The recent high-profile murders in Kiev of opposition politician Oleh Kalashnikov and, the next day, of Ukrainian writer Oles Buzyna have made the scene in an already complicated and fractious Ukraine murkier than ever.
Both Kalashnikov and Buzyan were overtly and, for many in Kiev and western Ukraine, disgracefully pro-Russian. Both were active in the “Anti-Maidan” movement of last year opposing the pro-Western change of power.
Yet many in Kiev see the hand of Russian intelligence services at work, a false flag conspiracy to stir trouble. As a recent article in Deutsche Welle pointed out: “The Kremlin chief spoke about the murder in Kiev during a live broadcast on Russian television only about an hour after it had taken place.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the murders as deliberate acts, which “play into the hands of our enemies” and immediately ordered an investigation. Officials from the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior are now warning opponents of Kiev's pro-Western authorities that they could be targeted by Russian intelligence services. The Ministry of Interior quickly responded to the murders by putting many of these Pro-Russian leaders under official police protection (and one might presume even closer surveillance). Certainly it’s ironic that these leaders are being put under the protection of the pro-Western government they despise.
In Ukraine, blame for the Kalashnikov and Buzyna murders, along with a string of other possibly-related murders, generally falls into two categories. One, as mentioned, is that that the Russian Special Services are behind the killings in an FSB provocation to cause unrest in the country’s capital.
The other is that the ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor and its affiliates are behind the killings, which Moscow suggests and which would seem, on its face, the logical choice of usual suspects. But we’ll get back to them in a minute.
Local political expert Nick Gorokhov, who suspects a plot by the Russian intelligence services, told The Daily Beast, “Buzina wasn't a serious figure, but he was suitable for the ‘sacrificial victim’ role.” One other related theory is that the two were killed by ex-Yanukovych allies to prevent them from testifying as witnesses against the former government.
On April 17th, political analyst Volodomyr Fesenko of the Penta research group received an email from a group calling itself the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army,” claiming responsibility for the two murders and other “killings” of pro-Russian politicians, some of which were the thought to have been suicides. According to Fesenko, the email stated the following: “We are launching a ruthless insurgency against the anti-Ukrainian regime of traitors and Moscow’s lackeys, and from now on we will speak to them only in the language of arms until they are completely eliminated.” Fesenko personally believes that Russian intelligence is behind the email.
In fact, a nationalist group called the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army” did exist during WWII and the name has popped up again in the years since. But Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, called the email, which originated out of Germany, a “fake” and noted things like the grammatical mistakes in the text not being at all consistent with that of a native Ukrainian, let alone a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist.
Still, all eyes are once again on Ukraine’s Pravy Sektor or Right Sector. Every move and statement by the group’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, will be watched with suspicion. Yet, like all things in modern Ukraine, the controversial group’s leader is not exactly as he’s often portrayed or imagined.
In a rare interview with Georgian Journal before the recent murders, Pravy Sektor Commander Dmytro Yarosh spoke about the group’s current situation in Ukraine—its difficulties not just in combat, but the political tension coming from the capital. Yarosh is not the belligerent “Nazi” that Russian media would have one believe. Instead the Right Sector leader came across as grounded, intelligent and pragmatic.
When last year’s EuroMaidan Protests and Revolution swept a pro-West, pro-Europe government into power in Ukraine, it was the Pravy Sektor that did most of the actual street fighting for the EuroMaidan movement. In doing so, the group firmly established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the current Ukrainian political landscape. And due to the Pravy Sektor’s heavy involvement in what have been dubbed the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine and its paticipation in many armed clashes, Russian-backed separatists have grown to dread its name.
Pravy Sektor’s 43-year-old leader, Yarosh, has become a permanent target of the Russian media’s propaganda, which never tires of comparing him to Stepan Bandera, a well-known WWII Ukrainian nationalist figure who received Nazi support. But there are also tensions between Yarosh and the current Ukrainian government, which doesn't take kindly to Pravy Sektor’s criticism of the current pro-Western Ukrainian leadership and its military shortcomings.
Indeed, political analysts do not rule out a direct confrontation between the current Ukrainian government and Pravy Sektor if the situation in the east continues to deteriorate.
