to out-maneuver Mikhail Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Union, and upon the breakup, Yeltsin was already Russia’s leader. Yeltsin immediately imposed a program of “shock therapy” — the sudden simultaneous lifting of all price and currency controls and withdrawal of state subsidies in conjunction with rapid mass privatization of public assets and properties. The immediate purpose of such a program is to place everything into private hands so that as much profit as possible can be extracted, in conjunction with the concomitant broader goals of blocking the creation of more socially harmonious economic models. This would be a very specific ideological experiment — a “pure” capitalism. “Pure” because this would be capitalism without constraints.
There was nothing democratic about this. The plans for shock therapy were not placed before the public nor the Russian parliament; they were presented only to the International Monetary Fund. A large majority of Russians opposed full privatization, instead backing the transformations of enterprises into cooperatives and state guarantees of full employment. The shock therapy program of complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate was a disaster. The freeing of prices meant that the cost of consumer items, including food, would skyrocket, and the ruble’s value would collapse because the fixed value given it by the Soviet government was judged as artificially high by international currency traders. This combination would mean instant hyper-inflation. At the same time, oligarchs quickly arose, mostly from the black-market networks that flourished during the corruption of the Brezhnev era, taking control of Russia’s productive enterprises. Western governments, while doing everything they could to have shock therapy imposed, slated Russia to be reduced to a natural resources exporter as Russian industrial output drastically decreased.
The Russian economy collapsed so steeply that Yeltsin could only “win” re-election in 1996 through massive cheating, and handing the biggest prizes, giant natural resources enterprises that had not yet been privatized, to the seven biggest oligarchs for almost nothing in exchange for their financial and media support. The result of the first years of capitalism was that the Russian economy contracted by an astonishing 45 percent by 1998 as poverty and crime rates skyrocketed. Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as his last prime minister, then appointed him his successor as president in exchange for a blanket pardon for him and his family. Rising prices of oil and gas helped the Russian economy strengthen during Putin’s first set of terms as president. Nonetheless, he cut taxes for the rich while reducing benefits for pensioners. Corruption became so rampant that, in Putin’s first years as president, the amount of money spent on bribes exceeded the amount of revenue paid to the Russian government.
It is a commonplace cliché to say that he is a product of the KGB who oversees a personal dictatorship that represents a sharp break from Yeltsin’s reign. That is not so. An excellent analysis of the Putin régime is found in Tony Wood’s book Russia Without Putin. The author demonstrates well that the Putin era is in large part a continuation of the Yeltsin era, that corruption is endemic among Russian elites and that Putin is at the apex of a system that predates him. The kleptocratic, autocratic variety of Russian capitalism was well established before Putin’s ascent to power. Putin was shaped in the massive corruption of the post-communist 1990s and the Yeltsin régime. He was brought into the St. Petersburg city government in 1990 and became a functionary in the Yeltsin national government in the mid-1990s. Loyalty to superiors and to Yeltsin enabled his swift rise. There was a gradual drift of Putin’s government from seeking cooperation with the West to dogged opposition, a change cemented by the 2014 overthrow of the Ukrainian government and the U.S. hand-picking the new prime minister for Kyiv. Unrelenting hostility from the U.S. despite Russian overtures, and NATO expansion as the U.S. pressed its strength over Russian weaknesses, played a significant role in this evolution.
Mr. Wood offers this summation of Putin’s rule:
“Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised ‘Russia’s flat tax miracle’, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of ‘this capitalist thing’, urging readers of the New York Times to ‘keep rootin’ for Putin’. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.”
Reactionary social policies grounded in misogyny and homophobia
Not very progressive, is it? Nor is the Putin régime in social matters. Here’s an excerpt from a Human Rights Campaign press release issued after an anti-LGBT law was passed:
“Last year, the law banning ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’ was passed by Russia’s Federal Assembly and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Under the guise of protecting children from ‘homosexual propaganda,’ the law imposes fines or jail time on citizens who disseminate information that may cause a ‘distorted understanding’ that LGBT and heterosexual relationships are ‘socially equivalent.’ The fines are significantly higher if such information is distributed through the media or Internet.”
