KYIV—Last Thursday evening, several hundred members of the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Pravy Sector, or Right Sector, attempted to storm the country’s parliament. They were demanding the resignation of the interior minister, whom they held responsible for the death earlier that week of one of their leaders, a notorious man by the name of Sashko Muzychko, who had died in a shootout with police attempting to rein in armed nationalist groups. The previous month, Muzychko brandished a Kalashnikov during a meeting with lawmakers, demanding compensation for the families of victims killed by police during the protests that brought down the government in February. Just days before his death, Muzychko predicted his demise on TV, accusing the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government of working in collaboration with the much-hated Russians to quell nationalist movements such as his own.
Earlier that day, I had interviewed the interior minister, Arsen Avakov. He pleaded with members of Right Sector to give up their weapons, many of which they had stolen from an arms depot during the heat of last month’s uprising. If they truly believed in defending their country from attack, he said, they should join the country’s army. “Go to the border regions in Ukraine and secure Ukraine,” he urged. The group has been reluctant to heed these warnings, however, saying that, particularly in the face of a potential Russian invasion, the country should adopt a Swiss-style gun control policy, in which every household is armed in case of foreign attack.
To hear Vladimir Putin tell it, Right Sector – along with the nationalist political party Svoboda – was the main force behind the revolution last month ousting pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, and is now the power calling the shots in Ukraine. Moscow cited the alleged role of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism in the revolution, and the new government’s hostility toward ethnic Russians, to justify its annexation of Crimea. “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup,” Putin stated flatly in his speech to the Russian Federation Council on March 18. “They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.” Various American pundits, on both the left and right, have essentially repeated this line to discourage American support for Ukraine’s new government.
To be sure, Right Sector’s ideology and tactics are not those of liberal democrats. But if Right Sector was truly “set[ting] the tone in Ukraine,” presumably it would not be trying to storm the parliament building demanding the resignation of a key government minister. If it had actually “executed” a “coup,” it would be in control of the country’s armed forces, rather than refuse to be integrated into it.
Right Sector, a coalition of nationalist groups that surprised most close observers of Ukrainian politics with its quick emergence as a self-defense force during the EuroMaidan protests, has earned an inordinate amount of press attention over the past several months. This is partly due to the group’s demeanor and physical presence; burly men dressed in black roaming the streets of Kiev with baseball bats and knives make for a much sexier story than the incomprehensible machinations and backroom dealings that otherwise characterize Ukraine’s labyrinthine political space.
But Right Sector has also made headlines because of a concerted Russian propaganda campaign to tar the revolution as the work of violent, radical nationalists. What might have started out as a well-intentioned reaction to Yanukovych’s rejecting a trade package with the European Union, these critics say, was swiftly overtaken by “fascists” of various stripes. This is far from the truth.
To begin with, and this is meant as no defense of the organization, it is lazy to label Right Sector “fascist.” In an interview with Newsweek, the group’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, claimed that 40 percent of its members are Russian speakers and that “Jews and other nationals feel comfortable in our forces.” In early March, Yarosh met with the Israeli ambassador to Kiev, who later posted on the embassy’s website that “Yarosh stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means.” The group’s anti-Russian ideology does not automatically translate into a pro-European stance; it opposes homosexuality and abortion and fears that closer integration with Europe – the clarion call of the early Maidan movement – will weaken Ukraine’s independence. That said, there is no evidence that the group is responsible for any sort of hate crimes against the country’s minority groups. Artem Soropadsky, the group’s spokesman, insists to me that, “we are not fascists or Nazis but nationalists.”
Nationalists they are. But Right Sector tends to emphasize the preservation and propagation of the Ukrainian language (Yarosh is himself a former language teacher), rather than the denigration of minority groups. In an interview with a Ukrainian newspaper, Yarosh sounded downright sentimental describing the diversity of people who participated in the movement to overthrow Yanukovych, and he was at pains to distance himself from Svoboda’s overt xenophobia. “I don’t understand certain racist things they share, I absolutely don’t accept them. A Belarusian died for Ukraine, and an Armenian from Dnipropetrovsk died for Ukraine,” he said.
Where the Nazi comparisons ring a little truer is through Right Sector’s idolization of Stepan Bandera, the late Ukrainian insurgent leader who allied with the Germans during World War II – before turning against them. Bandera was later interned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but his legacy is obviously a problematic one, and some Jewish leaders I spoke with in Ukraine were troubled by seeing Right Sector waving the flags of Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army on the streets of Kiev. Given this ideological legacy, it should not come as a surprise that a Right Sector leader would state that all of the country’s oligarchs are Jews, as one of them did in an interview with the McClatchy news service.
