If Russia invades Ukraine, ‘there’s going to be people who make their life miserable,’ one former senior US intelligence officer was quoted as saying by the National Security correspondent Zach Dorfman in January (13 January 2022). Ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States has stepped up its clandestine operations in Ukraine and the CIA has operated a training centre at an undisclosed location in the southern United States for the purposes of training ‘select’ Ukrainian soldiers and other military personnel to lead an insurgency in the event of a Russian invasion and occupation of the country. Aware that direct US intervention would lead to a rapid escalation of the conflict, Pentagon strategists and the CIA have opted instead for an indirect confrontation with Russia which would see the Ukrainian people used as proxies in a long insurgency designed to bleed the Russian military and weaken Vladimir Putin.
On the face of it, this reads like the United States playing the part of the defender and saviour of small democratic nations. This understanding, however, makes a number of dangerous and erroneous assumptions. Firstly, it assumes a simple and naїve acceptance of an essentially western Cold War narrative of a good America and a bad Russia. Secondly, it makes the dangerous assumption that the United States is a benign hegemon; that the only part it plays in this drama is that of the international policeman and the defender and saviour of weaker democracies from aggressive despotic regimes. The third assumption it makes is that, in this instance, Ukraine is in fact such a damsel in distress; a small democracy threatened by a powerful foreign tyrant (à la the ‘Remember Belgium’ propaganda of the First World War).
Throughout the period of US polarity (1991 to the present), the hawkish foreign policy of the United States has secured the US the unenviable title of being the most aggressive and violent expansionist state since the defeat of the Third Reich. This modern empire has certainly not been about defending small democracies. For the most part, this has been about securing US dominance and influence over smaller states by undermining their democracies or by supporting military coups, the end of which has been the establishment of brutal dictatorships dependent on US military and economic support. And describing Ukraine as a democracy is a bit of a stretch. The five-day Maidan revolution in 2014 — Ukraine’s second colour revolution — ousted the democratically elected Yanukovych government and replaced it with a series of pro-European and pro-NATO governments which won only by denying the vote to majority ethnic Russian provinces.
In the aftermath of Maidan and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Obama administration in Washington established ‘Ground Department,’ a covert CIA programme for the training of Ukrainian paramilitaries. Aware of the risk of this special military training being leaked to the Russians, the US intelligence service operated on a need-to-know basis with the Ukrainian government and limited its selection process to units of the Ukrainian army and personnel the CIA could trust. For the most part, this meant ultra-nationalists and far-right militias incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces; elements within Ukraine with which the US had been working since the end of the Second World War. These were chosen because of their long standing relationship with the US government through the Cold War and for their ideological hatred of Russia.
When, in the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa — the invasion of the Soviet Union — the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) led by Stepan Bandera attacked the Jewish population of Lwów (now Lviv). From 30 June to 2 July and from 25 to 29 July members of the OUN rounded up thousands of Jewish people in the streets of the city and savagely beat and shot them to death. Jewish women and girls were stripped of their clothes, humiliated, assaulted and raped, and murdered to the cheers of onlookers. Jewish men were mercilessly beaten, clubbed, and shot. While estimates vary, historians Dieter Pohl and Richard Breitman number those murdered to between four and five thousand.
OUN members committed similar atrocities across Ukraine, south-western Russia, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic. They assisted the SS and the SS-Einsatzgruppen — the SS murder squads — to round up Jews, Roma, and Poles, and they participated in the mass murder of Jews and Roma at Babi Yar near the Kyiv and in other mass killings across eastern Europe. OUN members even volunteered to be prison guards at extermination camps, serving as Trawnikimänner or Hiwi men — watchmen and Sonderkommando guards — at all of the Operation Reinhard camps.