An article in the peer-reviewed academic journal Slavic Review, authored by sociologist Richard C. M. Mole, provides further information on Putin’s anti-LGBT law:
“The politicization of homophobia in post-Soviet Russia came to a head in the 2013 ‘gay propaganda law,’ under the terms of which individuals and organizations can be fined for disseminating information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors, promoting the ‘social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’ or ‘the depiction of homosexual people as role models, including mention of any famous homosexuals.’ ”
Sounds just like what right-wing Christian fundamentalists promote in the United States, doesn’t it? If we, correctly, energetically oppose such hate in the West, shouldn’t we also energetically oppose it elsewhere? Directly related to these developments, Russian Orthodox is again the official state religion — in an echo of tsarist rule, the ruler and the church are reinforcing one another. The Russian Orthodox Church is so extreme in its hatred that its top-ranking official equated same-sex marriage to “Nazism” and also “a form of ‘Soviet totalitarianism’ that threaten[s] humanity.” He has called Vladimir Putin’s rule “a miracle” while Putin grants the church “generous economic support from state-allied energy giants.” The church is deeply misogynistic, with the church opposing laws against domestic violence because such concepts are “Western imports” and church officials claiming women are less intelligent than men.
Putin is also in lockstep with the church when it comes to women. He signed into law a measure that decriminalizes domestic violence — in a country in which an estimated 14,000 women per year die from injuries inflicted by husbands or partners. Russia also has one of the world’s widest pay gaps between men and women, and numerous jobs are closed to women.
The far right ideologist who gives Putin his worldview
Although Russia is increasingly aligning with China, that alliance is perhaps more grounded in pragmatism than in any shared economy-building project. China has given rhetorical support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have given no material aid. In any event, Moscow will be the junior partner in any formal alignment with Beijing. Who are Putin’s ideological allies around the world? Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, France’s Marine Le Pen and her National Rally, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and his far right League, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his reactionary Fidesz party, and Nigel Farage, former leader of Britain’s absurdly named United Kingdom Independence Party. Might there be a pattern here?
Taking all this into account, plus Putin’s wildly inaccurate claims that Ukraine is an artificial construct, might leave a reasonable observer in less than shock that the person believed to be Putin’s biggest ideological influence is Aleksandr Dugin. Who is this person who is frequently described as “Putin’s brain”? “Alexander Dugin is quite possibly, after Steve Bannon, the most influential fascist in the world today,” writes Dan Glazebrook, a journalist and activist who writes frequently on fascism. “His TV station reaches over 20 million people, and the dozens of think tanks, journals and websites run by him and his employees ultimately have an even further reach.”
Mr. Glazebrook wrote a most interesting article on Dugin in the now lamentably discontinued CounterPunch print magazine (Volume 25, No. 6). Dugin’s strategy is using Left-sounding phrases as a way of coopting the Left, a classic strategy of the far right. (This has echoes of so-called “9/11 truthers” on the far right who are trying to use the issue as a way of worming their way into the Left; a strategy that, sadly, all too many fail to observe.) It is worthwhile to quote extensively from Mr. Glazebrook’s article so we get a full sense of the Dugin strategy. He writes of Dugin:
“His strategy is that of the ‘red-brown alliance’ — an attempt to unite the far left and far-right under the hegemonic leadership of the latter. On the face of it, much of his programme can at first appear superficially attractive to leftists — opposition to US supremacy; support for a ‘multipolar’ world; and even an apparent respect for non-western and pre-colonial societies and traditions. In fact, such positions — necessary as they may be for a genuine leftist programme — are neither bad nor good in and of themselves; rather, they are means, tools for the creation of a new world. And the world Dugin wishes to create is one of the racially-purified ethno-states, dominated by a Euro-Russian white power aristocracy (the ‘Moscow-Berlin axis’) in which Asia is subordinated to Russia by means of a dismembered China. This is not an anti-imperialist programme. It is a programme for an inter-imperialist challenge for the control of Europe and Asia: for a reconstituted Third Reich.”
And what does Dugin propagate? “His first journal, Elementy, founded in 1993, praised the Nazis and the Conservative Revolutionaries which preceded them, and published the first Russian translations of esoteric interwar fascist Julius Evola.” Dugin’s work, Mr. Glazebrook writes, is frequently re-published on a U.S. white supremacist website. That is no aberration, as Dugin “has close links to the American far right — he has links to former KKK leader David Duke; one of his disciples, Nina Kouprianova, is married to leading US fascist Richard Spencer; whilst him and Alex Jones feature on each other’s TV shows.” But, sadly, Dugin was once invited by a Syriza government minister in Greece to give a lecture.
