On Both Sides of the Front

August 2016
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The following is a fragment from a book by Vyacheslav Likhachov entitled  From Maidan to the Right: Revolution, War, and the Far-Right in Ukraine (2013-2016), the Ukrainian edition of which is forthcoming in Krytyka Press.

An Intervention: the Beginning

The bloody conflict (I tend to regard it as armed Russian aggression) on parts of the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, which with changing intensity, is already continuing into its third year, has turned out to be the biggest military, political, social and humanitarian crisis in Europe. This is true at least for the period after the breakup of Yugoslavia – or even since the end of WWII, judging from a different perspective. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict confronts politicians, diplomats, the international community as well as social scientists with a series of difficult questions.

Among the various issues related to the conflict, each of which deserves a discussion in its own right, the troublesome participation of right-wing radicals (often portrayed as “Fascists” in media and everyday language) in military operations on both sides of the front has attracted a great deal of attention in society. The combatants openly use neo-Nazi symbols, shocking a public confronted with photos exposing such symbolism. It seems as if the combatants, with their ideology-induced inclination towards violence, savor the atmosphere of arbitrariness and impunity, which prevails in the conflict zone. Close observers are seriously concerned about the fact that holders of contemptuous ideologies have access to a wide range of resources, in particular, arms. Criminal records regularly testify that those weapons are not only used within the conflict zone. The ultra-nationalists’ active participation in the conflict allowed for the accumulation of symbolic capital, which in the future could ultimately legitimize their (increased, as compared to before) presence in the political and social life in both Russia and Ukraine. However, this is especially relevant for Ukraine, since a free and competitive political process is absent in Russia. At the same time, apparently both Russian pro-regime and opposition politicians benefit from playing out the “Ukrainian topics” or “Donbas aid” card.

Marginal extremist organizations and their activists, who were completely unknown to the wider public until the outbreak of the conflict, are positively framed in the media, which tends to sympathize with both sides of the conflict. This process is accompanied by the popularization of a corresponding structure in social networks, which is playing an increasingly important role in socio-political information strategies. Gradually, the organizations become known, gain access to previously unreachable media spaces, and win a certain level of support in society. This support stems from the fact that the most known organizations are considered as groupings participating in military operations rather than holders of contemptuous ideologies – even though their spokespersons continue to express their views and, rather often, propagate them out of favorable positions. It goes without saying that the glorification of individual ideologists, in principle, makes it easier to legitimize them in public discourse. Neo-Nazi symbolism and attributes become something familiar and acceptable for society – they start to be associated with “heroic defenders” rather than with street thugs who organize raids on foreigners. The right-wing conservative discourse, which comes naturally in times of conflict, creates favorable intellectual conditions for the spread of ultranationalist ideologies.

So far, it is difficult to assess the magnitude and factual threat of these processes for society and statehood in general. However, it is clear that they already affect the socio-political reality in Russia and Ukraine and thus deserve serious attention.

Despite the popularity of the topic “Neo-Nazis at war” in the media sphere and its undoubtedly social significance, it has not aroused the attention of the scholarly community so far. Neither is there a complete scientific bibliography or consensus on the terminology used. This considerably complicates my task within the scope of the outlined issue. The existence of several dazzling journalistic portraits of combatants with radical-national views does not really change the situation.

In a way, this is a natural phenomenon. When discussing events, which take place right before our eyes, the demand on the expert community for an immediate reaction is very challenging. This is especially true in areas where the information space is filled with unconfirmed and inaccurate reporting or even deliberative disinformation. Be it voluntarily or out of negligence, the researcher becomes a part of propagandistic campaigns and sometimes false debates, in which each word can be used by one of the parties involved (which is a good thing in cases when this happens in the non-distorted way) – with far-reaching consequences.

Since the first days of the conflict, the portrait of “Fascists” fighting “on the other side” has been an important part of the mobilization of active support for the “own” audience. The relevance of this factor in the context of the “hybrid warfare,” during which a propaganda campaign was started and which cannot solely be regarded as a concomitant of or vindicator for violence and fighting, but which occasionally causes it, cannot be overstated. In the face of a threat, perceived as very real, models of aggressive behavior are considered as natural. In such instances, the use of violence is regarded as reactive behavior or, at least, as a kind of preventive action. This behavioral model, which almost inevitably stirs up the cycle of inter-group violence, is particularly deemed as natural when the real or imagined treat emanates from a dehumanized enemy. He is perceived as a stereotyped, inhumane marker of negative attributes. Originating from a certain cultural tradition, no enemy in the post-Soviet space is more demonized than the “Fascist” (the actual substance of the concept of “Fascism” was removed, in particular during the Stalinist era, catering to a language that is able to describe the anti-Soviet Ukrainian national liberation movement).

