Ukraine continues to be under-covered, which isn’t really anybody’s fault given what’s happening in Iraq and in Gaza, again, but it still unfortunate. Barring some dramatic military move by Russia, it seems like the separatist movement is all but finished; the most important rebel stronghold, Donetsk, is reportedly on the verge of falling to Kiev, and the situation there is such that people are holding rallies in support of national unity (and being attacked by the separatists for it, which is an excellent way to win hearts and minds). So aside from the occasional story on sanctions or “what’s that crazy Putin guy up to now?” report, the US media has clearly decided that Ukraine is not a story worth a whole lot of coverage at this point.
This is unfortunate, because this is a critical juncture in terms of figuring out whether the Poroshenko government is going to really pursue national unity or continue to punish eastern separatists even after the separatist threat has been all but eliminated. For one thing, Kiev may be blocking humanitarian aid from reaching Donetsk and Luhansk, whose people are sorely in need of it. This aid is coming from Russia, so the Ukrainians are justifiably concerned that it could be less an “aid convoy” and more a “disguised invasion force,” and they say they’ll let the convoy in once it’s been reloaded only Red Cross trucks under Ukrainian supervision. But maybe because the media here only really focus on the sensational “OMG IS RUSSIA TRYING TO SECRETLY INVADE UKRAINE” aspect of the story, it’s not clear that anybody is making sure Ukraine actually does accept the aid and deliver it to the people who need it. It’s also not clear whether other countries are stepping up to also send aid to eastern Ukraine, so this Russian aid may be the only lifeline these people have right now.
The really remarkable story is a few days old now, and has to do with the fall of the formerly rebel-held town of Marinka, a little southwest of Donetsk. Amidst a New York Times piece that focused on how Kiev was supposedly calling Putin’s “bluff” by continuing to push attacks against the separatists despite Russia’s escalating military presence on the border, we learn that Marinka wasn’t taken by the Ukrainian military, and that, in fact, there are a lot of paramilitary units operating in eastern Ukraine that are operating outside military command:
The fighting for Donetsk has taken on a lethal pattern: The regular army bombards separatist positions from afar, followed by chaotic, violent assaults by some of the half-dozen or so paramilitary groups surrounding Donetsk who are willing to plunge into urban combat.
Officials in Kiev say the militias and the army coordinate their actions, but the militias, which count about 7,000 fighters, are angry and, at times, uncontrollable. One known as Azov, which took over the village of Marinka, flies a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a Swastika as its flag.
In pressing their advance, the fighters took their orders from a local army commander, rather than from Kiev. In the video of the attack, no restraint was evident. Gesturing toward a suspected pro-Russian position, one soldier screamed, “The bastards are right there!” Then he opened fire.
As Robert Parry explains, describing the Azov Battalion’s flag as “a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a Swastika” is really understating things. Azov flies a Wolfsangel, which is an unmistakable reference to the SS. These guys are real deal neo-Nazis.
The presence of hard right and even neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine’s post-Maidan governing and security apparatus was somewhat understandable; there was a very active hard right element to the Maidan movement, and they claimed their turf when the central government was too unstable to do anything about it. Then, when the fighting started and Kiev was struggling to gain some control over its breakaway regions, it was appealing to let these guys go off and fight the separatists just on manpower grounds. But the longer Poroshenko goes without shedding himself of these extremists, the more complicit he becomes in their crimes and the harder it will be for him to remove them when he finally has no choice. It also reflects on the US and EU; Poroshenko is our man, and if he’s allowing neo-Nazis to brutalize defeated separatists, or to occupy high positions in his government, then that puts us on the hook for their actions as well.
For Kiev, it seems that anybody willing to fight for a united Ukraine is welcomed, but that has to end. Neo-Nazis obviously can’t be tolerated no matter whose side they’re on, and if that’s somehow not apparent to Poroshenko then his patrons need to make it apparent to him. Poroshenko needs to find a way to end the fighting, not to transition from civil war to massacres, ethnic cleansing, and pogroms.