KIEV—They are burly, muscular men, reminiscent of the Soviet era with their strong Slavic features and unsmiling demeanor. The Praetorian Guard protecting the top leaders of Ukraine’s far-right movement Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) wouldn’t appreciate the comparison—they have dedicated themselves to defending their sacred motherland of Ukraine from Russia and on Friday, their leaders announced they are not ruling out deploying in Crimea, if the confrontation over Ukraine’s contested peninsula escalates.
Speaking at Kiev’s drab Dnipro Hotel, ironically a onetime favorite of Russian intelligence officers visiting Ukraine, one of the deputy leaders of the Right Sector, Andriy Tarasenko, warned: "If the Kremlin tramples on us further, we will fight and defend our native state until the end.”
He also announced that the movement’s leader, 42-year-old Dmytro Yarosh, is planning to run in the elections slated in May for president of Ukraine. “We are preparing for a congress, at which the party will be renamed, and we will participate in the elections in Kiev, the elections in all local councils, towns and villages, and this means that Dmytro Yarosh will run for president of Ukraine.”
There wasn’t a flicker on the faces of the Praetorian Guardsmen, sporting crisp black paramilitary uniforms, distinguishing them from the movement’s mere green camouflaged foot soldiers who still strut their stuff, patrolling with baseball bats and sticks, at the protest camp in the nearby Maidan. Polite applause broke out from movement apparatchiks when Tarasenko disclosed his boss would run for the presidency.
Three months ago the Right Sector, a coalition of right-wing Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, was mired in obscurity but thanks to its Molotov-throwing role in the protests that forced Vladimir Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych to flee over the border to Russia, the movement has been catapulted to international stardom.
The Kremlin has made much of the vanguard combatant role Right Sector and others of the far-right ilk played in the street battles that raged in Independence Square against Yanukovych’s feared berkut (riot police). And the Western media, when not covering the standoff in Crimea, has been drawn to the ideological menace of Ukraine’s far right and to the swaggering Right Sector fighters and their SS iconography in Kyiv’s Independence Square.
But opposition politician and rights campaigner Lesya Orobets says that while the Right Sector’s part in the ousting of Yanukovych shouldn’t be underestimated, its importance in the country’s future politics shouldn’t be overestimated.
“They were a small element in the revolution, although significant, and they were brave enough to do what others wouldn’t,” she says. “But I don’t see much room for their radicalism now in democratic politics. Ukrainians are tolerant. Right Sector will have some small support if it develops as a political party, maybe five to seven percent of the vote. I don’t see a big political future for them.”
In the Maidan, Right Sector members shifted uneasily when asked what they thought of their leader’s presidential ambitions. In recent days, they have become more reticent talking to the media—as have their leaders, who decline interviews on the grounds that the security situation in Ukraine is too unstable and they are focused on mobilizing their supporters in case they are needed in Crimea.
Yuri, a 25-year-old from Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, says he welcomes the idea. “We want one nation and Yarosh can help us form that nation, a Ukraine for Ukrainians.”
Less than a month ago Yarosh, a father of three and son of two factory workers from a provincial town in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, had said he had no intention of becoming a politician, arguing he was a Ukrainian nationalist soldier. His switch now—he is likely to make a formal declaration tomorrow —may well indicate his appreciation that Red Sector could quickly be sidelined and forgotten. Despite the bluster and threats of mobilizing forces, Right Sector’s membership is small.
According to Yarosh himself, the movement fielded about 1500 men in the Maidan during the uprising that at its height saw hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians—drawn from all walks of life—protest. And in a February interview with Ukrainian journalists Mustafa Nayyem and Oksana Kovalenko, he admitted that across the country the movement could “mobilize 4,000 to 5,000 people” —hardly enough to fend off the might of the Russian army in Crimea or to win a presidential poll.
Mainstream opposition politicians and activists are dismayed at Yarosh’s readiness to run, fearing it will redouble media focus on the Right Sector and other ultranationalist far right groups when the level of support they command in Ukraine doesn’t warrant it. The worry is that in the information war raging over Ukraine’s revolution and the standoff in Crimea, his candidacy will help Russian propagandists in their efforts to portray the uprising as a neo-Nazi one.
“Moscow propaganda wants to paint the uprising as extremism but actually we had a broad swathe of people protesting,” says Brian Bonner, editor of the English-language Kiev Post. “This was a revolution for democracy and to join the European family of democratic nations and to make the structural adjustments and big changes that have not been made for the last 23 years. I don’t see the extremes as being the defining features of this revolution at all.”
For Yarosh and the far right that could well mean being quickly overtaken by history. He and his movement are not only opposed to Russian interference but also to European integration—it was the refusal to embrace Europe that led to Yanukovych’s downfall.