by David Van Deusen
March 21, 2022
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is motivated by imperialist ambitions and is rightly condemned by most for its military aggression against Ukraine. This is not a war of ideology for Putin. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, but rather an authoritarian capitalist state where only Putin and the Oligarchs wield power. In a word, this is a war of empire.
The death and destruction we see raining down on the Ukrainian people today are appalling and we, as Americans, are right to feel sympathy and revulsion, as did many of us when our own President George W. Bush chose, unprovoked, to likewise invade and occupy faraway Iraq. Or when President Richard Nixon escalated the war in Vietnam and chose to conduct a massive bombing campaign on the other side of the world against Cambodia. And just as Americans protested those unjust wars, we in the West should honor and respect those Russians who have taken to the streets today to express their resistance to organized slaughter.
The pain Ukrainians presently feel is, undoubtedly, immense. The war is terrible and we are right to empathize, just as we also should feel the same for the people of Yemen as they suffer indiscriminate bombing at the hands of Saudi Arabia. And here, we would also be right to reject the recent Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Rojava (Syria), the brutal fifty-year Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the 800-year British occupation of Ireland. But of course, Turkey and Britain are NATO countries, and Israel and Saudi Arabia are allies, so, for those in power, sanctions are never on the table, let alone the arming of the Palestinians or the IRA.
Even so, just because our Government fails to do right by one people does not have to dictate failure towards another. Thus the question becomes: Should the US and NATO be arming the Ukrainians, and should American workers and Union members support such delivery of arms? If this were just a question of good vs. evil or the underdog vs. a regional powerhouse, I would venture to say the answer would be yes. However, there are other, dark truths in play here that should give us pause.
While the U.S. and NATO would prefer to not talk about it, Ukraine in fact has a serious Nazi problem. In the aftermath of the U.S. supported Euromaidan uprising in 2014 (which fascist elements played a leading role in), the first post-revolution government was quick to install a number of Nazis and fascists to high office from the Svoboda & Right Sector parties including for the positions of Deputy Prime Minister (Oleksandr Sych – Svoboda), Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (Andriy Parubiy – Svoboda), Deputy Secretary of National Security (Dmytro Yarosh – Right Sector), Minister of Ecology & Agricultural (Andriy Mokhnyk – Svoboda), Prosecutor General (Oleh Makhnitsky – Svoboda), and Minister of Internal Affairs (Arsen Avakov – not a member of a fascist party but a nationalist Nazi sympathizer who would go on to become the patron of Azov).
After this government was put in place, and as fighting broke out in the eastern Russian-speaking regions, a number of Nazi and fascist militias grew in relation to the perceived Russian threat. First among these was the Nazi-oriented Azov Battalion which came to prominence when they re-captured the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol from separatists. With patronage from Avakov (who would remain in office until 2021), and with support from other fascists serving in the national Government, in 2014 Azov was formally incorporated into the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The Azov Battalion is currently fighting the Russians in southern Ukraine and is central to the Ukrainian defense of Mariupol. And here I do not call them Nazis because I want to signal that they are bad people (which they are), but rather because they are actual Nazis. Their founder & leader, Andriy Biletsky, has unapologetically stated that the mission of Ukraine is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led [Jewish] Untermenschen.” Azov, who flies an SS emblem as their battle flag, also has proclaimed that their intent is to cleanse Europe of immigrants and homosexuals. This dangerous Nazi group is not only active in the south but is additionally taking part in the defense of the Capital, Kyiv. As we speak they are also in the process of setting up three other battalions throughout Ukraine.
Since 2014, under multiple Presidents (including Zelenskyy) Ukraine has not only armed the Azov Battalion but further funded their activities including the operation of Hitler Youth-like summer camps and “educational” programs in line with their Nazi ideology. Presently the Azov Battalion is actively recruiting Nazis, fascists, and white nationalists from Europe and North America to join their ranks in Ukraine as ideologically driven armed fighters.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) issued a report on the Azov Battalion in 2016, where it asserts that Azov has been guilty of torturing and raping civilians in areas where it is operational. And in 2019, forty members of the United States Congress unsuccessfully sought to have Azov listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. But again, this is not a fringe outlaw group in Ukraine. They are a fully incorporated unit within the official Armed Forces. In fact, since the death of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, they are the only openly Nazi or fascist military unit in the world to be intentionally integrated into a nation’s official military.
Further, the National Militia, a paramilitary organization allied with Azov, has for some years been operating throughout Ukraine, including in Kyiv, as a kind of fascist vigilante group. Often working in coordination with the local police, the National Militia has sought to advance their far-right ideology while dishing out their version of justice through the use of violence. Publically, they claim that their mission is to restore order to the country. In reality, their activities have included attacks on the Roma and LGBTQ communities. In 2018, in scenes reminiscent of 1920s Italy or 1930s Germany, one thousand of their members marched in formation through the Capital, Kyiv in a show of strength. And they, along with Azov, are far from the only violent fascist groups operating in Ukraine; Democratic Axe and the armed wing of Right Sector being but two of many others.
