Ukraine’s upheaval: between fascists, neoliberals, and Kremlin tools

“It is right to be horrified and appalled by the brutality of Yanukovych’s — failed — crackdown, and the huge death toll. No one should support the violence of the state.

“But nor should we cheer for the former opposition forces who have now taken power.

“This has been a battle that has its roots in the long-term divide in the oligarchy, between those whose interests are best served by a tie-up with the EU, and those who profit from links with Russia.”

I think this quote from Tash Shifrin is a good starting point for making sense of Ukraine’s recent political upheaval — the mass “Euromaidan” protests and violent street battles that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this week. Events in Ukraine are still very much unfolding, but whatever happens, it’s a critical moment for those of us trying to understand fascism’s relationship with popular struggle, state repression, and inter-capitalist rivalry.

Anti-government protest, Kiev, 27 November 2013.

It’s easy to find lopsided treatments of the Ukraine struggle in the media. Democracy Now! hosted a debate a few weeks ago between Anton Shekhovtsov and Stephen Cohen. Shekhovtsov declared that the “Euromaidan protest is basically a multicultural, democratic movement” and dismissed claims of major involvement by neo-Nazis and antisemites as Russian propaganda. Cohen argued, more believably, that right-wing extremists had in fact taken control of the protests, but portrayed the Ukrainian police as victims of mob violence who “haven’t cracked down” despite extreme provocation. Both speakers seemed more interested in picking sides than analyzing the whole situation critically.

The two best articles I’ve seen so far about the conflict are Shifrin’s “Ukraine: no tears for Yanukovych, no cheers for new regime or fascists in its midst” (the piece quoted at the top of this post) and Mark Ames’s “Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong.” The key points of these two articles are my main focus in this blog post. (A follow-up post will focus more specifically on Ukraine’s major fascist groups.)

Both Shifrin and Ames try to go beyond one-sided caricatures. Both argue that the majority of Euromaidan protesters were motivated by real anger at police brutality, political corruption, and economic misery, but have been used by one faction of the elite against another. Shifrin writes,

“Euromaidan was not like the Occupy or Indignados movements — nor the workers’ protests now in Bosnia. Unlike these movements there were no democratic assemblies or forums to debate and formulate independent, working class demands. This movement has been used as a lever by the pro-EU politicians in their power struggle with Yanukovych and his pro-Russian backers.”

Ames takes this a step further, arguing that the factional lines within Ukraine’s elite are actually quite fluid: “Today’s neoliberal ultranationalist could be tomorrow’s Kremlin ally, and vice-versa.” He points out that Yanukovych had previously embraced International Monetary Fund and EU austerity demands, and that other major politicians had switched sides from pro- to anti-Kremlin forces. “Many of those oligarchs have close business ties with Russia, but assets and bank accounts — and mansions — in Europe. Both forces are happy to work with the neoliberal global institutions.”

Ames and Shifrin both make good points about the role of fascists within the Euromaidan forces. Ames writes that fascists are

“a powerful minority in the anti-Yanukovych campaign — I’d say the neo-fascists from Svoboda [Freedom party] and Pravy Sektor [Right Sector] are probably the vanguard of the movement, the ones who pushed it harder than anyone. Anyone who ignores the role of the neo-fascists… is lying or ignorant, just as anyone who claims that Yanukovych answered only to Putin doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The front-center role of Svoboda and the neo-fascists in this revolution as opposed to the Orange Revolution [of 2004-5] is, I think, due to fact that the more smiley-face/respectable neoliberal politicians can’t rally the same fanatical support they did a decade ago.”

But Ames also cautions that it’s a distortion to think that the right-wing danger is only on one side:

“What’s happening in Ukraine is not a battle between pro-fascists and anti-fascists. There are fascists on both sides; the opposition happens to like fascist costume parties more, but watch this video of Yanukovych’s snipers murdering unarmed protesters and tell me who the real fascists are in this fight… [WARNING: BRUTAL VIOLENCE]”

Shifrin makes a related point:

“Both the pro-EU and pro-Russia sides are stoking reaction. The fascists’ ideology is based on ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, as well as worship of the Nazis’ ally [Stepan] Bandera. Svoboda’s [leader Oleh] Tyahnybok is notorious for his anti-Semitic views while the nazi groups of Right Sector are happily pictured with the White Power and Hitler-loving graffiti common to fascists across Europe.

