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.
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.
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.