EXCLUSIV/ Analiza în limba engleză a unui expert american despre naționalism și conflictul Rusia-Ucraina

sursa foto: Pixabay

Stephen R. Bowers, directorul East West Open Roads, fost militar american în cadrul Special Operations Command și fost profesor de științe politice la Universitatea James Madison din Virginia, face o analiză despre naționalism și conflictul Rusia-Ucraina.                                 


With the approach of a confrontation between major powers, public attention is focused on military issues, troop levels, or perhaps the employment of specific weapons. Reporters, diplomats, and politicians routinely discuss troop levels and positions implying that the war may start with an attack on Kiev on any given Wednesday and that the move will be, naturally, like 1938 in anticipation of a big war. On any given day there will be speculation about Russian sabotage campaigns, an anti-Ukrainian coup to replace Kiev’s leadership, or some sinister false flag operation.  Even more confusing is the fact that any one of these possibilities can turn at an hour’s notice.  Discussion of war, in the most general terms, is confusing because there is a multitude of confusing and contradictory meanings associated with the concept of war.  Any military analysis will challenge the efforts of the most astute observers. What we call war could mean anything from the placement of your troops on enemy territory, an artillery bombardment of worthless ground, the violent occupation of towns, or the even more destructive capacity of a cyber-attack. President Biden acknowledged this when in discussing likely Western responses to Russian actions. He observed that sanctions would vary depending on the precise nature of Russian moves against Ukraine and how severe or sustained such operations might be.    (https://statesidealternatives.com/politics/wooing-allies-publicizing-putins-plans-inside-bidens-race-to-prevent-war/)


Lt. Col. Stephen R. Bowers, USA Ret

An often discussed but exceptionally important concern is the imbalance between Ukrainian and Russian forces. While some emphasis is placed on the nationalistic military formations, it is apparent that the military advantage lies with the Russians. Press accounts of military training for the Ukrainians describe the wooden guns being used by Ukrainians forces with often humorous consequences. Meanwhile, in 2021 the Hungarian government expressed great concern about the prospects of being involved in a Russo-Ukrainian conflict while in 2022 the US government urged American diplomats to flee the region.

For Russia and Ukraine today these factors to do not encompass the totality of the issues between these two post-Soviet states. Strategic considerations matter although there are other factors driving events in the region. Nationalism, social, and economic developments also determine outcomes. It is equally important that nationalism, whether associated with Russia or with Ukraine, is not likely to dramatically change at an hour’s notice. It is largely a function of character and history. Yet, what is obvious is that nationalism may lead to the development of strategic choices that can have horrific consequences.

One of the most significant aspects of the administration of Vladimir Putin has been his assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia’s dominant role have involved activism reaching from the Middle East to, most significantly, the lost territories of the former USSR. The Putin era in Eastern Europe has brought numerous disruptions and violent conflicts.  One of the most consistent targets of Putin’s efforts has been Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was followed by violence in eastern Ukraine centered in the Donbas and Lugansk regions. The inability of the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration to deal with Russian pressure abroad and corruption at home has been a reminder of the disappointments of the post-Soviet era.

Putin’s Nationalism

Putin’s nationalism has been founded on the historical narrative that Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are the heart of the Russian empire. This analysis has been carefully developed by Professor Andrei Zorin who explains how Putin’s nationalism is focused on national rather than on strategic and military considerations.  According to Zorin, Putin has revived the pre-revolutionary concept of Russian as a term that referred collectively to all Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians.   (https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/02/22/andrei-zorin-a-professor-of-russian-at-the-university-of-oxford-explains-how-national-mythologies-foment-conflict)

For several years, the relative ease and success of the move into Crimea established the idea that there was a Crimean consensus that insured unity behind Putin’s leadership.  However, as prospects for a significant military clash increased, there were a few prominent Russian military and strategic thinkers who raised questions about some of the potential fatal consequences associated with such a policy.  The analyst Paul Goble recently cited Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired colonel who earlier served as a senior officer in the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff and Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, head of the All-Russian Officers Assembly, as vocal skeptics who have cautioned against an aggressive Russian military policy. They have been joined by Viktor Mironenko , an Academy of Sciences analyst on Ukraine, who has cited past difficulties when an even more powerful Russian military faltered in its military operations in Ukraine. (http://www.ocnus.net/artman2/publish/Defence_Arms_13/Moscow-Security-Experts-Say-Any-Russian-Invasion-of-Ukraine-Will-Not-Be-a-Cake-Walk.shtml)