Yarosh, who is also a member of Urkaine’s parliament, put his organization in the vanguard of one of the government forces’ most crucial battles against the Russian- backed rebels over the Donetsk Airport. The contributions of Yarosh and his men turned the initially hopeless battle into a bloody stalemate. But he contends their sacrifices were futile because Ukrainian authorities asked them to leave the area and replaced them with troops of the Ukrainian National Guard. The airport was lost to separatists shortly afterwards. A constant refrain by the Pravy Sektor is that they take or hold territory, then the government loses it.
Despite most forces on both sides recognizing ceasefire brokered by the Minsk Agreement, fighting continues in several places. One of those is Mariupol, which stands between Russia and a land route to Crimea.
To the chagrin of Pravy Sektor fighters, the Ukrainian government is going to great lengths to remove Pravy Sektor’s troops from the village of Shirokino, an important tactical point in the conflict. This is happening despite the Russian-backed separatists not hiding the fact that they are trying to take over the city. Shirokino is a vital part of the front line, with separatists constantly mounting attacks and Pravy Sektor’s troops continually beating them back, according to Yarosh.
On January 21, during an armed clash near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Yarosh was badly wounded and taken to the town of Selydove, where he underwent urgent surgery. He was subsequently transferred to the Mechnikov Hospital in Dnepropetrovsk, where Georgian Journal’s Jambul Tsulaia met with him while he was recovering.
It was not easy to get access to his medical ward. His bodyguards protected him around the clock. After several rounds of persistent formalities and negotiations, Tsulaia was allowed in to talk to him about Ukraine, Pravy Sektor and himself.
When asked his opinion of the ceasefire brokered in Minsk, Yarosh was very skeptical. “It’s flimsy at best,” he said. “Fighting continues in several locations to this day, and it is up to Putin to decide how long this is going to last. We know that separatists are preparing a major assault force to attack in four different directions at once. I don’t rule out their using aircraft.”
When asked about the readiness of his troops if large-scale warfare were to again resume in eastern Ukraine, Yarosh said, “Our current situation is crummy. Many experienced soldiers on duty are being replaced with green [Ukrainian government-sent] newbies with little to no combat experience. Our forces need to be prepared and mobilized in order to prevent the second Debaltseve from occurring.” Yarosh was referring to a battle that was a crushing defeat for the Ukrainian government at the beginning of the year.
Tensions between Yarosh and Kiev clearly are fraught.
“I think the government is far more afraid of Pravy Sektor than it is afraid of separatists,” he said. “Nobody is going to remove us. The government is trying to subdue us by integrating our forces into the regular army’s hierarchy. This won’t happen for one simple reason: some captains under my command lack higher military education. The moment we end up under the Army’s thumb, they will be discharged. No one will consider the fact that each of these captains is far more effective and contributes far more to the war effort than two Ukrainian Army generals with all their fancy military academy diplomas. If we agree to this, which we won’t, we will essentially be disbanded.”
“We are volunteers,” said Yarosh. “Our system, our ranks and our hierarchy must be reflected in the legislation. We only act in times of war. Once peace is achieved, Crimea is taken back and territorial integrity is restored, we will disband, just like other volunteers.”
Yarosh’s disagreements with the incumbent Ukrainian authorities are fundamental and many of his men have no faith in the capabilities of the Ukrainian military command.
“Some units of the Ukrainian army are led by commanders still stuck in Soviet times, which is part of the reason why they are having so much trouble re-arming and properly equipping their troops,” says Yarosh. “Responsibility for this rests entirely on Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. The authorities fail to realize one simple fact: They view me as a political rival, while I want nothing except for the war to end so that I can go look after my grandchildren.”
The commander was then interrupted by his doctor entering the ward, and the interview was over.
Yarosh may not be a politician but he sees himself as an idealist. He believes that the Ukrainian people have spent years under the yoke of Russian tyranny. His main goal is Ukraine’s de-Russification and the regaining of its national identity.
The Pravy Sektor regards Ukraine’s establishment as a solid nation-state as far more important than European integration, which would also require European standards of political, legal, economic and social conduct—and this troubles Western political circles. Partly as a result, the incumbent Ukrainian authorities are trying to restrict Pravy Sektor’s spheres of influence and its capacity to operate. The aim is to weaken its influence and its support among the Ukrainian population. In the organization’s view, this is done to placate the West, to which the current Ukraine leadership still looks with unwavering hope.