Interview with Adrien Nonjon – Nationalist and far-right ideologies and movements in Ukraine

–  An interview realised by Clélia Frouté – 

Adrien Nonjon is a PhD at the Institut national des civilisations et langues orientales (INCEAL). His thesis is entitled “L’Entre-deux-mers comme enjeu stratégique : Cartographie des imaginaires et dynamiques historiques du concept Intermarium de la chute des Empires Centraux à nos jours” (The In-Between-Two-Seas as a strategic issue: mapping the imaginary and historical dynamics of the Intermarium concept from the fall of the Central Empires to the present). Specialised in geopolitics and political science, researcher in history, Adrien Nonjon is a specialist in Ukraine, the extreme right and Ukrainian nationalism.

Clélia Frouté (C.F) : Can you tell us about your thesis topic and the themes and axes you are addressing? We read that you specialised in Ukraine. Can you explain your approach to the subject?

Adrien Nonjon (A.N) : My thesis topic is the Intermarium or more commonly the In-Between-Two-Seas (Entre-deux-mers). Although several geographical delimitations have been proposed to define it, this expression most commonly refers to the Baltic-Black Sea area, in other words the former territory covered by the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita at its peak in 1630. Some historians use it in a maximalist perspective to designate Central Europe; others, on the contrary, speak of an “in-between Europe” situated at the intersection of Western Europe and the Russian world. Because of this ambivalent geographical position, this large territory would have a great strategic value for the surrounding powers, making it a space for imperial projection.

But before being a toponym, the Intermarium is above all a federalist doctrine that envisages the political and military unification of the region. The origins of such a project date back to the aftermath of the Great War, when Poland regained its independence. It was in order to preserve the country from the Bolshevik threat, but also from the possible resurgence of the German Empire, that Marshal Joseph Pilsudski envisaged bringing together under the aegis of Poland the nation-states born of the fall of the Central and Russian Empires. Although the defence of democracy in the face of despotism was invoked, this project in fact concealed an attempt to restore the Polish sphere of influence in the territories that had once belonged to it; the Entente moreover subscribed to this project for an eastern ‘cordon sanitaire’ and saw in Poland the only power capable of ensuring the security of the margins of Europe.
Following the collapse of the Ukrainian front from 1921 onwards and the refusal of the Baltic states to join in, Poland finally abandoned the project. However, this did not mean that the project would disappear for good. Indeed, the idea of Intermarium was taken up again throughout the 20th century by various thinkers and strategists whose ideas fed several militant networks across Europe. Regardless of the conceptual variations between the projects, the objective remained broadly the same: to make Central-Eastern Europe a significant geopolitical pole and to contain Russia outside the continent.

Even today, many people believe in the potential of such a union. You have two projects in Europe that take up the main articulations of this doctrine: on the one hand, the Three Seas Initiative, a Polish-Croatian project established in 2016 to strengthen regional cooperation in the field of energy and trade; on the other hand, the Intermarium initiated by the Azov movement in Ukraine, which has been joined by several nationalist and neo-rightist groups in Central and Eastern Europe. The essence of this project is twofold. Firstly, it aims to bring together all the states in the Baltic-Black Sea area in a defensive union against Russia. Secondly, it is a geopolitical project known as the “Third Way”. The nations of the Intermarium must not turn towards the West, which is considered too liberal and decadent, nor towards Russia, whose pivot towards Asia and the nature of Putin’s power would make it a ‘neo-Bolshevik’ power.

The work I am doing in the framework of my thesis attempts to account for this conceptual evolution from 1918 to the present day. If I wish to carry out an archaeology of ideas, my main ambition is to analyse them through the principle of geographical imaginary formulated by Gérard Toal and the idea of political conservatism. To sum up, I want to show that throughout its history, the doctrine of the Intermarium has been nourished by a specific representation of the Baltic-Black Sea space and its geography onto which a number of right-wing ideals have been projected. As far as Ukraine is concerned, it occupies a central place in my subject insofar as it crystallises these imaginations through its much more assertive geographical duality of Europe and Eurasia. As a key piece in Pilsudski’s device and today the starting point of the Azovian Intermarium, Ukraine is both at the beginning and at the epilogue of my thesis subject.

C.F: How was Ukrainian nationalism formed? In what way is the historical approach essential to its understanding and analysis?

A.N: Ukrainian nationalism, which corresponds to the desire to assert Ukraine’s political and cultural identity, can be said to be similar in many respects to a decolonisation movement today. Three main historical phases can be identified to describe its formation. The first phase straddles the period between the late medieval and mid-modern periods. This Ukrainian proto-nationalism is of course embodied by the Cossacks, a “caste of fighters” of peasant descent living on the fringes of European feudalities and Muscovy in an autonomous Hetmanate administered by an assembly. As proud of their political freedom as they were of their cultural identity, the Cossacks rose up on numerous occasions against Polish and Russian power. The most emblematic revolts were those of Bohdan Khmnelnysky in 1654 and Ivan Mazepa in 1709. Although anathematised by the Russian authorities, the Cossacks and their armies are considered by many Ukrainians as the ancestors and fighting heroes of an independent and strong Ukraine. The heritage of the Cossacks is an integral part of the Ukrainian national pantheon, and is reflected in many parts of the contemporary Ukrainian nation. The Ukrainian national anthem refers to it in a famous verse: “And let us prove, brothers, that we are of the Cossack lineage”.

The second phase of Ukrainian nationalism corresponds to the late contemporary period, i.e. the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, Ukraine experienced a small cultural revolution encouraged by a part of the nobility who had a certain romanticism for the Cossack period, out of anti-polonism. Although repressed, Ukrainian literature finally found its supporters with the eminent poet Taras Shevshenko. This movement was timid and had to wait for the advent of the reformist Tsar Alexander III to emancipate itself. Pan-Slavism and the prevailing Slavophilia thus allowed the use of the Ukrainian language and popular history to be promoted. This whole Ukrainian movement was also well supported by representatives of the Empire’s ruling classes. For example, the Ukrainian printing house in St Petersburg was financed by two Ukrainian landowners, and in 1861 the “Base” newspaper was published as the reference journal of the Ukrainian movement. The same process can be observed in the Austrian-administered western part. Unlike those in the Russian Empire, the Ukrainians had political representation and linguistic autonomy encouraged by a dynamic intellectual milieu. It was in Galicia that the first volume of the History of the Ukrainian Rus’, written by Mykhaïlo Hroutchevsky, the architect of the Ukrainian national revival, was published in 1895.