Thus, it is clear that the topic of “Fascists” in the context of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict entails two dimensions: they can be provisionally described as the “real” and the “medial”. I shall stress the importance in order to distinguish between them. The information strategies, which played their part when preparing the ground for the Russian invasion and its propagandistic deception, require a separate analysis. In this paper I will focus on the “real” dimension of the problem, while keeping in mind the instrumentalization of the “Fascist” image during the propagandistic campaign and their share in the escalation of the conflict (especially during the early phase).

Media is always unintentionally constructing a separate reality, simply by addressing certain topics while ignoring others, choosing subjects, conducting interviews with heroes, emphasizing certain aspects and shaping the mental pictures of the audience. In other words, it is creating a narrative, especially in emotional situations such as during conflict. Understanding to what extent events are adequately reflected in the discourse of certain media, is a rather difficult task for researchers. It gets even more complicated where the media, deliberately or not, carries out propagandistic or mobilizing functions (which is the subject of our research).

I do not expect to deal exhaustively with the topic, but rather intend to outline the boundaries of the topic. My task is an attempt to formulate an answer to a couple of simple questions: How important are radical nationalists in the Donbas insurgency? What is their share among the participants of the conflict?

Moreover, given their practical significance, another important factor is the question of the ultra-right´s near-term political perspectives in the context of their participation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

But first of all, we shall discuss what I understand by “Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict.”


As the war must be classified as a “hybrid” one, it is difficult to precisely define its chronological scope. In order to understand this, let us review the context of the events.

After the bloody incidents in Kyiv during 18th – 20th February, during the night of 22nd February, President Yanukovych signed an agreement with representatives of the parliamentary opposition and then fled in an unknown direction. Meanwhile, police units and troops of the interior almost completely left the center of the capital. Maidan activists started to protect administrative buildings. The Verkhovna Rada declared on 22nd February that the president had independently refrained from fulfilling his constitutional duties. The next day, Oleksandr Turchynov, representative of the former opposition party All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland,” was appointed as acting president until early elections were held. On 27th February, the parliament formed a new government under the aegis of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the “Front for Change.”

Radical Ukrainian nationalists were among the groups that participated in the protests from the very beginning. Some members of Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups even joined the ranks of so-called titushky1– hired fighters who attacked the protesters. Thereby, those Maidan-opponents who were able to articulate some kind of ideology, mainly expressed views of Russian nationalism with varying degrees of radicalism, or variants of eclectic neo-Soviet patriotism.

Let me point out that the far right did not play any major role in the revolution and did not receive any significant political rewards from the participation in it (at least until the beginning of the war). But the Russian invasion gave a new impetus to the development of Ukrainian national radicalism.

Almost immediately after the protest movement´s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the Crimean Peninsula experienced Russian armed intervention. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, announced the decision on the occupation and the disintegration of the Autonomous Crimean Republic (ACR) from Ukraine during a meeting with heads of the “Special Forces” and the Ministry of Defense in the night of 23rd February. Based on numerous indirect indicators, it could be concluded with a certain degree of confidence that at least the active preparation for the invasion had been launched much earlier.

The statement of the Verkhovna Rada No. 337-VIII “on the repulsion of the military aggression of the Russian Federation and the resolution of its consequences” from 21st April dates February 20th, 2014 as the beginning of the aggression. According to the statement, that day witnessed the first documented breaches of the Russian Federation’s international legal obligations by its Armed Forces in terms of the illegal crossing of Ukraine´s state border in the Kerch Strait area, as well as the use of its military units stationed on Crimea, according to the agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation “On the Status and the Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet” of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian soil from 28th May 1997 in order to block Ukrainian military units.

On the night of February 27th, the Russian aggression entered into its open stage. This could have been considered as the latest possible date for the beginning of the military intervention. That was the day Russian troops seized the buildings of the Crimean Parliament and the Council of Ministers and blocked the connection with the peninsula. Although there was no large-scale fighting on Crimea (excluding clashes and skirmishes during the capture of Ukrainian military bases by the aggressor), that day could be dated as the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The following days witnessed the active cross-border transfer of military units and equipment. Furthermore, a high amount of allegedly civilian fighters arrived on Crimea – retired soldiers, veterans from the Afghan war as well as the so-called local armed conflicts [which occurred after the break-up of the Soviet Union, ed.], supporters of the paramilitary neo-Cossack movement, bikers, sportsmen, members of pro-Kremlin groups, criminals and right-wing radicals. They acted as the “local population” during the mass rally in front of the Crimean Parliament on 26th February as well as the subsequent blockade of Ukrainian military bases. These people formed the backbone of the so-called “Crimean self-defense” – that is, illegal armed groups, which threatened everyone who potentially disagreed with the Russian aggression (up to kidnapping, torture, and murder).

