By Cathy Young - May 21, 2014

Despite multiple debunkings, claims that Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution brought about by the Maidan protests was really a fascist (if not neo-Nazi) coup persist, and not just from the Kremlin propaganda machine and conspiracy-minded fringe websites that seek the evil hand of American imperialism everywhere. The other day, it turned up in a column in The Guardian by veteran journalist John Pilger, who depicts the Kiev leadership as a fascist junta and its supporters as homicidal thugs—and Vladimir Putin as “the only leader to condemn the rise of fascism in 21st-century Europe.” Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that the Putin regime is not fighting fascism but promoting it—not just in Europe, where it is cultivating ties with far-right movements, but in Ukraine, where the separatist movement in the east is a nest of Kremlin-sponsored Russian ultranationalists.

The narrative of the United States colluding with neo-Nazis in Ukraine has a lot of currency on the left. Late last month, the subject came up repeatedly during an appearance by Ukrainian Jewish leader Josef Zissels, a strong Maidan supporter, at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. During the question-and-answer period, an angry man in the audience berated Zissels for downplaying the fascist threat: “Neo-Nazis” from the Svoboda party, he insisted, had captured key national security posts including the ministry of defense and were certainly never going to relinquish that power. When Zissels, clearly impatient with the topic, pointed out that the Svoboda-affiliated defense minister was already gone from that post, the man—who turned out to be NYU professor of politics and veteran Marxist Bertell Ollman, armed with an article from the far-left online magazine Counterpunch—was visibly skeptical.

But, of course, Zissels was right; Ihor Tehnyuk, the first acting minister of defense in the interim government and a Svoboda politician, had been dismissed on March 25 and replaced by a nonpartisan career military officer. Even apart from being dated, the widely cited Counterpunch piece contains several inaccuracies. It misidentifies unaffiliated Education Minister Serhiy Kvit as a Svoboda member, describes national security chief Andriy Parubiy as a “co-founder of Svoboda” without mentioning his post-2004 move to moderate and even left-of-center parties, and promotes Dmitro Yarosh, head of the paramilitary group Right Sector, to deputy national security chief when in fact he sought that position but did not get it.

Zissels, like most Maidan revolution supporters, believes that Ukrainian fascism is a Russian propaganda-inflated phantom menace. (He also echoed the view, common among Ukrainian liberals, that both Svoboda and Right Sector were created by the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime—both as tools to control nationalist activism and as bogeymen to scare the liberal opposition.) Other observers, such as University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski, argue that militant far-right nationalists did play a key role in the violent turn of the protests against the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Sorting out these conflicting accounts, in a situation as volatile and chaotic as this year’s events in Ukraine, is a daunting enterprise.  Among those interested in facts rather than propaganda wars, there is also considerable debate about the extent to which either Svoboda or Right Sector can be described as “fascist.” Katchanovski, who takes a fairly harsh view of the role of right-wing nationalist groups in Ukraine, has said that Svoboda is currently “radical nationalist” but not “fascist or neo-Nazi” or overtly anti-Semitic. At his New York appearance, Zissels stressed that, whatever this or that nationalist leader may personally think of Jews, anti-Semitism is not considered acceptable rhetoric in Ukrainian politics right now.

No less important, events since the fall of the Yanukovych regime strongly suggest that the current influence of far-right groups is negligible. Svoboda lawmakers were initially able to push through a bill repealing the 2012 law that guaranteed the status of Russian as the country’s second official language—but it was promptly vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov. Right Sector was the target of a government crackdown in late March: Its most militant fighter, Oleksandr Muzychko, was gunned down during a police chase, the group’s headquarters was raided in Kiev, and the parliament voted to disarm all paramilitary units. If anything has hindered the implementation of this decision, it is, above all, separatist unrest in the East and the threat of a Russian invasion.

The tragic deaths of more than  40 people (mostly pro-Russia activists) in a fire in Odessa on May 2 after a clash between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine demonstrators has added fuel, as it were, to the “Ukrainian Nazis” narrative—particularly since it easily lends itself to World War II parallels of people being burned alive by Nazis.  In his Guardian piece, Pilger baldly accuses anyone who treats the circumstances of the fire as “murky” of complicity in the coverup of a massacre. But in fact, the circumstances are murky—to such an extent that even some “alternative” media pushing the “neo-Nazi atrocity” angle have suggested that the incident was a “false flag operation,” with the dead slaughtered inside the building before the fire and the pro-Maidan “fascists” disguising themselves as separatists to stage the street fight. Just why Maidan supporters would engineer this horrific hoax to make their opponents look sympathetic is not explained.

 Meanwhile, Pilger recycles an already discredited (and removed) Facebook post by an “Odessa doctor” claiming that the nationalists stopped him from helping injured people who managed to get out of the building and chased him off with anti-Semitic threats. (Video footage shown on Russian TV—with voice-over narration claiming that fire survivors who managed to get out were beaten and hacked to death outside—actually shows people in the crowd assisting a woman who climbs down a rope from a window.)

There is little doubt that the Ukrainian nationalist movement, like any nationalism, has its ugly side—from thuggish soccer fans, implicated in the violence in Odessa, to more sinister groups that flirt with Nazi imagery and speak of “Ukraine for Ukrainians.” But the overwhelming evidence is that these elements are marginal and very far from controlling Ukraine’s agenda. If there is a “neo-Nazi junta” in power in Kiev, it would be the first such junta in history to have the active support of the Jewish community and give key posts to Jews.