Finally, the third historical phase, known as the “active” phase, is, in my opinion, situated in the aftermath of the First World War, when the revolutions of February and October 1917 finally gave Ukraine the opportunity to build an independent state. This period, as terrible as it was, allowed the affirmation of the Ukrainian nation through two regimes, namely the socialist-inspired People’s Republic of Ukraine and the conservative Hetmanist regime led by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky. Unfortunately, the weakness of the institutions and external belligerences did not succeed in consolidating the Ukrainian nation-state, which fell definitively into the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1921. It is this period that conditions the Ukrainian nationalism of the inter-war period and that of the contemporary period. We could of course talk about Lenin’s Ukrainianisation at the very beginning of the Soviet Union, but this was extremely brief and was a safe-conduct designed to present the USSR as a radiant ideological and integration model. As you can see, Ukraine is a land with more than one history, with its periods of influence and its dramas. Historical knowledge and analysis of the facts allow us to have an objective perspective on current events, but also to unravel their complexity.

C.F: Can you explain what you mean by “neo-nationalism”, and its impact on Ukrainian society?

A.N: Ukrainian “neo-nationalism” is a concept I use to refer to certain ultra-nationalist movements such as the Azov movement or the UNA-UNSO that emerged in the mid-2000s and especially after the Maidan revolution and the war in the Donbass. Ukrainian neo-nationalists differ from what I call the ‘historical’ or ‘traditional’ nationalism that emerged during the inter-war period and is still carried today by groups such as Svoboda or Praviy Sektor. This distinction is based on different elements, whether geographical – the West of Ukraine, and more particularly Galicia, is the original cradle of historical nationalism, while neo-nationalism is mainly born in the industrialised Russian-speaking East and the centre of the country -, normative, such as the relationship to violence and its use in politics, or sociological, or cultural, by distinguishing between certain narratives invoked as well as the different counter-cultures that gravitate around them.

However, the main difference between the two movements can be observed in the way they perceive Ukraine and its rivalry with Russia, a representation that determines their ideology. As in the 1920s and 1930s, the historical nationalists sought to build and consolidate a strong and sovereign Ukrainian state in which only Ukrainians would have primacy. In this perspective, Russia was seen as an imperial power that needed to be removed from its yoke. However, this vision is limited to Ukraine, which is not at all the case for the neo-nationalist movement. The latter place themselves in the “conflict of civilisation”. It is not just a question of defending the independence of Ukraine, but of a whole civilisation against a Russia that belongs to a foreign political and cultural entity. This struggle does not stop in Donbass and Crimea, it must be continued and extended to the peripheries in order to maximise the chances of triumph. It is in this perspective that the majority of neo-nationalists promote the idea of a Baltic-Black Sea Union.

On the other hand, neo-nationalists are in favour of the ‘Third Way’ and ‘pan-Europeanism’: according to them, Ukraine, but also the young states born from the fall of the communist bloc, must make common cause and redefine the contours of Europe’s political and cultural – not to say ethnic – identity by inscribing it in a model of its own. These ideas are simply a transposition of certain doctrines and theories developed in the West by groups and ideologists such as the French New Right, the German Conservative Revolution and the neo-fascists, Oswald Mosley, Francis Parker Yockey and Julius Evola.

While the influence of Ukrainian neo-nationalism has been gaining importance within the Ukrainian far right (for example, in 2018, Pravïy Sektor, which belongs to historical nationalism, finally included the Intermarium project in its programme), its impact on Ukrainian society is almost non-existent. I would say, however, that it accompanies it and is inspired by its developments. Indeed, what was Maidan in the first place, or more precisely Euromaidan? It was a desire to link post-Soviet Ukraine to Europe by rejecting the pro-Russian orientation of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. In a way, these aspirations have given substance to neo-nationalism, which has become a legitimate and attractive current of thought within the nationalist movement by force of immediate issues and events. The same can be said of the war in the Donbass. As a brutal experience imposed on the whole of Ukrainian society, it has popularised within the extreme right the mystique of “nationalism-soldatism” developed by Ernst Jünger in his works such as Fire and Blood, Steel Storms, The Worker or Total Mobilisation. This notion was endorsed by the war and contributed to the formulation by the neo-nationalists of a voluntarist and revolutionary discourse.

C.F: Where did the pro-Russian insurgencies start in Crimea and then in the Donbass? What was the socio-political landscape at the time? Can we consider that ultra-nationalist movements are partly responsible, or is Russian manipulation really the cause, or finally, can we say that it is a mixture of both?

A.N.: The last proposal seems to me to be the most accurate in describing the situation at the beginning of 2014, which saw Crimea annexed by Russia and the East rise up in what is known as the “Russian Spring”. Globally, separatist movements are concentrated in large Russian-speaking cities such as Odessa, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and Sevastopol. The conditions that lead to these insurgencies are not the same in all regions. Due to its status as an autonomous republic and the predominantly Russian population, Crimea has always been within the Russian sphere of influence. In addition to being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, there were several Russian cultural associations that worked for several years to build up a specifically Russian memory and national feeling; this made the secession and then the reattachment in March 2014 all the easier. For the Donbass, several reports attest to the effective presence of the Russian secret services. They are the ones who encouraged and steered the separatist movements before arming them. I invite you, for example, to look at the “Glazyev tapes” which are very instructive on this subject.

