“A gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” This is how Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Ukrainian leadership on the first day of the war, whose main goal, he said, was to “denationalize” Ukraine.
More than a month has passed since then, with pro-Russian speakers in Europe repeatedly reiterating that Moscow’s military aggression was sparked by the far-right government in Kyiv, which has subjected many people to “genocide” for eight years.
It concerns the population of the eastern Donbas region, which has been taken over by armed pro-Russian separatists since 2014, controlling the two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. It was the official recognition of their independence from Moscow that preceded the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine from three countries on February 24.
However, the credibility of the allegation of “genocide” by the “neo-Nazi” government in Kyiv seems highly questionable, not least because of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish origins, the devastating destruction of residential areas, and the killing of civilians systematically by the Russian military.
A review of pre-war facts shows that far-right groups do exist in Ukraine, but at their peak, they had the support of about 10% of voters, did not determine the country’s policy, and in the last 8 years have lost popularity to just 2 % of the last elections.
The tragedy of May 2, 2014
The main event, which is invariably recalled in the pro-Russian narrative over the past month, is the tragedy in Odessa on May 2, 2014. About 50 people died during bloody clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters. The culmination was the burning of the iconic building of the local House of Trade Unions, a former communist party headquarters.
The ensuing fire killed dozens of people trying to hide in the building from the riots. Horrifying footage showed some even jumping out of windows.
This tragic event is invariably recalled by proponents of Russia’s thesis about the war in Ukraine because of the Nazis’ practice on the Eastern Front to imprison local people in churches and burn them alive. The comparison is made because of the presence of far-right Ukrainian activists during the clashes in Odesa, who are accused of setting fire to the union house.
But the answer to the question of how it all begins is not so clear. The clashes took place a week before the so-called referendums on the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk – a period in which opposition between proponents of Ukraine’s unity and pro-Russian separatists is at its peak.
According to local eyewitnesses, people with St. George’s ribbons began arriving at the train station in Odessa that morning, a symbol used by Moscow authorities to pay tribute to the victims of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Some of these people are armed, locals told Deutsche Welle.
Immediately after the tragedy in Odessa, the “May 2 Group” was formed, involving journalists, experts, and activists from the two warring parties to determine the root cause of the fatal riots. The group unites around the main conclusion that the tragedy was caused by a provocation that got out of control, including the inaction of the local police.
On May 2, 2014, a tent camp for pro-Russian protesters was set up in front of the union house. On the same day, there is a football match in the city and a procession passes through the center, in which, along with ordinary supporters, there are also far-right football hooligans. Its participants far outnumber separatists, who nevertheless provoke them by throwing stones. Not long after, the first shots were fired, after which the situation escalated uncontrollably.
This chronology is also confirmed by a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It mentions that “about 400 football fans from the Chernomorets (Odesa) and Metalist (Kharkov) football teams” held a “rally in defense of Ukraine’s unity about 600 meters from the government’s opponents.” Observers described “about 100 activists in support of unity in camouflage, with sticks and shields.”
Who are the Ukrainian far-right
The undisputed emblematic symbol of far-right Ukrainian movements over the past eight years is the Azov unit, which at the beginning of the conflict presented itself as a battalion.
It was established in 2014 in Berdyansk, named after the Sea of Azov, where the city is located and is banned in Russia. Initially, it was a volunteer detachment that took part in the fighting in Donbas and played a supporting role in the recapture of Mariupol by Ukrainian forces (in 2014, Mariupol was briefly captured by pro-Russian separatists and then returned to Ukrainian control).
It is this port city, which is currently under siege and almost destroyed by the Russian army, that is the base of Azov, a structure that is already part of the National Guard of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. The presence of this unit in the city was used as an explanation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol earlier in March.
“In 2014, this battalion was far-right, its founders were far-right racists,” Andreas Umland of the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies told AFP. combat unit.
According to him, the volunteers currently joining Azov are attracted not by neo-Nazi ideology, but by “the reputation of a particularly heavy combat unit”, which successfully opposes the many time’s superior Russian forces.
Azov has a controversial reputation not only for the unequivocally stated far-right political convictions of its members over the years but also for the symbols it is known for. The coat of arms of “Azov” is an almost identical copy of the pagan symbol “Wolf’s Hook” (Wolfsangel), used by the Nazi SS division “Das Reich”.
The official explanation of the members of the Ukrainian unit is that their coat of arms depicts the stylized Latin letters “N” and “I” as an abbreviation for “national idea”.
