We know that the vast majority of Ukrainians do not hold far-right political views.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the country’s main far-right party, Svoboda, took only a single seat in the Rada. And the picture was not dramatically different in 2014, when Svoboda and Right Sector, another far-right party, took only seven seats. (There are 450 in total.) Although Svoboda did gain 37 seats in the 2012 elections, more people voted for the Communist Party.
Which makes America’s history of courting far-right Ukrainian politicians somewhat peculiar.
In December of 2013, while the Maidan protests were going on, U.S. Senator John McCain flew to Kiev to express his support for the protestors. “The free world is with you. America is with you. I am with you”, he assured them. But aside from delivering this speech, he also dined with ‘opposition leaders’, including a man named Oleh Tyahnybok – the leader of Svoboda.
Tyahnybok is an unsavoury character. In 2004, he was expelled from the ‘Our Ukraine’ parliamentary block after giving a speech at the gravesite of a Ukrainian Insurgent Army commander. (The UPA was a WWII-era paramilitary organisation involved in anti-Jewish pogroms). In the speech, he denounced the “the Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine”, and referred to “Muscovites, Germans, Jews and other scum”.
In 2005, Tyahnybok co-signed an open letter to the president of Ukraine calling for a parliamentary investigation into the “criminal activities of organized Jewry”. And in 2012, he declared in reference to his 2004 speech, “All I said then, I can also repeat now,” adding “this speech is relevant even today”. That same year, the EU passed a resolution calling on “pro-Democratic parties” in the Rada not to “associate with, endorse or form coalitions with” Svoboda.
In January of 2014 – just one month after the dinner with McCain – Svoboda held a torch-lit march through Kiev to mark the 105th birthday of Stepan Bandera (a Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator during World War II). Tyahnybok has also been photographed doing a Nazi salute.
Following the ‘Revolution of Dignity’, Svoboda was given almost a quarter of the cabinet positions in the interim government. And as the French journalist Paul Moreira notes, it’s leader suddenly became “very hand-shakeable”. Tyahnybok was pictured with Joe Biden, John Kerry, Victoria Nuland, and was even seen embracing his old friend McCain.
However, he didn’t manage to stay out of trouble. In 2015, he was blamed by Ukraine’s interior minister when a Svoboda rally outside parliament turned violent, leaving three police officers dead. (One of the protestors set off a grenade.) Tyahnybok was filmed shouting obscenities and tussling with law enforcement during the clashes.
Another far-right Ukrainian politician who has been treated surprisingly warmly by the U.S. is Andriy Parubiy.
In 1991, Parubiy co-founded the Social-National Party of Ukraine with Tyahnybok – which later became Svoboda. Its official symbol was the Wolfsangel (notoriously used by the Nazi SS) and membership was restricted to ethnic Ukrainians. Then between 1998 and 2004, Parubiy led the party’s paramilitary organisation, Patriot of Ukraine. He even wrote a book titled View from the Right on whose cover he appears wearing a Nazi-style uniform.
In 2004, Parubiy left both organisations to join the ‘Our Ukraine’ parliamentary block. Yet as Ukraine-scholar Ivan Katchanovski notes, he “never publicly renounced his neo-Nazi background”. In fact, he told a newpspaer in 2008 that his “political orientation and ideological foundations” had not changed since leaving the Social National Party.
After commanding the ‘Maidan Self-defence volunteers’ during the Maidan protests, Parubiy landed a job as secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council in 2014. Two years later, he was elected Chairman of the Rada – a position he retained until 2019. During his tenure, Parubiy was granted an invite to Washington, where he met with Senators John McCain and Paul Ryan. The latter said he was “proud” to join Parubiy for the meeting.
Parubiy has not only expressed unsavoury political views; he is alleged to be among the organisers of the Maidan massacre. Five Georgian snipers testified that they had received “weapons, payments, and orders from specific Maidan and Georgian politicians, in particular, Parubiy, to massacre both police and protesters”. Various sources have claimed these men were actors. Yet as Katchanovski notes, “their identities and presence in Ukraine, and their Georgian military services were corroborated by supporting evidence and personal information that they provided”.
Another reason it’s odd to see men like McCain cosying up to far-right politicians in Ukraine is that they’ve dealt very differently with the American far-right.
Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, McCain declared that “white supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism”. He also admonished Trump for supposedly drawing a “moral equivalency” between “racists” and “Americans standing up to defy hate and bigotry”.
Joe Biden described Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville as the “moment I knew I had to run” for president. This is despite the fact that, three years earlier, he had given a warm smile and handshake to Oleh Tyahnybok – whose party the EU denounced as “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic”.
Why such double standards with respect to the U.S. and Ukraine? The answer is simple: disavowing far-right Ukrainian politicians would have interfered with the more important goal of antagonising Russia.
In the famous leaked phone call between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, Nuland acknowledges that Tyahnybok is going to be “the problem”. However, she explains that her preferred candidate, “Yats” (pictured above), needs “Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside”, adding “he needs to be talking to them four times a week”. So despite being entirely aware of Tyahnybok’s views, she still saw a role for him “on the outside”.
The U.S. got involved in Ukraine for geostrategic reasons. And just as ‘defending national sovereignty’ goes out the window when it’s not in U.S. interests, so too does ‘opposing the far-right’.