Russia Isn’t the Only Threat to Ukrainian Democracy: The Impact of Far-Right Nationalist Revolutionaries
In Ukraine, elections are not the only way to transfer power. In fact, elections have often been rigged farces, fomenting frustration among Ukrainians at their inability to change the system. This frustration generates revolutions, the other method of transferring power in the troubled post-Soviet state. Through revolutions, activists have now twice overruled voters whom they suggest don’t deserve the franchise because they are “pro-Russian” or “anti-Ukrainian.” Elected leaders know this and act to appease perpetrators of political violence who have shaped a democratic space uniquely vulnerable to coercion during Ukraine’s ongoing presidential election.
The overwhelming favorite in the election’s final round, which takes place tomorrow, is Volodymyr Zelenskiy – a Russian-speaking Jew who said in 2014 that he would “kneel before Putin if it means Ukraine wouldn’t have to.” Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and members of Ukraine’s intelligentsia have used language evocative of Judeo-Bolshevism – the anti-Semitic, genocidal construct claiming that a Jewish minority exploits the ethnic majority of its host country – to smear the electable upstart as a puppet of his parasitic oligarch master, Jewish billionaire Ihor Kolomoysky.
However, much to the chagrin of nationalists, suspicions are now mounting that both Zelenskiy and his sponsor Kolomoysky sympathize with pro-Russian politics. Despite these concerns, voters overwhelmingly supported Zelenskiy in the first round. The KGB itself could not have scripted a politician more provocative to revolutionary Ukrainian nationalists: The episode of Zelenskiy’s Netflix show Servant of the People that aired during the first round of voting depicted a neo-Nazi uprising against a corrupt president that results in Ukraine shattering into successor states.
Most casual observers are familiar with the two Ukrainian revolutions that reversed both elections of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych: The Orange Revolution kept him from taking office after he allegedly stole the 2004 election, and a decade later the Maidan protests deposed him eight months before Ukrainians could have voted him out. But the same core demands that animated protests in 2014 remain. Calls for electoral reform, the constitutional right to impeach the president, an end to immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of parliament and some appointed officials, and the creation of independent anticorruption bodies went unheeded until the very last days of Poroshenko’s 2019 reelection campaign, when he began scrambling to make good on the promises he made to Maidan that got him elected.
Despite those revolutions’ pro-Western and democratic reputations, both were tainted by marginal neo-Nazi elements that the pro-Western lobby has convinced Euro-Atlantic leaders are atypical of Ukraine or fake. But nationalists still take credit for leading the violence that overthrew Yanukovych, calling it national liberation to free Ukraine from internal occupation. Then, Russia invaded, reforms stalled, and Ukraine became Europe’s poorest country. Now it is a war-torn nation with rife corruption, awash in illicit weapons, yet to coalesce around a national idea, and resentful of elites. Nationalists warn they will violently oppose peace on any terms favorable to Russia.
Right-wing nationalists have already started laying the groundwork for a powerful anti-Russia, anti-Zelenskiy narrative to take hold after the election. In the final week of campaigning before the second round of voting, speaker of parliament and far-right activist Andriy Parubiy issued a call to patriotic citizens on social media to mobilize and defend Ukraine from the pro-Russian revanche. State historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych made a similar statement that Zelenskiy has lost despite how the voting goes because Ukraine’s passive majority are just observers, the activist minority will never support him, and it’s that minority which drives social change. With the likelihood of Zelenskiy crushing Poroshenko in this election, and the West increasingly bent on countering Russian influence in contested spaces, Western allies must pay closer attention to how they support democracy in Ukraine, lest they inadvertently succor far-right nationalists. A nationalist backlash against a Zelenskiy victory would only bolster the dangerous Russian narrative that Ukrainians are hopelessly divided and the country should be split up.
Who Are Ukraine’s Nationalist Revolutionaries?
National revolutionaries tend to be military-aged males who claim to want to liberate Ukraine from occupation by forces more loyal to Moscow than Kyiv. This includes ultra-nationalist patriots, both far-right and moderate, as well as neo-Nazi radicals – white supremacist Slavs who claim ancient Ukraine is where Aryans come from (even though Third Reich racial policy itself deemed this group subhuman). Five years after the last unfinished revolution, most nationalists are now also veterans of the ensuing Russian war. All are eager to overthrow any government that seems bad for the idea of the Ukrainian state.
Though national revolutionaries are unrepresentative of Ukraine’s population, they are overrepresented in government. They comprise nearly 10 percent of the 423-member parliament: the speaker, around 20 directly elected members, and perhaps 20 more on lists of parties unaffiliated with the far right. Many are appointed, meaning they can’t be voted out: Unelected far-right bureaucrats who help to shape national policy include a deputy interior minister, a state broadcasting deputy, several regional police chiefs, and various officials who select grants for patriotic education programs, plan the de-occupation of Crimea and Donbas, and track guns among activists who attend rural vyshkoly militia camps.