Russian military moves in late 2021 and early 2022 brought about an intensification of Russo-Ukrainian tensions.  However, it was the 2013–14 Euromaidan protest and the signing of the Ukraine Association Agreement with the European Union that set the stage for this crisis. The Maidan revolution of February 2014 exacerbated tensions and generated pro-Russian unrest in the eastern region of Ukraine. At the same time it intensified the anti-Russian feelings of many Ukrainian nationalists. Yet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has played down the fears that there might be a war between Russia and Ukraine.

While it is easy to overstate Putin’s authority at this time, it is crucial to recognize the limits faced by his regime. Without a doubt, Russia has a powerful military, the best since the Soviet era, and it enjoys the benefit of a petroleum and gas industry for which there are many customers. Otherwise, there are limits that Putin must recognize.

One important limit is that Putin must determine how to achieve his objectives without forcing Russia into geopolitical isolation.  He needs to bring about a geopolitical compromise that will not make it apparent that he has pushed beyond his capabilities. In this he needs to test the West without pushing Western powers to give up more than they can afford. Initially, Putin appeared to be having success in this regard when he met with Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Moscow on 15 February. Their agreement on the so-called Minsk agreements, which were an effort end the war in the  Donbas, was the most notable apparent success. As other nations considered offering military aid to Ukraine, Germany limited its generosity to to providing helmets but little more. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/31/ukraine-crisis-questions-germanys-stance-towards-russia)

All of that progress was swept away by the ferocity of Russia’s invasion. Shortly after the Russian attack, German Chancellor Scholz and other German officials signaled their repudiation of their own policy. According to Scholz, “The peace in Europe is built on not changing borders. We must return to these principles: State sovereignty is respected. Borders will not be moved.” (https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-russia-policy-in-tatters-after-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/a-60874697)

Putin’s nationalism has placed him in a position similar to that of Alexandr Dugin who was the driving force behind the National Bolshevik Party. In his book The Fourth Political Theory, Dugin advanced the proposition that there is a sharp divergence between Eurasia and the West and that, for this reason, Ukraine needs to be divided and added to Russia. (https://www.heritage.org/europe/commentary/russias-real-goal-might-not-be-ukraine-takeover-belarus)

Another important limit to Russian power is the Russian nationalistic approach with its emphasis on the view that Russia and Ukraine are one nation.  In this Putin has created a falsehood that he may well see as a path to new imperial glory.  For Putin, the historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians was a fact. Though the emphasis is on recreation of a Russian empire, in reality it shields Putin from the realistic threat of democratic entities being created in the former USSR. Without a doubt, Ukraine represents a real threat in this matter. We can acknowledge that Putin embraces Russian nationalism but, more important he is an autocratic, dictatorial figure determined to prevent the emergence of any form of democracy.

It is not surprising that with the rejection of nationalism in Europe at the end of World War Two, nationalism became more pronounced in Eastern Europe. The “internationalist” emphasis of the early USSR was eventually phased out. During World War Two, traditional Russian values as well as the Russian Orthodox Church were embraced as a way of forging unity to resist the German attack on the USSR.

Émigrés from the early Soviet era, making projections about the future, suggested that eventually the USSR would become more nationalistic and traditional.  As Russia has embraced pre-revolutionary concepts such as the idea of “Great, Little and White Russians” for Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, the predictions of those émigrés has been borne out.

Post-Cold War Era

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, traditional Russian national views gained acceptance. With his rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine as one people, Putin developed his own form of nationalism. Meanwhile, Russia worked to reestablish the main elements of the authoritarian system of the USSR. The FSB emerged as the “new KGB”, an organization that apparently staged a terrorist bombing that served to justify military actions against a rebellious Chechnya. By contrast, Ukraine devoted thirty years to establish its credibility as an emerging and prosperous democratic state. As the Russians saw Ukraine drift towards the West in the post-Soviet era, they rejected this as nothing more than a betrayal of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood.

