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About Those ‘Fascists’ in Kyiv

Moscow floats some groundless theories in a bid to justify its move into Crimea.

by Dominique Arel 6 March 2014

The unimaginable is now before us: days ago, the higher chamber of the Russian parliament authorized Russia to send troops “on the territory of Ukraine,” leaving open the possibility that the Russian army, currently occupying Crimea, may be dispatched elsewhere on Ukrainian territory. In seeking to legitimize its military operation, Russia invokes political, ethnic, and security arguments. None stands up to analysis.


A Maidan demonstrator flies the national colors in February. Photo by spoilt.exile/flickr.

The political argument is that Ukraine is in the throes of an illegitimate political regime that came to power as a result of a “fascist coup.” "Fascism" means something very specific in Russian discourse: since World War II, the invasion by Germany has always been presented as an invasion of “fascists.” The fascists are the Nazis and their collaborators. In western Ukraine, a violent Ukrainian insurgency against the Soviet Union tactically allied with Germany during the war. Russian discourse labels these insurgents “fascists” (or “Banderites,” after their leader, Stepan Bandera, a term that acquired equivalent meaning). Since key groups on the Maidan – the parliamentary Svoboda (Freedom) and the popular movement Pravyi sector (Right Sector) – claim lineage to the wartime insurgency, the collapse of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime is portrayed in Russia as an internal fascist invasion.



This narrative omits three basic points.



The first is that the regime collapsed because all police forces withdrew on 21 February, leaving government buildings unprotected. They withdrew not because they were overcome by armed militants, but because of demoralization, caused either by having previously used live ammunition or by becoming unwilling to defend a regime perceived as widely corrupt. The second is that it is not the insurgents who attacked civilians (unlike wartime insurgents, who attacked Jewish and Polish civilians), but rather the state, and in the end the state security forces gave up. The third is that the political pillars of the previous regime, the Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine, have both recognized the legitimacy of the new government. The Communists, who depict wartime insurgents as fascists, voted en bloc for all constitutional changes in the first week of the new government.


The ethnic argument is that the lives of Russia's “compatriots” are in danger. The resolution of the Russian parliament refers both to “citizens” – who, outside of Sevastopol, are not too numerous, since dual citizenship is illegal in Ukraine – and to this vague category of “compatriots,” which has no standing in international law.



“Compatriots” is code for ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, in the context where most residents of eastern Ukraine prefer to speak Russian. It is this undifferentiated “Russian” mass that the Russian state now sees as under threat by the “nationalists” who have taken power in Kyiv (“nationalist,” since the Soviet days, has been used as a synonym for “fascist”). This narrative assumes that, in this defining moment for Ukraine, eastern Ukrainians will choose Russian protection over “Ukrainian nationalist” rule. Russia's power play could actually have the opposite effect of further crystallizing Ukrainian identity in the east. There is no organized Russian community in eastern Ukraine – unlike in Crimea – because many, if not most “Russians” are partly of Ukrainian background, and many “Ukrainians” are partly Russian. This ethnic mixing likely explains the ambivalence expressed by eastern Ukrainians toward Russia. Under quasi-war conditions, the ambivalence could lead to a greater assertion of Ukrainian identity. The fact that mass demonstrations have occurred in eastern Ukraine, a traditionally passive society, could be seen as a barometer of a rising attachment to the nation, defined in civic terms.

The security argument is that the events that have “destabilized” Ukraine are the results of Western meddling on a territory that has historically belonged to the Russian sphere of interests. (The Russian historical narrative actually places Kyiv as the “mother of all Russian cities.”) Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to firmly believe that the Maidan movement was instigated by Western powers, a claim obliquely repeated by Yanukovych in his Rostov press conference. The “meddling,” however, was declarative, with Western powers expressing support for the right of Maidan demonstrators to peacefully air their grievances and repeatedly inviting the Ukrainian authorities to find a political solution and avoid the use of violence. Until the protests turned into mass killing, the EU and the United States were in fact criticized in the West for how little concrete help they provided to Maidan, the EU resisting, for instance, the imposition of personal sanctions until the very end, when the police began shooting at demonstrators.



The argument of Western intervention, however, operates on a higher plane than immediate support on the ground, taking the form of the claim, also often made in Western liberal and leftist circles, that the West's ulterior motive is to secure military bases in Russia's back yard and to make the Ukrainian market available for cheap labor for the benefit of advanced Western economies. While these points merit a rigorous hearing, primarily or exclusively focusing on them ignores the profoundly civic dimension of the Ukrainian rebellion. Maidan, initially a protest for Europe, became a protest against police brutality, large-scale corruption, and the lack of political accountability. Since all these features are also associated with the current Russian state, opposing them became a symbolic reaffirmation of “European” values (even if the free trade agreement was no longer talked about). It is easy to be dismissive of the weight of “values,” but the fact is that insurgents were willing to pay with their lives for them, and it is their stance that ultimately broke the will of the Yanukovych regime. The meddling, in the end, was of “European” ideas and they, in themselves, are seen as an infringement on the security not of Russia, but of the Russian political system developed under Putin. The logical fallacy is that since Western powers could benefit from the bottom-up Ukrainian civic uprising, then they must have caused it. They did not.

Dominique Arel holds the chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa.
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