Nazis? What Nazis?

One thing is clearly missing from the media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, argues Daniel Lazare

Prior to Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”, the question of a growing Nazi presence in Ukraine was a topic the mainstream media felt free to discuss. The BBC, The Times, The Guardian and The New York Times all ran stories about it, while Bellingcat, the CIA and MI6 favourite ‘independent’ website, showed how Ukrainian neo-fascists were linking up with Nazis in the United States to help create a “world conservative revolution” in order to “defend the white race”.1 Even the US Congress got into the act, voting in March 2018 to temporarily block military aid to the country’s far-right Azov Battalion because of its white-supremacist ideology.

But the party line has changed. It now holds that (a) neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine is negligible and that (b), even if it was not, we should not discuss it, because we would be playing into Kremlin hands if we do. A particularly extreme version occurred last week when The New York Times ran a front-page story asserting that Russian complaints about Nazism are “puzzling” because Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish:

Ukraine’s government is “openly neo-Nazi” and “pro-Nazi”, controlled by “little Nazis”, president Vladimir V Putin of Russia says. The “Nazi” slur’s sudden emergence shows how Mr Putin is trying to use stereotypes, distorted reality and his country’s lingering World War II trauma to justify his invasion of Ukraine.2

But, the Times went on, Nazis “in reality occupy a marginal place in Ukrainian society”. Bottom line: the Kremlin is making a mountain out of a molehill in order to justify its illegal invasion.

But then the Times began to backtrack. After a dozen paragraphs of anti-Russian vitriol, it finally conceded that maybe the claims were not so baseless after all: “Like many lies, Mr Putin’s claim about a Nazi-controlled Ukraine has a hall-of-mirrors connection to reality,” it said. “Jewish groups and others have, in fact, criticised Ukraine since its pro-western revolution in 2014 for allowing Ukrainian independence fighters who at one point sided with Nazi Germany to be venerated as national heroes.”

The Times continued:

Eduard Dolinsky, director general of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a group representing Ukrainian Jews, said that some in the country do derisively refer to those far-right groups as ‘Naziki’ - ‘little Nazis’ - as Mr Putin does. On social media, Mr Dolinsky in recent years has frequently called attention to things like the renaming of a major stadium in western Ukraine for Roman Shukhevych, a Ukrainian nationalist leader. He commanded troops that were implicated in mass killings of Jews and Poles during World War II.

Putin is wrong, in other words, except when he’s right. He is sounding false alarms that nonetheless turn out to be distinctly alarming.

Growing influence

In fact, Nazi influence in Ukraine is massive and growing. Dolinsky’s Twitter feed describes a steady stream of anti-Semitic incidents that would be a major scandal anywhere else except Ukraine. On February 8, he tweeted about an upcoming event at Kyiv’s Maidan Museum, devoted to the “ideas and modern challenges” of the Nazi-collaborationist, Stepan Bandera (“The main ideas of World War II Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan Bandera,” he interjected, are “the ethnic cleansing of Poles and murder of Jews”). On February 7, he tweeted about a skit at an Orthodox church featuring Ukrainians in traditional dress pledging to boycott paysatye: ie, Jews with payot or side curls. On February 4, he tweeted footage of a school play in Lviv about a Jew named Moshko who “takes a little, cheating, robbing, always with money, hryvna, euro, cents - he will lend it with percent. And if you not return - he’ll get all your stuff ...” On February 3, he tweeted about a nativity play featuring yet another skulking Jew, who declares that the messiah will give “us - kikes with peysim - a lot of money”.3

It is like something out of Isaac Babel - except that it is occurring a full century later.

As for Shukhevych, he is not just a “nationalist”, as The New York Times describes him, but a hitman who took part in a string of assassination attempts from the mid-1920s against Polish officials and later helped organise a military unit known as the Nachtigall Battalion, which took part in the massacre of 4,000 Jews in Lvov and other west Ukrainian cities following the Nazi invasion in 1941. Shukhevych then joined an auxiliary police unit, whose main activity, according to one historian, was “fighting partisans and killing Jews”.4 In mid-1943, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, which he helped command, launched an ethnic-cleansing operation in a Polish-Ukrainian border zone that may have killed as many as 100,000 Poles over a two-month period.

Naming a stadium after him would be the equivalent, in America, of naming one after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who went on to found the Ku Klux Klan. But where the reaction in the US would be one of shock and dismay, in Ukraine it is no big deal.

All told, more than a dozen Ukrainian cities, including Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Khmelnytskyi, have erected plaques and monuments celebrating Shukhevych as a “hero of Ukraine”, while more than 50 have put up plaques and monuments in honour of Bandera. In 2016, Kyiv even named a major boulevard after him - a gesture that was especially appalling, since the boulevard leads straight to Babi Yar, the ravine in which Nazis exterminated 33,000 Jews with the help of Ukrainian collaborators.5

“Eighty years ago, they [Ukrainians] rescued Jews,” president Zelensky told the Israeli Knesset last week - words that caused members to turn away in disgust. “If Zelensky’s speech was given … in normal times,” one noted, “we would have said it bordered on holocaust denial.”6

“Bordered on holocaust denial”? In fact, it is the real thing. So what does this orgy of anti-Semitism and Nazi nostalgia mean? Perhaps the best way to answer is to begin with what it does not mean.

