“Post-Maidan Ukraine is the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces” – Lev Golinkin, Nation correspondent
By Sheldon Ranz and Susan Stevens
In their April 25 article FOR Military Aid to Ukraine: A Dissent From SDUSA’s Ukraine Resolution, our comrades Patty Friend, Jason Sibert and Rick D’Loss address the concerns that some of us have about arming the neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine with the following: “We have no clear count as to how many neo-Nazis are fighting in Ukraine, and no one has determined that anything they may have done (wear Nazi uniforms and SS insignias) are equal to the atrocious acts of the Russians.” Obviously, between one of the world’s global military superpowers and the comparatively puny but numerous fascist paramilitary groups operating inside Ukraine, it’s not much of a contest!
However, we wouldn’t be the first to point out that if it looks like a Nazi and quacks like a Nazi, atrocious acts will follow. In their Salon article Are there really neo-Nazis fighting for Ukraine? Well, yes — but it’s a long story, Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J. S. Davies wrote: “Violent foreign extremists with links to (the Azov Battalion) have included Brenton Tarrant, who massacred 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, and several members of the U.S. Rise Above Movement who were prosecuted for attacking counter-protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Other Azov veterans have returned to Australia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the U.K. and other countries.”
Facebook is giving Azov a get-out-of jail-free card after having banned it in 2016: “For the time being, we are making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine national guard,” a spokesperson from Facebook’s parent company, Meta, told Business Insider. “But we are continuing to ban all hate speech, hate symbolism, praise of violence, generic praise, support, or representation of the Azov regiment, and any other content that violates our community standards,” it added. The reversal of policy will be an immense headache for Facebook moderators, the Intercept, a US-based website, said. “While Facebook users may now praise any future battlefield action by Azov soldiers against Russia, the new policy notes that ‘any praise of violence’ committed by the group is still forbidden; it’s unclear what sort of nonviolent warfare the company anticipates,” the Intercept wrote.
Do we have no choice but to wriggle in a contorted limbo between the rock of Putin’s totalitarian imperialism, and the hard place of white supremacists’ totalitarian genocide? Is feeding one monster truly the only way to subdue the other, such that we can only hope against hope to maintain the upper hand and neuter Azov once they’ve outlived their usefulness? And seriously, when have such forces ever allowed themselves to be cast aside once others have deemed them no longer useful? To fully grasp the grip the far right paramilitary has on today’s Ukraine, we need to do a deep dive into its current President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and ascertain his responsibility for all that as his country’s chief lobbyist for military aid.
Volodymyr Zelensky started out as a TV actor, starring in a comedy called “Servant of the People”, which became an international sensation on Netflix. When he threw his hat into the ring for the presidency, his appeal was that he was different than the usual politician: young, fresh-faced, honest and funny. He promised liberal reforms and an end to corruption. He won the 2019 election going away, with 73% of the vote. Ukraine was proud of the fact that it had just elected its first Jewish president. But outside of Ukraine, few knew what he told the Ukrainian news agency RBC-Ukraine when he was still a candidate: “There are indisputable heroes. Stepan Bandera is a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians, and this is a normal and cool thing. He was one of those who defended the freedom of Ukraine.” In fact, during the Holocaust, Stepan Bandera led the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose soldiers murdered tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, including women and children, while fighting alongside the Nazis against the Soviet Red Army. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army rounded up more than 33,000 Jews to be executed by the Nazis in a span of just two days over an open pit at Babi Yar.
Expressions of admiration for Bandera had increased since Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising of 2014, which toppled the regime of Viktor Yanukovych and triggered its first armed conflict with Russia, which led to the rise of the Azov Battalion and the other far-right paramilitary units (Svoboda, Right Sector, C14 are among the most well-known) now dominating Ukraine’s National Guard. Zelensky allows memorials and street renamings honoring Bandera and his ilk – the butchers of his own people – to occur unimpeded. Every year, a torchlight parade paying tribute to Bandera takes place on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, with no interference from its Jewish president. Calling out Zelensky by name, Eduard Dolinsky, Director General of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, declared on April 10: “Our government encourages nationalistic groups. Our government encourages glorification of Nazi collaborators, mass murderers and murderers of Jews. Literally, there are hundreds of monuments, streets named after killers of Jews.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFOuk3EEUSY)
Accompanying this ongoing ‘cultural Nazification’ of Ukraine has been a decline in civil liberties and due process. In February, 2021, the National Security and Defense Council, at Zelensky’s initiative, banned three TV channels — NewsOne, Channel 112, and ZIK, owned by Ukrainian lawmaker Taras Kozak — for being pro-Kremlin. Then, Kozak himself was also charged with treason for Kremlin ties. Later that May, Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the opposition For Life party was accused of treason. No evidence was made public, although the press made much of the fact that Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter (Medvedchuk fled the country). Ukraine’s National Bureau of Investigation afterward accused former president, Petro Poroshenko, of corruption, treason, supporting “terrorist organizations” and being pro-Kremlin; the accusations are thus far unsupported.
