Dmytro Yarosh’s resignation from the Right Sector

The recent resignation of Dmytro Yarosh from the leadership of the Right Sector may be a sign of the forthcoming changes in the strategies of both the Right Sector and the Ukrainian state.

In order to understand the significance of Yarosh’s resignation statement, one needs to consider two important points related to Ukraine’s domestic situation and international relations.

First, the Right Sector has evidently radicalised its rhetoric and actions after the signing of the Minsk II agreement in February 2015. Many fighters of the Right Sector battalion and its affiliated Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (also known by the Ukrainian acronym DUK) were unhappy about the “hybrid ceasefire” implied by the Minsk II agreement, as they preferred to continue fighting against the Russian invaders and their separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine. Some members of the Right Sector were also unhappy about Ukraine’s new government and, especially, President Petro Poroshenko, who appeared, for some ultranationalists, as traitors of the Ukrainian revolution.

It would be too easy to explain the unhappiness of some members of the Right Sector about the “hybrid ceasefire” by their alleged bloodthirst. The war opens up many opportunities to those engaged in it. Of course, war, in a sense, is a desired state for many ultranationalists; they have “genetic inclination” for war. However, this argument has a limited explanation power with respect to the unwillingness of some members of the Right Sector/DUK to end the fighting. Some fighters have used the war as a way to avoid prosecution for the actions that the state would consider not entirely legal. They thought that their military feats would buy them a “legal” way out of Ukraine’s legal framework. In a few cases, that did happen, but in general several members of the Right Sector/DUK were held accountable for their illegal actions.

While there are many other explanations why the Right Sector is unsatisfied with the Minsk II agreement, the crucial point is that the Right Sector has become the most radical opposition to Poroshenko and the government. They still crave a national revolution, as they believe that the revolution that started with the Euromaidan protests was an unfinished revolution, or was not a revolution at all. Thus, the Right Sector is a direct threat to the constitutional order in Ukraine, especially given the fact that the Right Sector/DUK fighters have arms that can be used against state officials. Not that the Right Sector can stage a coup détat – they have neither sufficient human resources nor ample public support for this – but their actions may lead to further destabilisation of the weak Ukrainian state, and the Russian invaders can use this destabilisation to their avail. This is something that Yarosh, being a relatively moderate and balanced politician, understands well. And this is why Yarosh acted as a mediator between the state and the extremists in the Right Sector. However, the frustration among the Right Sector’s fighters grew stronger, and they started asking the leadership of the organisation “to give them the order”.

Second, the Western powers have consistently demanded from the Ukrainian authorities to put all volunteer military units under the army or police control. The Ukrainian authorities clearly see the point: not only do the autonomous military units constitute a threat to the state, their existence sours Ukraine’s relations with the West too. On 3 November this year, the Council of Europe published CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks’s report that, in particular, said:

The Commissioner also raised issues related to the volunteer battalions’ integration into the regular army and the police. His interlocutors in the Ministry of the Interior reiterated that the process had been completed with regard to those volunteer battalions integrated in the police force. The prosecutorial authorities informed the Commissioner about a verification procedure launched by them into the activities of all members of volunteer battalions.

But a more important part of the report is this one:

The Commissioner has not yet had a possibility to discuss these issues with the authorities at the Ministry of Defense and other relevant security structures. However, he is aware of credible reports implicating the existence of armed groups which continue to enjoy a high degree of independence and do not appear to be fully incorporated in the regular chain of command. Most frequent references are made in this context to the groups affiliated with the Right Sector (Pravyi Sector). This issue should be addressed without further delay.

What does Yarosh’s resignation mean? It means that he will no longer be a mediator between the state and the Right Sector’s extreme wing, and will no longer cover up for the violent and aggressive actions of particular members of the Right Sector. What it also means is that the state may have become serious about the threats that the Right Sector pose.

What will the state do?

1. The state may deliver an ultimatum to the Right Sector: either they integrate into the army or the police, or they will be crushed as an illegal armed group. This ultimatum will most likely lead to a split within the Right Sector: some fighters will prefer to join the army/police, some will choose the underground activities. A split into more than two groups is also possible.

2. Those who will choose the underground activities will most likely be destroyed. As the destruction of the stubborn fighters of the Right Sector/DUK may lead to a larger revolt against the authorities (dissatisfied fighters of other military units may join this revolt too), the state will:

2.1. wait until the extremists make an obvious mistake that will be perceived by the general public as a legitimate reason for the state to crush them – this can be either a direct attack on the state authorities or a blatant violation of the Minsk II agreement;

2.2. or it will use the security service agents within the extreme wing of the Right Sector to provoke that mistake.

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.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections and the far right

On the 26th of October 2014, Ukrainians voted at the early parliamentary elections. Ukraine currently has a mixed electoral system (50% under party lists and 50% under constituencies) with a 5% election threshold. Here are the results of the National Exit Poll 2014.

Since these are not official results, the following analysis is preliminary:

As I argued in February this year, popular support for the far right Svoboda party had dwindled already by the beginning of Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Svoboda obtained 10.44% of the vote at the 2012 parliamentary elections, but in November 2013 only 5.1% of the voters would have cast a ballot for this party. Moreover, Svoboda failed to recover its lost support during the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, so only 5.6% of the voters would vote for the party in February 2014. At the early presidential election in May 2014, the leader of Svoboda Oleh Tyahybok obtained 1.16% of the vote.

