It’s easy to forget that just two years ago, President Obama was determined to bomb Syria and remove the Assad regime, and U.S. establishment institutions were working to lay the groundwork for that campaign. NPR began dutifully publishing reports from anonymous U.S. officials that Syria had stockpiled large amounts of chemical weapons; the NYT was reporting that Obama was “increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” Assad; Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced that forced removal of Assad was “a matter of national security” and “a matter of the credibility of the United States of America.”
Those opposed to the anti-Assad “regime change” bombing campaign argued that while some of the rebellion was composed of ordinary Syrians, the “rebels” the U.S. would arm and empower (i.e., the only effective anti-Assad fighters) were actually violent extremists and even terrorists aligned with Al Qaeda and worse. The people arguing that were invariably smeared as Assad apologists because this happened to be the same argument Assad was making: that the most effective fighters against him were jihadis and terrorists.
But that argument in D.C. was quickly converted from taboo into conventional wisdom the moment it was needed to justify U.S. involvement in Syria. The U.S. is now bombing Syria, of course, but rather than fighting against Assad, the Syrian dictator is (once again) America’s ally and partner. The rationale for the U.S. bombing campaign is the same one Assad long invoked: that those fighting against him are worse than he is because they are aligned with Al Qeada and ISIS (even though the U.S. funded and armed those factions for years and their closest allies in the region continue to do so).
A similar dynamic is at play in Russia and Ukraine. Yesterday, Obama’s top national security official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, told a Senate Committee “that he supports arming Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists,” as the Washington Post put it. The U.S. has already provided “non-lethal” aid to Ukrainian forces, and Obama has said he is now considering arming them. Who, exactly, would that empower?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long said that the Ukrainian coup of last year, and the subsequent regime in Kiev, is driven by ultra-nationalists, fascists, and even neo-Nazi factions. The Russian TV outlet RT also frequently refers to “the active role far-right groups have played on the pro-government side in Ukraine since the violent coup of the last year.”
For that reason, anyone pointing out that arming the regime in Kiev would strengthen fascists and neo-Nazis is instantly accused of being a Putin propagandist: exactly like those arguing that the best anti-Assad fighters were al-Qaeda-affiliated were accused of being Assad propagandists (until that became the official position of the US Government). U.S. media accounts invariably depict the conflict in Ukraine as a noble struggle waged by the freedom-loving, pro-west democrats in Kiev against the oppressive, aggressive “Russian-backed” separatists in the east.
But just as was true in Syria: while some involved in the Ukrainian coup were ordinary Ukrainians fighting against a corrupt and oppressive regime, these claims about the fascist thugs leading the fight for the Kiev government are actually true. Writing in Foreign Policy from eastern Ukraine last August, Alec Luhn observed:
Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and “fascists” in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true. . . . The Azov Battalion, whose emblem also includes the “Black Sun” occult symbol used by the Nazi SS, was founded by Andriy Biletsky, head of the neo-Nazi groups Social-National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine.
In September, Shaun Walker wrote in the Guardian about his experience embedding with the pro-Kiev forces of the Azov, which he called “Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield against the separatists.” While dismissing as “overblown” Russian warnings that these groups seek to ethnically cleanse all of Ukraine, Walked described “the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members,” and noted that “Amnesty International called on the Ukrainian government to investigate rights abuses and possible executions by the Aidar, another battalion.” Walker’s principal concern was that these fascist militias intend, once the separatists are vanquished, to seek control of Kiev and impose their ultra-nationalist vision on the entire country.
Ever since the coup in Kiev was carried out, these unpleasant facts about the pro-government forces have been largely ignored in most establishment U.S. media accounts, leaving a handful of commentators to point them out. In January of last year, as the coup was unfolding, the Guardian‘s Seumas Milne argued that the west’s morality narrative about Ukraine – democracy-fighters v. Putin oppressors – “bears only the sketchiest relationship to reality” and that, instead, “far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings.” Britain’s Channel 4 reported on the central role played by far-right ultra-nationalists in that coup, noting that Sen. John McCain traveled to the Ukrainian capital (pictured, above) and shared a stage with the worst fascist elements. Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo has long been warning of “the ascension of a genuinely fascist mass movement into the corridors of power” in Kiev, noting that far from being a handful of fringe elements, “the activists of the two main fascist parties in Ukraine – Svoboda and ‘Right Sector’ – provided the muscle the insurrectionists needed to take over government buildings in Kiev and across western Ukraine.”
These facts have now become so glaring that even the most mainstream organizations in the west are now being compelled to point them out. Last week, Vox published an article by Amanda Taub about the “approximately 30 of these private armies fighting on the Ukrainian side,” whose “fighters are accused of serious human rights violations, including kidnappings, torture, and extrajudicial executions.” While claiming the militias operate largely separately from the central Kiev government, Taub nonetheless notes how central they have become to the fight against the separatists, and also acknowledges their clear use by Kiev officials:
The militias have also gained more power because the Ukrainian government, led by new President Petro Poroshenko, brought them friends in high places. For instance, Arsen Avakov, Poroshenko’s Minister of Internal Affairs, was previously the leader of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko’s political bloc in eastern Ukraine. He has a longstanding alliance with members of the Azov Battalion, a far-right organization whose members have a history of promoting anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi views. Avakov has has used his position to support the group, going so far as to appoint Vadim Troyan, an Azov deputy leader, as the chief of police for the whole Kiev region. And Azov’s leader, Andriy Biletsky, is now a member of parliament as well.
The Intercept yesterday published reporting from Marcin Mamon on the role jihadists are playing in the conflict on behalf of the government.
U.S. media propaganda has not only sought to glorify the Kiev regime by suppressing all of these elements but also has actively demonized the separatists as little more than Putin-controlled pawns. In fact, as BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon describes in an excellent article from a separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine, those fighting against Kiev have a range of significant grievances against the Ukrainian government quite independent of any Putin agenda, including violence against civilians and long-standing contempt for residents of the east:
In the very areas Ukraine is fighting to regain, near-constant artillery bombardment and a crippling economic blockade have hardened attitudes to the point of no return. Almost every day, shelling claims the lives of civilians: someone’s mother, husband, child. And every day, reconciliation between millions of Ukrainian citizens here and the Ukrainian government seems even further off.
Whatever else is true, this is yet another case of the U.S. government – followed as always by its media – fabricating a Manichean morality narrative to justify U.S. involvement and militarism. Just as the U.S. spent years funding and arming the precise extremist elements it claims it wants to combat – in Libya, in Syria, and long before that in Afghanistan – arming Ukrainian forces would empower a monstrous crew of fascists and outright Nazi sympathizers. The coup itself, which the U.S. government supported, almost certainly did exactly that.
One can debate whether empowering such thugs is a feature or a bug: it’s hardly rare for the U.S. knowingly to arm and prop up fascists and other assorted tyrants which it believes will promote its interests (see this morning’s David Ignatius column arguing that Egyptian dictator Gen. Abdel Fata Sisi is as bad as Mubarak when it comes human rights abuses, but the U.S. must continue steadfastly to support him so that he preserves “stability”). But at least when the U.S. is in bed with regimes such as the Saudis or Egyptians, most people understand the kind of allies it has embraced. In the case of Ukraine, those facts have been almost entirely excluded from mainstream discourse. Now that Obama’s leading national security official is expressly calling for the arming of those forces, it is vital that the true nature of America’s allies in this conflict be understood.
Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP