The central role of the Ukrainian far-right in the Kyiv Maidan coup was no secret in the western media back in 2014, when even the BBC could report without any hint of self-censorship that the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party — which had been known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine until 2004 — had, in four years, grown from a fringe extremist group to a party in government with six ministers — including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and the Minister of Defence (BBC News, 7 March 2014). In Britain, there was a general sense of shock at the breakneck speed at which the Ukrainian extreme far-right had come to power. There was little caution at the news desks in London reporting that Oleh Tyahnybok, the president of Svoboda, had been ‘one of the three most important leaders’ of the Maidan coup which had brought down the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych (Channel 4 News, 5 March 2014).
Across the Atlantic, Politico, while denying the far-right had played a central role in the Maidan, published a number of alarming pieces in which ‘grenade-wielding members of Svoboda and Right Sector’ — another powerful far-right organisation — were now on the streets fighting the government. It was clear for all to see that the ultra-nationalist ‘neo-Nazis’ were armed and posed a real and immediate threat to the security of the pro-Western coup government seventeen months after the revolution (Golinkin, 1 September 2015). Yet, by late summer 2014 there were already concerns in Kyiv that the battle-hardened Azov battalion, a far-right militia engaged with the Ukrainian army in the assault against ethnic Russians in Donbas, would turn its guns on the government (McLaughlin, 17 July 2014). At this time The Irish Times had no qualms about detailing the SS Nazi insignia worn on the uniforms of these irregular soldiers.
One article published by The Guardian (Walker, 10 September 2014) captured the brazen antisemitism of Azov battalion fighters and their desire to ‘bring the fight to Kyiv.’ And little of this escaped the attention of EU parliamentarians in Brussels. During parliamentary questions on 21 March 2014, days after the coup in Kyiv, it was brought to the attention of the European Parliament that ‘the University of Tel Aviv concluded in a 1999 report that the Svoboda party is “an extremist, right-wing, nationalist organisation which emphasises its identification with the ideology of German National Socialism.”’ Even the magazine Foreign Policy sounded the alarm: ‘Yes, There Are Bad Guys in the Ukrainian Government,’ and ‘it’s time for a frank conversation about some of the unsavory characters in Kiev’ (Foxall and Kessler, 18 March 2014).
Four years later, the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council decided to address this problem head on in the tellingly titled writeup ‘Ukraine’s Got a Real Problem with Far-Right Violence (And No, RT Didn’t Write This Headline).’ In this terrifying article, Josh Cohen lists off how the Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sport funded C14 neo-Nazis to promote ‘national patriotic education projects,’ and how Azov militias and other ultra-nationalists repeatedly attacked Roma people, anti-fascist demonstrations, city council meetings, LGBTQ+ events, and an event hosted by Amnesty International (Cohen, 20 June 2018). In no way could this be dismissed as the antics of far-right hooligans similar to far-right activities in Germany, France, or Britain. This was government sponsored, funded, armed, and well-organised. The report to the European Parliament was not far off the mark; the behaviour of the Ukrainian far-right in the years after the coup was horribly reminiscent of the early years of National Socialism in Weimar Germany. Politicians and journalists were right to be concerned.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kyiv coup there was unmistakable trepidation about the power and influence of the far-right in Ukraine, and what these forces might mean for the future of Ukraine, Europe, and the world. Shaun Walker, writing for The Guardian from the Azov battalion stronghold of Mariupol in September 2014, spelled out the dark possibilities:
…there is an increasing worry that while the Azov and other volunteer battalions might be Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield against the separatists, they also pose the most serious threat to the Ukrainian government, and perhaps even the state, when the conflict in the east is over. The Azov causes particular concern due to the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members.
Lack of support at the polls has never been much of an issue for the extreme right. Fundamentally, this is an anti-democratic ideology, and, in the case of Ukraine’s far-right, this was a well-trained and well-armed, battle-hardened threat to the state. Ukraine’s CIA-backed Orange Revolution of 2004-05 was a failed revolution, and to the ultra-nationalists the Maidan coup of 2014 was an incomplete revolution. The Kyiv government was very much aware of the threat posed by the far-right, a movement of highly-organised political groupings and their well-armed and trained military wings, but was limited in what it could do. Taking on the far-right — ‘Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield’ — would only result in a violent backlash from the right in the form of a civil war the government would lose. Strangely, the Ukrainian neo-Nazi militias were being armed by the State of Israel and bankrolled by the zionist oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, and it was this unlikely relationship — which was being challenged in the Israeli courts — that led to an uneasy solution.