“Dugin’s outlook essentially boils down to a combination of “ethnopluralism” and what he disingenuously terms Neo-Eurasianism,” Mr. Glazebrook writes. “Both ideas lend themselves well to the building of a ‘red-brown’ fascist-led alliance, as both have elements which are superficially appealing to the left whilst in fact providing theoretical cover for genocide and imperial war.” While superficially saying that different land masses belong to the people who originate there, the corollary is that non-Europeans should be removed from Europe. This is white supremacist and anti-Semitic, demonstrated when Dugin condemns what he calls “subversive, destructive Jews without a nationality.” The Dugin project “is essentially the reconstitution of the territories of the Third Reich (including the parts of Russia it never conquered) under joint German-Russian tutelage. … The real inspiration Dugin appears to have gained from classic Eurasianism was its strategy of the infiltration and colonization of the left rather than direct confirmation with it.”
Mr. Glazebrook’s article concludes that “Duginism is a classic fascist blend of ‘anti-elite’ rhetoric, demands for ethnic purification, and an imperial foreign policy agenda, all dressed up in politically-correct appeals to cultural distinctiveness and anti-western tubthumping. Its particular danger comes from the deep inroads it has made into anti-imperialist and leftist circles.”
The reactionary source for claiming Ukraine doesn’t exist
The article just summarized does not mention Putin. But plenty of writers have made the connection between the Russian leader and Dugin. Writing in the March/April 2015 issue of World Affairs, Andrey Tolstoy and Edmund McCaffray write, “Dugin is the intellectual who has Vladimir Putin’s back in the emerging ideological conflict between Russia and the West. At home, Putin uses him to create a nationalist, anti-liberal voting bloc.” And not only the Russian leader: “Dugin has also been actively involved in the politics of Russia’s elite, serving as an adviser to State Duma chairman and key Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin. His disciple Ivan Demidove serves on the Ideology Directorate of Putin’s United Russia party, while Mikhail Leontiev, allegedly Putin’s favorite journalist, is a founding member of Dugin’s own Eurasia Party.” Dugin is a former sociology professor at Moscow State University, founded the Center for Conservative Studies and lectures at police academies, military schools and other law enforcement institutions.
Dugin, in 2016, praised the election of Trump as U.S. president. Olivia Goldhill, writing in Quartz, said “Dugin’s ideas are reminiscent of the alt-right movement in the US, and indeed there are ties between the two. … The Russian philosopher has published articles on Spencer’s website, Alternative Right, reports Business Insider, and recorded a speech titled ‘To my American Friend in Our Common Struggle,’ for a nationalist conference in 2015. … Dugin has also identified an ally in Donald Trump, viewing him as a triumphant opponent to the liberal global elite. After Trump was elected, Dugin told the Wall Street Journal he was elated at the result. ‘For us it is joy, it is happiness,’ he said. ‘You must understand that we consider Trump the American Putin.’ ”
Other friends of Dugin’s include the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn. The party has a picture of Dugin standing with a Golden Dawn member who was also a member of an anti-Semitic group that “praised the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
Dugin’s ideology is also sometimes characterized as “Traditionalist.” But regardless of what term might be used for his far right ideology, there seems little doubt that he is a strong influence on Putin. Interviewed in Jacobin, Benjamin Teitelbaum, an International Affairs professor who has written works on the far right, said:
“[I]t seemed quite obvious that Putin was listening to Dugin speak, because when Putin went out afterward he was recycling and learning from Dugin, almost letting him teach him how to characterize the war and Russia’s role in the world. But throughout all of this, he has basically had no significant official role in the Russian government. That’s what makes him so hard to characterize. … If Russia is being characterized or ever characterized itself as a beacon of the immaterial and the spiritual in the world (which you do hear from Putin occasionally — we heard a version of it at the beginning of his speech on Ukraine right before the invasion — that’s Dugin territory. It’s in the most deeply messianic and eschatological framings of this war that you can see Dugin’s influence.”
Dugin’s use of the term “Novorossiya” (New Russia) for territories of Eastern Ukraine, has been taken up by Putin. Three days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin asserted that Ukraine is a fiction. He said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began immediately after the revolution of 1917. … As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect.” Earlier, in December 2019, Putin said, “When the Soviet Union was created, primordially Russian territories that never had anything to do with Ukraine were turned over to Ukraine,” referencing Ukraine’s southeast, including the entire Black Sea region. But, according to a London School of Economics blog post linking to the 1926 Soviet census, ethnic Ukrainians “far outnumbered ethnic Russians” in eastern Ukraine, including today’s contested areas, at that time. Internal Soviet republic borders tended to be drawn very carefully as to the local populations; the highly complicated borders of the former Soviet Central Asian republics remain a good demonstration.