“The pro-Russian side has also been pouring out anti-Semitic propaganda, such as that on social media sites supporting the (rightly hated) Berkut riot police, which claims that the Euromaidan leaders are all Jews. It also warns that the dangerous liberalism of Europe will mean children will be ‘turned gay’.”

At the same time, Shifrin emphasizes that the role of far rightists in helping to topple Yanukovych represents a major breakthrough for fascist forces internationally:

“Fascism traditionally has a twin track approach, with both electoral and street fighting wings. In Ukraine, the fascists have made a huge leap forwards — in addition to their successful electoral breakthrough in 2012 [when Svoboda went from 0.76% to 10.44% of the vote in parliamentary elections], they are now set to enter the government.

“And they now have armed, paramilitary troops — proven in pitched battle with the forces of the state, and admired as militant fighters and heroes. “While before, Svoboda kept the Patriots of Ukraine [paramilitary organization] at arms length and the nazi groups that make up Right Sector carried out their combat training quietly under the radar, now they are recruiting openly. Right Sector as well as Svoboda is a big player now.

“In recent years, fascists have not achieved anything like this elsewhere in Europe. It is a milestone, a new benchmark.”

I think this point is well taken. Certainly, the Ukrainian fascists have gone beyond what Golden Dawn party achieved in Greece, for example.

The fascists’ success reflects the left’s weakness. Shifrin writes:

“The genuine left in Ukraine is tiny, and has no hinterland of a mass labour or social democratic party to draw on. The main trade union federation is based largely on the old Stalinist state unions. The left has had no meaningful impact at all on recent events — there is no point in starry-eyed optimism about this situation.”

Ames extends the point:

Euromaidan, Kiev, 29 November 2013

“Ukrainians do have a sense of people power that is rare in the world, and it goes back to the first major protests in 2000, through the success of the Orange Revolution. The masses understand their power-in-numbers to overthrow bad governments, but they haven’t forged a populist politics to change their situation and redistribute power by redistributing wealth.

“So they wind up switching from one oligarchical faction to another, forming broad popular coalitions that can be easily co-opted by the most politically organized minority factions within — neoliberals, neofascists, or Kremlin tools. All of whom eventually produce more of the same shitty life that leads to the next revolution.”

While I agree with Ames’s basic point here, I would add is that maybe “populist politics” is part of the problem, to the extent that it tends to mask class differences and other stratifications within “the people.”

One important issue that neither of these two articles deal with much is the politics of Ukraine’s fascist organizations. What do they stand for and how they relate to other political forces, Ukraine’s oligarchic factions, and the great powers jockeying for influence in the country? I will explore this question in a follow-up post.

Related posts on Three Way Fight:
Who are Ukraine’s fascists?
U.S. fascists debate the conflict in Ukraine


Ukraine does have some genuine leftist organizations. Here are some recent statements from two of them.

From the Autonomous Workers Union, an anarchist group:

Ukraine after Yanukovych: 50 shades of brown – Autonomous Workers Union

Statement on the situation in Ukraine – Autonomous Workers Union

From Borotba (Struggle), a Marxist group:

Communiqué #4 of the ‘Borotba’ union and Centre of Anti-fascist Resistance: The government of ultraliberals and Nazis

Communiqué #3 of the ‘Borotba’ union and of the Centre of Antifascist Resistance: Ukraine is on the brink of fascist dictatorship

[Link added 3/1/14:] The following interview offers an excellent and wide-ranging analysis of the anti-Yanukovych movement, including the movement’s class composition, the responses of various left groups, and many other topics:

Maidan and its contradictions: interview with a Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist

Photo credits

Photos by Mstyslav Chernov (Self-photographed, [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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