A researcher from the Center for Human Rights in Kyiv ZMINA Vyacheslav Likhachev thinks that nowadays this unit functions like many other Ukrainian regiments, “but with better PR.” Currently, the unit numbers about 2,000 to 3,000 people, but according to various sources, its core, which organizes the defense of Mariupol, is about 1,500 to 1,600 fighters.
Some of the first representatives of “Azov” come from another organization banned in Russia – the so-called. “Right Sector”. He became famous for his participation in the protests on Kyiv’s Maidan, which began in late 2013 with riots with police and led to the escape of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Another volunteer battalion set up in 2014 to help Ukrainian forces in the Donbas conflict is Aidar. Along with “Azov” and “Right Sector”, he is often accused by Russia of various crimes against the population of Donetsk and Lugansk such as murder, kidnapping, and torture.
As early as August 2014, Amnesty International called on the authorities in Kyiv to bring order to its volunteer battalions. A year later, the human rights group reiterated in a report that not only pro-Russian separatists but also Ukrainian forces had tortured detainees.
“Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon in Ukraine. We have been watching the police treat detainees for ten years. They are subjecting them to systematic torture and there is almost no police officer who has been held accountable for their actions,” he said in 2015. in front of Deutsche Welle Tatiana Mazur, head of the Ukrainian branch of Amnesty International.
What is their influence in Ukraine?
To make an adequate assessment of the legitimacy of the arguments used by the pro-Russian narrative for “neo-Nazi” rule in Ukraine, the data on the political participation of the far-right in the country should not be ignored. A topic that supporters of Moscow’s official position usually miss.
In addition to a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard, Azov also includes the National Corps political party. In the last presidential election in the country in 2019, won by the current head of state Volodymyr Zelensky, all local nationalist formations nominated a common candidate, who won only 1.6% support.
That same year, there was a parliamentary vote in which the National Corps and the Right Sector united on the list of the radical right-wing Svoboda party, which, however, garnered only 2.15% of the vote and failed to enter the Verkhovna Rada.
The low results of the far-right are a trend. In 2012, Svoboda won 10.44% of the vote. In the 2014 snap elections, the party’s result fell from 6.4% to fall to 2.15% in 2019. Against this background, former Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh lost his seat won after protests by Maidan.
Anna Colin Lebedev, a lecturer at the French University of Paris Nanterre, summed up the trend of a complete “decline” of Ukrainian ultranationalist political forces with the fact that “soft nationalism became mainstream after the Russian attack” in 2014.
Is there any evidence of genocide in Donbass
Allegations of genocide by Ukrainian forces in Donbas are often accompanied by figures in the number killed. Although officially recognized by various international organizations, they include fighters who died during the eight-year conflict, not just civilians.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the total number of people killed in hostilities in eastern Ukraine has exceeded 13,000. However, the number of civilian casualties is significantly lower – at least 3,350 according to a UN report and at least 3,000 according to a report by the International Criminal Court, quoted by AFP.
Data show that more than 2,000 of these victims died before the announcement of the ceasefire signed in Minsk in February 2015. This estimate includes the 298 victims of the downed in July 2014 plane MH17 in Malaysia Airlines. The data clearly show that in the period between 2016 and 2021 the number of civilian casualties in the region decreased dramatically, the Bulgarian website Factcheck notes.
On this occasion, the former OSCE observer in Lugansk Damyanka Pantaleeva recently commented to BNR that there is no evidence that the Russian-speaking population in Donbas was subjected to genocide by Kyiv, as claimed by the Kremlin.
“I know it sounds cruel, but this is a low-intensity conflict,” she told Free Europe, adding that “most civilian casualties come from shelling” on both sides of the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and separatists in Donbas.
Pantaleeva is a former Interior Ministry employee with experience from the UN mission in Kosovo. In 2015, she applied through the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry for the OSCE mission in Donbas and was approved. He spent about a year in Luhansk, separated from the separatists.
She said none of her fellow observers had received information about the genocide during that period, although many of their inspections had been thwarted by both separatists and Ukrainian forces.
“We have had conferences, meetings, we have visited bases where we are allowed. And some have not given us access to some places, and others have not given us. On both sides, we have encountered obstacles and described them in the reports. There is nothing else we can do. ”
Pantaleeva emphasizes that the number of civilians killed in the region has fallen sharply since the conclusion of the Minsk Peace Accords in 2015 and the strengthening of the role of international observers, who were very few in the first months of the conflict and were even abducted. the separatists.
Another discrepancy with the Kremlin’s theses is evident in the very definition of “genocide” – a crime aimed at destroying “a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such.” Russia has never specified which group the Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” wanted to destroy as such.
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