The end of the Cold War, rather than bringing a “peace dividend” that would reduce America’s international obligations, created an era of new responsibilities for the US military. As the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Kremlin became a less imposing and singular military threat, the numerous components of what had been the world’s last great empire morphed into smaller but nonetheless vexing challenges. The Partnership for Peace program created opportunities for US National Guard units to play important advisory roles in many of the former Communist Party states. U.S. active-duty military personnel were stationed in other East European states as well as former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan where they supported combat units in Afghanistan. Consequently, American soldiers faced demands for more overseas deployments and further education in subjects such as cross cultural communications and language training.

When newly independent nations were created out of former Soviet republics, their leaderships often sought closer relations with the United States, the development of democratic institutions, and perhaps eventual membership in NATO as in the case of Georgia and Ukraine. The friendly embrace of these states carried new challenges for the United States that threatened to bring US forces into confrontations with Russian troops. Our military relationship with the Caucasus region was relatively benign but when Russia invaded the Georgian Republic in 2008, several hundred American soldiers in Tbilisi became a final barrier keeping the Russians from occupation of Georgia’s capitol.  US support for the pro-Western Ukraine represented an even greater challenge for the American military. With the annexation of Crimea and the clashes with Russian forces and Russian “volunteers”, there were questions not simply about our providing logistical support – socks, for example – but weapons to aid Ukrainian forces in their combat operations. When Russian forces took three Ukrainian ships and two dozen sailors in November, 2018, the Ukrainian crisis threatened to escalate and engulf Western states sympathetic to Kiev.

With the intensification of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis in 2022, NATO states faced their own crisis in terms of how to fulfill NATO’s possible military role. Military facilities such as Ramstein Air Base found themselves forced to balance priorities from both the south and the east with new pressures imposed by an emerging Russian military threat in Ukraine. While US commanders offered reassurance that this balance was possible, they acknowledged the balancing act was accomplished on the backs of personnel in the U.S. European Command and the U.S. Africa Command. Three wings at Ramstein—the 86th, the 435th Air Expeditionary Wing, and the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing—already support theaters in Europe and in Africa. The addition of a new challenge in NATO’s eastern flank could eventually require commanders to more carefully examine strategic priorities.                                      

Throughout most of the Cold War, few Soviet specialists gave much thought to what might follow the collapse of communism. It was not for lack of interest but because of a belief among Western scholars that the system was unlikely to fail. Should it do so, the casual assumption among academics was that communism would be replaced by something like Western democracies. There was insufficient consideration of the possibility that the collapse of the communist system would unleash the bitter nationalist sentiments that had been suppressed by communist dictatorships. The years since the fall of the USSR have brought violent clashes that run counter to the Marxist belief that societies would be defined by their relationship to the means of production rather than to ethnic heritage. Events in post-Soviet Ukraine are a vivid illustration of the failure of the Marxist predictions. Ukraine has long struggled for its independence enduring tensions with Poland and Russia since the Middle Ages. This tension was particularly noticeable during the inter-war years as both Poland and Russia sought control over Ukraine.

The emergence of a possible clash between Russia and Ukraine immediately raised questions about the relative importance of strategic issues. Putin’s expressed interest in a restoration of the “Russian Empire” encouraged speculation that the Kremlin’s focus was on regional if not global considerations. The evolution of the European Union and NATO as significant players in Eastern Europe, especially in the states that had once been active members of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, drew a strategic contrast between the two former alliances.  While focusing on Ukraine as a key to a renewed Russian empire, many observers feel that Belarus is not only more important in this effort but that Belarus is more sympathetic to Putin’s new nationalism. Shortly after the collapse of the USSR, Belarus was first in calling for Belarus-Russian unity.

More recently, Belarus has drawn much closer to Russia as Russia began to exploit the international isolation of Belarus. Consequently, as Alyaksandr Lukashenka  indicated his support for Putin’s moves against the West, Russia staged joint exercises in Belaus while establishing new training facilities for Russian forces in Belarus.

Putin clearly has dreams of re-establishment of a Russian empire. Putin’s statements and actions demonstrate that the core of this re-envisioned empire is Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. An increasingly Western oriented Ukraine has no enthusiasm for this objective.

An early aspect of this dream appeared in the form of President Medvedev’s federal law No.309 in 2009. As a result of this law, the „subjects of the Russian Federation” could no longer determine what language, history, or culture would be taught in state schools. Instead the federal Ministry of Education and Science, acting on behalf of the individual school, would make this decision.

