Stop freaking out about Right Sector

People are freaking out about the Right Sector. People have always freaked out about the Right Sector. It’s going to happen again in the future, and it needs to stop.

On March 25 it was widely reported that the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, a paramilitary wing of Right Sector currently fighting on the front lines in eastern Ukraine had been told to pull out. The reason? Unlike Ukraine’s other volunteer battalions, they are not officially part of the military or national guard, and as armed civilians, need to disarm. An interviewed commander regarded the move by the government as a “betrayal” and insisted his men “fight more effectively than the regular troops.” Indeed, members of the Volunteer Corps have been among some of the bravest on the front lines, fighting in of the bloodiest conflict zones, the most recent being the outskirts of Mariupol.

This dispute was then framed by commentators an attack on all volunteers, but despite this, the press office of the other volunteer battalions serving near Mariupol had one message for them: If you want to fight, join the army like the rest of us.

Despite having a support networking of several thousand, Right Sector’s Volunteer Corps only fields at most 250 soldiers.

Official status would not only bring them in line with Ukraine’s command but also give its troops equipment, intelligence, ammunition, and funding. The counter argument is that Ukraine’s military officers are widely corrupt, and can’t be trusted – especially after disasters in Ilovaisk and Debaltseve.

In the spirit of this debate, the Kyiv Post then ran the headline “Right Sector defies government’s calls to pull out of frontline.” Citing Right Sector’s spokesperson, the article says the group will only pull out on the orders of its leader, Dmytro Yarosh. However, a full quote from Ukraine Today, the spokesperson merely says they are “unlikely” to withdraw “for long.” If you ask the troops themselves, commander Andriy Cherven of the Volunteer Corps had already informed the media that the unit will not be disobeying the order to withdraw. Its chief of staff also confirmed this, saying the unit would be pulling out and heading to their base.

So much ado about nothing.

What happens here is two things: The first is strictly political, playing into the political language of Right Sector’s press office; and the second is the media, who exaggerate that message. The end result is even greater sensationalism in the less informed western media.

Nothing new

The pushback against Right Sector and vigilantism traces to the early days of the post-revolutionary provisional government, where following a shooting, on April 1, 2014, MPs voted in support of Bill #4614 which mandated disarming of “illegal armed formations” and their subordination to official security structures. “If they do not belong to the army, the National Guard or the police, they are saboteurs who are working against Ukraine,” interim-President Turchynov said at the time.

Indeed, the crackdown on ‘illegal armed formations’ further dates back to the agreement signed by Euromaidan opposition leaders during endgame negotiations with Viktor Yanukovych prior to his fight – a stipulation routinely shouted in the Kremlin’s rhetoric preceding Russia’s invasion.

Since both the Yanukovych administration and Kremlin pushed to disarm Right Sector, as well as the toothless post-revolution government, and so it’s easy to see, then, why many are perceiving the disarming of frontline volunteers in an overtly devastating light.

Right Sector has taken on the form of a lightning rod in Ukrainian politics. For Russia, they are presented as a continental fascist, neo-Nazi threat (despite not being fascist nor anti-Semitic). Among western pundits, they are presented in fumblingly inaccurate and sensationalistic fashion. Case in point: Vox recently described the group as ‘anti-democratic hardliners’ despite participating in both presidential and parliamentary elections, and having an official platform that calls for a “comprehensive system of democracy.”

Fear-mongering has led to the group being erroneously labelled by various media sources as ‘far right’, a title more applicable in its formative days than at present, the reality is that Right Sector has become more of a banner for Ukraine’s resistance movement than a coherent, centralized ‘rightist’ organization. Just as the red and black battle flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army has taken on a larger than life, and decidedly less historical or ideological significance among Ukrainians (“a sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea” as described in Foreign Policy), fittingly the near identical symbolism adopted by Right Sector is representative of its decentralized and interpretative nature.

Organizationally, Right Sector is splintered. This is why its political spokesmen and military commanders are speaking out of sync. It’s this do-it-yourself ethic and deregulation among its various chapters and branches that makes it less of a singular corporation and more a group of privately owned franchises.

This decentralized, unpredictable nature, however, that is a problem militarily – where centralized command, cooperation, and security are key. Regulating all Right Sector fighters may be a fools errand, like catching smoke in a bottle, but it’s also necessary.