Kolomoyskyi’s deep pockets would be dipped to forge an entente; he would put his money behind Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential campaign and so construct the perfect cover; a government led by a man of Jewish descent that simply incorporated these dangerous ultra-nationalist private militias into the Ukrainian army. The threat, while still present, had been contained.
The cover was, however, blown apart the moment the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, when Vladimir Putin outlined the objectives of his ‘special military operation’ as the ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘denazification’ of the country (24 February 2022). As soon as the Russian premier voiced the exact concern which had preoccupied western governments and media for eight years, the western narrative shifted. Within hours, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum at Oświęcim in Poland, the Wiener Holocaust Library at the University of London in Britain, and a whole host of Holocaust memorial institutions and Jewish organisations around the world mobilised to issue their condemnations of Putin’s ‘bogus justifications’ and ‘misrepresentations of history.’ Yet, Putin had not said anything that had not already appeared in black and white a thousand times in the western press.
Yet, with this shift in the narrative, the western media was actively competing with itself to produce the most outrageous contradictions of its previous narrative. Mark Rice-Oxley, for The Guardian — the same paper which had described in alarming detail the threat the far-right posted to the Ukrainian government and the state, penned a debunking article that now insinuated those still spouting the old acceptable narrative were catastrophists and conspiracy theorists. Now the image of fascists pulling the strings in Ukraine was nothing more than a ploy by Putin ‘to revive glorious memories of the “great patriotic war”’ (Rice-Oxley, 13 March 2022). The only acceptable version of the Ukrainian Nazi story was an effort to down play them:
The far right occupies fewer than 1% of seats in parliament. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin.
An old bait and switch happened. No longer are we to be concerned. The focus has moved from the far-right’s military strength and its danger to Ukrainian democracy to its irrelevance within the democratic institutions and lack of popular support. Because so few people vote for the Nazis and because ‘Zelenskiy is Jewish,’ there is nothing to worry about. The narrative of Nazis being a threat to Ukraine was replaced with deflectionary asides about Putin’s fixation on the heroic myths of the Second World War and the Jewishness of the Ukrainian president. The acceptable narrative is that Ukraine’s ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-Nazis’ are a problem, but no more of a problem as they are in Hungary, Italy, or Germany. They have become — at least to the media — a fringe extremist group. Nothing more. And this new take on the Ukrainian far-right has refused to budge — even after NATO, marking International Women’s Day, inadvertently shared a picture on social media of a female Ukrainian soldier wearing a Nazi SS symbol on her uniform. Clearly, if we are to understand why the messaging on the Ukrainian far-right has changed so dramatically as a result of the Russian invasion, we have to take a closer look at these ultra-nationalists and at the reasons why the western media might want to protect them.
Here we must look at the history of Ukraine. The Ukrainian ultra-nationalist far-right is not ‘neo-Nazi,’ and this point cannot be stressed enough. Neo-Nazism, properly understood, is a post-1945 phenomenon and refers to social and political movements which seek to revive the racial ideology of Hitler’s Nationalsozialismus, and, although they are similar, this does not describe the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist far-right. Ukraine does not have a neo-Nazi problem, it has a Nazi problem. Where neo-Nazism is a revivalist movement, the Ukrainian far-right is situated on a historical continuum; that is to say that it has an unbroken Nazi pedigree reaching back to the Holocaust and before. Perhaps the most cynical revision of this history in the recent western media coverage of Ukraine came from Jeffrey Veidlinger, a professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, on The Conversation website — an online journal with the subtitle ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair:’
…during the Second World War, German soldiers murdered 1.5 million Jews in the areas that are now Ukraine, often with the collaboration of Ukrainian militias established in the diaspora and with the help of local auxiliary police. The role of ethnic Ukrainians in the Holocaust remains contentious in Ukraine today, where nationalist heroes who collaborated with the Nazis continue to be honored. Yet at the same time, millions of non-Jewish Ukrainians lost their lives under the Nazis or were exploited as slave laborers. The occupiers treated Ukrainian lands as little more than Lebensraum, living space for ethnic Germans.
The best lies are always laced with the truth. Rather deviously, Veidlinger accomplishes a number of things here; by framing the actions of Ukrainian militias and local auxiliary police as collaboration with the Germans, he effectively minimised their culpability by making them appear much the same as other Nazi collaborators like French Gendarmerie who rounded up Jews for transport to the death camps. Then, by manufacturing some kind of sense of shared suffering between the Jews and the non-Jewish Ukrainians who lost their lives, he constructs the patently false impression that the behaviour of the Ukrainian militias and auxiliaries arose — much like the Jewish Kapos in the camps — from the conditions of the nation’s victimhood. Actually, when it comes to historical revisionism, this furnishes us with a particularly disturbing and grotesque example.