What this meant was that the various ethnic minorities would no long be assured that they could retain their ethnic identities. The post-Soviet Russia saw the Russian language under attack and being rejected by young people in Georgia, Ukraine, or even Tajikistan. This relatively obscure piece of federal legislation was an early way in which the Russians could push for ethnic assimilation in the face of pressures to reject Russian language and culture.

Before Putin developed his form of Russian nationalism, his administration and his allies were clearly pushing back. What this meant was that having lost an empire, they were determined to preserve what was left. Putin’s Ukrainian actions, from Crimea in 2014 to Donbas and Lugansk in 2022, represented Russian nationalism in action.

While Russia also developed a military presence in Belarus, it has also been a beneficiary of private military entities such as the so-called Wagner Group. Rather than being a single business, the Wagner Group is a network of mercenaries engaged in activities such as the suppression of pro-democracy protests, the cultivation of disinformation such as allegations of Ukrainian atrocities, mining for illegal gold, and organizing paramilitary activities. The Group first appeared during the Russo-Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and is widely associated with the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin who is known as a close Putin ally. More recently, the Wagner Group played a key role in supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/07/06/what-is-wagner-group-russia-mercenaries-military-contractor/)

Russia’s strategic concerns have been increasingly specific and have embraced considerations of Western military presence in Eastern Europe as well as explicit concerns about the rejection of membership and participation in NATO by Ukraine, Georgia, and Romania. Russian officials have been explicit in their absolute rejection of Ukrainian membership in NATO. In 2014, popular support for Ukrainian membership in NATO was low, rarely rising about 30%. However, by early 2022, popular support for NATO membership had doubled in the face of realistic threats of a Russian invasion. Pro-NATO support was especially enthusiastic in regions in which Russian activity was more intense but was equally strong in all regions of Ukraine.  (Javier Pérez Sandoval, “A majority of Ukrainians support joining NATO”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/02/04/majority-ukrainians-support-joining-nato-does-this-matter/

However, although Ukrainian support for NATO membership has risen, there has not been a corresponding increase in Western support for military involvement as part of their military support for the Ukrainians. As of early 2022, Western powers have been willing to send weapons to Ukrainian forces but they have emphasized that their political and moral support will not be augmented by combat troops.

President Biden has been cautious in his statements about possible support for Ukraine. Going back to the time of the Russian occupation of Crimea, the US has provided modest assistance such as small arms, ammunition, and Javelin anti-tank weapons while Turkey sold armed drones to the Ukrainians. While several thousand international volunteers have gone to Ukraine, the US has clearly rejected the dispatch of American troops and no other NATO member has indicated a willingness to send troops.

The most that the United States has had to offer are small military contingents, such as the Task Force Gator, part of the Florida National Guard. These contingents are in Ukraine to train local forces not to join those units in combat against the Russians. Given the political environment in the United States, this is a commitment that is unlikely to change.

While nobody could deny the relevance of strategic and geopolitical considerations, those ethnic factors often seen as elements of a bygone era continue to represent important political and cultural factors in this contemporary era. These are matters that might represent a challenge to Putin’s increasing powerful post-Soviet world. The activities of nationalist formations such as the Azov Battalion may not represent a significant military threat but at a minimum they generate uneasiness among the Russian population in the east part of Ukraine as well as Kremlin officials,

This regional conflict contributes to the often aggressive nationalism that Ukrainians exhibit, a nationalism that contrasts sharply with Western nationalism. This nationalism has enabled the Russians to develop propaganda themes based on accusations of Ukrainian atrocities directed against Russians.  “Nationalism in the West arose in an effort to build a nation in the political reality and the struggles of the present without too much sentimental regard for the past; nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe created often … an ideal fatherland, closely linked with the past, devoid of any immediate connection with the present”. (Serii M. Plokhy, “The History of a „Non-Historical” Nation: Notes on the Nature and Current Problems of Ukrainian Historiography”, www.jstor.org/stable/2501745?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

Ukrainian nationalism is not new and led to the rise of Stepan Bandera, whom many Russians still label as a criminal while there are Ukrainians who see him as a national hero. As a member of the Union of Ukrainian Nationalist Youth, Bandera vowed to fight until Ukraine was independent or to die trying. Today there are many Ukrainians who have similar beliefs and are ready to join militia or quasi-vigilante groups to secure Ukraine’s independence. From the Russian perspective, Ukraine has been a part of the Russian empire’s historical heartland and was something the Russian state could never surrender to the West. Early in 2022, 17,000 foreign fighters came from 27 countries, including the United States, India, Albania, and the Georgian Republic, joined the Ukrainians in fighting against Russian military actions against Kiev. These volunteers explain that they are joining this fight in order to protect freedom and democracy.

