Fascism returns to the continent it once destroyed
What was unusual about Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, is that he tried to end all pluralism. In domestic policy, he generated a fake democracy, in which his favored opponent was thefar-right party Svoboda. In so doing, he created a situation in which he could win elections and in which he could tell foreign observers that he was at least better than the nationalist alternative. In foreign policy, he found himself pushed toward the Russia of Putin, not so much because he desired this, but because his kleptocratic corruption was so extreme that serious economic cooperation with the European Union would have meant a legal challenge to his economic power. Yanukovych seems to have stolen so much from state coffers that the state itself was on the point of bankruptcy in 2013, which also made him vulnerable to Russia. Moscow was willing to overlook Yanukovych’s own practices and lend the money needed to make urgent payments—at a political price.
oscillating between Russia and the West was no longer possible. By then, Moscow had ceased to represent simply a Russian state with more or less calculable interests, but rather a much grander vision of Eurasian integration. The Eurasian project had two parts: the creation of a free trade bloc of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and the destruction of the European Union through the support of the European far right.
Just as soon as these vaulting ambitions were formulated, the proud Eurasian posture crashed upon the reality of Ukrainian society. In late 2013 and early 2014, the attempt to bring Ukraine within the Eurasian orbit produced exactly the opposite result. First, Russia publicly dissuaded Yanukovych from signing a trade agreement with the European Union. This brought protests in Ukraine. Then Russia offered a large loan and favorable gas prices in exchange for crushing the protests. Harsh Russian-style laws introduced in January transformed the protests into a mass movement. Millions of people who had joined in peaceful protests were suddenly transformed into criminals and some of them began to defend themselves against the police. Finally, Russia made clear that Yanukovych had to rid Kiev of protesters in order to receive its money. Then followed the sniper massacre of February, which gave the revolutionaries a clear moral and political victory, and forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. The attempt to create a pro-Russian dictatorship in Ukraine led to the opposite outcome: the return of parliamentary rule, the announcement of presidential elections, and a foreign policy oriented toward Europe.
The creeping Russian invasions of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk are a frontal challenge to the European security order as well as to the Ukrainian state. They have nothing to do with popular will or the protection of rights: Even Crimean opinion polls never registered a majority preference for joining Russia, and speakers of Russian in Ukraine are far freer than speakers of Russian in Russia. The Russian annexation was carried out, tellingly, with the help of Putin’s extremist allies throughout Europe. No reputable organization would observe the electoral farce by which 97 percent of Crimeans supposedly voted to be annexed
. But a ragtag delegation of right-wing populists, neo-Nazis, and members of the German party Die Linke (the Left Party) were happy to come and endorse the results. The Germans who traveled to Crimea included four members of Die Linke and one member of Neue Rechte (New Right). This is a telling combination.
People who criticize only the Ukrainian right often fail to notice two very important things. The first is that the revolution in Ukraine came from the left.
It was a mass movement of the kind Europeans and Americans now know only from the history books. Its enemy was an authoritarian kleptocrat, and its central program was social justice and the rule of law. It was initiated by a journalist of Afghan background, its first two mortal casualties were an Armenian and a Belarusian, and it was supported by the Muslim Crimean Tatar community as well as many Ukrainian Jews
. A Jewish Red Army veteran was among those killed in the sniper massacre. Multiple Israel Defense Forces veterans fought for freedom in Ukraine.
The Maidan functioned in two languages simultaneously, Ukrainian and Russian, because Kiev is a bilingual city, Ukraine is a bilingual country, and Ukrainians are bilingual people. Indeed, the motor of the revolution was the Russian-speaking middle class of Kiev. The current government, whatever its shortcomings, is un-self-consciouslymultiethnic and multilingual. In fact, Ukraine is now the site of the largest and most important free media in the Russian language, since important media in Ukraine appears in Russian and since freedom of speech prevails. Putin’s idea of defending Russian speakers in Ukraine is absurd on many levels, but one of them is this: People can say what they like in Russian in Ukraine, but they cannot do so in Russia itself. Separatists in the Ukrainian east, who, according to a series of opinion polls, represent a minority of the population, are protesting for the right to join a country where protest is illegal. They are working to stop elections in which the legitimate interests of Ukrainians in the east can be voiced. If these regions join Russia, their inhabitants can forget about casting meaningful votes in the future.
This is the second thing that goes unnoticed: The authoritarian right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to domestic elections or international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicization of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: The fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion. The Russian parliament granted Putin the authority to invade the entirety of Ukraine
and to transform its social and political structure, which is an extraordinarily radical goal. The Russian parliament also sent a missive to the Polish foreign ministry proposing a partition of Ukraine
. On popular Russian television, Jews are blamed for the Holocaust
; in the major newspaper Izvestiia, Hitler is rehabilitated as a reasonable statesman responding to unfair Western pressure; on May Day, Russian neo-Nazis march
Russian propaganda insists to Westerners that the problem with Ukraine is that its government is too far to the right
, even as Russiabuilds a coalition with the European far right. Extremist, populist, and neo-Nazi party members went to Crimea and praised the electoral farce as a model for Europe. As Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of the European far right, has pointed out, the leader of the Bulgarian extreme right launched his party’s campaign for the European parliament in Moscow. The Italian Fronte Nazionale praises Putin for his “courageous position against the powerful gay lobby.” The neo-Nazis of the Greek Golden Dawn see Russia as Ukraine’s defender against “the ravens of international usury.” Heinz-Christian Strache of the Austrian FPÖ chimes in, surreally, that Putin is a “pure democrat.” Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, recently shared Putin’s propaganda on Ukraine with millions of British viewers in a televised debate, claiming absurdly that the European Union has “blood on its hands” in Ukraine.
Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.