Putin’s assertions, resting on anti-communism no less, have no basis in reality. Present-day Ukraine is where Slavic peoples settled in the fifth century CE; from there Slavic tribes expanded their territories, including tribes that would eventually become the Russian nationality. A state centered on Kyiv was founded in the late ninth century, and the name “Ukraine” has been used for centuries. It is true that for six centuries there was no independent Ukraine — it was overrun by several empires and often divided — but Poland was similarly wiped from the map for more than two centuries and Slovakia spent a thousand years under the Hungarian yoke. Does anybody deny the existence of the Polish and Slovak peoples? Putin’s statement is ahistorical nonsense.
Ukrainian attacks on its Russian minority
Now let us turn to Ukraine. The country experienced a collapse and oligarch domination similar to Russia. Ultimately, the Ukrainian economy shrank by about 60 percent in the first five years of independence, and didn’t resume growth until 2000, one of the worst performances of any former Soviet republic under capitalism. As late as 2013, Ukraine’s economy was 20 percent smaller than it was in 1990. In 2014, with the economy still floundering, the International Monetary Fund proposed more shock therapy for Ukraine. The IMF program required Ukraine to impose drastic austerity, in the usual fashion. In accepting the IMF deal, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the austerity package would result in inflation as high as 14 percent that year and a further economic contraction of 3 percent.
Earlier that year, U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland imposed Yatsenyuk as prime minister, famously caught on tape saying “Yats is the guy” and offering a vulgar dismissal of any potential European Union concerns. Yatsenyuk had a reputation as “rabidly anti-Russian,” which surely featured prominently in the U.S. decision. That of course was hardly the only occasion of U.S. interference.
Ukraine, despite the previous close relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, became a bitterly divided country in the years after independence. Fighting in the Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk has gone on since 2014. The Minsk Accords were to have been the solution. Under these accords, the Donbas provinces were to have been given measures of autonomy with full Russian language rights. The Ukrainian government, spurred by nationalist agitation, had put strong prohibitions on the public use of the Russian language, making Ukrainian the only official language. The Minsk Accords would have also kept Ukraine neutral. Given the deep divides of the country, having trading links to both the EU and to Russia, and allowing Russian as an official language given the millions who speak it, would be in the country’s interest.
Unfortunately, nationalists, and in particular the far right, had different ideas. Contrary to those proffering one-sided pro-Ukrainian viewpoints, the far right is a significant factor in Ukrainian politics, regardless of the tiny size of their official parliamentary presence.
The Ukrainian refusal to implement the Minsk Accords
As we did above with Dan Glazebrook’s work, an article on Ukraine, “Towards the Abyss” in the January-April 2022 issue of New Left Review, is worth an extended study. The article is an interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist now based in Berlin. Extreme nationalists and the far right took advantage of the 2014 “Euromaidan” coup that overthrew the administration of Viktor Yanukovych, but not only them. According to Dr. Ishchenko, the 2014 Euromaidan, like previous “color” revolutions in former Soviet republics, were captured by “agents” who participated in the uprising but “were very far from representing” ordinary Ukrainians. The four major agents that grew stronger after the Euromaidan were the oligarchic opposition parties, structured around a “big man” and patron-client relations; NGOs funded by the West; the far right, organizing into militias and espousing extreme nationalism while taking advantage of a weakening state; and “Washington–Brussels.”
“The competing oligarchs exploited nationalism in order to cover the absence of ‘revolutionary’ transformations after the Euromaidan, while those in nationalist-neoliberal civil society were pushing for their unpopular agendas thanks to increased leverage against the weakened state,” Dr. Ishchenko said. Those who gained the upper hand were opposed to the Minsk Accords. “The Minsk agreements specified a ceasefire, Ukrainian recognition of local elections in the separatist-controlled areas, the transfer of control over the border to the Ukrainian government, and a special autonomy status for Donbas within Ukraine, including the possibility of institutionalizing the separatist armed forces. … The general logic of the Minsk Accords demanded recognition of significantly more political diversity in Ukraine, far beyond the bounds of what was acceptable after the Euromaidan.”