When the USSR collapsed, Ukraine’s desire for independence grew with that of other former Soviet republics.  When offered EU membership, Ukrainians hoped for change and security. Vladimir Putin saw the EU overture toward Ukraine as a threat to Russia’s economic interests and as an EU effort to expand its “sphere of influence”.  Moreover, it undermined Putin’s apparent effort to restore the Russian empire.

The power vacuum created by President Victor Yanukovich’s removal from office in February of 2014 represented an opportunity for Russia to annex Crimea. Russia’s occupation of Crimea cut the Crimean population off from Ukraine. When authorities in Kiev protested, they were branded as fascists or neo-Nazis bent on an ethnic cleansing of Russians living in Ukraine.

In the subsequent referendum, Russian speaking Ukrainians or Crimean communities voted in favor of secession from Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, backed by many EU and NATO members, disputed the legality of the referendum. When Crimea declared its independence, there was an intensification of the conflict between ethnic Ukrainians and Russian-secessionists.

The creation of what became known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine exacerbated nationalistic tensions. The DPR is a non-recognized state which is a Russian client dependent on Moscow for humanitarian and military support.  Ukraine branded the DPR a terrorist group and supported the Azov Regiment as an organization that would destroy such terrorist threats.

Russian nationalism as a factor in Putin’s policy toward Ukraine

While Ukrainian nationalism has evolved in a colorful and dramatic fashion, Russian nationalism has been equally significant and based in historical concepts about Russian Ukrainian ties. Putin has been increasingly inclined to mythologize the relationship between these two nations. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, for the first time in the modern era there was a realistic chance for creation of an independent Ukraine. In fact, the only previous effort to create an independent Ukraine was in the 1940s when Germany intervened to back creation of such an entity.

A hundred years ago Russian nationalism took form as what was known as the Young Russian movement. The goal of the organization was to bring about a national revolution that would boast a strong Russian army. The Young Russian movement was under the leadership of a national Bolshevik named Kazem Bek. The Young Russians were xenophobic and racist. They saw every foreigner as a potential enemy and believed all Jews should be removed from Russian public life.

Much later, a more moderate version of the Young Russian movement was organized by Vasily Yakemenko. The organization was known as Nashi. Yakemenko, was the leader of the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together. The Walking Together youth movement was created in 2000 and had over 50,000 members. Like Nashi, it was enthusiastically pro-Putin and was endorsed by Putin’s administration.  Nashi engages in voluntary work in orphanages and old people’s homes. It also helps restore churches and war memorials while protesting against shops that sell tobacco and alcohol to youngsters. It has run a series of children’s’ projects such as the Mishki Bears.  The group operates out of a £20 million building in downtown Moscow and usually receives around 200 million rubles in state funding each year.

While Nashi has a different emphasis from the traditional nationalists of Ukraine, it is similar in that it draws from traditional aspirations of what its members want for their country. In general, the Russian nationalists want to maintain a Russia that is free from foreign control.  At the same time, they have cultivated a close relationship with Putin and have political objectives which might eventually include replacing United Russia.

Another significant non-strategic but philosophical expression of the new nationalism in Russia is the influential book The Fourth Political Theory. Written by the political analyst Aleksandr Dugin and often praised, if indirectly, by Putin, the book talks about new foundations for a new political ideology based, not on democracy, Marxism, or fascism. According to Dugin, the main subject of politics should not be individualism or class struggle, but rather existence itself or what Dugin often refers to as Dasein.

This book has often been credited with the development of Russian policy in Ukraine, the conflict in Donbas, and, ironically, important elements of the European far-right.

