Last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko went on a three-day North American tour to plead with Canadian and American leaders for military aid for his embattled nation. Prime Minister Harper and President Obama warmly greeted Poroshenko as he visited first Parliament Hill and then Capitol Hill.
His sales pitch is that the current conflict in Ukraine is not an isolated incident. “It is Europe’s war, and it is America’s war, too. It is a war for the free world,” the Ukrainian president told the U.S. Congress. Poroshenko also decries the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatist fighters as ‘terrorists’ and therefore his security forces are on the frontline in the global war against terrorism.
To counter this threat, Poroshenko is pleading for real weapons, not the non-lethal military aid Canada and the U.S. have sent him to date. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are also important, but one cannot win a war with blankets,” stated Poroshenko in his address to Congress.
For historical accuracy, it should be mentioned that Canada has in fact supplied Ukraine with helmets, body armour, tents, and sleeping bags — all non-lethal items and not what Poroshenko is seeking.
With all the formal glad-handing and backslapping praise for Poroshenko during his visits, it seems easier for Western media outlets to simply portray the Ukrainian leader as a freedom-loving protector of democratic values. As such, it is best to overlook a rather inconvenient truth that was broadcasted by the German media last week. Footage shot by a German television crew shows members of the Azov Brigade with swastikas prominently displayed on their helmets, and SS runes visible on their collars.
The Azov Brigade consists of a large number of foreign volunteers who want to assist the Kiev government in the fight against the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass breakaway region of eastern Ukraine. Within their ranks are some hardened mercenaries. One French volunteer field medic told media that he had fought in Croatia in 1991 and in “more than a dozen wars since then.”
As the news footage revealed, there are also ardent neo-Nazis within the Azov Brigade. Despite the official spin that the swastikas were sported by a “couple of knuckleheads,” the fascist connections to Poroshenko’s government are something that Western media have chosen to gloss over since the first clashes of the Maidan Revolution. When protestors first took to the streets of Kiev in December 2013, the most violent and ruthless among them were the organized neo-Nazis.
The two most prominent are the Right Sector and the Svoboda Party. Both of these groups pay homage to Stepan Bandera, who was Ukraine’s World War II Nazi leader. Under Bandera’s leadership, the Germans recruited and armed the 14th Waffen SS Division, “Galicia,” which had a ruthless reputation for exterminating Jews.
Both the Right Sector and Svoboda Party have never hidden their anti-Russian, anti-Jewish, and anti-Communist agendas. In the Ukrainian city of Lvov last April, their supporters staged a memorial celebration for Bandera and the 14th SS Division.
In the first days of the Maidan protests, it was these zealous neo-Nazis who led the attacks against then president Viktor Yanukovych’s security forces. Following Yanukovych’s overthrow and ousting, the interim government formally incorporated the Right Sector into the National Guard, thus giving a ragtag fascist militia a degree of legitimacy it does not deserve. It is the Right Sector National Guard now and with the Azov Brigade constitutes the vanguard in the battles against the separatists.
In his pleas for arms and heavy weapons, Poroshenko denounces the separatists as terrorists, and yet it would appear that, since the outset, the eastern Ukraine rebels have been waging a rather conventional war. They man trenches and checkpoints and use armoured vehicles and artillery. I have not heard of a single incident wherein the Ukraine separatist forces have deliberately attacked soft civilian targets outside of the contested front lines.
The citizens of Kiev took to the streets to overthrow Yanukovych because they rejected his pro-Russia policies. With his ousting and the establishment of a pro-Western interim government, the citizens of eastern Ukraine, many of whom are ethnic Russians, have clearly demonstrated their rejection of the new Kiev administration.
Russia may be backing the pro-Russian separatists, but that does not make them terrorists. Nor does the current regional dispute in the Donbass threaten to eliminate the ‘free world’ as we know it. However, providing arms and weapons to neo-Nazis and foreign mercenaries cannot be the right thing to do — no matter how hard Poroshenko begs us for it.