But to come back to your initial question, it can be said that the two sides share a joint responsibility in the outbreak of hostilities. Indeed, the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist movement played a role during the Maidan and the removal of Viktor Yanukovych. In the aftermath of these events, some far-right deputies called for the repeal of the law on regional languages, but this was never ratified by the presidency. The Russian media then took up these issues and distorted them, creating a “snowball effect” that left Russian-speaking populations thinking they were under threat. Tragic events such as the burning of the Odessa House of Trade Unions following clashes between pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians marked a decisive step in the escalation of violence encouraged by Russian propaganda.

C.F: Has the conflict in the Donbass exacerbated the feeling of ultra-nationalism among Ukrainians, to the point of trivialising neo-Nazi movements in the face of a common “enemy”, the pro-Russian separatists? Or is the term “trivialisation” inappropriate because the dimension of values and ideas in Ukraine is not the same as in France and other Western countries?

A.N: Hybridisation would be more appropriate. It is true that the ultra-nationalist discourse was revitalised by the Russian invasion of Crimea and then the secession of the Donbass, but it very quickly became confused with patriotic sentiment, of which it eventually became the radical counterpart. I think it is important to define the boundaries of this term, because in France, patriotism is perceived in a pejorative way as it has been abandoned by the majority of parties on the right and the left, leaving only the extreme right to use it. Patriotism is literally defined as ‘love of country’ and implies a desire to sacrifice for it. This is exactly the notion on which Ukrainian national sentiment was built from spring 2014 onwards. It is no longer a time for regional or communal rivalries, but for standing up as one to defend the country from an aggressor. In view of the context that sees the whole nation mobilised, all the Ukrainian political parties decide to infuse their rhetoric with patriotic elements. One example is President Petro Poroshenko and his famous 2018-2019 campaign slogan ‘Army, Faith, Language’. This has the effect of marginalising the far right, because ultimately everyone is patriotic and nationalistic.

C.F: How do you perceive the term “denazification” used in the official Russian discourse in the context of the war in Ukraine? What is “Nazism” in the Russian imagination, and for Putin’s government more precisely?

A.N: The term “denazification” was first uttered by Vladimir Putin on February 24, 2022, hours before Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Just like the term “special operation”, “denazification” refers to the idea of an intervention strictly related to Russian domestic policy – by way of comparison, the second Russian intervention in Chechnya in 1999 was partly part of the fight against Islamist terrorism – Ukraine being, as the master of the Kremlin had declared three days earlier, a simple province that had been accidentally torn from Russia in 1991.

This is of course a narrative taken to its extreme. Not only would Ukraine not exist, but it would be controlled by radical elements artificially brought to power by a coup d’état fomented with the support of foreign powers. These elements were already present to some extent during the Russian Empire and the USSR, when nationalism was seen as an invention of foreigners aimed at destabilising power, and in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, but they were considerably strengthened by the events of Mayan, when Ukrainian nationalists were much more active and visible. For Vladimir Putin’s Russia, “denazification” does not only mean “pacification”, but also “dismantling” Ukraine, as was the case with Nazi Germany’s 5D policy decreed at the Potsdam conference in July 1945.

The use of this term shows perfectly the relationship that Putin’s Russia wishes to maintain with Soviet memory and history. The place of Nazism in the Russian collective imagination is therefore very important. With its 20 million dead on the Soviet side, the Second World War, which is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War”, is considered a national tragedy but also the founding act of Russian power. Erected as a true atheistic religion, it is a safe harbour for the Kremlin’s worldview. In this view, the Russian world is a fortress besieged by an invader. This is of course why Putin’s Russia uses “denazification” to justify its invasion. According to them, the Russian-speaking populations – who are considered Russian – are threatened by a Nazi regime that has vowed to purge the eastern regions of Ukraine. But Nazism is not just a historical or geopolitical fantasy. It is also used by Russia to attack the Western world in terms of values. In the end, Nazism is seen as an outgrowth of the moral decadence that is eating away at Europe and America. As the Russian propagandist Timofei Sergeyev shows in his April 4, 2022 column for the RIAnovosti agency, Ukraine should be exorcised by murder and violence from this contagious and dangerous evil for the Slavic world, which is considered the paragon of virtue and tradition. This is purely eschatological talk.

C.F: What is the place of Nazi ideology in Ukrainian national history? Can you tell us about the period of Nazi occupation and the Shoah in Ukraine?

A.N: Nazism is an ideology of the interwar period and the Second World War. After these chronological limits, it no longer exists as such. It can be said that it had a certain influence on a particular trend in Ukrainian nationalism over a period of no more than twenty years. The main architect of this trend was the journalist and pamphleteer Dmytro Dontsov. Born in 1883 in Melitopol, Dontsov was a man of a time marked by a series of profound geopolitical and intellectual transformations. Initially a socialist-revolutionary, in 1918 he supported the conservative Hetmanist party of Pavlo Skoropadsky and Vyacheslav Lypynsky. With the overthrow of the Hetmanate and the defeat of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Dontsov radicalised his discourse, not forgiving the socialists for having let independence slip away and the conservatives for having been too accommodating towards the Russians. A Germanophile, Dontsov was particularly influenced by avant-garde movements, conservative revolutions and nihilism.

These different elements gradually formed the basis of the new ideology he theorised. The idea was to propose, in the same way as the Bolsheviks and nascent fascism, a liberating thought based on violence and its unleashing in order to regenerate the Ukrainian nation and rid it of all Russian influence. Integral nationalism was then theorised in his books Nat’sionalism and De shukaty nashyx istorychnyx tradycij as well as in the magazine Zahrava. Towards the end of the 1930s, Dontsov moved towards Fascism, whose organisational principle inspired him for the future of the Ukrainian nation. It was only much later that he became interested in National Socialism and then became one of its promoters. This rather late inflection can be explained by the very nature of German ideology, a quasi-religion that, according to Dontsov, would sublimate the principles he had tried to implement in his thinking. Ambivalent on the question of Judaism, he expressed support in the early years of his life for the Zionist movement, which wanted to counter Russian domination. With the assassination of Simon Petlioura by a Russian anarchist in Paris in 1926, his discourse evolved towards a hatred of the Jew as an agent of influence of the Russian world and of Bolshevism. Although he was popular, Dontsov was not unanimously supported by the Ukrainian national movement, and was even contested within the Vistniky group of intellectuals that he led. Dontsov’s writings were taken up by the OUN and in particular by the Banderist branch, which brought together radical youth who wanted to change the destiny of Ukraine quickly.

