Heidi Maiberg’s discussion with Anton Shekhovtsov on (ultra-)nationalism in Ukraine and war’s influence on the European far-right milieu.
HM: Like many other European countries, Ukraine has had far-right movements and organisations. For instance, Reuters wrote in 2018 that some far-right vigilantes were willing to use intimidation and even violence to advance their agendas, which they often did with tacit approval from law enforcement agencies. What has changed since the beginning of the full-scale war?
AS: The Ukrainian far right, or ultra-nationalists, whatever you call them, have always been quite unique, in the European context. The first far-right parties appeared as early as the 1990s but failed to win any elections. As a political force, they were characterised by radical opposition to Russian influence in Ukraine – being anti-Russian was at their ideological core. They did draw upon ideas that were common to other European far-right parties. They were, to various degrees, pro-authoritarian and either sceptical or openly dismissive of liberal democracy, in addition to sharing some anti-Semitic thoughts. Nevertheless, the main aspect was their radical opposition to Russian influence in Ukraine.
There was one moment when they were, indeed, relatively successful in the parliamentary elections of 2012. At that time, the far-right Svoboda party was believed to be the main political challenger to the pro-Russian forces in power – President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. People voted for them not because of their ideology but because of their radical opposition to the pro-Russian government – a popular (although false) belief.
What changed in 2014? The Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas made scepticism towards Russia and the opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine mainstream. These qualities became a precondition for all Ukrainian parties to win support, although there was still a pro-Russian sentiment (it did not completely disappear). One no longer needed to back the far right in order to support that political course, hence, they lost the only appeal they ever had and quickly found themselves in a crisis, no longer having anything to offer their voters.
The right-wing narratives that work in other European countries – anti-Muslim rhetoric, opposition to non-European migration, and even the COVID-19 vaccine scepticism – have no mobilising potential in Ukraine. Some far-right groups may be active as a subculture (with venues to hang out, listen to live music, or exchange opinions) but politically they are irrelevant.
Anton Shekhovtsov (PhD) is a director at The Centre for Democratic Integrity, a Vienna-based non-profit association monitoring attempts of authoritarian regimes to influence politics, societies and public governance in Europe, and Associated Researcher at the Research Center for the History of Transformations at the University of Vienna (Austria).
Right-wing and ultra-nationalism has, indeed, been on the rise globally. At the beginning of the full-scale war, there were voices that discouraged supporting Ukraine, pointing at the ultra-nationalist sentiments or people with far-right symbols on their uniforms. Why do some Ukrainian soldiers wear those symbols?
An explanation warrants some context. In contrast to most of Europe, the far-right has been relatively weak in Ukraine, despite some small electoral victories. In 2014, when Russia invaded, the Ukrainian army did not really exist. The country thus needed to rally all the people who were prepared to fight against Russian aggression – and not just to fight but to die fighting.
There were over 50 volunteer battalions assembled, with the Azov Battalion being just one of them. It would not come as a surprise to anyone that people who support far-right ideology are prone to violence. Yet at that time, Ukraine needed everyone who would take up arms, whatever their ideology might be. In 2016-17, President Petro Poroshenko’s reforms of the Armed Forces changed those dynamics, and there was less demand for volunteers.
As to the symbols, the Azov Assault Brigade of today inherited the logo of the tiny far-right group called “Patriot of Ukraine,” whose leaders formed the original Azov Battalion. Letting them keep the symbols such as the Wolfsangel (or “wolf’s hook”) was, in my opinion, a big mistake on the part of the government. Ukraine thus handed a huge gift to the Russian propaganda machine that would always try to discredit any resistance to the “Russian world” as being “Nazi.”
