Putin's Ghost Under the Bed

Meet Moscow's favorite bogeyman -- the accused Nazi collaborator who led the fight for Ukrainian independence.

If you listened to Vladimir Putin's March 18 address, in which he made the case for Russia's annexation of Crimea, you may have been mystified by his damning references to "Bandera," a name few outside of Ukraine, Russia, or Eastern Europe are likely to know. Referring to the new government in Kiev, the Russian president claimed that "we can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler's accomplice during World War II." Later, in reference to Crimea, he proclaimed, "What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera's footsteps!" The message was clear even to the uninitiated: Bandera is a bogeyman, a metonym for all bad Ukrainian things.

So just who was Bandera? Was he Hitler's accomplice? And why does he make Putin apoplectic?

Born in 1909 in the Ukrainian village of Staryy Uhryniv, then part of Austria-Hungary, Stepan Bandera was the leader of a radical faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a typically nationalist movement that took root in the Ukrainian-inhabited lands of eastern Poland in the 1930s. The OUN engaged in grassroots organizing and carried out occasional acts of violence against Polish authorities and perceived Ukrainian turncoats. Bandera spent most of the second half of the 1930s in a Polish prison, and much of the early 1940s in a German concentration camp. After the war, he became the leader in West Germany of the émigré OUN faction known as the OUN-B and remained in charge of its anti-Soviet activities until being assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1959.

Although Bandera is associated with the Ukrainian resistance movement that bears his name, he didn't set foot in today's Ukraine after 1934. Nonetheless, his name came to symbolize Ukraine's national-liberation struggle -- for the most part because the Soviets used it to imply that the movement consisted only of a small group of Bandera's supporters and that it lacked wider popular support. Putin's propaganda machine has adopted this same crude Soviet tactic, and with similar results: Bandera's name has become synonymous with anti-Soviet zeal.

Bandera, like most young members of the OUN in eastern Poland, was deeply committed to waging a revolutionary struggle for Ukrainian independence. But he was no democrat, and he was no liberal. Like his comrades in the underground, Bandera admired toughness, hierarchy, and strict discipline. He believed a revolutionary movement could succeed only if it had an authoritarian structure and a strong leader. The young nationalists had no qualms about employing violence in the pursuit of national liberation. In all of these respects, the Ukrainians were precursors to the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Palestine Liberation Organization -- and contemporaries of the Jewish Irgun and "Stern Gang." Bandera was arguably the Ukrainian version of Ahmed Ben Bella, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, or Avraham Stern.

As is typical of such movements, the one thing all Ukrainian nationalists agreed on was the goal of national liberation and independent statehood. Just what form that state would take was secondary. As a result, the OUN's predecessor in the 1920s, the Ukrainian Military Organization, had little use for a political ideology, focusing instead on assassinating Polish leaders, expropriating state finances, and fire-bombing Polish property. The OUN, in turn, sampled ideology where it suited the group's needs, starting out as a quasi-authoritarian movement, adopting some fascist elements by the late 1930s and early 1940s, and abandoning them by 1943-1944. By the mid- to late-1940s, it was adopting progressively more democratic and social-democratic characteristics, reaching out to Ukraine's ethnic minorities and promoting the slogan "For our liberty and yours."

Before its democratic makeover, however, the OUN viewed Germany as a potential ally in its struggle against Poland and the Soviet Union. When Bandera and his colleagues were released from a Polish prison after the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in September 1939, the radical OUN faction he led forged a brief alliance with Germany against the Soviets. Because their paramount goal was Ukrainian independence, the nationalists didn't view themselves as Nazi collaborators, but they cooperated with German military and counterintelligence and, in early 1941, Bandera and his followers gained Berlin's approval for the formation of two small military units that would fight alongside the Germans against the Soviet Union. But when war broke out on June 22, 1941, the nationalists blindsided their German allies by proclaiming Ukrainian independence in Lviv on June 30.

Berlin could not tolerate such impudence, and days later the Nazis cracked down on the OUN, imprisoning Bandera in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and two of his brothers in Auschwitz, where they perished. The nationalists then went underground and, by late 1942, came to lead a popular resistance movement, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), against the Germans. German documents from this period illustrate the degree to which the Bandera-Bewegung, or Bandera movement, was a serious, anti-German force. One German police report from 1942, for example, noted that "Especially noticeable within the Bandera movement is its hostility to the Germans. There is already much talk of the necessity to expel the Germans from the country."

By 1943, the Bandera nationalists had also become embroiled in a violent struggle against the Poles of western Ukraine. The nationalists are sometimes accused of planning a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing during this period, but these charges overstate the organizational capability of the OUN and the UPA in the aftermath of the Nazi crackdown. In reality, the causes of the violence were far more complicated. Ukrainian-Polish enmity had been stoked by 20 years of Polish intolerance of Ukrainian national aspirations, 20 years of Ukrainian nationalist political violence, and the agitation of radical nationalists on both sides. These factors, together with German manipulation, Soviet partisan interference, and the anti-Polish proclivities of a rogue UPA commander, produced a bloodbath in Volhynia in mid-1943, in which about three times as many Poles were killed as Ukrainians. (Estimates of the number of dead vary wildly, but the most reliable are within the 30,000-50,000 range for Poles and 10,000-15,000 for Ukrainians.)