Multiple political currents that had been mainstream before Euromaidan became stigmatized as “pro-Russia,” leading to online and physical harassment. Left organizing had to be done clandestinely due to persistent unchecked threats from the far right. Although the far right comprised only a tiny portion of the post-Euromaidan governments, their ultra-nationalist agenda became government policy. Petro Poroshenko, elected after Yanukovych fled Kyiv, became widely unpopular. As a result, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in a landslide (in part on his promise to implement Minsk), but had no pool of people behind him to fill out his government.
Poroshenko began opposing the Minsk Accords despite his campaign promises to implement them. According to Dr. Ishchenko:
“Although in the end it appeared to be Putin who put an end to the Minsk Accords by recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in February 2022, there had been multiple statements from Ukrainian top officials, prominent politicians and those in professional ‘civil society’ saying that implementing Minsk would be a disaster for Ukraine, that Ukrainian society would never accept the ‘capitulation’, it would mean civil war. Another important factor was the far right, which explicitly threatened the government with violence should it try to implement the Accords. In 2015, when parliament voted on the special status for Donetsk and Luhansk, as required by Minsk, a Svoboda Party activist threw a grenade into a police line, killing four officers and injuring, I think, about a hundred. They were showing they were ready to use violence.”
After his election, Zelensky proved to be too weak to control the far right militias, which had continued fighting in the Donbas provinces.
“At the same time, Azov and other far-right groups were disobeying Zelensky’s orders, sabotaging the disengagement of Ukrainian and separatist forces in Donbas. Zelensky had to go to a village in Donbas and parlay with them directly, even though he is the Commander in Chief. The ‘moderate’ anti-capitulation people could use the protests of the hard right to say that implementation of the Minsk Accords would mean a civil war because Ukrainians wouldn’t accept this ‘capitulation’, and so there would be some ‘natural’ violence.”
From 2014 until the Russian invasion in February 2022, an estimated 14,000 people were killed in Donbas fighting and dislocations are believed to be numbered in the millions.
The weakness of the Ukrainian state and the strength of fascist fighting groups, doesn’t absolve Russia of responsibility, Dr. Ishchenko concludes:
There has been an “incapacity of the post-Soviet and specifically Russian ruling class to lead, not simply to rule over, subaltern classes and nations. Putin, like other post-Soviet Caesarist leaders, has ruled through a combination of repression, balance and passive consent legitimated by a narrative of restoring stability after the post-Soviet collapse in the 1990s. But he has not offered any attractive developmental project. Russia’s invasion should be analyzed precisely in this context: lacking sufficient soft power of attraction, the Russian ruling clique has ultimately decided to rely on the hard power of violence, starting from coercive diplomacy in the beginning of 2021, then abandoning diplomacy for military coercion in 2022.”
The adoption by Ukrainian governments of fascist demands
It would be grossly unfair to characterize Ukraine as a country of fascists. Nonetheless, the extent to which fascists have gained control within the country is likely understated by Dr. Ishchenko despite his well-informed commentary. They are definitely understated by those who blindly defend all things Ukrainian. A February 2019 article in The Nation provides a dire picture of fascists running nearly unchecked. Written by Lev Golinkin, the article, “Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are On the March in Ukraine,” pulls no punches. Mr. Golinkin, widely published on Russian and Ukrainian topics, flatly states, “There are neo-Nazi pogroms against the Roma, rampant attacks on feminists and LGBT groups, book bans, and state-sponsored glorification of Nazi collaborators.”
The fascist Azov Battalion, which has been folded into the Ukrainian army, is the best known of these formations but is not the only one, Mr. Golinkin wrote.
“The Azov Battalion was initially formed out of the neo-Nazi gang Patriot of Ukraine. Andriy Biletsky, the gang’s leader who became Azov’s commander, once wrote that Ukraine’s mission is to ‘lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade … against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Biletsky is now a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament. In the fall of 2014, Azov—which is accused of human-rights abuses, including torture, by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations—was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. … In January 2018, Azov rolled out its National Druzhina street patrol unit whose members swore personal fealty to Biletsky and pledged to ‘restore Ukrainian order’ to the streets. The Druzhina quickly distinguished itself by carrying out pogroms against the Roma and LGBT organizations and storming a municipal council.”
Militia leaders have also been given high-ranking positions in the security apparatus. “The deputy minister of the Interior—which controls the National Police—is Vadim Troyan, a veteran of Azov and Patriot of Ukraine,” Mr. Golinkin wrote. Far right influence has extended beyond personnel, and to the rewriting of history. “In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation making two WWII paramilitaries—the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)—heroes of Ukraine, and made it a criminal offense to deny their heroism. The OUN had collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the Holocaust, while the UPA slaughtered thousands of Jews and 70,000-100,000 Poles on their own volition.”