On March 17th, the Russian President declared the independence of the Republic of Crimea. The next day, a formal decision about the annexation of occupied Crimea was approved in terms of an international agreement, which stipulated the integration of Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia. On 28th March, the President of Ukraine issued an order on the withdrawal of Ukrainian military units from the territory of the peninsula.

Despite considerable differences in the nature, trajectory and consequences of the Russian invasion on the peninsula and in eastern Ukraine, I am inclined to regard them as one single process, and to date the beginning of the aggression back to February 2014.

On Crimea, the main actors of the aggression were regular members of the Russian Army. Militants and paramilitary activists, along with members of radical right-wing groups, recruited via various channels, lent support. On the other side, there was no documented action of hypothetical Ukrainian radical nationalists aimed towards countering the aggression. The occupation and annexation of Crimea happened in a very short time – in less than a month. Independent media, NGOs, Human Right Groups and independent observers on Crimea were paralyzed from the very beginning of the aggression, resulting in a lack of open accessible information about the mechanisms of the intervention. Although the narrative of a non-violent “Anschluss” of the peninsula is, of course, a propagandistic fabrication, the Donbas became the real theater of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Thus, while stressing that the Russian aggression against Ukraine began on Crimea, I will focus on the events in the east of the country hereinafter.

The opponents of the new government initially showed up in various cities in southern and eastern Ukraine (inter alia, in Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, and Kharkiv) in late February – early March. Among them were both peaceful and aggressive proponents. The opponents of the revolution participated in rallies, occupied squares for permanent action, attacked local Euromaidan supporters and seized administrative buildings.

It is difficult to determine the clear nature of these early protests. On the one hand, they occurred after the “Antimaidan” rallies, organized by remnants of the former government with the help of administrative resources, partly for the purpose of imitating popular support, and partly for the forced oppression of the protest movement. From December 2013 to February 2014, pro-government [then pro-Yanukovich, ed.] gunmen attacked peaceful participants of opposition rallies with help from the police in many regions (especially in Kyiv, Odessa, Dnipro, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk). Those titushky were paid for their service and they were well-organized and well-equipped (in the beginning with blunt weapons, but during the last days of the confrontation, with firearms). It has been established that the civil activists of the Antimaidan’s militant section were handed out at least several a dozen automatic weapons from police warehouses, with which many protesters were killed. After the victory of the Revolution of Dignity, the bulk of groups involved in the militant section of the Antimaidan were disbanded, and their members scattered. However, due to the inertia of some regions, further confrontation became inevitable.

An important factor for the mobilization of the population in favor of this movement was the “Anti-Fascist” propaganda campaign, already initiated in 2013, which portrayed all opponents of Yanukovych and the government of the Party of Regions as “Banderists” and “Nazis.” It reached its peak precisely during the Revolution of Dignity. The major digital media outlets, which at that time were controlled by the ruling party, fervently, consistently, and systematically fueled completely inadequate fears among the audience. After the victory of the revolution, the “anti-Fascist” hysteria was picked up by regional and Russian media. Reports that “Banderites” had seized power in Kyiv prompted a number of ideologically motivated activists, who feared reprisals and discriminations of their language rights, to take to the streets in the south-eastern regions. The “Ribbon of Saint George” turned into the visual expression of anti-Fascist consolidation of the populace. It was disseminated in Russia in 2005 as a symbol of the “50th anniversary of the Great Victory,” but from the very beginning it was used as a domestic counterweight to the “Orange Ribbons” of the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004, which had just turned out to be victorious and which deeply frightened the Kremlin.

Another important impulse towards the Antimaidan arose from the regional oligarchic nomenclature turmoil, caused by fear of a possible investigation of crime and rights abuses by the former regime, and the desire to “bargain” the most beneficial arrangements with the center. It is obvious that, claiming to be the only power able to guarantee local control, the local elites were interested in imitating the disobedience of the regions. This can be regarded as a form of blackmailing of the new and still weak government. That way, the regional clans made clear that any lack of guarantees for their personal well-being and their corrupted and criminal business would inevitably lead to chaos and loss of control in regions disloyal to the political forces that came to power.

But the illusion of local elites about the imitation of “superficial” separatism quickly dispersed. Control over the process could not be maintained, both because of the unmanageable situation in the country as a whole, and the Russian interference.