Moving forward

With the group’s leader Dmytro Yarosh now a parliamentarian, making inroads with the government should in theory be less of an obstacle. Naturally, days after hysteria set in about the great betrayal that had been inflicted on one the nation’s last remaining independent militias, President Poroshenko tabled an offer to Yarosh that would give him a position in the Ministry of Defense.

Interior Ministry advisor Anton Herashchenko is in favor of such a move, suggesting that if Yarosh accepts his promotion he could potentially create and run an entire Volunteer Union in the model of the Estonian Defense League or Finland’s Local Defense Troops. This would be a huge move for Yarosh, because despite having several thousand members in his organization network, Right Sector’s military wing is incredibly small.

This system of controlled chaos is nothing new for the Poroshenko government who last fall incorporated and upgraded the controversial Azov Regiment within the army. For Azov, their historically radical and neo-Nazi founders have softened their stance since taking on newer, respectable jobs.

It remains to be seen if Yarosh, who is currently wounded, will accept the offer and build something successful as part of the armed forces rather than parallel to it. If the Kolomoisky affair (which had far greater potential to escalate and fizzled in record time) is any indication, amicable resolution is likely.

At the end of the day, political posturing echoed by the media has given the Volunteer Corps an edge in negotiations with the government. It has also fed into the fear of chaos among Ukraine’s volunteer ranks – a fabricated threat mostly disseminated in Russian media that ripples westwardly. Russian media needs to stop making Right Sector look larger, cohesive (and ironically, chaotic), and dangerous than they really are – but they won’t – because that’s their objective. Ukrainian media and their supporters need to stop feeding into the political game of leverage Right Sector is playing – but they won’t – because sensationalist news is much more exciting than no news.

Just as their role during the Euromaidan revolution was greatly exaggerated, their role (while brave, and commendable like all Ukrainian soldiers) is also fairly exaggerated in the scope of all of Ukraine’s forces. The sensationalist position benefits all media and especially the group itself, but it is also a disservice to those following the conflict trying to cut to the truth.

So relax.

Wounded Russian soldier confesses to invasion, criticizes ‘rebels’

A horrifyingly wounded Russian soldier’s interview with Novaya Gazeta is showing an even more in depth look at the role and coordination of Russian soldiers as their units continue the undeclared invasion of eastern Ukraine. The subject, Dhorzhi Batomunkuev (who has already been tracked down on social media), is an ethnic Buryat tank operator from Russia’s far east who recalls his injury, secretive deployment, issues with the so-called rebels his units backed, and why he was fighting in Russia’s ghost army against Ukraine.

The real rebels

In the interview, Batomunkuev describes a Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) special forces company he performed in that is, unsurprisingly, comprised of 90% Russians. Typically these special forces will act as shock troops and after completing their actions, fall back to be replaced by rebel neo-cossacks – units we note to be far less reliable but much more expendable. He also laments that the irregular ‘rebel’ militia Russia’s forces prop up are even far less dependable and less apt to following orders.

“When you have to finish off the enemy, the militia just won’t go. They say “we won’t go there, it’s dangerous.” We’ve got orders to advance further, and even if we wanted, we couldn’t order them […] The militia never tells us where they go.”

When asked if and how Russian units coordinate with the DNR’s militias, he simply describes them as “weird” and erratic:

They shoot and shoot – and then they stop. Like their business hours are over. Completely disorganized. No leaders, no battle commanders, it’s a free for all.

The enemy

I’m not proud of what I did. That I destroyed, killed people. You can’t be proud of that. But then, it comforts me when I think this is all for peace.

Batomunkuev’s understanding of the war, who he is fighting against, and why he is there is both interesting and atypical of the Russian perspective. They believe they are killing for peace, but against whom or why is less coherent. Batomunkuev justifies his actions saying that Ukrainians ‘kill the innocent and children’:

You understand he’s an enemy. He killed the innocent, the civilians…they killed children. This bastard sits there, shaking, praying that we don’t kill him. Starts begging for forgiveness. May god judge you, I think.