During the war, Ukraine experienced two occupation regimes. Having finally decided not to support the independence of Ukraine proclaimed on June 30, 1941, the Germans attached Galicia to the General Government of Poland administered by Hans Frank and Otto Von Wächter on 1 August of the same year. Difficult as it was, this occupation had nothing to do with the military occupation of the Crimea and the East, which were grouped together in a Reichkommissariat. Led by SS Erich Koch, this part of Ukraine experienced the worst atrocities perpetrated in the name of Nazi racial policy. It was this barbarity that pushed the Ukrainian nationalists to break off their collaboration with Germany. In total, the German deprivations and exactions caused more than 6 million deaths in Ukraine, in addition to the one million Jews. The Shoah was first carried out by special commandos, the Einsatzgruppen, who closed the German army’s path and summarily executed their targets. If we remember the Lviv pogrom in June 1941, this Shoah by bullet culminated on September 29 and 30, 1941 at Babi Yar where 33,771 Jews were murdered and then thrown into a ravine. These massacres represent no less than 80% of the victims of the Shoah in Ukraine. For the rest, the West became a transit point towards Poland and the death camps.

C.F: According to a Ukrainian school of thought, the rapprochement of a part of the Ukrainians, even the collaboration with the Nazis, was only circumstantial in order to oppose the Russification of the Republic. What was it really?

A.N: The debate is still ongoing today, but one can indeed say that this collaboration was aimed at facilitating the emergence of an independent Ukrainian state. The 1930s saw the assertion of Nazi Germany, which sought to re-establish its role as the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe. With Ukraine living under dual Soviet and Polish domination, Ukrainian nationalists began to harbour hopes that Germany would liberate the country. This was all the more desirable because in 1939 Galicia came under Soviet rule and repression was in full swing, and the Axis campaigns in Yugoslavia led to the independence of peoples like the Croats. From 1940 onwards, it was accepted that Nazi Germany would turn to its long-standing enemy: the Bolshevik USSR. With the triumph of the Axis over the Allies, it was thought that victory in the East would be swift. On the German side, many within the Wehrmacht and the senior staff of the Nazi party relied on nations willing to turn the page on Stalinism. This is in any case what the ideologist Alfred Rosenberg proposes at the very beginning of Barbarossa or what is shown by the constitution by the German army of the Russian Liberation Army commanded by Andrei Vlassov. We are thus witnessing the establishment of a collaboration that will lead to the proclamation of an ephemeral Ukrainian state administered by Stepan Bandera’s OUN-B.

The proclamation of this state was an unambiguous sign of a desire for collaboration in a new National Socialist Europe, but for the nationalists it was above all a question of being able to build a lasting nation-state outside the Russian sphere with the help of a powerful ally. Despite these intentions, the Germans quickly turned around. The East was the living space and nothing should be left to the people. This is why the national movement was repressed. Stepan Bandera was interned between the end of 1941 and September 1944 in the Sachsenhausen camp.

All this can explain the posture of the OUN during the Second World War, but of course the weight of ideology should not be underestimated. It played a role in the formation of the OUN, but it should be understood above all as a fascination for a radical form of ultra-nationalism that would lead to an indigenous ideological model that had nothing to do with German National Socialism and Italian Fascism. Anti-Semitism is a component that should not be neglected, but it is aimed at the Jews not as an “inferior race” but as a supporter of the USSR and the Russian people. In any case, this question is extremely difficult and the current context does not allow for a dispassionate debate. Historians therefore still need time to be able to give a clear and consensual answer.

C.F: Can you tell us about the OUN and the UPA?

A.N: The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists was founded in Vienna in 1929. It was the evolution of the Ukrainian Military Organisation (Ukrayins “ka Vijs” kova Orhanizaciya-UVO) founded and led by Yevhen Konovalets, a veteran of the Great War and the Russian Civil War who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army and then in the Hetmanist Riflemen of the Sitch. It first became known for its violent actions against the Polish government, which occupied the territories on the extreme right bank of the Dnieper, in particular the provinces of Galicia and Volhynia. Its ideology was mainly based on the integral Donosovian nationalism but also on some elements of fascism such as the cult of the leader (vojd), corporatism and militarism. In 1938, Yevhen Konovalets was assassinated in Amsterdam by a Soviet NKVD agent. This event led in 1940 to a split between the old guard of the movement embodied by Andriy Melnik (OUN-M) and the revolutionary youth gathered around Stepan Bandera (OUN-B/OUN-R). During the Second World War, the OUN created an armed branch called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which gathered around 200,000 men. This guerrilla movement was mainly deployed in the West where it took advantage of the Carpathian mountains to build real maquis. While the UPA fought both the Soviets and the Nazis, it also carried out ethnic cleansing in north-western Ukraine by perpetrating several massacres targeting the Polish population of the region. After the German defeat and the recapture of Ukraine by the USSR, the OUN continued to exist until the mid-1950s. It was not until 1956 and the elimination of Stepan Bandera in Munich by the KGB that the organisation stopped its activities in Ukraine.

C.F: When in 1991, Ukraine finally obtained the independence it aspired to, what were the nationalist movements and political parties that took shape and were formed?

A.N: The beginning of the 1990s was synonymous with a certain political effervescence in Ukraine. Several citizen movements that emerged during Perestroika managed to structure themselves into political parties and participate in the management of the country. This is notably the case of the former Ukrainian People’s Movement for Perestroika, which was one of the main actors of independence and which became in the 1990s the first political party to be registered by the faltering Soviet authorities. The RUKH, however, cannot be defined as ‘nationalist’, at least the one we are talking about today. It played more of a role as an ideological and organisational springboard for certain movements that would later evolve autonomously within the Ukrainian political arena.