Yet, where the SS and the other Nazi institutions were disbanded and many of their officers tried for crimes against humanity, and where Germany was denazified, antisemitism, fascism, and Nazi ideology were not checked in Ukraine. Rather, the United States actively protected the Ukrainian Nazis; saving many of them from Soviet justice by resettling them with clear war records in the US after the war. Then, as now, the US intelligence services saw their usefulness as a means of resisting Russia. Yaroslav Stetsko, the second most senior commander of the OUN during the war, and the man who orchestrated the 1941 Lviv massacre, was one of these men. In the States, as leader of the OUN after the assassination of Stepan Bandera in Munich in 1959, Stetsko organised so-called ‘captive nations’ groups to represent the peoples of eastern Europe who were being oppressed by the Soviet Union. In actual fact what they were given was carte blanche to voice and propagate their extreme ideology.
Supported by this odious émigré community on the other side of the Atlantic, the OUN went underground in what was by then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (the Ukrainian SSR) and acted as a nationalist anti-Soviet resistance movement. What is important to note here is that the same old hands responsible for some of the greatest crimes in human history were still active and recruiting — both in the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and in Ukraine. Seeing them as useful assets during the Cold War and through the polarity, every US administration from the late 1940s to the present day has maintained close ties with these Ukrainians and has turned a blind eye to the creation of veterans associations for men who worked and fought with the SS during the Holocaust.
In 1968, during his presidential campaign, Richard Nixon made these OUN men — of which there were over ten thousand — an ‘ethnic outreach arm’ of the Republican National Committee, giving them a permanent presence in the RNC. Then, in 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine, it was funds from the OUN diaspora in the States that made it possible for the OUN on the ground in Ukraine to regroup and establish a political party — namely, the Svoboda — and a number of ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups — including Right Sector, C14, and the Azov Battalion — many of which were ultimately incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces as semi-autonomous regiments. All the while, the same virulent antisemitism and Nazi ideology has been passed down and celebrated from one generation to the next. The 14th Waffen SS Division, formed by the SS during the war as an all-Ukrainian division, simply rebranded itself as the First Ukrainian division — and it is alive and well and still fighting Russia.
So, when the CIA went looking for ‘select’ units and personnel to train stateside; units it knows and understands and units it can trust, then of course we are talking about Nazis. Canadian NATO forces in Ukraine after 2014 were rather taken aback when they realised the nature of the Ukrainian soldiers and paramilitaries they were training and voiced their concerns. NATO Allied Command noted these concerns and duly ignored them. In the end, the Canadian forces decided independently to refuse to train overt Nazis.
What’s the worst that can happen? The Ukrainian Nazi far-right (these are not ‘neo-Nazis’) failed to win seats in the most recent elections, but did manage to hold key positions in the interim government, and Nazi officers occupy important positions at every level of the Ukrainian army. Democratically minded people see some optimism in this — the Ukrainian people are not Nazis. This is a minority. But — and the ‘but’ is crucial here — the far-right, as a fundamentally undemocratic movement, has never needed to rely on popular support. All it needs is enough support, and it has it. During the Second World War the OUN were seen as patriotic anti-Russian and anti-Soviet freedom fighters and enjoyed a high level of support throughout the country. During the Cold War these Nazis became a locus of resistance and again were seen as national heroes. In the struggle against Stalinism, the bar to become a national hero was pretty low. And now again — with the support of the United States and the silence of the international media — they are once again being lionised as ‘heroes of Ukraine.’
As Ukraine continues to feel the full force of the current Russian invasion, it is likely that support for the Nazi battallions — as the most effective fighting units in the Ukrainian army — will increase. Once again, they will be seen as a locus of resistance against a more powerful invader and occupier. In the event Ukraine is defeated and partitioned down the Dnieper valley, an independent western Ukraine — without the support of the European Union and with attitudes in the EU turning against Ukrainian refugees — is more likely than not to descend into political instability and so become fertile soil for this powerful and readymade extreme far-right ideology. With Nazis in the military and battle-hardened Nazi fighting units at the ready, a fragile post-war Ukrainian democracy is entirely vulnerable to a military coup.