Russia’s recent invasion accelerated the erosion of freedoms already underway, Zelensky invoked emergency powers under martial law to ban 11 opposition parties – all to his left – who he claimed, without proof, were pro-invasion. The largest one is the aforementioned For Life party, which has 44 seats in the Parliament; For Life’s current leader Yuriy Boyko, had demanded that Russia “stop the aggression against Ukraine,” but the party has been accused of being pro-Kremlin anyway. Another banned party is the Socialist Party of Ukraine, a kindred group to Social Democrats USA. In addition, all of the country’s remaining TV stations have been shut down except for the government’s.in order to prevent “Russian misinformation.”: And the situation promises to worsen: Zelensky stated that once the invasion is over and Russia leaves, there will be, just like in Israel, “representatives of the Armed Forces or the National Guard in cinemas, supermarkets, and people with weapons.”(Ha’Aretz, April 5)
So why has Ukraine’s government, headed by a Jewish president no less, been making common cause with a wide array of tattooed neo-Nazi and other assorted fascist paramilitary punks? If one were to follow journalists’ Woodward and Bernstein’s sage advice and follow the money, the trail would lead straight to…Ihor Kolomoisky. Ihor (pronounced Igor) Kolomoisky is a billionaire who made his money on the energy market and is a dual Ukrainian-Israeli citizen (Billionaire Ukrainian Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky Under Investigation by FBI).His TV network produced Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” and he bankrolled both Zelensky”s run for the presidency…and the Azov Battalion. He uses other fascist militias such as the Aidar Battalion and the Dnipro Squad as his own private bodyguards.(Reuters, March 20, 2015). Kolomoisky was ideally positioned to broker the infamous 2018 arms deal that featured Israeli Tavor rifles being sold to the Azov Battalion, a deal uncovered in Ha’Aretz by Israel human rights attorrney Eitay Mack.
While the far right did poorly in Ukraine’s last general elections, Zelensky promotes them regardless because Kolomoisky is literally invested in them. When the offices of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee were vandalized in 2019 by a branch of the Azov Battalion, the Zelensky government did nothing about it, but was quick to invite an Azov representative to a round-table discussion on veterans issues. In October 2021, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Honcharuk attended a veterans benefit concert organized by the far right C14 movement and featuring an anti-Semitic metal band. In December 2021, Zelensky awarded Right Sector commander Dmytro Kotsyubaylo the “Hero of Ukraine” commendation. And just a few months ago, he awarded the same commendation to Azov commander Denis Prokopenko.
In sum, Volodymyr Zelensky and Ihor Kolomoisky are sociopaths with low ethnic self-esteem bent on transforming Ukraine into an increasingly right-wing authoritarian regime where hate crimes would be the order of the day. That is exactly why Putin’s invasion serves their interests – getting Ukraine on a war footing accelerates this transformation. Forget about billions of dollars in military aid – just sending a book of matches to a country with this kind of leadership should raise eyebrows. And since the invasion began, it has never been clear into whose hands US military aid has fallen – the official armed forces (army, navy, air force) or the National Guard, which consists of the most retrograde elements of Ukraine, including the far-right paramilitary groups? (What happens to weapons sent to Ukraine? The U.S. doesn’t really know) Given US history in conflicts of choice, we can only assume the worst.
For all the reasons stated above, then, US military aid to Ukraine is wrong. What is perverse is that there used to be some members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – and Bernie Sanders – who understood that and articulated that. Now, just a few weeks ago, they suddenly turned around and joined with all the other Democrats to unanimously support a $40 billion military aid package to Ukraine without explaining why. Do they really think this posture of party unity will help them stave off defeat in the upcoming midterm elections? No matter. The real labor movement is not playing these games in Congress, but organizing in the shops and on the picket lines, both here and abroad, and they have some fine ideas on the matter of Ukraine.
