Smear and Loathing: A Close Look at Accusations of Ukrainian Anti-Semitism
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has revived the charge that the new Ukraine, far from being an embattled pro-Western seeker of liberal democracy, is a haven for fascists and Nazis.
Once upon a time, the “Ukrainian Nazis” narrative was pushed mainly by the far left. In 2014, after the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv ousted a pro-Moscow government and Russia responded by annexing Crimea and sponsoring separatist enclaves in Eastern Ukraine, it was old-school tankie Seumas Milne in the Guardian, historian Stephen Cohen in the Nation, Max Blumenthal in Salon, and their ilk who made these charges. Fast-forward to today, and the most vocal peddler of this canard is (quelle surprise!) anti-hawk theocon Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari’s February 15 column in the American Conservative is ominously titled, “The Nazis Globalist Liberals Prefer To Ignore.”
Ahmari’s charge of a coverup of Nazis in Ukraine focuses on a minor facepalm moment: After several news reports hyping the tale of a brave Ukrainian grandma training to join the resistance against Russian invaders, it turned out that the training was being provided by the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian National Guard unit which started out as a volunteer militia with neo-Nazi ties. The regiment’s insignia, which look creepily like the SS lightning-bolt logo, were visible on members’ uniforms in some television segments about the heroic granny. There is, however, no indication that the woman, 79-year-old Valentina Konstantinovskaya, has any neo-Nazi sympathies; she was simply responding, like many other Ukrainians, to a call to train as a resistance volunteer.
Ahmari insists that British and American media outlets “kept silent” about the neo-Nazi connection unearthed by “internet sleuths” (actually, by far-left journalists Mark Ames and Aaron Maté).
In fact, the day before Ahmari’s column was posted, Vice ran a piece titled, “Why Is This AK-47-Toting Ukrainian Grandma Being Trained by Neo-Nazis?” Unlike Ahmari, the Vice reporter, Matthew Gault, offers a nuanced look at the story and notes that it illustrates the almost surreal complexities of the situation in Ukraine today:
It’s true that thousands of regular citizens are seeking basic military training in Ukraine over fears of an escalation of Russian conflict in the region. It’s also true that the Azov Battalion is a far-right organization with avowed Nazi members and connections to Ukraine’s National Guard. … The conflict in Ukraine is complicated and exists at a crossroads of a dozen different ideologies and geopolitical interests.
Among these paradoxes, of course, is the fact that the unit with neo-Nazi roots is fighting to defend a government currently led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky (a fact Ahmari doesn’t mention).
The Neo-Nazis Are Real
The tension between pro-Western liberalism and nationalism—which has its extreme and ugly far-right elements—is very much a feature of modern Ukrainian politics. Like the 2004 Orange Revolution before it, the Euromaidan revolution championed Ukraine’s integration into liberal democratic Europe but also Ukraine’s independence from Russia. The Euromaidan protests of late 2013 and early 2014, sparked by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a European Union trade deal he had earlier endorsed, featured occasional far-right rhetoric—including a shocking incident in November 2013 in which a notorious hatemonger, Diana Kamlyuk, read an anti-Semitic, white-supremacist poem at an open-mic event. Yet writing in February 2014, Russian Jewish journalist and Euro-Asian Jewish Congress board member Vyacheslav Likhachev estimated that “radical nationalists” made up about one percent of the Euromaidan protesters; he also pointed out that Kamlyuk’s stunt was widely condemned. Speakers at the Euromaidan protests included prominent Jewish figures such as World Jewish Congress vice president Josef Zissels, and the rallies also featured Jewish religious and cultural content.
Nonetheless, after the Yanukovych regime collapsed, a number of observers sympathetic to Euromaidan voiced misgivings about the involvement of far-right extremists in the events that led to its fall—notably the paramilitary groups Right Sector and the Azov Battalion and the ultranationalist party Svoboda (“Freedom”). Right Sector and Svoboda soon faded into irrelevance—Svoboda currently has one seat in Ukraine’s parliament—and both quickly turned hostile to the new government. Azov, on the other hand, was reorganized as a special unit of the National Guard. Some experts such as Ukrainian academic Anton Shekhovtsov, a prominent researcher on far-right radicalism, believe that Azov made a bona fide effort to “depoliticize” and detoxify itself, with its far-right leadership splitting off into a separate group, the “National Corps”; others, such as Bellingcat investigative reporter Oleskiy Kuzmenko, strongly disagree, arguing that there is very little daylight between the present-day Azov Regiment and the National Corps. Skhekhovtsov also agrees that Ukraine has a problem with far-right extremism and that the government often seems to look the other way.
On a deeper level, Ukraine’s far-right problem is related to its failure to grapple with the dark side of its nationalist legacy. Thus, Stepan Bandera, the World War II-era militant nationalist and onetime Nazi collaborator whose movement was responsible for numerous atrocities against Jews—and other groups, such as Poles and Russians—is widely acclaimed as a hero in Ukraine’s national liberation struggle; the pro-Western leadership brought to power by the Orange Revolution in the 2000s posthumously gave him a Hero of Ukraine award, and Kyiv today has a Stepan Bandera Avenue. True, most of Bandera’s modern Ukrainian fans embrace a mythology that reinvents him as an unfairly maligned, Jewish-friendly victim of Soviets and Nazis alike; but such denialism is hardly benign, and it usually allows extremism to flourish in its shade.