If this was not troubling enough, over the last ten years Ukraine has dedicated hundreds of statues, memorials, plaques, and street names to Stepan Bandera and other World War II-era Nazi collaborators who played a direct role in the murdering of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and other ethnic minorities in the 1940s. One-quarter of all the Jews murdered in the holocaust (1.5 million) were from Ukraine. The public honoring of mass murderers would be inconceivable from a moral or political vantage point if it was not sadly the reality within Ukraine through the last decade.
The Russian government and Putin, although being rightwing themselves and no friends of the working class, have made much of this Nazi problem in their propaganda justifying the war. They have exaggerated these facts and gone so far as to claim Ukraine is a Nazi state. Ukraine is not. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. And the overall politics of the Ukrainian Parliament are right-leaning/neo-liberal in nature, but not Nazi in character. In 2014, for example, Svoboda & Right Sector (both fascist/Nazi parties) combined for 6.51% of the vote (thus earning only six seats in the Verkhovna Rada). In 2019 fascist parties headed by Svoboda received only 2.15% of the vote (and gained zero seats). As of 2022 Svoboda & Right Sector no longer hold top positions in the Ukrainian national government (as they did in the post-Euromaidan period).
But electoral success is not the only measure of power in a society. The 2019 fascist defeat at the polls does not diminish the truth that the Ukrainian state presently provides support, arms, financing, and legitimacy to dangerous Nazi organizations. Nor can anything negate the reality that Zelenskyy’s government has outlawed the left-leaning opposition parties throughout the country including the Left Opposition, Union of Left Forces, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialist Party of Ukraine, and Socialists Party. Further, previous governments had already banned the Communist Party of Workers & Peasants as well as the Communist Party of Ukraine (which as recently as 2002 was the third-largest party in the country with 64 seats in parliament). While Zelenskyy and his supporters justify these steps by claiming that these parties are sympathetic to Russia or Russian separatists (Russian speakers represent 30% of the countries population), it is hard to square claims by Western governments that Ukraine aspires to be a Euro-style democracy with its repressive actions concerning its internal opposition.
The Ukrainian state has been governed by three different administrations since 2014. And at no time has the government in power sought to actively reverse state support of Nazis as encapsulated in Azov. Zelenskyy himself has been in office since 2019, and the Azov Battalion continues to grow and to receive state support and arms. Given that Zelenskyy lost family in the holocaust, such inaction is at best bewildering. But however we arrive at the present, the growing Nazi presence in Ukraine is a dark truth that should not be lightly overlooked or whitewashed by those who wish to tell a simpler story. Governments, and those in power, must answer for the decisions they make.
As Russian troops advance, the Ukrainian resistance to this aggression seems to have become widespread, reaching into all social spheres. Reports have been circulating recently that leftist and anarchist militias have also been forming to defend their nation against the imperialist onslaught. And certainly, the great majority of Ukrainians are not Nazis or fascists. Hence they are right to defend themselves with the guns provided by the West, but let’s to honest and not pretend that it is Nestor Makhno and his cavalry that are riding out to meet the Russian threat. Rather, as things stand, every rifle or rocket sent by the U.S. and NATO risks falling into the hands of Nazis. Yet without our guns, Russia will more rapidly prevail in their conquest. So what is to be done?
The U.S. and NATO must demand that the Ukrainian government immediately server all formal ties with and forcibly dismantle Azov. They must also pledge to withhold weapons from any and all Nazi or fascist groups active within their borders. The Ukrainian government must further agree to take steps that would allow for the verification that such conditions are being met. While this effort would inevitably be resisted by the Zelenskyy administration (as they will claim they need those far right forces on the front lines), their reliance on Western arms does not allow them the latitude to resist such demands with vigor should such conditions be imposed.
The West must also provide massive humanitarian aid and free passage for non-fascist refugees seeking to escape the conflict, and for the cancellation of all IMF and World Bank debts (and austerity requirements associated with them) in order to not exasperate the conditions under which fascism can thrive. The U.S. and NATO can also assist in defusing global tensions by publicly stating a commitment to not expand NATO any further into former Soviet territories (historically NATO has its own imperialist interests that have destabilized international relations).
Further, as circumstances arise, Organized Labor should look to provide material and political support for those leftist armed formations taking shape as part of the resistance (and moral support to those Russians who continue to protest the war). Doing so shall help restore a favorable balance of power internally in the post war period. And recognizing that Russia is a nuclear power, under no circumstances should the U.S. and NATO seek to impose a no-fly zone. Such an act would amount to the start of an air war with Russia thereby risking World War III.
The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend, lest we forget our experience arming the Mujahidin in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and the rise of Al Qaida and the horrors of September 11, 2001, that came after. Therefore, let us clear our eyes of the justifiable tears for the Ukrainian people, and clear the air of the fog of war, so that together we may judge this historic moment with more somber senses and not inadvertently arm, train, and support the next rightwing terrorists to emerge from a conflict zone. In short, let us offer no love for Putin and no guns for Nazis.
David Van Deusen is President of the Vermont AFL-CIO, and is co-founder of the progressive United! slate which is in power after sweeping internal Vermont AFL-CIO election in 2019, 2020, and 2021.