White power graffiti and WWII-era nationalist slogan “Glory to Ukraine“ on a revolutionary barricade in Kyiv’s central government district, memorializing the site where snipers shot and killed protesters in 2014. (Jonathan Brunson)
Andriy Parubiy – the paramilitary commander of the Orange and Maidan revolutions, who as speaker of parliament would occupy the presidency in a succession crisis – typifies the normalization of the far right in post-Soviet Ukraine. Parubiy, a Western favorite, founded the Heritage youth club, the Social-Nationalist Party of Ukraine (SNPU), and its paramilitary wing the Patriot of Ukraine. The Patriot was eventually inherited by Andriy Biletskiy, founder of the far-right Azov movement. In 1993, the SNPU’s original paramilitary wing protested nuclear disarmament and basing the post-Soviet Russian navy in Crimea, but under another lamentable name choice: the People’s SS. Parubiy retains his views, euphemizing ethnic nationalism as national liberationism.
When Parubiy left social-nationalism – a Ukrainian play on words for Third Reich-era national socialism, more commonly called Nazism – to launch his mainstream career during the Orange Revolution, he began a rebranding to distance the movement from its clear far-right links. His old party is now known as Svoboda (freedom), and its chair Oleh Tyahnybok was one of Maidan’s key leaders. In 2015, Svoboda’s paramilitary wing Sich detonated a grenade outside parliament that killed four national guards.
Far-right parties like Svoboda, aided by mainstream parties harboring similar elements, advance legislation which feeds the Kremlin narrative that fascists are taking over Ukraine, just like Yanukovych warned they would. Language laws seek to “Ukrainianize” schools, government, and society. Regional legislatures ban Russian media. The communist party is outlawed. Poroshenko calls the Russian Orthodox Church spies. And state memory policy accommodates Holocaust distortion. Nationalists typically justify these laws as necessary counter-measures against Russian aggression.
Independent media and civil society groups, loyal in theory to liberal democracy, normalize these elements by referring to them as “activists.” Serhiy Sternenko, a former leader of the nationalist paramilitary group Right Sector – implicated in the deaths of nearly 40 pro-Russians in Odesa in 2014 – is one prominent face of the “activist” movement. Reformer favorite Mustafa Nayem’s brother, Masi Nayem, is the neo-Nazi group C14’s lawyer. This group’s name is a Cyrillic alphabet joke: either a play on the white supremacist 14 words, or the Cossack term for fort – sich (in Ukrainian, cіч). In these ways and others, the far right has managed to successfully blur the lines between their own plans and Ukraine’s moderate, official pro-Western agenda.
What Do Nationalist Revolutionaries Want?
Nationalists want a strong central state, free of foreign interference: “The state is greater than class or party.” They are proud to uphold the permanent revolution dogma of Dmytro Dontsov and Mykola Stsyborsky, 1920s fascists now lionized as fathers of the national idea. Stsyborsky’s book Naziocracy defines a meritocratic racism in which only the most patriotic, activist citizens of the ethnic majority may vote – a theme echoed by today’s social-nationalism. Adherents of this ideology, like anti-Bolshevik national hero and SS trainer Stepan Bandera, collaborated with the Nazis. It’s easy for enemies like Russia to point to this ethno-fascist rhetoric to undermine the validity of the Ukrainian national project.
Nationalist militias volunteer to suppress pro-Russian separatists because the government does not. This leads to a perception that they are Robin Hoods out to right injustice. Far-right activists who join the state gain a veneer of patriotism that obscures their previous illiberal affinities. They have thus infiltrated their extremism into Ukraine’s power structures, civil society, and elected government by wrapping it in the flag, coopting protests, and committing themselves to a long march through the state’s institutions.
Former U.S. ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in 2014, “Svoboda has proven its democratic bona fides.” But only 15 years earlier in the first issue of their newsletter Orientyry, chief editor Parubiy wrote, “the Ukrainian nation rejects ideological traps of communism and democratic liberalism and will return to life-giving principles that inspired the great Aryan civilization.” This social-nationalist message is potent to impoverished youth in remote regions. It inspires pride that they are not Asian like Russians, but actually the ancient Caucasian root race mythologized by racists – proud Slavic Aryan descendants of elder tribes like the Trypillians, Amazons, Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Vikings, and Cossacks.
Were Ukraine not a place where the Holocaust happened, such views might be tabloid curiosities. But paired with theories of the country’s occupation by pro-Russian oligarchs who are often not ethnically Ukrainian, these narratives are redolent of Judeo-Bolshevism.
