The Russians claim that one of the main reasons they are preparing to annex Ukrainian Crimea, and may end up occupying all of Ukraine in the coming weeks, is that Nazis have run amok in the nation on their southwestern border.
You’ll hear a similar argument from some on the American left, who don’t want to see the United States and Europe take any serious steps to counter the Russian incursion.
So I decided to look into the question – and as the BBC notes, in an excellent article, it’s a mixed bag. More on that in a moment.
Russia’s crocodile tears over the Nazi threat
I’ve written a few articles about the irony of Russians complaining about a Nazi threat abroad when the Putin regime has been happy to let neo-Nazis do his dirty work at home.
For almost two years now, a Russian neo-Nazi gang, with affiliates in at least 30 Russian cities, has kidnapped and tortured nearly 1,500 gay and transgender Russians. The organization is called “Occupy Pedophilia,” and its victims are usually gay males in their late teens and early twenties, but some have been as young as 13 – and few appear to be actual pedophiles.
While the identities of the gang members are well-known, the Russians have done little to put a stop to the violence. The kidnappers are so certain that the Putin regime will do nothing to interrupt their work, they don’t even try to hide their identities in the videos they make of the abductions.
So pardon me an eye-roll when the Russian government professes any concern about neo-Nazis. But when friends raise similar concerns, it’s worth a look. So I took one. Read on.
Has the Ukrainian revolution been co-opted by fascists? Not quite.
The more subtle question is to what degree the Ukrainian government and revolution are co-opted by the far right.
The second seminal piece on the matter was written by Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books.
In a rather long, but comprehensive, piece Snyder makes a similar case as the BBC: There is far-right influence, it’s not nearly as pervasive as some are alleging, its involvement is, to a degree, understandable, and people should keep an eye on it. Here’s Snyder:
The Ukrainian far right did play an important part in the revolution. What it did, in going to the barricades, was to liberate itself from the regime of which it had been one of the bulwarks. One of the moral atrocities of the Yanukovych regime was to crush opposition from the center-right, and support opposition from the far right. By imprisoning his major opponents from the legal political parties, most famously Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych was able to make of democracy a game in which he and the far right were the only players.
The far right, a party called Svoboda, grew larger in these conditions, but never remotely large enough to pose a real challenge to the Yanukovych regime in democratic elections. In this arrangement Yanukovych could then tell gullible westerners that he was the alternative to the far right. In fact, Svoboda was a house opposition that, during the revolution, rebelled against its own leadership. Against the wishes of their leaders, the radical youth of Svoboda fought in considerable numbers, alongside of course people of completely different views. They fought and they took risks and they died, sometimes while trying to save others. In the post-revolutionary situation these young men will likely seek new leadership. The leader of Svoboda, according to opinion polls, has little popular support; if he chooses to run for president, which is unlikely, he will lose.
The radical alternative to Svoboda is Right Sector, a group of far-right organizations whose frankly admitted goal was not a European future but a national revolution against all foreign influences. In the long run, Right Sector is the group to watch. For the time being, its leaders have been very careful, in conversations with both Jews and Russians, to stress that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial. In the days after the revolution they have not caused violence or disorder.
Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails. The young leaders of the Maidan, some of them radical leftists, have risked their lives to oppose a regime that represented, at an extreme, the inequalities that we criticize at home. They have an experience of revolution that we do not. Part of that experience, unfortunately, is that Westerners are provincial, gullible, and reactionary.
The BBC confirms the same:
[The far right's] role in ousting the president and establishing a new Euromaidan-led government should not be exaggerated.
But, as the second image shows, nor should their involvement be played down, especially now they have assumed key ministerial posts.
Euromaidan officials are not fascists, nor do fascists dominate the movement.
Contrary to some claims, ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are not being attacked or under threat of violence. And anti-Semitism has played absolutely no role in the demonstrations and government.
Euromaidan has been a movement supported by just under half of Ukrainians according to a recent poll – representing a broad swathe of Ukrainian society: Russian and Ukrainian speakers; east and west; gay and straight; Christians, Muslims and Jews.
They united to remove Viktor Yanukovych and seem to be coming together again in the belief they need to defend Ukraine against Russia.
The ultra-nationalists, and their extreme right fringe, are a small part of the overall campaign – a subgroup of a minority. They are concentrated primarily amid the tents, barricades and self-defence units of the Maidan, the shorthand term for the movement’s core.
