The Fascists Are Coming, the Fascists Are Coming!

Putin says Ukraine's nationalist political party Right Sector is the devil incarnate. But they say they're just misunderstood.

KIEV, Ukraine — To hear Russian President Vladimir Putin tell it, the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector is made up of racist, anti-Semitic, violent thugs hellbent on dragging their country into civil war. What's more, according to the Kremlin, the group is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Kiev government. "There's no state control over public order, and the so-called Right Sector calls the tune, the group that has resorted to terror and intimidation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a news conference on March 8.

Even after the group's spectacular failure in the May 25 presidential election, the Russian authorities continue using Right Sector as a scaremongering tool. On May 30, Russian security services said they arrested four members of Right Sector who were planning terrorist attacks in Crimea, the formerly Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in March. (According to Kyiv Post, the four men had never been members of the group.)

And the scare tactics have proved effective, with a widespread belief in Ukraine's east that "fascists" were controlling the Kiev government, said Alina Polyakova, a Swiss-based expert on far-right movements in Ukraine.

But sipping on Ukrainian cognac and apple juice at a restaurant in Kiev's hip Podil neighborhood, Artem Skoropadsky, the far-right group's boyish press secretary, clad in a hipster uniform of a plaid button-up shirt, shorts, a baseball cap, and Converse sneakers, said the group has been misunderstood. Sure, he said, Right Sector had a few bad apples. The group, though, was open to all nationalities, races, and religions. "When we say, 'Glory to the Nation,' we mean the political nation, not the ethnic one," Skoropadsky said. "If you move to Ukraine," he continued, gesturing toward me, "and express love and support for the Ukrainian nation, you can be part of it," he said, adding that the group's members include ethnic Jews, Poles, Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. Skoropadsky himself is a 33-year-old Russian expat, who prefers to speak in his mother tongue rather than in Ukrainian.

Right Sector was founded as an alliance of far-right groups during the anti-government protests that started on Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in November and eventually led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. The organizations that joined Right Sector included the ultranationalist and paramilitary Trident, as well as White Hammer, a vocally racist and anti-immigration group, which has since been ousted from the alliance for propagating racist slogans. They were key players in the defense of the Maidan during brutal clashes with the police, leading the fighting in the bloody Hrushevskoho Street riots on Jan. 19. Right Sector has branded itself as the "defenders of the Maidan," though other activists have questioned the extent of the group's involvement in protecting the site throughout the revolution's entire duration.

Today, the group is trying to improve its public image as it tries to enter Ukraine's chaotic new political scene. On May 22, just three days before Ukraine held its presidential election, the group was formally registered as a political party with the Ukrainian Justice Ministry. It didn't do very well. While far-right parties across Europe won a series of victories in the May 22 to 25 European Parliament elections, Dmytro Yarosh, the Right Sector's presidential candidate, won a mere 1 percent of the vote in Ukraine's presidential election, held at the same time on May 25. Petro Poroshenko, a moderate billionaire chocolate magnet, won in a landslide.

"The role of the Right Sector has been extremely exaggerated, on purpose, by Ukrainian security forces that were associated with Yanukovych," said Olexiy Haran, professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Experts agree that the group owes its popularity to Russian propaganda, which tried to build a public case for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the demonization of Kiev by painting the Right Sector as a powerful neo-Nazi force determined to take over Ukraine. According to a survey by an online database of Russian media sources, Right Sector was the second-most mentioned political group in Russian mass media in 2014, surpassed only by United Russia, the party of Putin.

During the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, Russian state TV took the disinformation campaign so far that an anchor was visibly perplexed when she had to announce that Right Sector's Yarosh was on track to win the election, with 37 percent of the vote. The channel displayed a screen shot of what appeared to be the Ukrainian Central Election Commission's website, RFE/RL reported. The anchor admitted that the results were "strange."

"Kremlin propaganda spreads a lot of lies about us. They are telling everyone that we are anti-Semites, neo-fascists, and this is not true," said Skoropadsky, emphasizing that it is Russia that is the "classic imperial fascist regime."

Skoropadsky, a Moscow native, left Russia in 2005 because he believed that Putin was building an authoritarian state, while Ukraine, which had just undergone the 2004 democratic Orange Revolution, had a "European future." Before becoming an activist and a spokesperson for Right Sector, Skoropadsky was a journalist for Kommersant, a Russian-owned daily, where he covered politics in the broad sense of the word, "not the parliament, but the meetings outside the parliament."

The organization's leaders have repeatedly tried to distance themselves from accusations of racism by, for instance, telling the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine that they reject anti-Semitism. The Israeli Embassy said in a statement that the two had established a hotline to prevent anti-Semitic provocations. "Dmitry Yarosh stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means," the statement said.