Meanwhile, in the east of Ukraine, the separatist movement is giving key posts in its puppet governments to people like Russian “political consultant” Aleksandr Borodai, the new “prime minister” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Even leaving aside the fact that this new servant of Ukrainian federalism is a Russian citizen rumored to work for Russia’s state security agency, the FSB, Borodai has a long history of involvement with Russian ultranationalist circles.

In the 1990s, Borodai worked for the newspaper Zavtra (“Tomorrow”), run by the eccentric journalist and novelist Aleksandr Prokhanov—a devout Stalinist and notorious anti-Semite whose ideology bears strong marks of Russian fascism if not Nazism (including fascination with the idea that Russia is the true “mystical womb” of Aryan civilization).  This week, Prokhanov sang Borodai’s praises to Russia’s National News Service, calling him a true “White Russian nationalist.” And Borodai’s involvement with Russia’s nationalist lunatic fringe—which, these days, is scarily close to the mainstream—is not limited to the past.  In December 2011, he and Prokhanov co-founded the “patriotic” Web TV channel Den-TV (“Day”); today, Borodai is one of the channel’s three editorial board members, along with Prokhanov, and one of its regular hosts. Among Den-TV’s other regulars: Konstantin Dushenov, a writer who has actually served time in a penal colony for anti-Semitic incitement. Dushenov is the author of a video series titled “Russia With a Knife in its Back: Jewish Fascism and the Genocide of the Russian People,” and the publisher of a 2006 open letter asking for a ban on all Jewish organizations in Russia.

This is just one example of the key role nationalist extremist groups from Russia have played in separatist militancy in Eastern Ukraine. On May 7, the Ukrainian security service, the SBU, released the audio of an intercepted telephone conversation in which a man said to be Aleksandr Barkashov, the leader of Russian National Unity—a paramilitary group that can, without exaggeration, be called neo-Nazi—was instructing an organizer of the Donetsk independence referendum, Dmitro Boitsov, on making up the required results.

On his page on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, Barkashov implied that the audio was fake—but on the grounds that he was actually in Donetsk and had no need to talk to Boitsov on the phone when they could chat “over a cup of tea.” (For good measure, he mocked the Ukrainian security agency as “the Yid-Khokhol SBU”; khokhol is the Russian pejorative term for Ukrainians.) However, Yuri Vendik of the BBC Russian Service notes that a May 5 post on Barkashov’s Vkontakte page, since taken down, recounted a phone call from “our brothers and comrades-in-arms in Donetsk” that sounds exactly like the SBU intercept.  In any case, Barkashov’s page fully confirms his extensive involvement in the events in Donetsk, where he says the RNU is organizing volunteer troops to fight “the vicious Kiev junta.”

Earlier, Russian neo-fascist guru Aleksandr Dugin (the subject of an admiring interview published in English in 2012 on the white supremacist website Countercurrents), was intercepted in a Skype call mentoring another Ukrainian separatist activist, Yekaterina Gubareva, wife of then-imprisoned Donetsk separatist leader Pavel Gubarev (formerly active in Barkashov’s RNU). 

Then there’s “the Wolves’ Hundred,” a group of Russian Cossack militiamen fighting in Ukraine.  As Time’s Simon Schuster has pointed out, there is a certain irony in the Cossacks parroting the Kremlin line about fighting Ukrainian Nazis: The group’s founder, Shkuro, was a Nazi collaborator executed by the Soviets in 1947. Have the Cossacks evolved since then? Maybe not: In a video statement released this week, one of the group’s leaders, the colorful “Babay” (Aleksandr Mozhaev), explained that its goal was to destroy “the Jew-Masons,” who are “fomenting disorder all over the world” and “causing us, the common Orthodox Christian folk, to suffer.”  Another Cossack in Slavyansk told The Guardian’s Luke Harding that Russians and Ukrainians were one people “before Jews like Trotsky divided us.”

While the infamous Donetsk leaflet ordering Jews to register and pay a special fee to the separatist “government” was almost certainly a hoax, Russian political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov, who studies right-wing radicalism, points out that there have been real and numerous manifestations of anti-Semitism in the anti-Maidan movement in southeastern Ukraine. Among them: street posters, Internet posts, and even speeches at rallies attacking the new Kiev government as a Jewish clique seeking to use Ukrainians to defend the interests of wealthy Jews, or depicting the Maidan revolution as a “Zionist coup.”  The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress notes that when pro-Russian separatists seized control of the television station in Slavyansk on April 17, their introductory broadcast was a video bearing the logo and Web address of the rabidly anti-Semitic Popular Liberation Movement and promising that their broadcasting would be a counterattack against “the Zionist zombie box.”

Of course, Moscow is not directing all these activities, but it takes full advantage of them and manipulates militant nationalism for its own purposes. The extent to which the Putin regime’s drive against the Maidan revolution in Ukraine is enmeshed with extremist nationalist forces in Russia is revealed by a startling fact: One of the two journalists currently reporting from Ukraine for Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s highest-circulation newspaper (owned by a corporation with strong government ties), has a long history of involvement with nationalist extremism. The journalist, Dmitry Steshin, used to write for Russkiy Obraz (Russian Image), a magazine of the now-banned movement by the same name. Steshin was even called as a witness in 2011 when a friend of his, fellow Russkiy Obraz member Nikita Tikhonov, was tried (and convicted) in the slaying of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova.

Russia, fighting fascism in Ukraine? There’s a claim that gives a new meaning to chutzpah.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.


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