At the same time, we are witnessing the return of the second generation of emigrants from the New World (Canada, USA). Some of the latter are descendants of OUN fighters who escaped from the Red Army after the war or from Soviet counter-espionage until the end of the 1950s. Founded in 1992 by Slava Stetsko, the wife of Yaroslav Stetsko who was one of the leaders of the OUN-B, and Roman Zvarych, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (Kongres Ukrajins’kych Natsionalistiv-KUN) is a national-democratic party based in part on the legacies of the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the 1930s and so-called “civic” nationalism, whose contours are beginning to take shape.

Other, much more modest, formations are emerging in this country in search of identity references after almost half a century of domination, and these are also the most radical. We can mention the paramilitary organisation Trident (Tryzub imeni Bandery) and the Ukrainian Social-Nationalist Party (Sotsial-natsional’na partiya Ukrayiny)

C.F: Can you tell us about the political party Svoboda?

A.N: Svoboda is the former Ukrainian Social-Nationalist Party. It so happens that in 2004 the leaders of the party, Andriy Parubiy and Oleh Tyahnibok, decided to transform it in order to make it more competitive and credible. It must be said that at the beginning the SNPU was a xenophobic and anti-Semitic party that did not hide its neo-Nazi leanings in 1991. Thus the SNPU gave way to the Pan-Ukrainian Union “Freedom”, a name inspired by an Austrian party. Svoboda also renounces the use of the sign “Idea of the Nation” (a reversed version of the SS rune Wolfsangel) and prefers a hand with three fingers raised referring to the Ukrainian national Trident. Ideologically, we are now more in front of a national-populist party, comparable to Jean-Marie le Pen’s National Front, which advocates national preference in all areas.

Despite this new identity, Svoboda remains a largely minority party in Ukraine. Outside of its historical fiefdom in Galicia, the party hardly exceeds 0.5% in any election. It was only in 2012 that the party took off, winning more than 10.45% of the vote. This is not surprising given the context of the time: it was shown afterwards that Yanukovych used Svoboda as a repulsor to assert himself as the defender of democracy but also to divide the nationalists and the democratic opposition. With this in mind, his party, the Party of the Regions, provided Svoboda with funds, while the Yanukovych clan opened up the media, which had been closed until then.

Like the rest of the far right, Svoboda is participating in the Maidan with the rest of the parties opposing Yanukovych. Given the political vacuum left by the removal of the president, a transitional government is formed around interim president Turchinov and prime minister Yatseniuk. The old results of the legislative elections meant that Svoboda obtained 4 ministerial portfolios, including that of defence, which would fuel the Russian imagination of a Ukrainian dictatorship. However, this entry into the government does not mean a return to grace. Svoboda’s supporters saw this collaboration as a betrayal of them, and even as a sign of weakness towards a power that they had once fought. This discrediting was the breeding ground for the rise in power of the neo-nationalist movement, which quickly entered into competition with Svoboda, which was de facto depreciated in the nationalist movement.

It should also be understood that the Ukrainian far right is extremely divided and marked by rivalries. The alliance sealed between the nationalist parties in March 2017 reflected this perfectly. Svoboda needed to capitalise on the popularity of neo-nationalist movements such as the Azovian National Corps, but could not bring itself to give up the leadership of this coalition completely. For this reason, Oleh Tyahnibok and Andriy Biletsky (the leader of the National Corps) could not agree on a unanimous candidate. Not content with being nominated as a candidate and thinking that his movement would be able to act differently during the elections, Biletsky preferred to withdraw from the coalition, thus leaving Ruslan Koshulysnky of Svoboda to compete and fail in the 2019 presidential elections.

C.F: Is there really a diversification of currents and ideologies according to regions?

A.N: Absolutely. As similar as they are, all nationalist movements are influenced by their geographical environment. The East/West dichotomy greatly influences Ukrainian nationalism in its paradigms. As the historical cradle of Ukrainian nationalism the rural West is more rooted in an almost chauvinistic ethno-linguistic and religious national conservatism glorifying its historical leaders like Bandera. Having given birth to the OUN and the UPA, the nationalist movements present in this region cultivate, for example the youth organisation Sokil, a paramilitary and insurrectionary tradition directly inspired by these organisations.

In the East, we are faced with a Ukrainian nationalism that is predominantly Russian-speaking and much more diversified in its references. The use and emphasis of Vareg folklore through neo-paganism confirms the orientalism of movements like the National Corps. Similarly, the economic corporatism of its programme is largely derived from the strong homogeneity of the social bodies of the East. This identity differs so much that the original nationalism of the East is forced to adapt in order to be able to bring the whole country together. I was very struck by this in Lviv when I was following the implementation of the National Corps in 2017 as part of my work. While the latter does not overemphasise the glorification of the OUN and the UPA, the local cell of the National Corps, on the contrary, seemed to privilege in its communication the construction of a direct historical filiation of its party with the latter.

A difference can also be made on the urban/country basis. The large urban centres are indeed an obvious marker for differentiating nationalist ideologies. In the cities there is a much more Western and violent nationalist culture inspired by the Western European skinhead and hooligan movements. Moreover, they are spaces of production open to the outside world and of mixing. This is why, for example, the Plomin metapolitical club has developed in Kyiv, comparable to the New Right, which draws its ideals from Western intellectual productions and advocates a tercera model combining tradition and modernity. There are also variations at the local level. In what is now the Transcarpathian Oblast, there is a Ruthenian national feeling that can be considered a separate identity in Ukraine. As a result, some movements such as the Carpathian Sitch advocate regional autonomy. It is one of the most radical movements within the Ukrainian far right.

C.F: Can you tell us about the role of the parties considered neo-Nazi and radical movements in the Orange Revolution and then during Maïdan?