Moreover, the Zelenskyy government made the decision to arm citizens with assault rifles and ammunition and has created an international fighting brigade to attract volunteer fighters from around the world to come and defend Ukraine. Of course, this international brigade will be packed with US, European, and British special forces — naturally. But it will also attract neo-Nazis from all over Europe looking for weapons experience and military training. We can only imagine how this scenario will play out in the coming decade with populism and far-right sentiment on the rise across Europe and North America.
This class of clandestine intervention by the United States is not in the first instance directed towards the defence of Ukraine. A fascinating op-ed by Jeff Roff in the Los Angeles Times in February (25 February 2022) put this quite succinctly:
In the first U.S.-backed insurgency, according to top secret documents later declassified, American officials intended to use the Ukrainians as a proxy force to bleed the Soviet Union. This time, is the primary goal of the paramilitary program to help Ukrainians liberate their country or to weaken Russia over the course of a long insurgency that will undoubtedly cost as many Ukrainian lives as Russian lives, if not more? Even if a Ukrainian insurgency bleeds Russia over years, the conflict could cause instability to spread across Central and Eastern Europe. This is a pattern in the history of U.S. paramilitary operations — from the Cold War to Afghanistan and Iraq today.
US foreign policy strategists — or gamers — are not interested in defending Ukraine. They are interested first and foremost in weakening Russia. In this, then, Ukraine has been instrumentalised by the State Department as a theatre of war in which Ukrainians — trained and armed by the United States and its allies — will wage a protracted war of attrition against Russia which they simply cannot hope to win. Washington, however, does not need them to win. It needs them to fight for as long as they can and inflict as much damage on Russia as they can. This is ‘winning’ for the United States.
The multidecadal use by the US of Ukrainian Nazis in the States and in Ukraine betrays Washington’s grand strategy in which eastern Europe and Ukraine in particular are part of a long-term strategy against the power of Russia in the region. This certainly sheds light on the United States’ insistence that NATO be expanded — in breach of a 1991 agreement with Moscow — into the former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Since as early as the 1950s — most certainly from the early 90s — the United States has been gaming a scenario in which it forces a Russian reaction on its own border and bleeds it in a long internecine native anti-Russian insurgency. Right now, this is what we are seeing develop in Ukraine.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Zach Dorfman, ‘CIA-trained Ukrainian paramilitaries may take central role if Russia invades,’ YahooNews! (13 January 2022), accessed 8 March 2022. https://news.yahoo.com/cia-trained-ukrainian-paramilitaries-may-take-central-role-if-russia-invades-185258008.html
John-Paul Himka (2011) ‘The Lviv Pogrom of 1941: The Germans, Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Carnival Crowd,’ Canadian Slavonic Papers, 53:2-4, 209-243, DOI: 10.1080/00085006.2011.11092673
Alec Luhn, ‘Preparing for War With Ukraine’s Fascist Defenders of Freedom,’ Foreign Policy (30 August 2014), accessed 5 March 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/30/preparing-for-war-with-ukraines-fascist-defenders-of-freedom/
Branko Marcetic, ‘The CIA May Be Breeding Nazi Terror in Ukraine,’ The Jacobin (15 January 2022), accessed 5 March 2022. https://jacobinmag.com/2022/01/cia-neo-nazi-training-ukraine-russia-putin-biden-nato
Jeff Rogg, ‘The CIA has backed Ukrainian insurgents before. Let’s learn from those mistakes,’ Los Angeles Times (25 February 2022), accessed 8 March 2022. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-02-25/ukraine-cia-insurgents-russia-invasion
Paul H. Rosenberg and Foreign Policy In Focus, ‘Seven Decades of Nazi Collaboration: America’s Dirty Little Ukraine Secret: An interview with Russ Bellant, author of Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party.’ The Nation (28 March 2014), accessed 8 March 2022. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/seven-decades-nazi-collaboration-americas-dirty-little-ukraine-secret/
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Andrew Wilson (1993) ‘Modern Ukrainian Nationalism: Nationalist Political Parties in Ukraine, 1988-1992. Ph.D. Thesis (University of London). 36 https://diasporiana.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/books/22228/file.pdf
‘Pogroms, Holocaust Encyclopedia,’ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 5 March 2020. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/pogroms