The challenge of far-right Ukrainian militias

The challenge of far-right Ukrainian militias

Ukraine’s far-right militias have been particularly active in recent months and this has led to some unease. Several groups have openly expressed admiration for National Socialism and used neo-Nazi symbols in demonstrations. The Ukrainian electorate and government have warily greeted the influence of these elements. This article analyses the impact of these far-right activities in the country. 

Many groups, most recently the National Militia, have openly marched in public in militarized displays. Several leaders of the Ukrainian far-right have also been elected to parliament in previous elections. These organizations and their members have a well-documented history of using violence against their ideological enemies in Ukraine. In fact, their leaders have expressed explicitly xenophobic sentiments against ethnic minorities and LGBT individuals. These individuals have acted as vigilantes with impunity in some of their actions.

Therefore, an important question remains – How do these organisations endanger Ukraine’s future stability?

From the Donbas to the home front

The Ukrainian Army fell back in disarray at the start of the war by Russian backed separatists’ seizure of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. Former President Viktor Yanukovych neglected the armed forces for years. An alternative was arranged to help the state maintain its territotiral integrity. Hence, a number of volunteer battalions were raised to battle the separatists and prevent a total collapse of Ukraine.

Currently, the military has regrouped. The army and security services have absorbed a number of these former militias. Many of them support interior forces conduct law enforcement activities. And a faction perform rearguard duties at the fronts. 

This arrangement in which private organizations may provide assistance to law enforcement authorities is grounded in the “law on the participation of citizens in the protection of public order and the state border” passed by the Ukrainian Rada in 2005. Militia members have acted against numerous criminal activities. These include illegal gambling, public order and other offenses, all ostensibly in coordination with the National Police.

In spite of this legal sanctioning, there are a plethora of cases in which militia members have acted more according to their own interests than that of law enforcement. For example, there are instances in which militia members have interrupted sessions of local councils to force politicians to vote on measures at gunpoint. They have attacked LGBT activists, and Neo-Nazi group C14 targeted supporters of a slain journalist at a rally. In many of these cases, members have not been arrested and have not seen their cooperation with authorities suspended despite their vigilante actions.

Legal and political impunity

Inside Ukraine, far-right groups have not proved to be successful in winning elections or wider public support. According to the International Republican Institute, the party Right Sector wields less than 1% support among those surveyed and the National Corpus Party, associated with National Militia, has not performed any better. In spite of their weak electoral prospects, these groups have managed to cultivate ties with more powerful political factions. The most noteworthy relationship being the People’s Front party of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

Avakov’s party is presently in a ruling coalition with President Petro Poroshenko’s ruling Bloc. He commands the forces of the National Guard and National Police. The Interior Minister has well-known ties to the far-right including the Azov Battalion and has appointed Vadim Troyan, a former Azov member, as his deputy. With a constellation of figures placed in positions of power, it could explain why far-right militia members feel that they may act with impunity as they direct violence against those they oppose. There seems to be a severe lack of accountability. 

This arrangement may contribute to lax responses by authorities to far-right violence and contribute to their sense of exemption. When National Militia members assaulted protestors on February 4th 2018, none of the attackers were held to account whereas police detained a number of activists instead. That in itself is a violation of Ukraine’s laws against attacking participants in a civil assembly, but the militia escaped being held responsible.

2019 election & the Far-Right

Ukraine is going to see a new set of elections in 2019 for both the presidency and parliament. It is unlikely that either Poroshenko or his main challenger Yuliya Tymoshenko will make any moves against the activities of the far-right.

The most prominent reason is that both politicians and their parties are not particularly popular among Ukrainians. Voters express pessimism about their future under either candidate. While in theory, the President can utilize the security services more aggressively to counteract the far-right. However, this is an unlikely option. The militias have many veterans of the Donbas war in their ranks. These individuals command great respect from Ukrainians for defending the state from Russian separatists. Neither candidate or their respective parties may have the tenacity to weather the likely political backlash. 

Another challenge to reining in the militia’s excesses has to do with Avakov. Poroshenko’s ruling coalition in the Rada relies on members of Avakov’s People’s Front to maintain its majority and while Avakov himself is even less popular than Poroshenko, there is no immediate replacement partner. Additionally, Avakov could easily position his forces, official and non-official, on the side of any protests against Poroshenko, depriving him of legitimacy and risking a forced resignation.

Tymoshenko has expressed no interest in replacing the interior minister on the campaign trail despite his massive unpopularity. This could also be political given her past membership of the old political organization under Yanukovych. There is a fear of him potentially revealing politically compromising information pertaining to her. This could be damaging for her potential government.

The potential threat

The aggression and boldness of the militias do not pose an imminent threat to the current government. However, the long term sustainability of this situation is unclear. 

As frustration with economic stagnation and the pace of political reform continues, it may serve to embolden the militia and their backers like Minister Avakov to take more rebellious actions. Avakov has already used his official position to blunt investigations targeting his family and allies. Furthermore, militia members have shown no qualms about harassing government officials they deem to be ineffective.

The militia’s strength may also increase with their active recruitment of returning veterans of the Donbas conflict. Some such as Azov have already made it a point to target this group, who may share frustrations with the lack of sufficient reforms by Kyiv and see a reason to join their ranks. While they may not prove popular enough to win seats in the Rada, they can still prove disruptive to a paralyzed government. A lack of popular support for the acts of militants, as evidenced by protests staged against their perceived lawlessness, may prove a restraining factor. Even Avakov has acknowledged this situation by declaring no other authority has a legitimate right to use force other than the state. However, if a conflict among the elite escalates or if reforms fail to benefit more Ukrainians, the situation can become much more tenuous for Kyiv.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Nicholas Morgan

Nicholas is a Masters student in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London (UCL) where he focuses on Russian foreign and security policies with a particular focus on its cyberwarfare elements. He also researches Turkish politics, terrorism, and intelligence agencies as well. Beyond international politics, he has written on technology topics for an independent online media site.