A.N: During the Orange Revolution of 2004, the main Ukrainian nationalist organisations (of all persuasions) peacefully sided with the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko, and demanded, like all the demonstrators in front of the Rada – the Ukrainian parliament – the holding of a new second round of voting against Viktor Yanukovych, who was accused of having rigged the elections. This choice is quite simply logical in view of their ideological position towards Russia. It was the Orange Revolution that established the expression “colour revolution” in Russia. In addition to these arguments, there is the idea that any colour revolution orchestrated in Ukraine would be supported by anti-Russian radicals, as shown by the participation of nationalist parties in the events of 2004, but also by Viktor Yushchenko’s policy of memorializing certain figures of the Ukrainian resistance from the nationalist movement, such as Stepan Bandera, in order to break with the Russian narrative.

For Maïdan, the involvement is much more violent and to the point. Of course, at the beginning, we were faced with a non-violent protest movement initially led by students – the Euromaidan – which was joined by all the opposition parties, including nationalist parties such as Svoboda, but Viktor Yanukovych’s regime decided in December to use force. It is this repression that will push the Pravïy Sektor militants to take action and to accompany the evolution of the Maïdan movement into an insurrection. Two logics explain this sudden mobilisation. Firstly, the sincere desire to support the demonstrators and to protect them from a repression that would be primarily organised by Moscow – the supposed profile of the Berkuts as well as the gangs paid by Yanukovych supports this version. The radical far right is here a provider of capital, or more precisely of an experience of violence that will have decisive repercussions on the course of events. Finally, this commitment follows a revolutionary logic that goes far beyond the mere overthrow of a pro-Russian president. For the nationalist extreme right, the Maidan revolution would have been the starting point of a movement that could not only revive Ukrainian nationalism but also change the Ukraine in depth

C.F: How do you define Ukrainian neo-Nazism?

A.N: If we force ourselves to ignore its variations, we could summarise Ukrainian neo-Nazism as an ideology advocating Ukrainian racial purity and superiority over others. This discourse is based in particular on the “Slavo-Aryan myth” which can be found elsewhere in Russia. This is a reinterpretation or distortion of ancient history, which sees the Slavs as direct descendants of the Indo-European peoples, the latter being considered, depending on the case, to be Aryans themselves or their heirs. This racialism is often coupled with an admiration for the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. This may seem absurd when one thinks about it, since the doctrine of Nazism hardly hid its aversion to Slavs. However, neo-Nazis often dodge this paradox by invoking the fact that Hitler made a big mistake by not allying himself with the Slavs against Stalin, or by explaining that Nazism is a model ideology for the defence of a “white world” that is threatened today. The rise of these movements in Eastern Europe can be explained – as with the radical and populist right – in part by the consequences of the Second World War. Multi-ethnic for centuries, most of the regions occupied by Germany found themselves with a homogeneous population for the first time in their history, which had an impact on their perception of themselves and of the foreign. Finally, the end of the conflict marked the advent of communism, which, it should be remembered, was experienced as a regional tragedy, whereas Nazism was perceived by the most radicals as a movement for the liberation of peoples.

C.F: Could you come back to the Steinmeier formula? How was it received by nationalist groups?

A.N: The Steinmeier formula is a de-escalation plan for the conflict in Donbass proposed in 2015 by the former German foreign minister and president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It complemented the Minsk Agreements and provided for immediate demilitarisation of the front line and the granting of a “permanent special status” to the Donbass breakaway republics. In other words, these provisions were intended to encourage Ukraine to transform itself into a federal state with Luhansk and Donetsk recognised as autonomous regional entities. It was with a view to accelerating the peace process that the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared on October 2, 2019 that he wanted to incorporate the Steinmeier formula into Ukrainian law. It was not the right time to make such an announcement. It must be said that despite his victory in April 2019, the Ukrainian president was still an unconvincing figure for some Ukrainians. If one could of course feel a certain weariness towards the conflict, the Donbass issue remained sensitive and few were willing to make concessions to the separatists and ultimately to Russia; at least not after 5 years of conflict and more than 15,000 deaths.

Along with Europeanist and democratic opposition parties such as former President Petro Poroshenko’s Yevropeiyska Solidarnist or Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, nationalist movements opposed the Steinmeier formula as a capitulation. As the nationalist parties have many veterans of the Donbass conflict in their ranks, they have in some ways taken the lead in the protests. This was particularly the case on October 14, 2019 when the annual march commemorating the creation of the UPA and more broadly the defenders of Ukraine takes place. Traditionally, this event is organised by all Ukrainian nationalist organisations. But unlike previous years, other political forces were invited to denounce Zelensky’s intentions. The other fact illustrating this active mobilisation of Ukrainian nationalists was the refusal of Azov veterans and National Corps volunteers to disengage from the frontline village of Zolote in Luhansk oblast. Faced with the police’s failure to dislodge the fighters, the Ukrainian president decided on 28 October to go to the village to negotiate. The negotiations were firm and lively, but did not allow Zelensky to reverse the course of events. Since then, the Steinmeier plan has stalled. But it is important to understand that Zelensky did not bow to the nationalists alone, as some may think. While the nationalists were certainly the vanguard of the protest, it was all Ukrainians, of all persuasions, who denounced the Steinmeier formula.

C.F: Can you give us a picture of Praviy Sektor (Right Sector), with its different currents, parties and groups?

A.N: Praviy Sektor is a stillborn organisation. It was born during the first days of the Maidan revolution and federates at that time several nationalist movements and groupings such as the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO), Tryzub and Patriots of Ukraine, which is also the group from which Azov will emerge later on. With the outbreak of the war in the Donbass, Praviy Sektor became, in a way, the command centre of the volunteer battalions from the nationalist movement. It was organised around its leader Dmytro Iarosh and was subdivided into several regional branches (East, West etc.).