Of course, in a rational world, all this might prompt people like Ahmari to rethink their faith in the beneficence of nationalism; but in a rational world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Ukrainian Democracy and Russian Fascists
It is worth noting that despite these problems, there is no sense in which Ukraine’s post-2014 government can be regarded as fascist or pro-Nazi; if Ukraine has been run by a “neo-Nazi junta” as its detractors maintain, it would be the first such junta in history to give key posts to Jews (among them former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman) and to have strong support from the Jewish community.
It is also worth noting that nothing enables far-right extremism in Ukraine more than the very real and ongoing military threat from Russia. The Azov Regiment, for instance, got a lot of mileage—even before the current crisis—out of its image as an effective force against the Russian-backed separatists occupying the Eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This is all the more ironic since the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” have always been a magnet for Russian ultranationalists and outright neo-fascists—starting with Pavel Gubarev, who began the separatist uprising in Donetsk March 2014 by briefly proclaiming himself the “People’s Governor” and hoisting a Russian flag over the city government building. Photos quickly surfaced showing Gubarev in the uniform of the militant group Russian National Unity, whose emblem bears an unmistakable resemblance to the swastika. The group’s leader, Aleksandr Barkashov, was also in close contact with the Donetsk rebels, vowing to help them fight “the vicious Kiev junta.”
After Gubarev’s arrest, a video of a Skype call intercepted by Ukrainian security services showed his wife and comrade-in-arms, Ekaterina Gubareva, taking instructions from a far more famous Russian fascist: author and “Eurasian movement” founder Aleksandr Dugin, who just then was openly calling for a “genocide” of the “race of bastards” that he felt had replaced the real Slavs in Ukraine. (A few years earlier, Dugin—who had written candidly in the 1990s about the fascist and even Nazi roots of his views—was the subject of an admiring interview published in English on the American white supremacist website Countercurrents.)
Other major figures in the separatist rebellion include Aleksandr Mozhaev, aka “Babai,” one of the leaders of a band of Russian Cossack militiamen known as the Wolves’ Hundred, who came to Eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 to join the fray. In a video statement, “Babai” explained that the Cossacks’ goal was to destroy “the Jew-Masons” who were “fomenting disorder all over the world” and oppressing “us common Orthodox Christian folk.”
Last but not least, the first prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” from May to August 2014, was Russian “political consultant” Aleksandr Borodai, a reputed state security officer with a long history of involvement in ultranationalist circles. Among other things, Borodai is a co-founder, editorial board member, and regular host of the “patriotic” streaming channel Den-TV (“Day”), run by his longtime associate Aleksandr Prokhanov, a notorious anti-Semite whose views are a mix of Stalinism and mystical Russian nationalism. (Incidentally, Borodai is now back in Russia, where he is a member of the state Duma.)
Given this cast of characters, it’s unsurprising that—as Shekhovtsov reported on the Open Democracy website in May 2014—the Kremlin propaganda narrative depicting post-Euromaidan Ukraine as a nest of neo-Nazis would coexist with frequent, virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric in the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine. Shekhovtsov mentions street posters, leaflets, internet posts, and even speeches at rallies attacking the new government in Kyiv as a Jewish clique out to use Ukrainians to defend the interests of rich Jews, or depicting the Euromaidan revolution as a “Zionist coup.”
The Kremlin itself has sometimes resorted to subtler forms of Jew-baiting in its psychological warfare against Ukraine. Last October, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former Putin-puppet president and currently deputy chairman of the security council, published a repulsive ad hominem tirade arguing that negotiations with the current Ukrainian government were pointless because its members, in addition to being weak, greedy, and corrupt, were damaged people without stable national and ethnic roots. The longest and nastiest portion of the article attacked Zelensky as a man with “particular ethnic roots” who had “essentially rejected his identity” for political and pragmatic reasons and compared him to a Jew in Nazi Germany seeking a post in the SS.
Where Does the “Civilized World” Stand?
No reasonable person would claim that post-2014 Ukraine has been a perfect or even functional liberal democracy. The usual difficulties that beset a fledgling democratic government have been compounded by Russia’s hybrid war—a situation that, among other things, can create dangerous excuses for repression of domestic activism or media seen as instruments of foreign subversion. In a recent newsletter item, commentator Richard Hanania, an acid critic of U.S. foreign policy and of democracy promotion in particular, gleefully points out that Freedom House gives Ukraine a “partially free” rating and a “global freedom score” of 62 out of 100—lower than Hungary (69), which is often criticized for its authoritarian backsliding. (Of course, a meaningful measurement is the direction in which a country is going: Hungary’s 2021 score is a 7-point drop from 2017, Ukraine’s is a 1-point increase—and a 24-point increase since 2015.) But Russia’s 2021 freedom score is 20 (“not free”), and that of Eastern Donbas, where the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets are located, is 4 out of 100.
In a poignant February 15 video praising President Joe Biden’s harsh warning to Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov—who is Jewish and thus a very unlikely defender of neo-Nazis—noted,
The United States and other countries of the civilized world are not just defending Ukraine, they are defending civilization itself from a brazen attack by an evil led by people who have enriched themselves at their citizens’ expense, have turned their country into a wasteland with no future, and are now trying to impose their will on their neighbors. So, in this situation around the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the civilized world has no choice.
One may counter that the defense can only go so far, since few Americans advocate sending U.S. troops to Ukraine or risking nuclear war. Others might say that in 2022, the notion of advanced industrial democracies as “the civilized world” is quaintly naïve at best and bigoted at worst. But I’ll take Portnikov’s faith in civilization and freedom over Ahmari’s cynical use of the neo-Nazi card to tarnish an embattled democracy threatened by an authoritarian neighbor.