Reactions to Russian Military Success in the East

Development of the Azov regiment, which was formed in May 2014 when the Ukrainian military was being overwhelmed by Russian backed separatist forces, was in part a reaction to Russian military success in the eastern part of Ukraine.  The Azov Battalion, as it was then known, was a volunteer militia of 1,000 members and a response to Russian military activities Ukraine’s eastern regions.  When the Ukrainian National Guard incorporated Azov, its status changed to a regiment – the Azov Special Operations Regiment – and it was transformed into a regular military unit. Azov was only one of more than twenty volunteer units which joined the fight against Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

As a regular unit, Azov undergoes the rigorous training associated with more conventional military organizations. In one of the many ironies of this conflict, the lavish family dacha of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych was transformed into a training camp for the  Azov Regiment. There is also an Azov training facility in Kiev where members are taught basic combat skills.

The Azov Regiment has a complicated reputation. Russia denounces it as a terrorist, fascist group bent on the elimination of peaceful Russians living in the Donetsk region.  According to a 2015 Russian report, the organization “is one of the most infamous units of the Ukrainian National Guard”. Russian accounts maintain that these Ukrainian nationalists have committed numerous atrocities and war crimes. An ISIS-style video, allegedly produced by the Azov Regiment, shows a Novorossia fighter being tied to a cross which was then set on fire.

Critics of the Azov Regiment argue that the organization is a haven for Nazis. While there is no way to evaluate the extent to which the unit is pro-Nazi, even Azov defenders admit that there are some Nazis in the Regiment. They argue, however, that the number is small, perhaps no more than 50 out of what may be a total of 2,500 members. Moreover, supporters argue that while there are a few Nazis, they are motivated by their opposition of Putin and Russian aggression and are not working to advance what might be seen as Nazi ideology.  In fact, in as much as one can determine what an Azov ideology might be, there is little evidence that the group espouses what can be thought of as a Nazi ideology.

Much has been made of the symbols used by the Azov Regiment. Critics charge that these symbols are evocative of the Nazi past and indicate the group’s neo-Nazi orientation. Some Azov images include the pagan Sunwheel which was adopted by the Nazis but has existed for several thousand years as part of pagan worship. In late 19th century Ukraine there was a blending of pagan and Christian beliefs into what is described as Slavic folk religion. Having been missed by the Age of Enlightenment, pagan beliefs persist in Russia and Ukraine. After the collapse of the USSR, many Ukrainians embraced the US-based international organization Native Ukrainian National Faith, also known as Rodnovery. Devastated by large scale unemployment, there was a resurgence of cultural nationalism which encouraged nostalgia for the distant past and its symbols. This was associated with the growth of Rodnovery and the effort to regain national pride. The Azov movement, with its utilization of ancient pagan symbols, is a reflection of this post-Soviet development.

The Azov Regiment is only one of many volunteer military organizations involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, it enjoys a more secure official status within the institutions of Ukrainian government, both military and political. Moreover, their image seems better than that of other organizations, such as the Right Sector movement, which has thousands of armed members. While it cooperates with the Ukrainian Army in military operations, Right Sector is not inclined to support the Kiev government and many fear that once the war ends, Right Sector elements would turn their guns against the Ukrainian government. Russia’s media is able to use Right Sector for propaganda purposes suggesting that it is the true face of “Ukrainian fascism”. (www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/ukraine-turns-a-blind-eye-to-ultrarightist-militia/2017/02/12/dbf9ea3c-ecab-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html?noredirect=on)

Youth Camps and National Identity

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a profound crisis. In order to survive this crisis, there was a need for strong leadership. Yeltsin, who all too often appeared comical and incompetent, did not provide such leadership. However, Vladimir Putin did and combined his leadership style with a set of national beliefs that were reinforced by his participation in Christian rituals.  Like many people who believe that Russia can only be protected by violence, Putin increasingly embraced nationalism rather than the relatively sophisticated Marxism-Leninism.

Examining Russian tradition, one sees a century old tradition of political activism associated with youth.  Following this tradition, Vasily Yakemenko organized Nashi in March 2005. Nashi was modern, explicitly political, and openly anti-Ukrainian. Yakemenko had been the leader of the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together. The political orientation of Nashi was somewhat reactionary and there were reports that it got secret funding from pro-governmental businesses. The group received direct subsidies from the Kremlin.

