The Far-right on Russian War Crimes: “Well, Ukraine has its neo-Nazis.”
It would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic watching those on the pro-Putin far right squirm because of the worldwide groundswell of support for Ukraine and the beleaguered nation’s popular President, Volodymyr Zelensky. They dutifully embrace and share the pro-Putin anti-Ukraine rot as though they were auditioning to fill in for Tucker Carlson on RT, the international Russian state television network that regularly features the Fox commentator’s pro-Putin views. Thanks to Putin’s directive to liberally feature Tucker Carlson on Russian state-controlled television, the FOX bloviator has become a superstar among Putin sycophants. They are Putin’s unwitting useful idiots. They are quick to wonder how bad can Putin be if a popular American TV commentator praises him, and the nation’s leading Republican says the Russian strongman’s justification for going to war was “genius”—”wonderful” and “savvy.” One wonders if there are sane Americans who view Putin as genius, wonderful and savvy today.
When discussions turn to the cowardly and criminal Russian mass shelling and bombing of Ukrainian civilian centers, or to the courage of Ukraine’s young president, Zelensky, some immediately chime in with, “but Ukraine does have a neo-Nazi problem,” which it does. Then again, so does just about every European country, and many in Latin America, Asia, and the United States. We are, as are sadly most of our allies, host to some of the most hateful fascist, neo-Nazi groups ever to strut and flip a Sieg Heil or two. Political antagonists, anti-establishment crusaders, and chronic carpers come with the territory when the territory is a democracy, and that’s a good thing.
In Ukraine, as in our own country, there are a variety of ultranationalist movements. One such high-profile movement in Ukraine is the volunteer Azov Regiment (formerly the Azov Battalion), which, in 2014, fought against Russia in the Eastern port city of Mariupol. The Azov unit, which has an estimated 900 members, has been absorbed into the Ukrainian Nation Guard to better control the paramilitary unit’s far-right tendencies.
While Ukraine’s detractors in the United States and Russia exaggerate far-right influence in Ukraine, these ultra-nationalist groups actually have little support in modern Ukrainian society. Consider this, among the five far-right political parties; only one has any seats in the national parliament. The other four have not managed to win any seats at all. The strongest of the far-right parties, Svoboda, managed to win one seat. That’s one seat out of 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament. In the last national election three years ago, all five ultra-nationalist parties together could only muster two percent of the vote. In contrast, most of the electorate voted for the Jewish candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, a remarkable development in a country with Ukraine’s tortured past.
As a novelist, I have written extensively about the role of antisemitism in European history, and especially in Ukrainian history dating back to the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. I have walked the grounds of Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, and Stutthof. I would be the last person to downplay virulent antisemitism anywhere. Still, I abhor the calumny of unfairly splashing any person, group, or country today with the stain of antisemitism. According to the Oslo-based Center for Research on Extremism, “the importance of this group (Azov) is massively exaggerated.” The report’s author, Kacper Rekawek, says, “We’re still discussing Azov based on its image from 2014. That’s exactly what the Kremlin wants.”
The Ukrainian armed forces contain 215,000 combat personnel. The only overtly extreme-right faction in those forces, Azov, makes up less than half of one percent of the Ukrainian military. Currently, Rekawek says, the Azov Regiment is estimated to have about 900 fighters, all of them based in the eastern city of Mariupol.
Beware the long knives.
When Russia attacked Ukraine, Pope Frances called President Zelensky to offer his support and prayers for the people of Ukraine. Compare that with the anti-Ukraine, and anti-Semitic-dog-whistle-laced screed issued by the controversial former Vatican envoy and papal antagonist, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Viganò,(who is in self-imposed exile) sees Zelensky in league with those he is convinced are plotting a new world order. Who are the culprits? According to Viganò, the plot includes the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and, of course, wealthy philanthropists like George Soros and others.
To Viganò, it is all part of an American deep state plot to introduce a new world government. Viganò dismisses President Zelensky as nothing more than a European Union puppet designed to foment negative Ukrainian feelings toward Russia. He fumes that Zelensky seized power, ignoring the reality that he won an overwhelming 73% of the vote. Viganò expressed it this way, “The image of Zelenskyy is an artificial product, a mediatic fiction, an operation to manipulate consensus that was nonetheless able to create a political character in the Ukrainian collective imagination and who in reality, not in fiction, was able to seize power.”
Contrary to reports that right-wing extremists are flooding into Ukraine to fight the Russians, the German agency that monitors far-right activity says that there have been “fewer than ten cases” observed of extremists going to fight in Ukraine – and researchers have repeatedly pointed out that most of them are going there to fight on the Russian side of the battle.
That makes sense. As the Oslo report concludes, one of the few things that unite members of the Western far-right in the current Russian-Ukrainian war is an admiration for Mr. Putin. While there’s never anything good about hateful extremists in uniform, the share who serve in Ukraine’s military seems to be highly exaggerated.
It is estimated that about two percent, or well under 500,000 Ukrainians, out of a population of nearly 44 million, consider themselves ultra-nationalists. Ukraine has, meanwhile, moved strongly toward democracy and inclusiveness. Zelensky, who is Jewish, did, after all, win the Presidency in 2019 with well over 70% of the vote. The Pew Research Center has determined that Ukraine is the most accepting of Jews as neighbors of all Central and Eastern European countries. And that is why there is an undercurrent of anti-Zelensky and anti-Ukrainian messaging percolating in social media, right-wing cable TV, and far-right rags.
Beware, the long knives wielded by Putin’s useful idiots.