It does not mean, for example, that Putin is an anti-fascist. Even though he says his goal is to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, he is a Russian nationalist whose concerns vis-à-vis Ukraine are less political than geostrategic: ie, less with driving Nazis out than with preventing Nato from obtaining a foothold in a Russian borderland.

But Nazi nostalgia does not mean that Ukraine is fascist either. To the contrary, it is a corrupt and broken-down state in which neo-Nazis do not wield total power - yet - but still enjoy disproportionate clout. The reason is simple. Zelensky is a standard neoliberal, who wants to lift restrictions on the sale of commercial farmland and says he wants to fight corruption as well, even though he is a protégé of the notorious oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky. But he heads a government that is beholden to the ultra-right - it was the neo-Nazi-led mob that put it in power during the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv in February 2014. That is why neo-Nazis are increasingly able to call the shots, despite polling less than two percent in national elections.

Zelensky is increasingly deferential as a consequence. When Andriy Biletsky, the Azov Battalion’s founder, refused to withdraw his forces from the breakaway province of Luhansk in Ukraine’s east in 2019, Zelensky quickly backed off.7 When Spanish fans taunted Ukrainian footballer Roman Zozulya as a Nazi, Zelensky leapt to his defence - even though Zozulya has been photographed posing next to a picture of Bandera and is an open Azov Battalion supporter. Zozulya is “not only a cool football player, but a true patriot,” he said. Last November, Zelensky’s government appointed Dmytro Yarosh - a fascist who headed Ukraine’s so-called Right Sector from 2013 to 2015 - as an advisor to the armed forces commander in chief. A few weeks later, Zelensky honoured Dmytro Kotsyubaylo, Yarosh’s successor as Right Sector chief.8

Kotsyubaylo is the kind of thug who keeps a pet wolf in a cage outside his office and, according to The New York Times, likes to joke about feeding it the bones of Russian-speaking children.9 Yet now he is an official “hero of Ukraine”.

Real enemy

Which brings us to the real meaning of Nazi nostalgia. Simply put, it is that the far-right presence in Ukraine is big, it is growing and, the worse the war gets, the greater the likelihood that it will wind up on top. “In many ways, the Ukraine situation reminds me of Syria in the early and middle years of the last decade,” Rita Katz, founder of the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic and ultra-right terrorism, recently observed. “Just as the Syrian conflict served as a perfect breeding ground for groups like al Qa’eda and Islamic State, similar conditions may be brewing in Ukraine for the far right.”

Site, a rightwing outfit that works closely with the FBI and other intelligence agencies, nonetheless seems to have its finger on the pulse of the ultra-right. White nationalists and neo-Nazis, it says, are rushing to sign up for the war from near and far. One recruit wrote on a far-right website: “Anyway, when I get to Ukraine I’m going to kill extra Jews now whenever I see them.” Another said: “I’m getting my gear together, hail Hitler, glory to Ukraine and let’s all kill some [expletive] Jews for Wotan!” A third wrote:

This war is going to burn away the physical and moral weakness of our people, so that a strong nation may rise from the ashes. Our job is to ensure that conditions remain terrible enough for long enough for this transformation to happen, and happen it must. Our future is at stake and we may not get another chance - certainly not one as good as this.10

Just as Syria and Afghanistan were breeding grounds for terrorism, Ukraine is turning into a breeding ground for fascism. The more the US pours advanced weaponry into the hands of groups like the Azov Battalion, the more it will wind up fanning the flames of fascism - and the more the corporate media will look away. As angry as the western left may be at Putin for launching this disastrous war, they should keep one thing in mind: the real enemy is at home.

  1. www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2019/02/15/defend-the-white-race-american-extremists-being-co-opted-by-ukraines-far-right.↩︎

  2. www.nytimes.com/2022/03/17/world/europe/ukraine-putin-nazis.html.↩︎

  3. twitter.com/edolinsky.↩︎

  4. PA Rudling, ‘The cult of Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine’ Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies (2016): lucris.lub.lu.se/ws/portalfiles/portal/17219693/22116257_005_01_S003_text.pdf.↩︎

  5. forward.com/news/462916/nazi-collaborator-monuments-in-ukraine.↩︎

  6. www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/article-701850.↩︎

  7. www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/im-not-a-loser-zelensky-clashes-with-veterans-over-donbas-disengagement.html.↩︎

  8. thegrayzone.com/2022/03/04/nazis-ukrainian-war-russia.↩︎

  9. www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/world/europe/-ukraine-russia-putin-invasion.html.↩︎

  10. www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/03/14/neo-nazi-ukraine-war.↩︎