Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
Entering the spring of 2015, Ukraine has made a number of definitive steps in its post-Communist era. Kyiv is actively shredding the remnants of its Soviet identity, solidifying the reality of post-Maidan Ukraine. Militarily, symbolically, and legally, the country has made history in recent weeks. The effect of these shifts will impact Ukraine’s social relations going forward and present a major challenge to any effort to reintegrate eastern Ukraine in the future.
Right Sector’s New Legitimacy
Dmytro Yarosh, head of the paramilitary Right Sector organization, is now an official military advisor to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As an advisor, Yarosh’s role is to act as "a link between volunteer battalions and the General Staff." His appointment grants a greater degree of legitimacy to his organization, which has actively participated in the Donbas War independently of the Ukrainian military.
The Right Sector is among the most hardline supporters of the 2014 revolution, and has no qualms in humiliating the remnants of the Yanukovych government. The group has also repeatedly threatened the Poroshenko administration over what it sees as weakness before separatism and Muscovite influence. Yarosh’s appointment therefore can be interpreted as an attempt to prevent an armed opposition to Poroshenko’s rule, a protection against a “second Maidan” conducted by Ukrainian military veterans.
This move could also be an attempt to unify Ukraine’s disparate armed groups, which often function as private “pocket” armies for local strongmen. Poroshenko’s recent struggle with Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is also part of this trend.
Ban on Communist and National Socialist Iconography
Beyond the battlefield, Kyiv has recently decided to ban Communist and National Socialist symbols. Specifically, the decision prohibits “flags, symbols, imagery, anthems and street or city names affiliated with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.” This will be an expensive endeavor, with some estimates placing the cost as high as 217 Million USD over a six-month period at a time when the federal budget is already supplemented by an IMF bailout. The move to ban Communist symbols is widely interpreted as a symbolic turn against both Moscow and DNR/LNR rebels, which often use Soviet iconography.
The move to ban symbols affiliated with the Third Reich is slightly more complicated. Kyiv has long drawn criticism over the use of Third Reich-type symbols among its National Guard battalions. Whilst volunteers insist that these symbols have a unique Ukrainian meaning, it is unclear whether the new laws will apply to them or not.
New Status of WWII-Era Insurgents
The act that outlawed Communist and National Socialist imagery also elevated the status of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Українська Повстанська Армія - Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya, UPA), which fought for Ukrainian independence during and after the Second World War. In contrast to the Ukrainian SS Division Galizien, which actively fought for the Third Reich, the Ukrainian Insurgents came to fight against both Berlin and Moscow for an independent Ukraine. Many Ukrainian insurgents cooperated with German forces early in the war, but abandoned their support once it became clear Germany had its own imperial ambitions in Ukraine.
This legacy of defiance in the face of larger powers appeals to a broad base of the Ukrainian populace. Veteran-led UPA commemoration marches routinely gather thousands of people, even from the Ukrainian diaspora. Kyiv’s embrace of these fighters is likely meant to draw support both from this base and from Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom see their current fight as a continuation of UPA’s struggle.
Post-Maidan Ukraine continues in the struggle to find its place in the international system. Questions of national identity and historical narrative are seldom resolved by governmental decree, unless there is already overwhelming support for them from the general population. Incorporating nationalist leaders into the new administration may be a means of gathering such support, but it is unclear if this will be a successful strategy over the long term.
Given the controversy surrounding UPA and contemporary Ukrainian volunteer units, it is unclear if their recognition will work to Kyiv’s long-term favor. As the Poroshenko administration continues in its attempts to garner Western support, having ties with such elements may be detrimental. Tactically however, such units have repeatedly proven more capable on the battlefield than Ukrainian regular forces, and have led Kyiv’s war effort on much of the frontline.
The new government led by Poroshenko will struggle to balance its domestic and international affairs, putting on a Western/liberal face in international dealings while playing to nationalist and patriotic sentiment at home. Such a strategy will be difficult to manage, but in times of war such struggles are a simple fact of life. Poroshenko’s success in managing divergent interests will determine the course of Ukraine’s future for years to come, and are worth following closely.
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