Ukraine Crisis

Who Killed One of the Most Notorious Right Sector Leaders in Ukraine?

Brutal, defiant “Bilyi” was a dream come true for Kremlin propagandists, a nightmare for Ukrainian moderates. Now, just as he predicted on YouTube, he’s dead.

Reuters, AP

By all accounts, Bilyi was a badass. As a leader in the ultranationalist Ukrainian group known as the Right Sector, the burly bullet-headed Sashko Muzychko, whose nickname Bilyi means “white,” was just the sort of character in Kiev that Moscow loves to hate. The crazier they are, the more the Kremlin propaganda machine can paint them as crypto-Nazis, sowing fear and legitimizing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, whether seizing Crimea or threatening an outright invasion.

So, when Bilyi was blown away under mysterious circumstances earlier this week, conspiracy theories multiplied like maggots on a corpse.

The official version issued by the press office of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry says that on the night of March 24 a special police operation to neutralize armed groups was carried out in the Rivno region of western Ukraine and during the skirmish with police Muzychko was shot. Subsequently the authorities amended the story and said Muzychko had committed suicide in order not to fall into police hands.

The Right Sector disagreed. Muzychko had predicted his own death days before in a YouTube video excerpted, of course, on RT Russian television. “The general prosecutor’s office has ordered the interior ministry to remove its political opponents,” said Muzychko. “They plan to start with me. They’ll either do the killing themselves or capture me alive and hand me over to the Russian special services and let them do it. Some Right Sector members at a press conference vowed they would take revenge on police for Muzychko’s murder, which they called a political assassination.

Such is the fog of conspiracy in Kiev, that some Right Sector fans believe it’s relevant that Muzychko got whacked the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for the first time with a Kiev representative, Foreign Minister Andryi Deschytsya, at a summit in The Netherlands. Lavrov had previously refused to do so, claiming that the “non-legitimate Ukrainian power is controlled by far-right Nazi activists.”

In fact, Ukrainian prosecutors brought a criminal case against Muzychko on March 8 and as of March 12 he was wanted by the police on charges of hooliganism, but that hardly does justice to his infamy. To understand the full importance of his death one needs to look at his life and crimes in some detail.

Muzychko was born in 1962 in Russia. His supporters say his parents were deported there from Ukraine because of their participation in Ukraine’s earlier national liberation struggle. In any case, young Muzychko served in the Soviet military contingent in Afghanistan, then returned to western Ukraine where he helped organize several far-right political groups: the Independent Ukrainian Youth Union, the Ukrainian National Assembly and paramilitary squads of Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UPSD) which claimed to have 5,000 men under arms.

Ukraine became independent in 1991 and according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies the UPSD was outlawed along with other paramilitary organizations in 1993, but it continued to operate, was legalized again, and sent units to fight against the Russians in the Abkhazia region of Georgia and the Transdnistria region of Moldova.

During the first Chechnya war in 1994, Muzychko commanded a UPSD “Viking” squad and fought the Russians alongside Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, the leader of the radical wing of the insurgency. In Ukraine it has been reported that the president of the rebel Chechen republic, Dzhokhar Dudayev, decorated Muzychko with the order “Hero of the Nation” and named a street after him. Moscow authorities claimed that Muzychko killed at least 20 Russian soldiers in the Chechen war and brought a criminal case against him for that.

After Dudayev’s death in 1996, Muzychko returned to Ukraine and was involved in several cases of racketeering and assault. He was arrested and imprisoned in 2003 for three and a half years, but remained politically active. In 2012 Muzychko stood for election in parliament and got just 1.14 per cent of the votes, but in 2013 he remained the coordinator of Right Sector activity in western Ukraine. UPSD was renamed Right Sector with Dmytro Yarosh as its head.

Muzychko, meanwhile, made a highly popular spectacle of himself on the Internet with clips on YouTube. One was filmed in a local parliament where Bilyi came with his machine-gun after the Kiev government announced it would disarm militias. “No one tells us when to bear arms and when not to,” Muzychko proclaimed. “You didn’t give them to us and you won’t take them away. You want to take away my gun? You want to take away my rifle? You want to take away my knife? You come here and take it.” He said he’d kill Interior Minister Arsen Avakov “like a dog.” Another YouTube video showed an employe at a local prosecutor’s office intimidated and beaten by Muzychko, who threatened to load the prosecutor in the trunk of his car.

Russian television had a field day with all this material. A guy like that was a real godsend for Kremlin propagandists who built their message around the idea that Right Sector thugs seized power in Ukraine in what amounted to a coup d’état and the authorities, therefore, were not legitimate. This point of view was very useful for the Crimea peninsula occupation, because it gave Moscow an excuse to ignore any Ukrainian protests as insignificant: “Why should we pay attention to some far-right Nazi rebels?”

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What is important to understand about the Right Sector is that it is a very informal organization, so nobody is sure how many members it has, whether they armed and what kind of activities they are involved with as an organization.

It is well known that the Right Sector had its headquarters in the nearby Trade Union House while the Euromaidan protests took place and RS activists took part in clashes with police in the very center of Kiev. But as noted by German political scientist Andreas Umland, “The allegedly crucial role of the Right Sector (RS) in the violent clashes in Kiev has, to my knowledge, nowhere been substantiated with convincing empirical evidence yet. Some of the supposed salience of the RS seems a media bubble created, not the least in Russia, for propaganda purposes and, in the West, for sensationalist reporting.” In fact, of more than 100 people killed in the Maidan protests, not one has been identified as a Right Sector member.

The organization is now trying to build its base. The Right Sector’s top leader, the charismatic Dmytro Yarosh, has registered the organization as a political party and he plans to run for the presidency. He is photographed in a suit and tie and gives a lot of interviews. He was not among those who called for vengeance after Bilyi’s death and he’s obviously not going to war with authorities or trying to scare them with hasty statements. The revolution is over—it is time for politics.

So, the Muzychko killing is most likely going to go down as one of those enigmatic deaths where many people have potential motives for murder, and each will construct a narrative about why someone else did it. The Right Sector gets rid of a notorious member whose brutal behavior would reduce Yarosh’s chances in the May elections. Ukrainian police, meanwhile, can show that they control the situation in the country and no one can threaten their legal authority. The Kremlin loses a useful propaganda tool, but it also eliminates a thug with a lot of Russian blood on his hands. And if Bilyi really did commit suicide, it was in the knowledge that fellow thugs would remember him as a martyr.

As the old murder mystery cliché goes, “Ask yourself who benefits?” In this case, just about everyone.