From the first, it was apparent that Putin had a hand in forming this youth movement and that his goal was to create a paramilitary force that could denounce his critics as „enemies of the State”. Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky urged the organization to exercise greater brutality and to be prepared to direct violence toward groups that might protest against Kremlin policies. Observers often compared Nashi to the Hitler Youth. Yakemenko called for the organization to ensure that foreign influence was kept out of Russia. Baring exceptional vigilance, Yakemenko expressed his concern that Russia’s fate might mirror that of Ukraine. Ukraine, he said, had been a Russian colony but was becoming an American colony.

There are other Russian youth organizations with moderate orientations that engage in what we would regard as conventional efforts to promote the development of young people. State-run youth associations have come to play an important role for young Russians simply wanting to advance their educational and cultural prospects. A prominent polling organization, the Levada Center, has studied attitudes of young Russians and those studies demonstrate that young Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 years have a more positive view of contemporary Russia than older citizens. More importantly, their political views are more conformist thus making them an attractive target for Kremlin programs and policies. (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/02/19/the-kremlin-is-co-opting-russias-youth-a64548)

Well before the contemporary era, Ukraine had nationalistic youth movements. For example, the Group of Ukrainian Nationalist Youth was founded in Prague in 1922. In this period, the complexion of their camps varied greatly with some dedicated to violence and ethnic hatred while others were motivated by a more benign desire to protect themselves and their families.

At a minimum, the current Ukrainian youth camps, which are supervised and often funded by the Ministry of Youth and Sports, are dedicated in a broader sense to development of a sense of national identity and patriotism. According to a Ministry spokesperson, each camp is evaluated by a Ministry panel which works to exclude funding for any which show “signs of xenophobia and discrimination.” (www.apnews.com/94fe1c68205a43ca96fcc89c88a7cc9f)

Azov is not the only Ukrainian military organization associated with nationalist conceptions. It is, however, condemned for its “biological racism”, an imprecise term which is difficult to define. The term is employed in connection with the Azov Regiment’s determination to destroy all Russian influence in the region. The notion is clouded by the fact that Ukrainians and Russians have intermarried with such frequency that it is often difficult to determine who is Ukrainian and who is Russian. In the early years of the unit’s existence, at least twenty Russians who were motivated by their opposition to Vladimir Putin came from the Russian Republic to join Azov in its struggle to defend Ukraine. In interviews, many of those Russians declare that it was their opposition to the Putin regime that prompted their decision to go to Ukraine. In so doing, they often say, they are not simply defending Ukraine but also a Europe which is likely to be directly threatened by Putin’s expansionist objectives.  Some Russian speakers, such as Yuriy Yeremenko, have even assumed leadership positions. (“Azov: Russians Join Ukraine’s Azov Regiment”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWYFWyq4C2U&t=58s, 14 October 2014)

By contrast, some former US and UK military veterans praise Azov and argue that it is simply resisting Russian territorial expansion into the rest of Ukraine. When founded in 2014 as the Azov Battalion, as noted above, the unit took over a seaside villa that belonged to Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and thus cemented the unit’s reputation as a repudiation of the old political order.   A 2017 report by Nolan Peterson, a US veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insists the Azov Regiment has no overall ideological orientation beyond its commitment to defend Ukraine. While visiting with members of the Regiment, Peterson observed a variety of motives but its most frequent motivation was simply the desire to establish control of the Ukrainian border and reclaim secessionist dominated Luhansk and Donetsk. Only in its more ambitious statements does the Azov leadership express a desire to reclaim Crimea.

While some observers maintain that the Regiment is untrained and undisciplined, Peterson noted that what started as a civilian volunteer paramilitary unit has, since 2015, benefitted from sophisticated training programs.  Among the most notable is a specialized course for noncommissioned officers.  Only 5% of the personnel of the Azov Regiment have actually attended a Ukrainian academy, a situation that makes it easier for Azov soldiers to embrace training that is completely different from Soviet concepts that are still part of formal Russian military education. The new goal, Azov spokesmen maintain, is to train soldiers more like American troops who are taught to think for themselves in a tactical environment.

The unit now enjoys a positive reputation among Ukrainian forces that recognize its skill set which includes an ability to cross through minefields, safely defuse booby traps, and handle explosive ordnance threats.  New recruits go through several months of training before deployment in combat operations. The Azov Regiment consists of two infantry battalions and uses a military uniform that looks a lot like those worn by US troops. There is also an artillery battalion, a drone reconnaissance team, a sniper platoon, a canine term, and a combat service support unit.