Ukrainian nationalist resistance to Soviet rule resumed with the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine in mid-1944 and continued for about a decade after the war. The nationalists suffered over 150,000 casualties between 1944 and 1955, and inflicted over 30,000 casualties on Soviet troops and police units during the same period. Hundreds of thousands of nationalist sympathizers were also deported or imprisoned in the Gulag system. These numbers suggest that the movement enjoyed vast support among the population of western Ukraine, where opposition to Stalinism and Russian imperialism ran the deepest. As Soviet rule became more entrenched, active popular support dwindled, but the Bandera nationalists continued to symbolize the cause of national liberation.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviets demonized the Ukrainian nationalists, painting them as savage cutthroats in the pay of Western imperialism. This image took root in Russia, as well as the heavily Sovietized parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, which had served as strongholds of Communist rule since the 1930s. Russians and Russian speakers picked up on official cues and frequently insulted Ukrainians who dared speak their own language, referring to them pejoratively as "Banderas." (Putin's use of the Bandera metonym is therefore consistent with the earlier Soviet practice.) When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians began questioning Soviet propaganda, and what Russian chauvinists had used as a term of opprobrium -- "Bandera" -- suddenly became a term of praise, much in the way that African Americans appropriated the "n-word" and gays the term "queer."

Today, Bandera's legacy lives on not just as Putin's bogeyman, but as a symbol of Ukrainians's implacable opposition to the Soviet Union. Although the two political organizations that view themselves as direct heirs to the OUN -- Svoboda and the Right Sector -- are tiny and enjoy no more than a few percentage points of popular support, many Ukrainians, particularly in the western part of the country, see Bandera in a positive light. Thanks to the efforts of the Soviet and Russian propaganda machines, Bandera has become a mythic hero for some and the embodiment of evil for others. No admirer regards the nationalists' violence (especially against Poles and Jews) as laudable, but few regard it as central to what Bandera and his followers represent: a rejection of all things Soviet, a repudiation of anti-Ukrainian supremacism, and an unconditional devotion to Ukrainian independence.

That Putin would view such a symbol as a threat should hardly come as a surprise. In his understanding of Russia and the Soviet Union, every attempt by Ukrainians to assert their independence amounts to a betrayal of Russia and Russians. According to Putin, "it pains our hearts to see what is happening in Ukraine at the moment, see the people's suffering and their uncertainty about how to get through today and what awaits them tomorrow. Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other."

Like Bandera and his comrades, millions of Ukrainians today believe that they can live without Russia. In fact, they believe that Ukraine can live only without Russia. Ironically, Putin and his propaganda machine are only reinforcing that view. If his aggressive behavior and warmongering rhetoric continue, he may very well succeed in accomplishing what the nationalists failed to do -- uniting the vast majority of Ukrainians around an anti-Russian nationalist agenda.



Throwing Windmills at the Wyndham

While the Syrian opposition brawls in an Istanbul hotel, the battlefield fighting is increasingly within the rebel camp.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Late on the night of March 6, a few dozen leading members of Syria's political and military opposition gathered in a hotel room in Istanbul's Wyndham Hotel, not far from the airport. They were there to talk: to work out their issues and to heal the rifts currently tearing apart their group and hurting their cause. Within 30 minutes, however, the friendly meeting had degenerated into a brawl.

Leaders who had come to chat ended up yelling curses and throwing punches. Ahmed Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed opposition's political wing was punched three times in the face. The dustup began with insulting language and "light clashes," according to Omar Abu Leila, an opposition spokesperson at the meeting, but escalated quickly after someone -- he said it was a member of the Free Syrian Army's leadership body, but he couldn't see who exactly -- yelled, "there are a couple of people here whose heads need cracking."

The meeting ended, Abu Leila said, with people being pulled apart and Jarba cursing both sides. "Jarba was trying to bring an end to the clashes, but he still got whacked," he said.

The Wyndham Hotel brawl was the ugly culmination of months of squabbling at the highest levels of Syria's Western-backed opposition group. Meanwhile, the opposition was also taking a beating on the battlefield: The Western-backed rebel forces, hobbled by infighting with the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), have suffered a series of setbacks against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Regime forces, with the help of Hezbollah, recently consolidated their hold on territory along Syria's border with Lebanon, seizing the strategically important town of Yabroud. Meanwhile, rebel-held territory around Damascus has been transformed from strongholds used to launch attacks on the capital to pockets of territory under siege -- forcing a number of rebel groups, desperate for food and medical assistance, to accept ceasefire agreements with the regime.

"We're all asking the SMC [Supreme Military Council] to pull together," said a State Department official, speaking on background due to the sensitivity of the issue. "We all regret this shakeup."

