Ukraine’s conditions ripe for rise of radical groups

Ukraine’s Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, emerged last November when protests began against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to walk away from a partnership agreement with the European Union. The group’s ultranationalist members disapprove of Russia’s influence over Yanukovich, though they also oppose EU influence.

While not initially violent, the group notoriously clashed with Ukrainian authorities in January, using Molotov cocktails, bats and pistols in central Kiev. The group then clashed with security forces throughout the city. Groups such as Right Sector want a truly independent Ukraine — a reality unlikely to emerge any time soon, since Ukraine’s geographic location makes it an inevitable focus of the struggle for influence between Russia and the West.

If Kiev accepts an aid package from the European Union or the International Monetary Fund, the associated austerity measures will probably stoke nationalist passions — just as they have in Italy, Greece and elsewhere in Europe — feeding the growth of Right Sector and similar groups. Given Right Sector’s proven willingness to use violence, and the fearlessness its members demonstrated in clashing with riot police, the group’s actions and growth will be important to monitor.

Despite a fluid situation in Ukraine — with Yanukovich out of office, the reinstatement of the 2004 constitution, the instalment of an interim government and the uncertainty in Crimea — violent civil unrest appears to be absent in Kiev. Right Sector has transitioned from an insurgency-style force on the streets in Kiev to one threatening to return to violence if the government does not fully implement the changes it promised. The group’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, now a member of the National Security and Defence Council, threatened on March 2 to dispatch its members to Crimea to protect the region against Russian intervention.

Right Sector is a fervent nationalist organization that publicly rejects closer ties to the European Union — which it views as an oppressor of European nations — as well as any links to Russia. Led by Yarosh, a longtime nationalist activist, Right Sector quickly became an outlet for disgruntled Ukrainians to express their discontent with Yanukovich and the Ukrainian government, including through the use of violence. Right Sector has used social media both to appeal to supporters and to encourage members to bring supplies and weapons to Kiev’s Independence Square.

According to the group’s leaders, Right Sector has roughly 500 core members — mostly men in their 20s and early 30s. Right Sector trained its members in Kiev to confront security forces, equipping them with helmets, masks, protective gear and improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails, sticks and bats. The group soon presented a legitimate threat on the streets as radical members of the group showed they were not afraid of head-to-head clashes with authorities wielding batons and tear gas and using live fire. Protesters even destroyed armoured personnel carriers in the capital.

Though a small group, Right Sector amplified its strength by showing an ability to operate among crowds of tens of thousands of protesters in Independence Square. In this way, the group’s tactics are similar to those used by black bloc groups in the United Kingdom, Latin America and Europe. Following confrontations with security forces, Right Sector members fell seamlessly back into the crowds, eluding Ukrainian authorities and pro-government thugs. Members dressed in dark clothing and wore masks, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them down. They were the main actors in clashes along central Kiev’s Hrushevskoho Street that started as a reaction to anti-protest laws passed on January 19 and continued into February. The group also successfully attacked and occupied the Ukrainian presidential building in December and aided attempts to take over other government buildings such as the Ukrainian House of Trade Unions and the Kiev City Council, which housed the group’s headquarters until it burned down.

Right Sector quickly earned the support of people throughout Ukraine. These supporters sent supplies to aid in the violent campaign against the Ukrainian government. The group is decentralized and fluid, and so are other right-wing and insurgent-style groups throughout the country — groups that cooperated and coordinated their actions during protests and confrontations with police in Kiev. Ukrainians who do not align themselves with Right Sector’s ultranationalist views nevertheless backed the group’s actions, and Right Sector may struggle to consolidate its capabilities and remain a sizable threat as the government in Kiev implements changes demanded by the wider population.

Indeed, Ukraine’s considerable political divisions make the formation of a united mass opposition difficult. Collaboration during the 2014 protests was unique. Right Sector cooperated with opposition groups such as Euromaidan, Patriot of Ukraine and White Hammer during the crisis. These groups loosely coordinated street protests, clashes with police and building takeovers. A variety of opposition groups set up their headquarters at the Kiev City Council building. This loose affiliation increased the effectiveness and success of protests.

The opposition groups and protesters were united in their strong dislike for Yanukovich. Their cooperation made it more difficult for police to contain the protests, which attracted many people who otherwise would not have interacted with radical groups such as Right Sector — including women, students and business owners.

Right Sector’s emergence highlights how far-right and extremist groups can increase the impact of protests against autocratic regimes, political repression and austerity measures, sometimes effecting political change.

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution presented a somewhat different picture. Protesters numbering in the tens of thousands engaged in civil disobedience, sit-ins and general strikes in the immediate aftermath of the Ukrainian presidential election. The protests went on for months and eventually led to a re-vote ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court — at the time it was considered a democratic revolution. The violent tactics of Right Sector stand in stark contrast to the nonviolent struggle adopted by many Ukrainian opposition groups and exhibited in 2004, and again earlier this year. What both events underscore is the effectiveness of large mass gatherings coupled with spurts of violence to extract specific concessions from the Ukrainian government. But with Yanukovich removed, Right Sector now faces serious challenges.

Europe and Russia will continue to dispute Ukraine, and Right Sector and its members will remain dissatisfied. Eventually, though, other protesters will leave, and life in central Kiev will return to normal. Right Sector and its members will then lose the cover, support and effectiveness they exhibited during the unrest, and police will be able to isolate and if necessary crack down on radical protesters, including Right Sector members. Right Sector could also take shape as a civic activist group or a political party — or it could further radicalize, taking to the streets of Kiev as a full-fledged insurgency.

Yarosh’s intimations that Right Sector could take action in Crimea might not prove as effective as its tactics in Kiev. Crimea is overwhelmingly pro-Russia, and Right Sector’s ultranationalist views are unlikely to draw popular support there. However, individuals dissatisfied with Crimean politics, whether pro-Russia or not, could cooperate with Right Sector radicals in an effort to bring about political change. In any case, Right Sector’s nationalist ideology and aggressive tactics could find substantial support elsewhere in Ukraine, especially in the west.

While Ukraine undergoes a leadership makeover, it will remain a country trapped by unchanging geopolitical forces. Ukraine is a country torn between Europe and Russia. It is currently in the process of decentralization and is also in economic distress. Popular discontent will remain high, and the political environment in Ukraine will provide fertile soil for groups such as Right Sector to take root and grow.
— G. Friedman