The Ukrainian government provides financial and military support for the Azov Regiment and the unit falls under the command of the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior. The Ukrainian National Guard has given the unit several modified T-64 tanks and provides Regiment members with their basic pay of approximately $400 per month.

Yet, there have been questions about the degree of official Ukrainian as well as American support for Azov. While this may be no more than disinformation, officials of Ministry of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic claimed that during the 2015 ceasefire Ukrainian officials had contacted them and requested them to direct mortar fire against elements of the Azov Regiment. According to DPR spokesman Eduard Basurin, Ukrainian authorities had complained about the regiment’s “insubordination” and “aggression toward the civilian population” and wanted DPR forces to restrain the Azov fighters. Basurin maintained that this request was simply an effort to trick DPR forces into violating the ceasefire so it ignored the request.

American funding for Azov became a controversial subject as speculation arose about alleged human rights violations by the unit’s personnel. The 2016 U.S. defense appropriations bill was to have banned US military aid for Azov but when the budget was finalized, aid was restored. In December 2017, the State Department announced the U.S. would provide enhanced defensive capabilities for Ukraine and in January 2018 there were reports that U.S.-made weapons were being used by the Azov Regiment. There was further controversy about US military aid to Ukraine in 2019. However, in September, the Trump administration announced that it was going to provide $250,000 in military aid to Kiev during its ongoing war in the east. (www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/09/12/white-house-releases-250-million-in-ukraine-military-aid)

For several years, the Azov regiment suffered from an apparent decline in official support and confidence. For three years the unit did not participate in combat operations but was essentially confined to barracks. Most of its time was devoted to training and lobbying for more equipment. In February, 2019, its status changed as it was attached to the 30th Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces and resumed combat operations. (tsarizm.com/news/eastern-europe/2019/02/03/ukrainian-azov-regiment-returning-to-front-lines-in-donbass)

During these years, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict threatened to further destabilize the region. However, the upset election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the 41 year old comic who defeated the Ukrainian incumbent Petro Poroshenko to become President of Ukraine, set the stage for what could have become a rapprochement between these two former Soviet republics.  (www.rferl.org/a/zelenskiy-putin-discuss-east-ukraine-conflict-in-first-phone-call/30050156.html) Zelenskiy’s broad reform agenda, which included dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament, was seen as a failed effort to improve prospects for ending the long was between Ukraine and Russia. The prisoner exchange on 7 September 2019, an event widely seen as a political victory for both Zelenskiy and Putin, inspired optimism about prospects for an end to the long conflict in eastern Ukraine. (www.rferl.org/a/after-ukraine-russia-prisoner-swap-can-zelenskiy-capitalize-on-momentum-/30151851.html) However, the deep nationalist divide insured that those efforts did not fear fruit.

Consequences of Nationalism in the Region

As an expression of Ukrainian nationalism, the Azov Regiment has played an important role. It is reminiscent of the region’s past with its rekindling of Ukrainian nationalism and its utilization of ancient symbols.  It also builds on memories of the turbulent Ukrainian-Russian relationship. However, its military resources are limited and cannot counter a Russian military intervention.   The Azov Regiments greatest influence may be cultural in that it draws Ukraine toward the West and cultivates anti-Russian sentiment.

As the number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border increased, the prospect for a military engagement became more likely.  More important for the Ukrainian nationalist community is that Azov will consolidate its position as part of Ukraine’s nationalist community even as its military contribution declines in the face of overwhelming Russian forces. With the increase in anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, the nationalist community will have a genuine and enthusiastic level of popular support.    

By contrast with Ukrainian nationalism and its often flamboyant appearance, Russian nationalism today is founded on the belief that the most devastating defeat can be turned into a victory. From this perspective, events such as the defeat by the Poles in the 17th century or by the Germans in the 20th century can become the keynote of great victories.

As leader of Russia, Putin built on this theme by stressing that the collapse of the communist system was the result of a betrayal. This is developed in the same fashion that Hitler argued Germany did not honestly lose World War One but was betrayed. The implication in Putin’s narrative is that the betrayal that led to the collapse of the Soviet regime can be reversed and transformed into a victory.


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