Svoboda’s relative failure to mobilise its former electorate can be attributed to the demise of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s regime: Svoboda was successful in 2012 because it was considered an anti-Yanukovych party, so with Yanukovych ousted, almost half of Svoboda’s electorate was gone too. Furthermore, in 2012, Svoboda was also considered almost the only “patriotic” party, but now all democratic parties are patriotic, so Svoboda has lost its “monopoly” on patriotism.

What should also be noted is that the decline of Svoboda is much deeper than the simple comparison of electoral results in 2012 and 2014 can demonstrate. In 2014, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and part of the Donbass region did not take part in the parliamentary elections as Crimea is now criminally annexed by Russia, while part of the Donbass region is under control of (pro-)Russian extremists. These two regions voted heavily for Yanukovych’s party and the misleadingly named Communist Party of Ukraine and, therefore, brought down the support for Svoboda on the national level. If citizens in Crimea and Donbass had been given a chance to freely vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Svoboda’s results would have been even worse.

Where did Svoboda’s former electorate go? I presume that more moderate voters went back to the national-democratic forces, such as the People’s Front or Samopomich. Part of Svoboda’s former electorate apparently went to the Right Sector and Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. The inclusion of these two parties into the far right category is tentative. As a political party, the Right Sector is ideologically quite different from the movement under the same name that was formed during the 2014 revolution; the party is less radical than the movement, so I suggest the term “national conservative” as a more relevant one. Lyashko’s Radical Party is dangerously populist and a typical anti-establishment force. However, both the Right Sector and Lyashko’s Radical Party have extreme right members, but they are a minority. In contrast to Lyashko’s Radical Party, the Right Sector will not be able to enter the parliament, but its leader Dmytro Yarosh will most likely be elected in one of the single-member districts.

The People’s Front led by prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also involved extreme right candidates: Andriy Biletskiy, leader of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly and commander of the Azov regiment, and Vadym Troyan of the same affiliation, ran in single-member districts and were supported by the People’s Front. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether Biletsky and Troyan have been elected.

The veterans of the Ukrainian far right, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, have failed again. I presume the aim of their participation in the elections is not about getting into the parliament; rather, it is about having official observers in the electoral commissions – sometimes in the past observers from fringe political forces provided “services” to interested parties, i.e. were involved in corrupt schemes.

To conclude this preliminary analysis, the Ukrainian far right forces do not appear to be as successful in the electoral terms as they were in 2012. Populism, however, is still a problem, while relatively large segments of the Ukrainian society fail to recognise the threat that populism poses to the consolidation of democracy in Ukraine.

Russian Communist Party wants Ukrainians fighting in the east classified as "terrorists"

Russia’s Communist Party is calling for Russia to officially recognize Ukraine’s volunteer battalions as “terrorist organizations.” The statement, issued by two Communist MPs, specifically names the the paramilitary-political party Right Sector, and the Dnipro, Donbas, and Azov Battalions in their complaint.

Azov Battalion recruits
Azov Battalion recruits

The named volunteer units are some of the most notable formations fighting on Ukraine’s front lines in the east, and the government has seen considerable success in its Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) thanks to the initiative of volunteer special forces that have been made up largely of local eastern Ukrainians. While autonomous in command they are subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which also controls Ukraine’s National Guard. The battalions also coordinate with and train at National Guard bases.

The appeal was brought forth by Russian State Duma deputies Valery Rashkin, the Deputy Chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and Sergei Obukhov, its Secretary, who appealed to Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika to recognize and include the groups as both foreign and domestic “terrorist organizations.”

Obukhov believes that Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-sponsored terrorists and insurgents in the east must be recognized in turn by the Russian Federation as terrorist organizations themselves, and that the Russian Foreign Ministry should petition the UN to ban their funding at the international level.

“I am a supporter of the toughest measures for persons, organizations and even states representing a real threat to Russia’s security and our citizens. No sanctions, protest notes and wailing about the “aggressiveness” of our country should worry us and make us detour from our path,”  said Rashkin.

The move appears to be an attempt to mirror calls by US Senators to classify the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) as a “foreign terrorist organization,” and expert opinion that Russia is acting as a state-sponsor of terrorism. A WhiteHouse.gov petition for the US to designate Russia as the latter collected over 105,000 signatures.

“In Russia, this is already being done – for example, through the identification and confiscation of assets of the sponsor terrorist tycoon [Ihor] Kolomoiskiy. But the Americans, in turn, discuss funding the Right Sector. Apparently, to “promote democracy” through punitive actions. If so, then the United States should in fact be defined as a state sponsor of terrorism,” he Rashkin continued.

Ukrainian Volunteer Corps
Ukrainian Volunteer Corps

The Communist statement also recalls that on March 3 a criminal case was brought against Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh for “public calls to extremist activity.” The incident in question occurred when Russia alleged that Yarosh had made a posting on the Russian social media site VK appealing to Chechen leader Doku Umarov for support – a statement which Right Sector says was the result of the account being hacked.

Yarosh, a commander of the Right Sector ‘Ukrainian Volunteer Corps’ battalion, was recently put on a Interpol’s wanted list at the request of Russian authorities.

Rashkin previously urged Russian special forces to “follow Mossad examples” and assassinate” Yarosh.