The conflict pits Jarba against Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader Gen. Salim Idriss, leaving Syria's moderate opposition leadership effectively split into two rival camps. Idriss was fired at the behest of Jarba and the so-called Council of 30, the top leadership body of the SMC, in a vote at a Feb. 16 meeting in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. In a video announcement, Jarba said Idriss had been voted out due to "difficulties faced by the Syrian revolution."  Idriss was replaced by little known Gen. Abdelilah al-Bashir, the head of FSA operations in Quneitra province.

But Idriss has not gone quietly, calling the vote illegitimate in a Skype interview from Istanbul. "A 30-member council is not authorized to fire me," he said. A few dozen commanders on the ground in Syria have also refused to recognize the vote, he said, proudly reading their names off a handwritten list -- proof, he says, that he is still the true leader of the FSA. The most prominent of the men sticking by Idriss's side are Fateh Hassoun and Bashar al-Zouabi -- the FSA commanders from the regions of Homs and Deraa, respectively -- who both command sizeable forces as well respect within their ranks.

Whatever the reason why he was fired, Idriss is taking it personally. "I don't understand why Jarba hates me," he said.

Jarba and the SMC leadership are framing the personnel shuffle as part of a larger strategic restructuring aimed at reviving the increasingly ineffective fighting force. The plan is said to include a shift away from Syria's north, where infighting with Islamists has sapped rebel strength, toward the country's southern front. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. intelligence cooperation, has reportedly increased its supply of weapons to these southern-based rebels, by funneling the arms across the Jordanian border.

But some analysts suspect larger regional power dynamics are at play -- namely, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf countries both support the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but they have competed intensely for influence across the Middle East, including in Syria, where each group backs different political players. Tensions sharpened recently when Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization -- Qatar has long maintained close relations to the venerable Islamist group, serving as the patron of many of its regional affiliates and hosting many of its leaders in Doha. Jarba is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, while some opposition members accuse Idriss of moving closer to Qatar.

While there's no hard evidence that the Gulf countries were pulling the strings when Idriss was voted out, it is clear that the rebels are being affected by shifts among their foreign patrons.

"There are [battlefield rebel] coalitions forming and splitting, and that tends to show that there is something happening with the funding," said Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website. "It's not like these people suddenly became friends or started to hate each other. It has something to do with who's paying them to do what and where they can get their resources."

Idriss's fall may also have been spurred by his disappointing performance as a commander. The general's detractors all point to a single egregious incident in early December of last year, when members of a rival Islamist rebel alliance, the Islamic Front (IF), seized control of SMC warehouses filled with military equipment supplied by Western and Gulf countries. Instead of lashing out against the IF, Idriss tried to play the incident off as a misunderstanding, saying the Islamists had stepped in to help protect the warehouses, not loot them. Despite his protests, members of the Syrian opposition coalition saw the incident as a public embarrassment. "It was shameful," said Kenan Bwadekji, a spokesperson for Assad Mustafa, Jarba's Minister of Defense. "His men ran away from the Islamic Front, Idriss didn't put up any defense."

The United States, alarmed by the theft, temporarily suspended all non-lethal aid to the SMC -- a major blow to Idriss.

"Idriss was not a leader," said Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma. "[He] was a bureaucrat with a lot to recommend him in the very beginning. He could speak English and he sat at a desk and he said yes."

Landis said Idriss eventually became more of a clearinghouse, deriving his power and authority from his role as a distributor of foreign aid rather than his military victories, "I don't think anyone thought he could continue to control authority down the line," Landis said. 

So far, there hasn't been any movement on Syria's southern front, let alone a military victory. Bashir, the man elected to succeed Idriss and lead the push, is staying under the radar, not accepting interview requests and making no public statements. In his only comment following his appointment, he revealed to the New York Times that he didn't even know he was in the running to command the SMC until a friend called to congratulate him on his selection.

Coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh downplayed the rift, claiming that the divisions were just growing pains. "The minute we restructure the SMC and bring together actors and forces on the ground, everybody's going to fall in line," he said. "Are there disagreements? Yes, but everybody is interested in a full restructuring taking place."

In his interview with Foreign Policy, Idriss said he agreed, and claims he was in the midst of reshaping the SMC when he was fired. He also claims he would be happy to collaborate with Bashir, the man elected to replace him. "He's very well respected," he said. "I can work with him. I've worked with him before."

But for his part, Jarba is sticking to his guns. The Syrian opposition leader said in a statement released on March 6 that while Idriss is welcome to take an advisory role in the council, he can no longer lead the SMC. "General Selim Idriss will present his resignation from the presidency of SMC, and he will be appointed as the advisor of President Jarba for military affairs," the statement read.

Meanwhile, outside powers looking to support Syria's moderate rebels can only wait to see where the dust settles. But even as both Assad and Islamist groups appear to be gaining strength, the opposition forces that the United States hoped could lead Syria to a brighter future appear more focused on squabbling amongst each other.