His perception that Ukrainians kill civilians is then contradicted by his own account of his unit’s occupation of Makiyivka, where he admits he was told up to 70% of the city’s 365,000 population were against Russia and supported Ukraine. He justifies his actions in a twist of logic: “70% of a village isn’t important. You have to respect the people’s choice. If Donetsk wants independence, you gotta give it.”

Throughout the interview he refers to Ukrainians with the pejorative slur Ukrops – a rough equivalent of calling French people “frogs.”

Batomunkuev’s twists become more elaborate when he talks of fighting Polish mercenaries who “can’t live without war” and “must be destroyed,” but culminate with this final quote about the United Nations’ military plot against Russia:

If Ukraine joins the European Union, the United Nations, then the UN may deploy their rockets here, their weapons, they could do it. And then they will be pointed at us. They will be a lot closer to us, not beyond the oceans. Right at our land border. […] But if they take Donbas and deploy the rockets, then they can reach Russia

For analysis and interpretation of the interview, be sure to read Meduza and The Interpreter.

 

The Russian Church’s war against Ukrainian culture and history

As Ukraine engages in a war against the Russian invasion of the Donbas and soldiers give their lives for the sake of freedom, a silent war is being waged at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv.

The Pecherska Lavra is a territory that includes churches, monastic quarters, the Metropolitan of Kyiv’s residence, and the holy relics of generations of saints; in addition to housing six National Museums and an artists’ studio. The Moscow Patriarchate, which has exclusive permission to hold services at the Lavra, has targeted the artists’ studios and the museums in what can be described as a corporate raidership of property. If successful, the cultural and artistic heritage of Ukraine and the city of Kyiv could potentially be destroyed.

Overlooking the mighty Dnipro River, the Ivan Yizhakevych Lavra Art Studios was founded over 130 years ago and has housed countless prominent Ukrainian artists and iconographers such as Mykhailo Boitchuk, Maria Pryjmachenko, Heorhii Yakutovych, Petro Vlasenko, Yuriy Khymych and others. Boitchuk, the founder of the Monumentalist School of Art, was executed by Stalin on the grounds that he was a Vatican spy. Diego Rivera worked with Boitchuk during the early 1930s at the Artists’ Studio.

eviction

Prior to the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014, numerous attempts were made to evict the artists from their premises. During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency the heat and electricity were turned off, eviction notifications were sent, and the artists took to the streets in the hopes that citizens of good will would defend them. In conversations with a former director of the Lavra the reason given for the eviction was that this studio does not serve a religious function. It was rumored that the monastic authorities were planning to remodel the building into a residence for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

However, another historical structure was successfully evicted. The Hromashevsky Infectious Diseases Hospital, built at the beginning of the 20th century and funded by the citizens of Kyiv, was closed last year. Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, instrumental in the eviction of the hospital, has been criticized by the press for money laundering, an ostentatious lifestyle, and celebrating his 50th birthday to the tune of $100,000.00 American dollars. The monks who founded the monastery in the 10th century attended to the needs of the sick by studying medicine, visiting Mt. Athos in the search of medicinal herbs, and by opening the first hospital on monastery grounds. There are plans to turn the building into a hotel for Lavra visitors and pilgrims. The argument of what defines a “religious function” seems skewed in favor of financial profit as opposed to meeting the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized.

The Monastery of the Caves (Pecherska Lavra) has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The guidelines for the inclusion of a site are the following:

Each property nominated should therefore: represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; or exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; or bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; or be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural ensemble.

The stewards of a UNESCO World Heritage Site are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the site’s historical authenticity. Building new structures and the reconstruction of buildings that mar their original design are strictly forbidden. Repurposing a structure also brings the UNESCO designation into question and constitutes a violation of this status.

The building which houses the Ivan Yizhakevych Lavra Art Studios was constructed solely for the study and propagation of the visual arts. It is the duty of Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, the administration of the city of Kyiv, and the Monastic community of the Pechersk Lavra to uphold, maintain and foster the legacy of the founding artists and to guarantee the continued presence of their descendants for generations to come.

The controversy surrounding the eviction of artists’ studios and the national museums is ongoing. The National Museums and Institutes threatened by closure at this time: 1) Museum of Decorative Arts, 2) the Museum of Theatre and Cinema, 3) the Museum of Printing, and the 4) National Institute of Scientific Research and the Protection of Cultural Monuments.