From the very beginning of March, Russians had begun to participate in protests and violent actions in Ukrainian cities. They can be traditionally divided into two types: a few “professionals” and the “background actors.”

The “professionals” headed towards various cities from Donetsk to Odessa. They had specialized in informational, organizational and financial activities, or in the performance of military sabotage tasks. They were nowhere near being permanent official employees of Russian law enforcement agencies. The information that can be compiled from public sources does not allow for a definite assessment of the extent to which the power structures were monitoring the activities of the professionals. In any case, during the first six weeks of the aggression, that is until the beginning of the open phase on mainland Ukraine, the main task of both “saboteurs” as well as “spin doctors” was the organization and coordination of the activities of local pro-Russian participants. This entailed both members of far-right and neo-Nazi groups and imperialist patriots and people with implicit political views. By mid-March, after the completion of the hottest phase of the occupation of Crimea, a part of the militants located from there (mainly those who had formerly fought in “hot spots”) immediately went through Russian territory to Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.

The participants on the local level, who formed the core of public “anti-Banderite” (that is, anti-government) rallies in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, accompanied by acts of violence and the seizure of administrative buildings, were largely carried into Ukraine by buses from neighboring Russian regions such as Belgorod, Voronezh, Rostov, and the like. By the end of March, this process was a widespread phenomenon.

The beginning of the open stage of armed Russian aggression in Donbas can be dated back to 12th April. On that day, Russian soldiers and “volunteers” took the center of the Sloviansk district situated to the north of the Donetsk oblast. The group of armed militants was led by retired FSB-colonel Igor Girkin (“Strelkov”), who previously took part in the occupation of Crimea – as did most members of his group. “Strelkov” claimed that it was him alone who “pulled the trigger of war”:

If our unit had not crossed the border, it all would have finished the same way it did in Kharkiv or Odessa. […] It was in fact our unit that gave the war, which continues up to this day, its momentum.

On the same day, a similar sabotage unit (“Wolves Hundred”), which also participated in the occupation of Crimea, brought Kramatorsk under control. This certainly proves the systematically planned nature of the aggression and the coordination of various groups on the side of the Russian aggressors.

On 14th April, two days after the beginning of open hostilities in the Donetsk oblast, interim President Turchinov signed a decree for the conduct of an anti-terror operation [ATO, ed.]. Since a formal state of war was never introduced, and martial law never declared, 14th April is the latest date to fix the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian War in Donbas.

The political structure of those regions, which fell beyond control of the Ukrainian government, changed. According to evidence, which I consider as credible, the original plan of the Kremlin stipulated that the eight south-eastern regions Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa should disintegrate from Ukraine. The ideological foundation of this project was the concept of a “Confederation of Novorossiya,” which was even formally proclaimed in May 2014, but following the failure of Russia´s plans outside Donbas and the cessation of hostilities, came to a halt in spring 2015. Once it became clear that other regions resisted the subordination to Russia´s sphere of influence, the occupants created two puppet regimes in the occupied regions: the “People´s Republic of Donetsk” (“DNR”) and the “People´s Republic of Luhansk” (“LNR”).

During the summer of 2014, as a result of the ATO conducted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the territory under control of pro-Russian terrorists shrank almost threefold. Mariupol (the second most important city of Donetsk oblast in terms of population and economic weight) was liberated, as was Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where the Russian aggression in Donbas and many other villages had started in April 2014. Ukrainian troops already stood in the outskirts of Luhansk and Donetsk.

However, after the intervention of the Russian Army and the beginning of shelling incoming from Russian territory, Ukraine lost control over a considerable part of its border, which was not only crossed by large numbers of volunteer fighters and military experts, but also witnessed the arrival of heavy weapons and ammunition. By late August 2014, the direct intervention of the Russian Army units had stopped the progress made by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Ukrainian side suffered a heavy defeat in the battle of Illovaisk. The Minsk Accords, which were afterwards negotiated under pressure from the EU, should have frozen the conflict by September 2014. Yet, Russia and its puppets did not adhere to the achieved agreement. There was heavy fighting near Donetsk airport and Debaltseve in winter 2014 and spring 2015. However, the front line, separating Ukrainian troops from Russian forces and pro-Russian militants, remained almost unchanged as of August 2014. The intensity of the confrontation has decreased significantly since spring 2015. By spring 2016, full-fledged fighting has almost ceased, although occasional incidents still occur.

Translated from Ukrainian by Johann Zajaczkowski and copy edited by Teresa Wigglesworth-Baker. 

  • 1.The term originates from the name of the Ukrainian sportsman Vadym Titushko who, in May 2013, attacked two journalists (Ed.)
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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka