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Right Sector Vs. Ukraine Government: Battle Between the Fading Force and the Imploding Object

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and Right Sector is a factional one inside a revolution that is increasingly unpopular and discredited

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The violent conflict between the Ukrainian government and Right Sector exposes (1) the weakness of the Ukrainian government and (2) the unpopularity of Right Sector.

Since it was officially formed in November 2013 during the Maidan protests Right Sector has been on a rampage.

It played a key --- and violent --- role in the Maidan protests. It was involved in attacks on both the police and protestors. Its leader Dmitro Yarosh played a key role in rejecting the 21st February 2014 agreement, which precipitated the Maidan coup.

Since the Maidan coup its activists have been at the forefront in the violence and disorder that has plagued Ukraine.

  • Its members have been filmed extorting money and property from Ukrainian businesses.
  • It has violently dispersed anti-Maidan protests -- playing a key role in the fire that killed scores of opposition supporters in the trade union building in Odessa.
  • It has led attacks on opposition politicians and pushed for the banning of Ukraine’s two main opposition parties -- the Communist Party and the Party of the Regions.
  • It has been heavily involved in the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbass.
  • It has also been a key driver in the campaign to destroy monuments somehow associated with Ukraine’s Russian and Soviet pasts, including notably statues of Lenin.

Much of this activity is of a straightforwardly criminal nature and it is sometimes suggested that Right Sector has degenerated from a far right (actually neo-Nazi) political movement into a criminal organization.

That is certainly wrong. Right Sector has been a criminal --- or highly criminalized --- organization from the start. It has also at all times been a far right neo-Nazi movement. The two are not in conflict and should not be discussed as if they are.

The fact that Right Sector operates to some extent as a franchise, allowing criminal groups, like the one involved in the recent shoot-out in Mukachevo, to become affiliates, has not changed the underlying nature of the organization. Violence and criminal activity have always been its essential features.

Since the Maidan coup Right Sector has enjoyed the tolerance of the formally constituted Ukrainian authorities. 

It has also been almost entirely ignored by the West. In Britain where I live it is doubtful that more than a fraction of Britons who take their news about Ukraine from the mainstream media have heard of it. 

Nicolai Petro has recently discussed the Ukrainian government’s weak response to Right Sector (see"Ukraine’s Post-Maidan Government Stands on Feet of Clay", Russia Insider, 22nd July 2015).

It remains remarkable that the Ukrainian government has so far failed to disband or suppress an armed group that not only openly engages in criminal activity but which is seeking to overthrow the government and whose chief spokesman has even taken to making statements warning Poroshenko --- Ukraine’s President --- that he risks “execution in some dark cellar” if he fails to toe the line.

The latest confrontation has however also exposed Right Sector’s unpopularity and its inability to lead Ukraine.

With industrial production in Ukraine showing a further 18% decline in June the economy remains in freefall. There is no doubt Ukrainians are suffering increasing economic hardship. Not surprisingly the government’s popularity has collapsed together with the economy. 

There is also no doubt that the government’s popularity has been badly shaken by successive military defeats and by the common perception that it is at least as corrupt as the government it replaced. 

It is striking that the challenge from Right Sector has produced no counter-demonstrations in support of the government or of the country’s elected President or parliament, such as Yanukovych’s supporters were able to organize during the Maidan protests.

Notwithstanding the collapse in the government’s support, Right Sector has been unable to capitalize on it.

The organization’s attempts to set up checkpoints in various regions and cities have been consistently unsuccessful. The number of participants in its rallies has been small. Russian reports say some people otherwise unaffiliated with the organization did turn up to the rally in Kiev on 21st July 2015. The number of people attending even that rally was small.  Most reports put the numbers at between 3,000-6,000.

There is no sense here of a protest wave on anything like the scale as the one that began on Maidan in November 2013 or in the Donbass in April 2014.

This provides further confirmation that the fanatical Nazi beliefs that characterize the group, and which have been so prominent since the start of the Maidan protests, are shared by only a small minority of Ukrainians. The great majority of Ukrainians appear to be at least as opposed to Right Sector as they are to the government.  

Many are no doubt repelled by its beliefs and its criminality and violence. Most no doubt see it as simply part of the same Maidan movement as the government -- the spearhead of a revolution that is becoming increasingly discredited.

One gets the sense of politics increasingly taking place inside a vacuum, with the population disillusioned and distanced from the entire political process, spectators to a play in which they no longer feel they have a stake.

Despite the difficulty the government is having facing down the challenge from Right Sector, the probability is it will survive. In the end the power of the state should suffice against a challenge from an organization like Right Sector. 

In the unlikely event that it does not and Right Sector succeeds in establishing itself as the governing power in Ukraine, the country’s disintegration will accelerate. 

It will be difficult --- and probably impossible --- for the West to support a Right Sector dominated government. It is difficult to believe that what remains of Ukraine’s bureaucracy and security forces would willingly serve such a government and there would probably be mass defections. Quite possibly other regions would split away. The economy would finally collapse and hyperinflation would take hold as whatever confidence remained in the state and its institutions, including the currency, melted away.

In the more likely event that the government were to suppress Right Sector, then a key component of the Maidan system, able to control the streets where Ukrainian governments have historically been made and unmade, would have been eliminated at precisely the point when the government’s popularity is hitting crisis levels and opposition is likely to grow.

More probably there will be no resolution, with neither the government nor Right Sector able to defeat each other.   

This is consistent with the impression of a revolution that has reached a state of suspended animation, lacking the strength to move either forward or back, as the society upon which it depends disintegrates around it.    

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