The silent war which is being waged on the Ukrainian culture and heritage by the Moscow Patriarchate needs to be exposed. As over a hundred Maidan activists were gunned down by Russian snipers last year, video footage was captured on the grounds of the Pecherska Lavra showing monks burning what seemed to be stacks and stacks of documents. What were they burning and what were they trying to hide?

The very presence of a foreign church entity on Ukrainian soil needs to be responsibly reviewed by government authorities. This is of particular importance when that church entity, the Moscow Patriarchate, actively supports terrorism, refuses to bury Ukrainian soldiers killed on the frontlines, and agitates the faithful to hate a legitimately elected Ukrainian president and parliament. If the stewardship of the Pecherska Lavra was in the hands of the Kyivan Patriarchate the place and integrity of Ukrainian cultural museums and institutions would be in safe hands.

This brief article constitutes a preliminary attempt at bringing this matter to the attention of our worldwide Ukrainian diaspora community and to all persons of good will. Please take the time to inform your friends and to advocate on behalf of our esteemed Lavra artists and all of the historical and cultural museums and institutions at the Pecherska Lavra.


Rev. Myron Panchuk M.A.

The “Snipers’ Massacre” in Kyiv

On October 17, at a symposium on “Negotiating Borders” organized by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, Ivan Katchanovski, an Ottawa-based scholar, presented a paper on “The ‘Snipers’ Massacre’ on the Maidan in Ukraine.” He argued that leaders of the Maidan gained power as a result of a massacre organized by their own supporters, using as evidence video footage, TV and Internet broadcasting, and radio intercepts, as well as bullet holes, in trees and other places.

The paper was received rather coldly. Indeed Bohdan Harasymiw, one of the organizers of the conference, ignoring the usual politeness one might expect would be accorded to a guest speaker, derided the paper as having neither theory nor analysis, while another participant from the host institution, Taras Kuzio, dismissed Katchanovski personally as an anti-Ukrainian, noting that his opinions mirrored those of Vladimir Putin and Russian propaganda organs.

On the other hand, after the appearance of this paper on a Facebook site, Volodymyr Ishchenko, Deputy Director of the Society for Center Research (Kyiv) who offers analysis on Ukrainian politics from a leftist perspective, described it as an important study, commenting: “This is the most documented and coherent interpretation of Feb 20 events I’ve seen so far…. And, of course, if it was proven that the incumbent government came to power in [sic!] the result of a huge bloody provocation, it must have political consequences.”

one notes some oddities about this paper

A reading of this 29-page paper would therefore seem warranted. As preliminary comments, one notes some oddities about this paper. On three occasions the author refers to it as an “academic” study. It is not. It is an unpublished research paper that has not yet been peer reviewed. That is evident from its layout, which is a chaotic listing of facts, one after the other, often in a very confusing manner. An editor would have asked the author to highlight the important facts and say why they are significant.

An editor would also have suggested the removal of passages that are completely off topic, such as the author’s allusion (p. 28) to Nazi, OUN, and UPA-led crimes in the Second World War, which are compared directly, without the addition of a single date, to deaths in Odesa and the Donbas in 2014.

The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning

Moreover, the paper appears politically driven, i.e. it sets out to prove that the change of regime in Kyiv last spring was illegitimate and that a democratically elected president (however corrupt) was forced out of power by a rightist-orchestrated coup. The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning and statements that do not seem warranted by the findings, which are themselves confusing, as will be noted below. Here is one example:

The seemingly irrational mass shooting and killing of protesters and the police on February 20 [2014] appear to be rational from the self-interest based perspectives of rational choice and Weberian theories of instrumentally rational action.

What these Weberian theories are, the reader is left to ponder.

Katchanovski declares that the massacre of protesters and police “represented a violent overthrow of the government in Ukraine and a major human rights crime” (p.29). After denouncing the “violent overthrow” as the root cause of all that followed, he makes another remarkable statement. While the evidence shows that both the Maidan opposition and the “far right” were clearly carrying out the killing of the 100-plus innocents in the square: “the involvement of the special police units in killings of some of the protesters cannot be entirely ruled out based on publicly available evidence” (p. 29) [my italics]. So were they involved or not?