Before 2016, Azov did have some political goals and objectives. However, it gradually changed. The commanders who had political ambitions left and founded the National Corps party. Although the party did attempt to capitalise on the heroic regiment’s popularity and its name recognition, it did not mean that there were relations of power between the regiment and the party. The National Corps had modest luck in elections – and so did all other far-right candidates. With everyone interested in a political career having eventually resigned, the unit no longer had a political agenda of its own either. The regiment only followed orders from the Ministry of Internal Affairs – not the politicians. In this sense, it became a regular formation of the National Guard of Ukraine.
The Azov Brigade has its own unique – and, indeed, problematic – history. However, by 2022, it had long ceased to be the far-right volunteer battalion of 2014. Talking about the right-wing milieu or independent groups today, they are just soldiers. In some soldiers, we might see right-wing convictions, but in their duty they are governed by orders from higher commanders, rather than personal politics.
Heidi Maiberg is a PhD Candidate (Criminology) at Royal Holloway, University of London. In her dissertation, she researches European and Northern American deradicalisation and disengagement programmes with a focus on ways how programmes measure their impact. She also keeps an eye on ways how to prevent violent extremism through education, and changes in the Baltic extremist milieu.
How much has nationalism changed since 24 February 2022?
Not only in Ukraine but throughout the Western world, both the understanding of and attitude towards nationalism have been constantly changing. Ukrainian nationalism has been trying to save the country from a genocide unleashed by imperial Russia. In this sense, Ukrainian nationalism has been a life-saving force – had it not been for nationalism, why would those people take up arms and defend their homeland?
Amongst the European nations, Ukraine was not the lucky one to gain and keep its statehood in the late 19th or early 20th centuries when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Ukraine is only now going through what other European countries went through decades ago – still in the process of building a nation-state. Ukrainian nationalism is a “force of good” in Ukraine, especially in the context of the defensive war against Russia’s genocidal imperialism.
Today, almost every Ukrainian believes that Ukraine should be a sovereign, independent country. Therefore, everybody is a “nationalist” in this sense. If we introduce some more problematic aspects to this discussion, we should probably talk about the “ultra-nationalists” – i.e., people who reject the liberal democratic consensus. You can hardly see them today, though. It is difficult to see how the war has changed them because they have been busy fighting for the survival of Ukraine. There must be some ideological rearrangement among them, too. However, these people are in the army now – not writing essays or manifestos.
In terrorism studies, foreign fighters are seen as a group who brings enormous risks to the receiving society due to their combat experience, psychological traumas, and ability to train others. Since 2014, there have been foreign fighters or volunteers, as researcher Kasper Rekawek refers to them, on both sides. He says that people joining the fight in 2014–21 were radical nationalists. What is the local opinion on them?
I do not share this belief that foreign fighters or volunteers pose a threat to receiving societies. Empirically speaking, there is simply no evidence that volunteers (who have been in Ukraine) have produced any terrorist threats in their countries of origin. Obviously, we should keep in mind that domestic security services track the people whom they have reasons to suspect. Still, we have not registered any spikes in the number of crimes or terrorist activity by those who received combat experience in Ukraine, even if they fought on the Russian side.
There is obviously a feeling of gratitude towards those who fight on Ukraine’s side. For instance, many of them are from Georgia. I must add, however, that the overall number is not very high. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government initially institutionalised the Foreign Legion, which allowed other countries’ nationals (including volunteers from NATO countries) to enlist.
Rekawek has highlighted that between 2014–21, the foreign fighters in Ukraine were ideologically motivated. In contrast, now only a small group of far-right is active in Ukraine, vastly outnumbered by the so-called “concerned citizens of the world.” How so?
People have very different motivations: ideological or non-ideological beliefs, as well as personal reasons that may underpin their politics, too. Some are just adventurous. Others are drawn to war – this is where they find adrenaline. I know, however, that even on the Russian side, the motivations are very different. Some enlist because they believe in the Russian Empire. Others go to war because it gives meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives.