In Italy, airport workers in Pisa stopped arms shipments going to Ukraine that were falsely labeled as humanitarian aid(https://www.leftvoice.org/italian-airport-workers-stop-arms-shipment-to-ukraine-under-guise-of-humanitarian-aid/) There have been other reports of workers in Belarus going on strike to halt Russian logistics (https://www.leftvoice.org/greek-railroad-workers-block-delivery-of-u-s-tanks-to-ukraine/) In Greece, railroad workers blocked a shipment of American tanks to Ukraine for more than two weeks. It was also in Greece that President Zelensky appealed to the Greek Parliament for military aid. It started out well but then he brought along some surprise guests to speak – soldiers from the Azov Battalion. That’s when he lost his audience (https://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/zelenskyy-speech-at-greek-parliament-overshadowed-by-azov-video/). Yanis Varoufakis of the left opposition party Syriza tweeted: “President Zelenski just abused the Greek Parliament’s invitation by sharing its platform with members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, thus undermining the Ukrainian people’s heroic resistance to Putin’s criminal invasion. We stand with Ukraine, not with the (sic) Azov neo-Nazi Battalion”
Contrary to what most people realize, we in the US are not safe from the Ukrainian paramilitaries. As our government’s military support for Zelensky has grown, American supporters for Azov have come crawling out of the woodwork. In April, they staged rallies in lower Manhattan in the new Congressional District 10 as well as opposite the nearby Russian Consulate:
One would hope that the 17 Democratic hopefuls vying for that open Congressional seat (including Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who just yesterday received the endorsement of the Working Families Party) are paying close attention.
David Van Deusen, President of the Vermont AFL-CIO, offers a compelling alternative to current US policy toward Ukraine in his March 24 CounterPunch piece Concerning the War in Ukraine: No Love For Putin; No Guns For Nazis. Van Deusen points out that Putin is wrong to call Ukraine a Nazi country when only a small minority of the people voted for fascists; yet the US and NATO are also wrong to act like Ukraine is free from a concerning Nazi problem when the government has been arming fascist paramilitary groups for quite some time. He maps out a policy towards protecting Ukraine and the world from Putin’s imperialism while simultaneously protecting Ukraine and the world from Nazi domination: “The U.S. and NATO must demand that the Ukrainian government immediately sever all formal ties with and forcibly dismantle Azov. They must also pledge to withhold weapons from any and all Nazi or fascist groups active within their borders. The Ukrainian government must further agree to take steps that would allow for the verification that such conditions are being met. While this effort would inevitably be resisted by the Zelenskyy administration (as they will claim they need those far right forces on the front lines), their reliance on Western arms does not allow them the latitude to resist such demands with vigor should such conditions be imposed.”
Van Deusen continues, “The West must also provide massive humanitarian aid and free passage for non-fascist refugees seeking to escape the conflict, and for the cancellation of all IMF and World Bank debts (and austerity requirements associated with them) in order to not exasperate the conditions under which fascism can thrive. The U.S. and NATO can also assist in defusing global tensions by publicly stating a commitment to not expand NATO any further into former Soviet territories (historically NATO has its own imperialist interests that have destabilized international relations). Further, as circumstances arise, Organized Labor should look to provide material and political support for those leftist armed formations taking shape as part of the resistance (and moral support to those Russians who continue to protest the war). Doing so shall help restore a favorable balance of power internally in the post war period. And recognizing that Russia is a nuclear power, under no circumstances should the U.S. and NATO seek to impose a no-fly zone. Such an act would amount to the start of an air war with Russia thereby risking World War III.” A salient point, Brother Van Deusen, which is why opposition to a no-fly zone was a key part of SDUSA’s Ukraine resolution in the first place!
More to the point, subsequent events have confirmed the wisdom of not taking a stance in favor of military aid to Ukraine, even if one were unaware of the totality of its vile history, especially toward minorities. David Van Deusen offers a serious idea that should be looked at by any of the up-and-coming newly-elected Congressional progressives and, first and foremost, be promoted as a social democratic idea!
Sheldon Ranz is Director of Special Projects for Social Democrats USA and the editor of Socialist Currents.
Susan Stevens is the Chair of the Kansas City, Kansas chapter of Social Democrats USA.