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Why Russian Ultranationalists Confronted Their Own Government On The Battlefields Of Ukraine

By EurasiaNet. Originally published at ValueWalk.

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from: Coda in Partnership with MeydanTV

On a snowy January day in 2016, a small crowd assembled in central Kiev to honor the fight against the far right. The gathering of diehard anti-fascists was commemorating the 2009 murder of the Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who’d defended activists and victims of the Russian military, and the Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Baburova, who’d investigated neo-Nazi gangs.

Ukraine Ultranationalists
By United Nations Cartographic Section; Alex Khristov. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As they unfurled banners in memory of the pair, a group of young men confronted them. In footage posted online, the men, many of them masked, identify themselves as members of the Azov Civic Corps, a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist movement linked to a regiment fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east.

An unmasked Azov member, sporting a strap-like beard across his chin, begins arguing with the crowd. Like most people in Kiev, he speaks in Russian — but his accent is distinctly Muscovite. He refers to the murdered lawyer as one of the “scumbags” responsible for imprisoning his friends. Someone in the crowd responds: “But is it OK to kill people because of their political views?”

“Of course it is OK,” the bearded man says. “If these views contradict the interests of the nation, they should be uprooted.” Although he does not mention any nation in particular, he refers to Russian soldiers as his “blood brothers” and condemns the murdered lawyer Markelov as a “Russophobe.”

The left-wing activists appear puzzled. Their public assemblies had always risked clashes with their homegrown opponents, the Ukrainian ultranationalists. Yet here they were in their capital, Kiev, amid a war with Russian-backed forces, quarreling with a Russian agitator somehow aligned with the Ukrainian far-right.

Internationalist Ultranationalism

The man’s name is Roman Zheleznov, and he is indeed a Russian citizen. He is also an ultranationalist who idolizes the neo-Nazi gang-leader convicted of murdering the lawyer and the journalist. Many of his fellow ultranationalists from Russia have, predictably enough, backed the pro-Russian rebels in their war with Ukraine.

But Zheleznov is part of a Russian contingent that has wound up on the opposite side, joining the Ukrainians fighting against the rebels. Their exact number is hard to confirm, as they keep a low profile. Zheleznov puts it at 200, while others speak of several dozen.

These Russians are, in effect, battling a proxy military force that is sustained by their own government and that includes their former comrades from the far right. But their brand of nationalism cuts across national borders. In this sense, they are paradoxical figures — “internationalist” ultranationalists.

Their journey can be traced to the Russian far right’s complex relationship with their country’s institutions and with similar groups in Ukraine. Most of the Russians who champion the Ukrainian cause began their careers with ultranationalist gangs back home. These gangs had powerful sympathizers and at times enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with officialdom, advancing its aims and battering its opponents. In return, they seemed to receive immunity from prosecution and access to resources.

While individual gangs have periodically supported official causes, the Russian far right as a whole has remained independent of the state. Perhaps inevitably, gangs that have served the authorities have, at other points, run afoul of them. Their involvement in violence and criminality has made them easy targets for prosecution when this relationship goes sour.

During crackdowns at home, many gang members have sought shelter in neighboring countries, including Ukraine. In doing so, they have exploited — and strengthened — existing links between the region’s various far-right groups. These are ties that have typically been forged online and on foreign visits, with like-minded individuals mingling at skinhead concerts, summer camps and soccer matches.

When the war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, Russian ultra-nationalist gangs constituted a powerful and unruly street movement. They enjoyed contacts with a network of similar groups abroad, and while many had served the Russian government’s aims, their collective loyalty to that government could not be taken for granted. Their role in the Ukraine conflict would therefore be far from straightforward.

The war gave a huge boost to President Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity — and sent fissures through the far right. Many ultranationalists expressed their support for Putin and the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. Others supported these separatists but would turn against Putin. Most notable among them was an ultranationalist former security officer, Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov. He had ignited the uprising in eastern Ukraine but swiftly fell out with the Kremlin and has recently called Putin a “prostitute who can’t choose between her American and Chinese client.”

Other ultranationalists, like Zheleznov, would defy Putin as well. They looked to the Ukrainian far right as their true comrades and to Ukraine itself as a platform for challenging the Kremlin.

Since 2014, the Russian authorities have prosecuted hundreds of ultranationalists, suspecting that they sympathize with the Ukrainian enemy. “Nationalists are the best organized opposition group in Russia,” says Aleksandr Verkhovsky, an expert on political extremism at Moscow’s Sova think tank. “So I’m not surprised the authorities are clamping down on them.” He says the latest crackdown has been “harsher than on any other political force in Russia,” except the Islamists of the banned Central Asian Hizb ut-Tahrir group.

Under pressure, Russian ultranationalists have continued taking sides. For those who oppose the Kremlin, Ukraine occupies a place like the one once held by Syria in the jihadist imagination. It represents a test of loyalties, a revolutionary ideal, an escape from troubles at home, and a chance to gain battlefield experience with one’s comrades.

If any of this is a surprise, it is because of the way the war has been reported in both the West and Russia. For many in Europe and the U.S., the conflict in Ukraine has shown Putin to be the very embodiment of Russian nationalism. The president’s actions in Ukraine have indeed boosted his standing among many nationalists at home. He does not, however, have their universal support. This Western understanding of Putin fails to explain how the conflict in Ukraine can pit his opponents, such as Zheleznov and Strelkov, against each other.

Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda has portrayed the country’s adversaries in Ukraine as neo-Nazis, striving to avenge historic defeat by the Soviet Union. The conflict has emboldened Ukrainian groups with fascist tendencies, catapulting their leaders into military and political roles. Yet they have fared poorly in elections, and depend on oligarchs and mainstream politicians for support. The Russian view, too, is unable to explain how Ukrainian nationalism has ended up attracting Russian ultranationalists, such as Zheleznov.

Both the Russian and Western narratives are incomplete. If figures like Zheleznov appear self-contradictory, it is because they do not fit into either of them.

“A Racist”

The Kiev confrontation ended abruptly. The ultranationalists heard a quick speech from their Ukrainian leader, joined him in a chant of “Sieg Heil,” and marched off into the snow. The online footage captures the curious mood of the encounter — the bemusement of the left-wingers and the bravado of their antagonists. At one point, Zheleznov is filmed teasingly pulling an anti-fascist activist’s hat over his eyes. Seconds later, smiling, he cocks his fingers and mimes shooting the activist in the head.

As a teenage neo-Nazi

The post Why Russian Ultranationalists Confronted Their Own Government On The Battlefields Of Ukraine appeared first on ValueWalk.

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