In addition to prominence stemming from Russian propaganda, part of Right Sector's public prominence may come from the group's knack for promoting its own brand. Polyakova said that the group has exaggerated its presence in the east and has been "surprisingly very careful" in avoiding public relations mishaps, contrary to the more established nationalist Svoboda party, whose members have a long track record of promoting anti-Semitism and frequently using anti-Semitic slurs.

Although it may seem to be reinventing its public image, Right Sector remains true to its ultranationalist, far-right roots. Its logos are sleek, as if created by a graphic designer, Polyakova said, but the black-and-red colors, immediately evocative of the Nazi swastika, are "problematic." The group strives to carry the legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a nationalist umbrella party from the interwar period, and Stepan Bandera, a complicated Ukrainian hero, celebrated in western Ukraine and condemned in the country's east, Russia, and Poland as a Nazi collaborator. Like the prewar organization, Right Sector maintains a two-pronged structure, with a military and political arm, and champion nationalist slogans of a "Greater" or "United" Ukraine.

While the Right Sector may be pro-European, Skoropadsky said, it stands for a certain kind of Europe. "There are certain things in the European Union that we do not accept," he said, like same-sex marriage, abortion, and assisted suicide, which he said were found in "classic liberal democracies" like France or Denmark. He said that the group's members feel closer to "Europe of the Polish kind" -- conservative, traditional -- than "Europe of the Danish kind."

Skoropadsky said they are not for Ukraine's immediate accession into the European Union or NATO. "We need to clean up the country first," he said, rolling a cigarette. The group wants to erase any traces of the old regime's policies and apparatchiks within governmental structures.

The current government is not living up to its mandate, Skoropadsky said, but because the politicians in power were fighting alongside the Right Sector on the "barricades of the Maidan," the group plans to use parliamentary, not revolutionary, methods as long as it is possible. The group is, however, worried about the return of what was worst about the Yanukovych regime: corruption and rogue law enforcement.

Skoropadsky, with his penchant for grand statements, assured that if Ukraine falls back into old patterns and Ukraine's people rise up once again, the Right Sector will be on the front line, as the "avant-garde of the revolution." With a 1 percent support rate among those same people of Ukraine, standing at their helm might be a more difficult task than the nationalists would like.

For now, however, the organization is preparing for a different front line -- the one in the country's east. "Right Sector is an army first, and a party second," said Skoropadsky, who had just come back from a training base that the organization runs 60 miles from Kiev. The group had announced a mobilization effort when Russian forces entered the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, and Skoropadsky claims 10,000 people signed up to join Right Sector forces. How many of them have actually participated in the training in the organization's bases around the country remains unclear. Experts have the number of combat-ready Right Sector members at 300 to 500, a tiny fraction of what the group claims, according to a Foreign Affairs article.

Skoropadsky said more experienced Right Sector activists, some with a military background, teach the volunteers how to shoot, take over and occupy buildings, and throw grenades -- lofty and hard-to-believe claims given that, as he admitted, the group does not have weapons of its own and the training is conducted with toy guns.

"These nationalist groups have been doing this for many years," said Polyakova. "They organize these paramilitary summer camps as part of their organizational agenda."

After their training, the volunteers are sent to the areas in turmoil. "Just as we were at the front at the Maidan, we are in the east and in the south," said Skoropadsky. Again, it is difficult to assess how many Right Sector members have ventured to those parts of the country, though some reports of armed volunteers from the organization in those regions have surfaced online.

The Right Sector's funding is donation-based. One of its fundraising locations is its headquarters on Kiev's Maidan, the dilapidated site of the recent protests. The transparent box for donations held very few hryvnia bills, perhaps enough to buy a few toy guns. Right Sector members idly sat around. "We are waiting for the aggressor," said Volodymyr, who did not give his last name. The unit's commander stood by the entrance to the headquarters, located by Kiev's central post office. Leaning on the door in his New England Patriots hat, he sipped coffee out of a large mug. "We are a military organization," he said, "preparing men for war." For the moment, they seem anything but.

Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images


Ballots, Bombs, and a Rising Body Count

As a new president takes office, a deadly firefight rages in Ukraine’s volatile east.

DONETSK, Ukraine — There were no polling booths in Donetsk, the biggest city in Ukraine's increasingly volatile east, on Sunday. There were no banners for candidates, no get-out-the vote fliers, no stump speeches, and no national flags. There was, instead, a mix of fear, terror, and uncertainty, some measure of defiance, plenty of gunmen, and -- within hours of the election results being announced -- just as much gunfire.

Armed pro-Russian separatists who took control of local government buildings and proclaimed an independent Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in April -- after Moscow annexed Crimea -- had long pledged to prevent the vote from taking place in the region. The revolution that toppled Ukraine's disgraced former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February was a coup, they claim, and any election that came on its heels was illegitimate.

On Sunday, May 25, after a week of harassing and intimidating election officials, seizing ballot boxes, and vowing to go after anyone who attempted to vote, the rebels lived up to their word. Voter turnout nationwide was about 60 percent, but in the Donetsk region, it was just 15 percent. In neighboring Lugansk, another rebel stronghold, it was 39 percent.