Antisemitism has a long history in Ukraine, most of which was within the old Pale of Jewish Settlement and so had one of the highest concentrations of Jews in the world before 1941. The first mass killing of Jews during the Holocaust in Ukraine was the Lwów pogrom, a massacre perpetrated by militiamen of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in order to impress and curry favour with the invading Germans. These ultra-nationalists were virulently and murderously anti-Semitic, and needed no encouragement from the SS or the SS-Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews. Many of these men went on to join the Waffen-SS. The SS even established an all-Ukrainian military formation, the 14th (1st Galician) Waffen Grenadier Division, which after the defeat of the Third Reich simply rebranded itself the 1st Division of the National Ukrainian Army. In Lviv (formerly Lwów) today there is a monument to these fallen Ukrainian SS ‘heroes’ at the Lychakivskiy cemetery, and a statue of Stepan Bandera — the leader of the OUN — was unveiled in 2007 in front of the Stele of Ukrainian Statehood.
Why, one may ask, do these awful events of eighty years ago have anything to do with the far-right in Ukraine today? Germany and Austria are not called to account for their Nazi past, why then should we rub this ugly part of Ukraine’s past in its face? Well, in answering this question, the clue is in the fact there are statues and monuments to Ukrainian Nazi war criminals all over Ukraine — and they are all very modern (they would not have been tolerated while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union). These monuments were built to honour these Nazis because many of their comrades survived the war, along with their Nazi organisations and Nazi ideology, and went on to become an anti-Soviet resistance force. In 1995 this underground Nazi organisation, the OUN-B, simply re-emerged into the light of Ukraine’s new day and established the Social-National Party of Ukraine (an obvious reference to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei — NSDAP — ‘the Nazi Party’) with funds sent from OUN members in the Ukrainian émigré community in the United States. In 2004, in an effort to disguise its Nazi pedigree, the Social-National Party of Ukraine was renamed the Svoboda Party; the same political group that led the Maidan coup in 2014.
But wait! What was this about OUN members in the United States? As an underground anti-Communist and anti-Russian resistance movement in Ukraine, the OUN-B would not have survived long without outside assistance, and that help came from Ukrainian Nazis in the US who had been taken there by the United States government after the war. Rather than hand these war criminals over to the Red Army to be tried and executed for crimes against humanity, the US intelligence services saw in them an ideal weapon against the Soviet Union when it became obvious the Cold War would become the new geopolitical order of the world. Recently declassified CIA documents reveal how leading OUN members were picked up by the Americans after 1945, granted immunity, shipped across the Atlantic, and given exception from the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.
In the United States, with the assistance of the CIA, these free men established immigrant associations of Soviet-enslaved peoples that existed — at least officially — to speak out against the brutality of the USSR and encourage anti-Communist resistance inside Soviet bloc countries. Unofficially, however, this was about counter-ideology (code for ‘Nazism’). The ideology of the underground OUN in the Ukrainian SSR was to be the principle wedge that would break the Soviet Union from within. So, in the States, these Ukrainian Nazis continued on; recruiting new members from within the Ukrainian-American community and propagated their Nazi ideology. This relationship between the US government and these ‘immigrant groups’ continues still.
What journalists in the western media — in the United States and Europe — did not realise between 2014 and the Russian invasion of twenty days ago was that these Ukrainian Nazis — both in the United States and in the Nazi battalions of the Ukrainians army — are important assets of the CIA. As ideological fighters, they are committed to their hatred of Russia. The US State Department trusts them more than any other political group or faction in Ukraine. These are the people the US government has been working with, funding, and training for almost eight decades. In the United States’ global fight against Russia, these Nazis have to be protected at all costs because they are essential to the American plan in Ukraine.
Since 2008, when the US unilaterally invited Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO (to protests from Germany and France) at the NATO Conference in Bucharest, the CIA has been operating a training camp for ‘trusted’ soldiers and units of the Ukrainian army at an undisclosed location in the southern United States (codenamed ‘Ground Department’), in order to prepare the ground for a long insurgency in Ukraine directed to the end of ‘bleeding’ Russia. Washington quite clearly has a long-term strategic objective in Ukraine, and it is in this that it has found the perfect use for the Ukrainian friends it made in 1945. Now that Russia has taken the bait, the political offices of the western media outlets have been fed the new narrative — from now on the Nazis are our friends. The role of the compliant western media is to protect them and hide their sins.
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.
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