To be sure, anti-Semitism is at relatively lower levels today. Moreover, 250,000 Jews remain in Ukraine and the prime minister, leading oligarchs, and potential next president are all Jewish. Still, right-wing hostility toward Jews has deep roots – Ukraine is, after all, a land that’s seen pogroms and the Holocaust. As a result, the majority of the country’s Jews left in multiple waves from the late 1800s through the 1990s. Progress has been made, but it’s important not to let that progress obscure the long history of deep hostility towards its Jewish minority – a history that’s impossible to separate from today’s anti-Russian, nationalist movement, and one that will become even more important if Zelenskiy prevails.
How Influential Are Nationalist Revolutionaries?
The nationalists’ sub-state and extra-parliamentary power is shocking. Ukrainian sociologist Dr. Volodymyr Ishchenko’s statistical analysis of 60,000 protest events during the period of Yanukovych and Maidan strongly indicates that the far right was the most prevalent collective agent, just as they claim. Many say they are just waiting for the signal to finish the revolution. Some note that according to special operation forces doctrine, it only takes five percent of a population to overthrow the government, which they point out they have already done once.
Veterans official Vyacheslav Marchenko told me last year that tens of thousands of nationalists train at camps around the country, working to counter Ukraine’s supposed occupation with weapons looted from government arsenals during the last revolution, as well as trophy guns removed from the war zone. Right Sector leader Andriy Tarasenko told me around the same time that 50,000 Ukrainians attend vyshkoly militia camps, though this is likely a high estimate as it is in revolutionaries’ interest to exaggerate their own reputation. Tarasenko has long been a weekend warrior in one of independent Ukraine’s oldest nationalist militias, Stepan Bandera’s Trident. University of Glasgow scholar Huseyn Aliyev estimated that the militias number 30,000.
To grasp why these groups are able to have such an impact, it’s important to understand Ukrainian society and attitudes towards institutions. Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country with tolerant voters, but they place a lot of trust in volunteers – which empowers fringe politics by marginal actors operating largely on their own. The ability of powerful officials to act individually should not be underestimated. Azov leader Biletskiy even threatened to overthrow the government again from the floor of parliament in 2017.
When I suggested to a far-right member of Ukraine’s secret police that social-nationalism might be a Kremlin plot to sully Ukraine’s reputation, he responded that right-wingers actually count on such skepticism: “If the West won’t even believe us when we say it ourselves, then we can get away with anything. They won’t believe you either, man.”
Flyers of Azov’s political party, National Corps. The U.S. State Department labeled them a “nationalist hate group” just before Ukraine’s presidential elections kicked off. (Jonathan Brunson)
Most in the West think of Ukraine as a petri dish for Russian hybrid warfare. But it’s also a place where Holocaust distortion and white nationalism have been successfully normalized. It’s quintessential far-right white supremacy: threatening to disrupt democratic processes that are too liberal, pseudo-science about Aryans, and positing that Holocaust collaborators can be heroes too because they were also anti-communist freedom fighters.
The West should not put itself in a position where it has to defend these ideas, and it certainly should not be giving democracy assistance to their proponents. Ukrainian nationalists have long exploited the West’s democratic goodwill. Western allies ignore this because the nationalists are still politically useful in the same way their ancestors were during the Cold War. Indeed, by the late 1940s, nationalists were already adept at a rebranding process dubbed democratization to distance themselves from erstwhile Third Reich allies and normalize ethnic Ukrainian nationalism.
Democracies must wake up to this old illiberalism rearing its head once again in countries seeking to rehabilitate historical amnesia about fascist legacies. In Ukraine, this means condemning far-right groups until they publicly disavow extremism and hate speech.
Denouncing neo-Nazis and Holocaust collaborators should be easy. Anything else plays into Russian plans to make Ukraine look fascist; why enable that? Ukraine and its Western allies ought to delegitimize this compromising narrative instead of staying silent, which makes the West look complicit and is textbook reflexive control. It’s exactly what Russia wants; and part of the reason that transnational, sub-state nationalist, and white supremacist groups suddenly feel emboldened again all over the world.
Nationalists have long exploited the West’s anti-Russia and anti-communist bent to push illiberally in the other direction. As Ukraine moves to select a new leader, the West needs to beware of falling into the same trap again. Anti-democratic attempts to prevent a Zelenskiy presidency play into this broader effort, and the implications for Ukrainian unity and democracy are troubling: If millions of voters prefer Zelenskiy’s message and the nationalists’ response is to attack the opposition, it will lend more credence than Kremlin propaganda ever could to the Russian narrative that Ukraine’s internal divisions are irreconcilable.
Jonathan Brunson is an independent consultant who investigates asymmetric warfare, its influence on Ukrainian politics, and post-Soviet astro-turfing of the democratic grassroots. He previously worked at U.S. Embassy Kyiv, then at Crisis Group.
Image: Wikimedia Commons