It has been reported that there are Estonian volunteers on both sides, while their number is small. The first confirmed fallen volunteer, Ivo Jurak, died on 7 March. He received combat experience in Afghanistan and later worked in defence field but also had some troubles with the law. There is also a case of one Estonian volunteer with a problematic legal background that has caught the public eye. He sees supporting Ukraine as his way of making up for his past mistakes. Are these an exception or more of a pattern?
I believe them to be a pattern. If we study the foreign fighter phenomenon, we must start by looking at their lives. It all has to do with their own personal choices. Some people do get “hooked up on wars,” moving from one military conflict to another. Adrenaline and violence are their drugs. This is a common trend in ideologically driven people too, even if they claim to be defending their country or the Western world. It is their way of rationalising an otherwise very personal choice in life.
Before February 2022, there had been some Russian right-wing extremists fighting on the Ukrainian side, too. The far-right groups have had some contradictory – and sometimes shifting – positions about this war, aligning with either Kyiv or Moscow. Some members of these “nationalist” contingents were Swedes on the Ukrainian side or Italians on the so-called “separatist” side. Moreover, the German AfD is openly against both providing support for Ukraine and sanctioning Russia. What about other political parties or movements?
The majority of Russian right-wing activists support Russia – not Ukraine. However, a relatively small number of Russian far-right activists decided to fight on Ukraine’s side (even before last February). They were motivated by the idea of fighting against Putin’s regime – something they were not able to do at home due to repressions against the anti-Putin far right.
As to the far-right movements in Europe, they split in three ways on the question of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The first group – although shocked by Russia’s actions – still believes that this is not their war. They see both Russians and Ukrainians as “Whites” or “White Christians.” The war, in their opinion, was caused by either the “globalist elites” or “Jews” manipulating the “White nations” into fighting each other. Therefore, they – the right-wing extremists – should avoid supporting either side. Otherwise, they would be playing into this “Jewish, globalist conspiracy.”
The second group is represented by some more moderate far-right parties. They used to be quite friendly with Russia a few years back but have since distanced themselves from the Kremlin. For example, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France may still be parroting some of the narratives of the Russian propaganda but, in general, is not as friendly towards Putin as before. Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which used to be known for its pro-Kremlin views in Italy, has also tried to distance itself from Putin. The reasons are mainly tactical: being openly pro-Russian is currently a no-go for many Europeans and European politicians who still want to be elected.
Pro-Kremlin views are not as beneficial as they used to be. Since 24 February 2022, Russia has become toxic, while links to Russia can sink political ratings. Last year, when France was holding a presidential election, Le Pen was smart enough to distance herself from the Kremlin a day after the escalation. Her far-right competitor Éric Zemmour did not do so immediately, even though he condemned the Russian aggression later. That delay cost him much of his popularity.
In the third group, pro-Russian stances of the far-right parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were even strengthened after the start of the Big War. Germany is a very diverse country and still has an electorate that sees Russia as a continuation of the Soviet Union. Such sentiments are especially visible in the former East Germany, where support for the AfD is stronger, too. The party is not prepared to abandon its pro-Russian position since it will lose some of its voters. The AfD, currently the largest pro-Russian far-right party in Europe, will not change its course in the mid-term perspective.
Will these three strategies – neutrality, cooperation, and distancing – continue? What does the future hold? Will the fatigue arrive?
Far-right movements are usually not serious about international relations. Their ideology and principles are more focused on what is going on in their own countries and communities. Therefore, I do not expect any huge changes unless domestic public opinion changes. If they see that being friendlier towards Moscow is more beneficial for them, they will go this way. Hence, public opinion will shape much of what the far-right groups will push for or promote. For historical reasons, countries such as Estonia might be different. In general, however, the far-right in Western Europe does not care about foreign policy.
Last year, many observers were afraid that public opinion in Europe would default to a less aggressive stance towards Russia, with people growing tired of the war and wanting to go back to a “safer period.” However, we see that it did not happen. Recent polls show that Europeans still favour supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Russia despite some minor fatigue. The public, certainly, has not become friendlier towards Russia, and neither have the politicians.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.