By Roman Olearchyk, Financial Times, Aug 2, 2015
At a thickly forested former youth camp west of Donetsk in war-torn eastern Ukraine, a military instructor is busy teaching hundreds of new recruits how to fire everything from machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades. The new boys are lean and fit, anti-separatist and — in the instructor’s words — have “fire in their eyes”.
But this is not Ukraine’s regular army. The troops are members of Right Sector, the far-right group that evolved from among the most militant wing of the protesters who toppled Viktor Yanukovich, the country’s pro-Russian president, in its pro-democracy revolution last year.
The group is one of dozens of “volunteer” battalions that played a key role in halting advances by pro-Russian rebels a year ago, after the revolution ushered in a pro-EU leadership, when the long-neglected regular army was caught flat-footed. But fears are growing that Right Sector — the only major volunteer battalion Kiev has not yet managed to bring under regular army control — could turn its fire on the new government itself.
Dmytro Yarosh, Right Sector’s leader, called late last month for a nationwide no-confidence referendum in President Petro Poroshenko. He was addressing a rally in Kiev of up to 5,000 Right Sector activists, angry over what they say is the government’s slow progress in fighting corruption and excessive concessions to Moscow as it attempts to reach a settlement over eastern Ukraine.
“We are an organised revolutionary force that is opening the new phase of the Ukrainian revolution,” Mr Yarosh told the rally.
And earlier last month, two people were left dead in a shootout between off-duty Right Sector fighters and police near Ukraine’s previously peaceful western border — 1,500 km away from the eastern conflict. The group claimed it was acting to destroy an illicit cross-border cigarette trade. Some observers have suggested Right Sector was actually trying to take it over.
Russian officials and media have long demonised Right Sector as neo-Nazis who, they claim, were the real driving force behind Ukraine’s revolution. Moscow media’s obsession led some Ukrainian officials to suggest privately that Right Sector might have been penetrated by Russian intelligence as a subversive “project” aimed at undermining the government.
Now some Ukrainians who previously dismissed the threat posed by Right Sector are growing nervous.
“[Right Sector] have been mainly a problem for Ukraine’s image in the west, but now there is added concern because they have turned against the government,” said Andreas Umland, a German academic based in Kiev who studies the far right.
“But they don’t yet have the political support or firepower to topple the government, and they know this.”
Popular support for the group remains low, although a recent poll found it had risen from 1.8 per cent last October to 5.4 per cent by July.
Yet as Mr Umland notes, the bravery shown in the east Ukraine conflict by the Right Sector battalion has earned it the esteem of many regular soldiers — posing a dilemma for Kiev.
Though the group agreed to pull back from the front lines weeks ago to comply with requirements of February’s Minsk ceasefire accord that “illegal fighting forces” be withdrawn, its red and black flag still flutters over many locations now manned only by regular troops.
“Personally I respect Right Sector. They are a strong, patriotic fighting force,” said a Ukrainian deputy battalion commander nicknamed Leon, stationed north of Donetsk. “There is no Right Sector here now but there are lots of boys here who support Right Sector.”
But although Right Sector fighters are respected by regular Ukrainian troops for their battle bravery, they are despised by separatists, who allegedly execute them upon capture rather than taking them hostage for prisoner swaps.
As well as attracting scores of new recruits, Right Sector — unlike much of Ukraine’s regular army — appears well equipped.
An armoured infantry assault tank captured in combat guards the entrance to the Right Sector base in the village of Velykomykhailivka. Inside, the group’s other vehicles, including armour-plated pickup trucks, stand idle as the boom of grenades roars from a training ground hidden in nearby woods.
Right Sector fighters regularly drive outside the base in camouflaged jeeps, passing freely through security checkpoints despite having their own — illegal — licence plates identifying them as Right Sector.
“We could send up to 10,000 fighters to the frontline,” said Artem Skoropadsky, a spokesperson for Right Sector. Garik, another spokesperson, said some of their weapons were “donations” or were traded for other equipment with regular Ukrainian troops in the heat of battle; others were captured from the enemy.
Though the group’s fighters admit they constitute an illegal armed force, they blame Ukraine’s parliament for dragging its feet in legislating to legalise them as a single elite unit under Ukrainian army command.
“We earned our status from the people already, but now we need legal status as a fighting force,” says Frantsuz, or “Frenchman” — an instructor who earned his nickname after fighting with the French foreign legion. “Those in government are criminals if they don’t give us status.”
He denies the group are fascists. “Having lived in [western] Europe, I realise that they often confuse Nazism with nationalism, which for us Ukrainians is more akin to patriotism,” he says. “It’s not about considering your own ethnic group as superior, but being proud of it, and of defending your country.”
Right Sector is now trying to gather enough signatures from voters to force the referendum, although it is not clear if it will succeed.
“It may come to a military coup,” said one Right Sector fighter — although many in the group say they would not go that far. He admitted, however, that public support for such a scenario was low. “That’s why we haven’t done it yet.”
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Read also in the Financial Times:
Demoralised Ukraine troops start to lose faith in Kiev
By Roman Olearchy, Financial Times, July 31, 2015 (excerpts)
Echoes broader ebbing of public support for political leaders
… Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, seems to prefer visiting training grounds far from the war zone, testing advanced weapons that have yet to make it to the front line, [Vasyl] says, adding: “Our morale is burning out due to their actions.”
Vasyl asks not to be identified. But his comments are both typical of those heard among Ukrainian soldiers in the east these days, and significant. They reflect an anger and mistrust towards commanders and the country’s political leaders that has grown sharply in the past 12 months…
The mood change among the military rank-and-file echoes a broader ebbing of support in society for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leaders, seen — despite praise from international observers — as slow to deliver on pledges to reform governance and curb corruption…
Most worryingly for Kiev, many frontline soldiers express admiration for Right Sector, a rightwing militia whose leader last week called for a national no-confidence vote in the government and a new revolution…
The country is meanwhile struggling with a double-digit economic contraction, plummeting currency and spiralling inflation — including a fourfold increase in utility prices that was a condition of securing a $17.5bn IMF bailout [in March of this year].
“They call all this reform, but a retiree living with a pension of just over $50 per month can’t cover such bills and have enough left over to feed themselves” said Yuriy Lozytsky, a retired serviceman of 26 years now working as a car mechanic near Dnipropetrovsk…