All of the polling stations throughout the city of Donetsk were closed. Outside the hulking regional administration building where the separatists had set up their headquarters, six confiscated ballot boxes stood side by side, like suspects at a Stalinist show trial, transformed by the rebels into trash bins. A photo widely circulated online showed a woman smashing the remnants of several other ballot boxes with the butt of a garden rake.

Many locals did not seem to mind. "What's there to vote for?" asked Yekaterina Subtela, a pensioner. "We've voted already," she said, referring to a May 11 referendum on secession from Ukraine that was organized by the rebels and which most countries denounced as a farce.

Subtela recited a litany of wrongs by what she called the "junta" in Kiev, which included deploying soldiers, including her grandson, a conscript, against the pro-Russian insurgents. "The root of all evil," she concluded, "was the end of the USSR."

Not everyone in Donetsk agreed. Timur, a young engineer, felt he had been robbed of his vote, which he tried to cast at a local school, only to find it closed. (He declined to give his last name, fearing retribution from the rebels who control his hometown.) Timur didn't trust the authorities in Kiev, he said, rocking a stroller carrying his baby boy, but he was also fed up with the insurgents in Donetsk. "I hate separatism. I don't like the people with weapons here, and I don't like the people with weapons in the Maidan," he said, referring to the center of the Kiev-based protests that forced Yanukovych, the ex-president, to flee Ukraine.

The only solution for Ukraine, he opined, was a federal system, where regions like Donetsk, dominated by Russian speakers, could enjoy a certain degree of cultural autonomy. Ukraine needed to remain whole, he said. "We want to be normal people," he said, "to be part of the world market, to communicate freely, to travel abroad."

Yuri Shamrin, a middle-aged electrician pacing down a large avenue in the city center, said he "resented [the separatists] for having denied me the right to vote" and for running "a sham government."

A visibly drunk man who identified himself as a member of the DPR's local militia and demanded that I accompany him to the insurgents' base cut him off, but not before Shamrin managed to make two points. First, he said, he wanted Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate tycoon and longtime front-runner, to win. He was "the best of the worst," he said. Second, he expected the new president to order what he called "more decisive measures" against the insurgents.

Within 24 hours, both of Shamrin's wishes were to come true.

On Sunday night, Poroshenko was elected with 54 percent of the vote. Soon after the preliminary results were announced, the insurgents declared martial law and seized control of Donetsk's international airport. On Monday, Ukrainian forces responded with airstrikes on rebel positions near the terminal, strafing attacks by helicopter gunships, and a paratrooper landing.

The same day, Poroshenko vowed to take the fight to the insurgents, and to do so swiftly. "The anti-terrorist operation cannot last two or three months," he said. "It must take hours." 

In the early afternoon, as the sky near Donetsk's airport grew thick with smoke and the sound of gunfire and explosions rang out across the area, the separatists sent in reinforcements. Dozens of armed militants packed onto trucks disembarked by the side of the road to the airport, taking positions in a wooded area opposite a Peugeot dealership. Minutes later, sniper fire began to whip the leaves off the trees, sending locals and journalists running for cover.

As the fighting crept towards the city center, yet more cars carrying dozens of heavily armed rebels, some with rocket-propelled grenades slung over their shoulders, rushed towards the airport. Cars carrying panicked civilians zipped in the opposite direction.

"I can't come home, they've blocked the roads," one woman, eyeing a large group of militants who had taken cover on the other side of Kievskiy Prospekt, the street connecting the airport to downtown, said into her cellphone. "I can't believe it's come to this."

Over the course of the day and well into the night, the battles in and around the airport continued. Fighter jets ripped through the sky. The rebels reported that 35 of their men had been killed when a grenade hit one of their trucks. Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko later put the death toll at 40. In clashes near the train station, about two miles south of the airport, stray bullets killed at least one civilian.

By Tuesday morning, according to Ukrainian officials, the army had regained control of the airport. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the insurgents formally asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for military assistance. The Kremlin hasn't responded, but most Western officials believe the Russians have been providing the rebels with supplies, intelligence, and manpower from day one.

Ukraine's newly elected president may end up winning the battle of Donetsk, but his task of winning hearts and minds in the region, and reconciling the locals to Kiev's rule, may prove harder. Most Donetsk residents might not share the rebels' agenda, but resentment towards the Kiev government is widespread. While one poll revealed that only about 30 percent supported secession or union with Russia, another showed that 60 percent had not planned to vote, or had no one to vote for, in the presidential elections.

"We didn't invite the troops here," said Yuri Zhenev, walking hurriedly away from the flying bullets on Kievskiy Prospekt, his wife beside him. "And we want them out."

Poroshenko has said repeatedly that his first trip outside Kiev as president would not be to Brussels, Washington, or Moscow, but to Donetsk. It may turn out to be the visit that defines his presidency, as well as Ukraine's future.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images