However, even though the far right are a minority, for their numbers they have played an outsized, though not decisive, role. What is more, at key points they have influenced the course of the demonstrations.
Europe’s peculiar embrace of parties considered “extreme” in America
The BBC goes on to note that “Ultra-nationalist parties, such as France’s National Front, are a fact of Europe’s present political landscape.” And they’re right – and it’s not just limited to ultra-nationalists. Political “extremes” that would shock many Americans are par for the course in Europe. Governments run by “socialists,” and parliaments that include “communists,” come to mind.
But in this case, the argument goes, we’re not just talking communists, we’re talking fascists. Parties that hate minorities (especially gays and Muslims), blame all the nation’s woes on immigration, and even want to pass legislation limiting the number of official national languages. (Yes, no American has ever heard any of that before.)
The thing is, lots of Europeans countries have far-right parties that get more than 5% of the vote.
There’s “Sweden Democrats,” a group of – you guessed it – former neo-Nazis that won 5.7% of the national vote in 2010, which earned it 20 seats in parliament, enough to deny a governing majority to the sitting conservative government.
Then there’s the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party in Greece, a party that won 7% in nationwide parliamentary elections in 2012, giving it seats in the Greek parliament.
Or the far-right “Danish People’s Party” (they all have such “nice”-sounding names). The DPP won 12.3% of the vote in 2011, which was actually a decline in support from the previous election.
And last, but not last (there are numerous additional examples), there’s my personal favorite, “France’s “National Front,” which got a whopping 18% in the first round of presidential elections in 2012, and whose leader is now at 24% in the national polls.
What percent of the national vote did Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party get? 10%.
None of this is to downplay the extremism in any of those parties. And my friends in Europe tend to share my (our) concern about each of them. But it’s not enough to warn that the far-right got 10% in the Ukrainian election when it gets nearly twice that in France. And one has to chuckle at the understatement in this piece from the Carnegie Council:
Based on results at the most recent election, the academic Cas Mudde estimates that only 12 of 28 states in the EU will see far-right parties enter the European Parliament. [emphasis added]
Oh, so “only” about half. That’s reassuring.
Critics would say “ah, but in Ukraine the far right is actually serving in government.” And that’s not wrong, but they’re serving in government in Greece, France and Sweden, among other countries in Europe. But in Ukraine, it’s true, they’re working in the executive branch, including some key posts. So it’s not nothing. But again, it’s also not as black and white as some critics have been claiming.
So what’s their point exactly?
So what point exactly is the “they’re all fascists” crowd trying to make?
It sounds like they’re arguing against the US and Europe doing anything significant to stop the Russian onslaught because Ukraine doesn’t have “clean hands,” as we say in the law.
But Saddam Hussein didn’t have clean hands, and it sure didn’t stop many of those same critics from (rightly) blasting George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In fact, Saddam’s hands were a lot less clean than anything Svoboda has done, or wants to do, in Ukraine.
So the new rule is that we should take a stand against invasions of nice countries, and we should protest in the streets against invasions of mean countries, but if the victim of the invasion is morally somewhat-grey, we should take a pass.
Does anyone doubt that as bad as the current Ukrainian government is, it’s going to get a lot worse under Russian management? And clearly, a Ukraine tied to the EU has a better chance of democratic reform than one anchored to a reconstituted mini-version of the Soviet Union.
Also, is there nothing to be said for the geopolitical necessity of stopping Russia in particular, and nation-states generally, from rewriting maps in modern-day land-grabs? Is that not a common good, even if the governance of the land being grabbed is somewhat tainted?
Not to mention, what about the people? Should the Ukrainian people be left to suffer under Russian occupation and annexation because the Ukrainian cabinet is less than democratic? And what does this say about oppressed peoples living in sub-optimal non-democracies elsewhere. Take the Palestinians. Their government isn’t exactly a hotbed of free-thinking roses, so will Ukraine’s most ardent critics, some of whom are ardent critics of Israel as well, be abandoning the Palestinian cause too?
I’m not arguing for military intervention in Ukraine. I’m discussing a matter of principle. American, and some European, critics seem to be suggesting that our current ire over the Russian occupation of Crimea is somehow misdirected because of Ukraine’s (sometimes serious) imperfections.
And my question for them is: How perfect does a government have to be before its citizens have the right to live free?