Is the above report alarmist? Somehow exaggerated? Here are two U.S.-centric sources that also paint a disturbing picture. A group of four human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders and Freedom House — issued a joint statement, “Ukraine: Investigate, Punish Hate Crimes,” that condemns unchecked hate crimes in Ukraine. The statement says:
“Since the beginning of 2018, members of radical groups such as C14, Right Sector, Traditsii i Poryadok (Traditions and Order), Karpatska Sich and others have carried out at least two dozen violent attacks, threats, or instances of intimidation in Kyiv, Vinnitsa, Uzhgorod, Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other Ukrainian cities. Law enforcement authorities have rarely opened investigations. In the cases in which they did, there is no indication that authorities took effective investigative measures to identify the attackers, even in cases in which the assailants publicly claimed responsibility on social media.”
Among the statement’s organizations, Human Rights Watch is known to tilt its reportage toward U.S. interests, and Freedom House is funded by the U.S. government and is notorious for its conservative biases. Not the sort of groups going out of their way to condemn U.S. allies. Want more? How about a report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one of the U.S. government’s leading propaganda arms. A 2019 article by the combined organization reported on the arrest and quick release of far right militants that resulted in several police commanders declaring themselves “Banderites.” That is a reference to Stepan Bandera, a 1940s Ukrainian Nazi collaborator whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, and issued anti-Semitic statements as virulent as those of Hitler.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that after a riot police officer taking part in the arrest of “ultranationalists” called them “Banderites,” Interior Department and police senior officials issued apologies for the use of “Banderite” in a derogatory way, and the arrestees were released. “National Police chief Serhiy Knyazev says he is one. So does Interior Ministry and National Police spokesman Artem Shevchenko. Interior Ministry adviser Zoryan Shkyryak is, too. From the top on down, cops and their bosses are lining up to air their admiration for Stepan Bandera,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty wrote.
Not a government or society free of fascism, is it?
Should we cheer or should we think?
Lurking in the background, there is the specter of NATO expansion. Many advocates for Ukraine (although, here, not from people on the Left) try to claim that the U.S. never promised Russian officials there would be no eastward expansion of the military alliance. Soon after the invasion, a New York Daily News article “assured” its readers that no such promises were ever made, even claiming that Mikhail Gorbachev had “no recollection” of such a promise. Either Mr. Gorbachev has a short memory or, more likely, the Daily News writer made up that claim out of thin air. It was quite well known at the time that assurances were in fact made. For those requiring proof, George Washington University’s National Security Archive has published an extensive collection of documents demonstrating that such assurances were repeatedly made. “Not one inch” was the well-known formulation of James Baker, then the secretary of state for the Bush I administration. Such promises were made in the context of securing Soviet approval of German unification.
Finally, there are U.S. commercial interests involved. The U.S. has long sought to wean Europe off Russian natural gas and instead buy liquified natural gas from U.S. energy companies. Thus an excuse for Europeans to drop Russia as an energy supplier is not unwelcome among U.S. political and corporate leaders. At this time we have no proof, but it is likely that such considerations contributed to U.S. encouragement for Ukraine to refuse the Minsk Accords.
This has been a long discussion of Ukraine and Russia, but unavoidable if we are to seriously grapple with the complex issues of the war and the combatant countries. Who among us really has a rooting interest in this? Or in either of these two dismal régimes? The United States may be willing to fight a proxy war to the last Ukrainian and Russia is conducting its war in a savage, inhumane manner — and Ukraine has the right, as does any country, to defend itself — but this does not require us to act as cheerleaders for either side. Neither side is remotely a beacon of democracy. Russia’s severe crackdown on dissent is heavily reported, since Russia is now the No. 1 enemy of the West, but parallel actions by Ukraine are ignored in the corporate media. Ukraine has outlawed several parties for being on the Left, or simply because they were in opposition to President Zelensky, including parties holding parliamentary seats. Ukraine, as has Russia, shuts down television stations it doesn’t control.
Cheerleading for Russia simply because it opposes U.S. imperialism without regard for the nature of the country’s government represents a lack of thinking; nothing more than a simplistic chasing of anything that appears to contradict corporate media discourse and U.S. foreign policy. Cheerleading for Ukraine represents a similar lack of critical thinking; an unreflective regurgitation of U.S. government and corporate media propaganda. We really can, and should, do much better than either. War is not a football game.