The meat of the paper is a long chronicle of who was shooting from where and at whom. But it is very difficult to follow and the blurry photographs included do not help very much. At one point the author notes that the pro-Maidan snipers were holed up in Hotel Ukraina. On page 7, for example (lines 1-3) we read that, based on video evidence, two protesters were shot from this direction, one with 7.62mm bullet, and one wounded “in his backside.” Further, on page 25 (lines 1-2), there is a firm statement that “The types of guns and ammunition used and the direction and type of the entry wound among both protesters and policemen also confirm that the shooters came from the Maidan side” (p. 25).

Yet on page 26, the author cites a parliamentary commission report that the police on the Maidan were shot by firearms and ammunition that protesters stole from the police after raids on various arsenals in Western Ukraine. So how is it possible to determine the perpetrators if both had access to the same types of weapons? They could indeed have been members of the Right Sector. They could also have been police agents. We have no names or identities.

On page 19, one reads about gunfire from the Kozatsky Hotel and from the Trade Union building, as well as from the Main Post Office (p20). On this same page, the author cites a statement by an “unidentified intruder” to Internal Troops that people were “aiming a rocket propelled grenade launcher into the Hotel Ukraina from the 6th floor of the Trade Union building.” Assuming one wants to accept this statement as “evidence,” were they shooting at their own snipers? And hotels are rather large places; it seems unlikely that either side would completely occupy or control a building as large as Hotel Ukraina. The author informs (p. 15) us that ABC News reporters were based here, for example. There are other apparent anomalies. If the massacre and subsequent events constituted a coup by the Right Sector, then why are its supporters not in power today? One recalls their unceremonious eviction from the Hotel Dnipro on April 1, 2014. Can one have a successful coup that does not result in a takeover of power by the perpetrators?

If these events constituted simply a violent overthrow of a democratically elected regime, other things need explaining too: the subsequent holding of presidential and (forthcoming) parliamentary elections; and the explanation of why former President Yanukovych had been preparing for several days (if not weeks) to leave his residence, as evidenced by the fleets of vehicles moving his goods from Mezhyhirya. It was not a sudden departure forced by the threat of his capture. Central Kyiv after all is 12 miles away.

Not all of Dr. Katchanovski’s findings should be dismissed. He has raised some new evidence that suggests new investigations into the sniper massacres are much needed. The official version of events is indeed deeply troublesome and his gathering of new material is commendable. His paper does provide evidence that there were several separate groups of snipers, including anti-government ones.

The problem is that while the paper is not devoid of analysis—Bohdan Harasymiw’s comments were unjustified in this respect—it appears to be based on preconceived conclusions, all heavily weighted against the supporters of Maidan and the current government of Ukraine. In short it reads less like an academic paper and more like a polemic that addresses its findings in an unsatisfactory and unconvincing manner.

Virtually anyone interested in Ukraine with access to the Internet watched live feeds of the unprovoked police violence of November 30 and December 1, 2013, which in the eyes of many Kyiv locals transformed the protests from “Euromaidan” to a “Revolution of Dignity.” As subsequent election results corroborated, peaceful supporters of Euromaidan heavily outnumbered the violent activists of Right Sector and other forces. The protests and the attempt to form a more democratic government based on popular support must be given their due before any analysis of why events turned so violent.

That statement in no way implies that the new government was universally popular, or that Euromaidan was welcomed in all parts of Ukraine. Nor does it suggest that right-wing forces were not growing and problematic.

The author’s depiction of such groups seeking to benefit from the mass protests and use them as a means of taking power, even to the point of killing their own fellow demonstrators on the square, is an important issue. But the paper doesn’t debate this question; it simply assumes it as a given fact, in a conclusion that seems somewhat divorced from the rest of the paper.

It would have been advisable for the author to focus on his findings and offer some preliminary assessments as to what they might mean. If the reader discerns that the apparent purpose of a paper is to discredit and malign the current government, then it ipso facto becomes a political tract (and moreover one that appears to fall closely into line with the RT version of events disseminated in the Russian Federation), which then leads to suspicions about its methodology. A more objective approach is needed. Without it, even the most startling revelations will not receive serious attention.