Politically, Praviy Sektor is completely non-existent. This can be explained by the fact that it considers itself first and foremost a paramilitary organisation modelled on the insurrectionary model of the UPA. This is reflected in a relative distrust of the state, which was reflected in the refusal of the DUK (Praviy Sektor’s fighting units) to join the Ukrainian National Guard in 2014. On the other hand, the profusion of movements within it makes it difficult to harmonise programmes and militant structures. This is why, after the failure of Iarosh in 2014 in the presidential elections (0.70%), Praviy Sektor fell apart. Even if there is a small party in the Christian conservative movement, we can say that today Praviy Sektor is just a label.

C.F: There has been a lot of coverage of the Azov Battalion and the ultra-nationalist volunteer groups in the international and Russian media as well as social networks. To what extent are they really important in the Ukrainian political and military landscape?

A.N: To understand the Ukrainian far right, I think it requires an effort of contextualisation as well as an effective knowledge of the terrain. Ukraine is indeed a complex country, where a sum of issues are superimposed, and where the appreciation of these issues can be made difficult by the language barrier, the geographical distance or even certain cultural and memorial gaps. We have tended to look at these groups from a Western perspective, a perspective that is sometimes biased by our own relationship with extremes but also by the strength of the images that reached us in 2014.

In Western Europe, we are mainly confronted with a parliamentary extreme right that is part of the democratic game. The few radical groups that exist have a more than limited scope for action and expression thanks to the vigilance of the public authorities and civil society. In addition to this, and I think this is the most important point, is the fact that we are in a stable region. Unlike other nations on the continent, Ukraine is young, with only 30 years of existence as a sovereign and independent state. Given its history of brutal and acculturating foreign rule, Ukraine is only now discovering itself and beginning to learn about democracy. This is a long transition process, made up of trial and error, which is characteristic of the post-Soviet space. Moreover, the impact of revolution and war must be taken into account, as radical voices always emerge from the chaos…

Re-establishing these truths does not mean that we should close our eyes to this movement and its actions, on the contrary it allows us to understand more accurately the reasons for its emergence. The Ukrainian far right exists, we cannot deny it. In electoral terms, it weighs less than 2% because the project it is carrying is no longer in phase with the deep aspirations of Ukrainians. The latter now aspire to live in a system based on democratic and liberal values, something that the far right is fighting. Similarly, the notion of nationhood has changed considerably since 2014. The ethnic criterion, which may have been attractive to some, has definitely given way to the idea of citizenship, in other words, adherence to a single set of values.

The same observation can be made for the military field, where volunteer battalions from the radical nationalist movement represent, according to estimates, only 1 or 2% of the armed forces. With more than 496km of frontline, it is difficult to imagine that only nationalist battalions ensure the defence of the country. They are all the more marginal as they are silenced by their incorporation into state defence structures that are governed by strict regulations on speech and conduct, but also by the opening of their ranks to non-political individuals. On the other hand, it can be said that there is an active and visible militant far right in the public sphere. This is due to various factors such as the emergence of an active civil society to make up for the failings of the state, but also a radicalisation of the conservative discourse that existed before the Revolution. It is mainly this that is covered by the media. But here again, without wishing to trivialise or minimise it, it is a minority phenomenon that cannot represent the Ukrainian societal and political reality on its own.

C.F: The use of mercenaries and volunteers seems, whether by the Russians or the Ukrainians, to be a widespread practice in the landscape of tensions and conflicts in Ukraine. What can we say about it?

A.N: The use of mercenaries and volunteers is not justified in the same way on either side. In Ukraine, it was first of all out of necessity that the state allowed the solidarity networks that emerged during the Maidan to evolve towards the military field. It must be said that when the conflict broke out, the regular army was in a worrying situation, to say the least: a doctrine dating from the Soviet era that was completely outdated, a cruel lack of junior officers, widespread corruption affecting morale, resources and the chain of command. Despite a few stunts, it was only thanks to the unexpected intervention of these volunteer battalions that Ukraine was able to halt the stampede of summer 2014. The logic is more or less the same in the separatist republics of the Donbass, where the militias have compensated for the total absence of military forces.

The logic is different in Russia, however. The invasion of Crimea and the Donbass was carried out according to the principles of “hybrid warfare”, a doctrine born from the pen of General Valery Gerasimov in February 2013. It is no longer a question of conventional confrontation on a fixed battlefield using conventional armies, but rather of generating internal and subversive chaos through a moving battlefield. This is similar to the maskivorka (concealment of forces) practised by the KGB in the Soviet Union. The use of (fake) volunteers or private security companies from Russia allows the Kremlin to be present without being clearly identified. These forces can systematically evade the territorial and legal limitations of a conflict. The best example of this is the annexation of Crimea by the so-called “little green men”, who were Russian soldiers without any distinctive insignia and were presented by Russia as Crimean popular militias. But more broadly, post-Soviet conflicts are mainly characterised by the use of irregular volunteers. This was the case in Moldova in 1992 and in the two Chechen wars.

C.F: Why did the Azov Battalion, then the Black Corps, against the background of the pro-Russian insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, join the Ukrainian National Guard? What is their role since then? Can we not consider that the Ukrainian government has been recruiting mercenaries in the context of the conflict in Donbass, and why has this not been condemned by the international community?

A.N: When the Black Corps, which had meanwhile become the Azov Battalion, joined the National Guard on September 17, 2014, Ukraine had just signed the first Minsk Protocol with the separatist republics, established on September 5, by the OSCE. Among the many points of the agreement is the withdrawal of irregular fighting forces, i.e. all fighters who are not officially attached to a state military apparatus. In the Donbass, the volunteer separatist battalions will be disbanded to form the regular army of the DNR and LNR, while on the Ukrainian side most groups are pushed to join the National Guard, which is under the direct authority of the Ministry of the Interior.