Still, “Right Sector has said they will oppose anti-Semitism from within,” Vadim Rabinowich, a Jewish businessman who last week announced his own bid for president, told me. He met Yarosh six years ago, and describes Right Sector as a bit like Robin Hood – a ragtag bunch of vigilantes. “I don’t know about their minds but what they say now and 6 years ago is not anti-Semitic. But I don’t have an X-ray into their thoughts,” he says. When I asked Rabinowich if he was concerned by the group’s militaristic rhetoric and tendency to wear black uniforms, he was nonplussed, “I know lots of people wearing black and they are good people. And people who call themselves democrats and they’re bad people.”
Having spent some time observing Right Sector’s members protesting outside the Rada, or parliament, I can say that their behavior does not instill confidence. Angry young men dressed in stolen military fatigues, brandishing weapons, strutting along the streets, rarely do. Right Sector’s refusal to accept the new government’s legitimacy, its arrogation of authority to itself, its obvious thirst for violence, its parochialism and its lack of any coherent political agenda leaves one hoping that the group’s role in the new Ukraine will be marginal.
And the group would remain marginal were it not for Moscow’s bellicosity and attempts to stir up ethnic divisions in the country’s east, which make Right Sector’s flavor of armed nationalism more attractive to justifiably frightened Ukrainians. Yet Right Sector’s actual significance – both in the protests that led to Yanukovych’s fall and over the government that replaced him – is being vastly exaggerated by the Russian government and others who have an interest in seeing Ukraine’s nascent government fail. A recent collective statement signed by academic experts on the Ukrainian far right complained of the “disproportionate consideration of one particularly visible, yet politically minor segment within the confusing mosaic that is formed by the hundreds of thousands of protesters with their different motivations, backgrounds and aims.”
Indeed, no one seems to have an accurate number of just how many members of Right Sector actually exist. According to Yarosh himself, Right Sector, at its peak during the protest movement, boasted only 1,500 men in the Maidan among hundreds of thousands of protestors. Today, he claims that he can mobilize about 10,000, but that is probably an exaggeration. Aside from its high visibility in the Maidan, where its men are clearly distinguished by the black and red armband, the group has no role within the new government itself. Still, Rabinowich says, “the more Russians push Ukraine, the more [Right Sector] will grow.”
And it is this reciprocal relationship with Russia that has many Ukrainians suspecting a shadowy dirty tricks campaign by the Kremlin. Almost every Ukrainian I spoke with speculated that Moscow is secretly supporting Right Sector in an attempt to both destabilize the weak government in Kiev and provide a pretext for further meddling – the tried and true tactic of provokatsiya, or provocation, which Moscow has been using since the early Bolshevik period to deceive its adversaries and earn sympathy among credulous Westerners.
There are many peculiar things about Right Sector that lend some credibility to this theory. Why, for instance, did Yarosh allegedly meet with Yanukoyvch for half an hour on the very day that special forces, the much-loathed “Berkut,” opened fire on protestors? How was it that not a single member of Right Sector was among the “Heavenly Hundred,” as the casualties of the Maidan protests are now consecrated (a particularly curious omission given the group’s much-vaunted role as the armed vanguard of the revolution)? How does the organization afford an entire floor of rooms at the four-star Dnipro Hotel, the Right Sector headquarters in downtown Kiev, where a red and black flag hangs prominently in the lobby? Talking with Right Sector members protesting outside the parliament, I never received a coherent answer as to why they were not lining up to join the country’s army. The greatest threat to Ukraine right now is a potential Russian invasion; yet here were these so-called patriots trying to bring down an already weak Ukrainian government. One Ukrainian who took part in the Maidan protests told me that she heard several Right Sector members speaking with Russian accents. That the group would be part of a Kremlin black PR campaign, she said, is “not a crazy idea.”
Crazy idea or not, it doesn’t really matter. The Kremlin and Right Sector are effectively on the same side. The more threatening moves Putin makes on Ukraine, the more appealing Right Sector’s nationalism will sound to ordinary Ukrainians, and, in turn, the more Putin will be able to claim that the country’s ethnic Russians are at risk. It is a vicious cycle that, for now, shows no signs of abating.