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Far-Right Forces are Influencing Russia's Actions in Crimea

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Russian authorities claim that their invasion of Ukraine is justified by the fascist threat posed by the new authorities in Kiev. The Ukrainian government is led by a conservative technocrat called Arseniy Yatseniuk. The Ukrainian revolution involved people from all walks of life and all political orientations. The far right was overrepresented in the people who fought the riot police in its final weeks, as the Ukrainian regime resorted to kidnapping, torture, and mass shooting. Members of the right-wing party Svoboda hold a handful of portfolios in the new government, although far more are held by conventional political parties and people of different views. This spring, elections should demonstrate the limited popularity of the far right within Ukrainian society. In opinion polls held in anticipation of the presidential elections scheduled for May 25, the leaders of the Ukrainian far right receive the support of 2 percent to 3 percent of Ukrainian citizens. None of the leading candidates remotely resembles a nationalist. If elections are held, the winner will likely be a chocolate magnate or a former heavyweight boxer, neither of them remotely nationalist.

Of course, the point of Russian intervention is to make sure that these elections never happen. It is deeply strange for an openly right-wing authoritarian regime, such as that of Vladimir Putin, to treat the presence of right-wing politicians in a neighboring democracy as the reason for a military invasion. Putin's own social policy is, if anything, to the right of the Ukrainians whom he criticizes. The Russian attempt to control Ukraine is based upon Eurasian ideology, which explicitly rejects liberal democracy. The founder of the Eurasian movement is an actual fascist, Alexander Dugin, who calls for a revolution of values from Portugal to Siberia. The man responsible for Ukraine policy, Sergei Glayzev, used to run a far-right nationalist party that was banned for its racist electoral campaign. Putin has placed himself at the head of a worldwide campaign against homosexuality. This is politically useful, since opposition to Russia is now blamed on an international gay lobby which cannot by its nature understand the inherent spirituality of traditional Russian civilization.

The Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea was carried out in a spirit that recalled to many, including some Russian observers, that of the late 1930s. The argument used was that the Russian state had the right to protect fellow Russians. Making the case in this way places ethnicity, as imagined and proposed by Moscow, more important that international borders and international law. Indeed, Russian authorities have been quite explicit that this is their doctrine: Ukraine is no longer a state because they say so, and all that matters in the world of international relations is ethnicity and history as seen from Moscow. The only “right” that individuals have in this logic is to be defined as members of a Volk by the Kremlin, and then to be invaded or not as appropriate. That Russians in Ukraine in fact enjoy far broader freedoms than Russians in Russia is irrelevant, since in this scheme people are not individuals but simply numerical arguments for territorial expansion. This sort of dismissal of states and laws in favor of ethnicity and invasion is not evidence that today’s Russia opposes fascism.

Crimea under Ukrainian rule has been an autonomous province inhabited, alongside Russians and Ukrainians, by the Crimean Tatar minority. The Crimean Tatars were deported by the Soviet NKVD as a totality, every man, woman, and child, in May 1944. Those who live in Crimea are surviving deportees and their children and grandchildren, people who made their way back from murderous exile in Soviet Uzbekistan and reestablished themselves in what became independent Ukraine. Their return to their homeland was one of the precious cases of multicultural integration in post-Soviet Europe. As a result, the Crimean Tatars were quite pro-Ukrainian, in the sense of preferring Ukrainian law to any other alternative. The Russian invasion of their homeland immediately introduced a new sense of threat, recalling for many Tatars the experience of ethnic cleansing. Suddenly their houses were marked. The mutilated body of a Crimean Tatar man was discovered a few days ago. Crimean Tatar women and children were already being sent to the Ukrainian mainland before the “referendum.” What will follow now will likely be worse.

What happened on Sunday in Crimea was an electoral farce. Referenda cannot be held under military occupation. Referenda cannot have two options that have essentially the same meaning. Referenda cannot be held when all of the propaganda is generated by the state. Referenda cannot be held when the local television stations are closed and journalists are beaten and intimidated. Even in these conditions, the claim that 75 percent of the population took part and more than 96 percent voted for annexation to Russia is untenable. We know from years of surveys that a majority of Crimeans did not favor incorporation by Russia. One large survey showed 33 percent support for this idea in 2011, down to 23 percent in 2013. The Crimean Tatars boycotted the "referendum," as did many Ukrainians, since it was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Ukrainian government. The recorded electoral frequency in the city of Sevastopol was 123 percent.

Yet there were some people on hand to praise the "referendum." Moscow sent an invitation to parties of the European far right, and found politicians willing to serve as "observers." Enrique Ravello has belonged to the neo-Nazi CEDADE and now belongs to the extreme-right Plataforma per Catalunya. Luc Michel used to belong to the neo-Nazi Fédération d’action nationaliste et européenne and now supports a blend of fascism and Bolshevism that is also popular among Russia's Eurasianists. Béla Kovács is a member of the Hungarian extreme-right party Jobbik and the treasurer of the Alliance of European National Movements. That Alliance characterizes Russian intervention in Ukraine as a response to the global neoconservative conspiracy, portrayed as the latest attempt at Jewish world domination.

While invading and occupying Crimea, Russia has, according to eyewitness accounts, sent some of its own citizens to create unrest in east Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Donetsk. In both places, in what was seemed like a planned scenario, someone took down the Ukrainian flag from a public building and replaced it with a Russian one. In Kharkiv the person who did this was a Russian citizen who allows himself to be photographed in Nazi uniforms. Perhaps this is simply a personal fashion choice. In Donetsk the flag-raiser was Pavel Gubarov, a Russian nationalist (and Ukrainian citizen) who declared himself to be the people’s governor. After he was arrested by Ukrainian authorities, he was presented as a hero and a martyr on Russian television. In Donetsk Gubarov was known as a neo-Nazi and as a member of the fascist organization Russian National Unity.

If there is still anyone on the Left who takes Putin seriously when he portrays the Russian occupation of Ukraine as anti-fascist, now might be the moment to reconsider. 

Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.