While some groups such as the DUK of the Right Sector refuse to submit to a higher authority, this is not the case for Azov. This is a significant opportunity for the regiment to legitimise itself in the Ukrainian military and political field. Thus the regiment was able to acquire new armaments and modernise its doctrine, which is gradually tending to adopt Western standards, but above all this integration allowed it to improve its image. The obscure ultra-nationalist battalion is now replaced by an exceptional regiment that has proven itself in the war in Donbass, notably in Mariupol. From there, we can say that Azov has capitalised on this image to enlarge its ranks but also to launch itself into politics. The foundation of the National Corps on October 14, 2016 illustrates the ambition of certain veterans and radicals to impose themselves, through their experience at the front, as a credible alternative in a country catapulted into the unknown. However, if we stick to the Azov regiment, its role is limited to territorial defence. Of course, one can point to the links between the regiment and the party, but as I said, this is mainly an illustration of a pre-existing combatant socialisation and a communication strategy where the regiment acts only as a brand.

To return to the question of mercenarism, I think it is too marginal to say that the Ukrainian authorities resorted to it. We are mainly dealing with volunteers who decide overnight, whether for ideological reasons or not, to join a combat unit. Money is a relatively absent factor when we look at the logic of commitment. What we are dealing with is the provision of knowledge and military capital in the service of a cause and/or a narrative. This is all the more valid today as the volunteers of the international legion barely receive, according to the testimonies, 1000$ per month. This is a far cry from the image of the Bob Denard-style mercenary who sells his services for a five or six-figure salary. If we are talking about the 2014 volunteers, they returned home in accordance with the Minsk protocols, or were naturalised during 2018 and left the army. After that, if we look at the micro level, we can of course observe practices that could resemble a form of mercenarism. As the Ukrainian state is based on horizontal power, certain influential actors such as the oligarchs can indeed recruit certain groups that position themselves as ‘entrepreneurs of violence’ in order to intimidate opponents or strengthen their position in the economic field. This was notably the case in the aftermath of the Maidan, when oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomoïski financed and recruited certain individuals affiliated to volunteer battalions such as Dniepro-1 to defend his assets that were endangered by the various laws and initiatives taken against corruption.

C.F: Why is it that in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, the pro-Russian separatist movements are not covered by the international press?

A.N: As a “grey zone” outside the authority of Kyiv, the Donbass region and the two self-proclaimed republics are generally difficult for the Western press to access. Given that the war is also being fought on the information front, the Donbass republics are reluctant to accept journalists on their territory whom they consider to be foreign agents with a biased view. As a result, journalists wishing to travel to Donetsk and Luhansk not only have to go through a series of drastic controls – there was a “blacklist” of journalists, for example – but also have to be careful on the ground. This does not mean that Westerners are persona non grata. There are indeed several French journalists who have the opportunity to go to the Donbass to cover the situation. But if you want to learn more about the region, you can always watch, with a good critical distance, what the Russian and Donbass media produce.

C.F: Has the conflict in Ukraine somehow reconciled ultra-nationalists and pro-Russians in a common struggle? What is the situation of these movements at the moment? Has the war changed the configuration and the place of the various movements in the country’s political landscape?

A.N: The Russian invasion of February 24, 2022 only completes the building of the Ukrainian nation that took place 8 years earlier during the Maidan Revolution and the Russian invasion of Crimea. All the divisions that might have existed have been erased in favour of a single national consciousness oriented towards a democratic and European ideal. It has often been imagined that the Russian-speaking populations have rejected the new directions of Ukraine in majority. This is completely false. It is true that the notions of the West and Europe are sometimes abstract for them, but those of homeland and independence are very real. It is therefore normal for them to stand by those who believe in the very principle of Ukraine. This is one of the paradoxes of the current conflict. While it claimed to want to save them, Russia is targeting the Russian speakers by razing cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, which are more than 80% populated by them…

As far as the future of Ukrainian nationalism is concerned, let me remain cautious because the conflict is still ongoing. It is true that the Russian invasion has devastated the ranks of the movement; don’t take this as contempt for them, but it was to be expected; it is the logic of war. In any conflict, it’s the patriots and nationalists who rush to the front and who are most often the first to die… Should we see this as the programmed end of Ukrainian nationalism? No. At the beginning, this movement used the war as a basis for its demands. With the current conflict and its consequences, we can imagine that its message, carried by a new generation of activists forged in the heat of battle, is gaining in popularity and even becoming more radical. Take Azov, for example, who remains in many ways the showcase of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. Its status as a martyr acquired in Mariupol means that today many militants wish to follow in its footsteps, like the Kraken battalion in Kharkiv.

The post-war period will therefore be decisive in assessing the exact place of Ukrainian nationalism. If Ukraine loses the war and is abandoned by the West, it is certain that the nationalists will be able to prosper by surfing on the resentments and wounds of a bruised country. On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that in the event of a victory, the political spectrum will stabilise as it did between 2014 and 2019. During this period, all the political parties had developed a patriotic rhetoric that made the nationalist parties invisible. It remains to be seen whether Ukraine will join the European Union. If so, it is possible that in order to meet the membership criteria concerning democratic values, Zelensky (if he is still in office) will decree the dissolution of several nationalist structures and parties.

To go further :

NONJON Adrien, Les deux visages de l’extrême droite ukrainienne, The conversation, 8 juin 2021 : Les deux visages de l’extrême droite ukrainienne

NONJON Adrien, Olena Semenyaka : The first Lady of Ukrainian Nationalism, Illiberalism Studies Program, GW’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), 20 octobre 2020 : Olena Semenyaka : The first Lady of Ukrainian Nationalism

– NONJON Adrien, « Rien n’est vrai mais tout est réel » : état des lieux de l’extrême droite ukrainienne, AOC, 26 mai 2022 : « Rien n’est vrai mais tout est réel » : état des lieux de l’extrême droite ukrainienne

– NONJON Adrien, Forging the Body of the New Ukrainian Nation : Sport as a Gramscist Tool for the Ukrainian Far Right, The Journal of Illiberalism Studies, Vol1 N°2, p. 59-74, 2021 : Forging the Body of the New Ukrainian Nation: Sport as a Gramscist Tool for the Ukrainian Far Right

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